I was 5 years old when I first heard “Rapper’s Delight”. To me, of course, it was just another record. Growing up in Gary, Indiana, I was as far from the ghetto boroughs of New York as you could get, so there was no one hipping me to the ‘phenomenon’ of hip-hop culture. The first rap song I really got interested in was the B-side to ‘delight’, “Apache”. My cousin Scott had the 45, and we played it at 33 so we could understand the lyrics and write them down. In my youngest days, I was listening to whatever happened to be on the radio, so if it was rock, r&b, or even country, then that’s what I was tuned into. Being as I was perpetually outside of the popular kids’ clique, I always seemed to be behind in knowing whatever was the latest record on the streets. Scott always seemed to be in the know about what records were out and who the performers were. Given that rap at that time was primarily singles-driven, and rap videos were few and far between (especially since I didn’t have cable at home), I didn’t always immediately recognize folks. I remember when Run DMC’s “It’s Like That” was on the radio. Scott and I kinda laughed at the part where they said “huuh!!” (I guess even back then, the whole ‘being hard’ thing occasionally came off forced).
My favorite rap performers for several years were the Fat Boys. I guess, being a big kid, I kind of related in a big way. None of my classmates were even concerned that I listened to rap just like they did; as far as they knew, whatever I listened to had to be corny- like Barry Manilow or something (not that there’s anything really wrong with Barry. But I digress..)
Anyway, as I became more exposed to hip-hop, my consciousness of it grew. Thanks in part to skimming through magazines like Black Beat, Right On, and eventually those like Word Up, Rap Masters. I didn’t have the money to buy them most of the time, but I’d memorize as much stuff as I could.
I remember the spring of ’88, I had bought a copy of Word Up with Run DMC on the cover. It had a picture in there of Professor Griff of Public Enemy. The caption beneath said “flavor flav”, but I would eventually find out who was really who. Griff’s paramilitary outfit had fascinated me, and I found myself drawing lots of pictures of it. I still had no idea what songs this guy did, though. Early on during summer vacation, I asked Scott who Flav was. He played me “Rebel Without a Pause”. From that point, it was on for life.
Hip hop is in a different place, socially, than it was when I started high school. It was 87, and at that point, you only had a handful of acts that had just broken through to achieve mainstream prominence- Run DMC’s Raising Hell, Beastie Boys’ License to Ill, LL Cool J’s Bigger & Deffer, & the Fat Boys’ Crushin. For the most part, that was all that most of my white classmates were familiar with. Most didn’t know about any earlier records, like when a few of these artists first came out. During every school year, there were maybe two or so acts that would become known to the white kids, either from the mtv-friendly standpoint (Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince, Tone Loc, Hammer), or from a controversy-friendly angle, (P.E., NWA, 2 Live Crew). Even so, most still weren’t up on stuff that by comparison, was “in between” at that time, like Ice T, BDP, or Eric B & Rakim, who were all popular in their own right, but at the time didn’t have the pop airplay or any media firestorms to blow them up in the mainstream consciousness.
Nowadays, hip-hop, collectively, is fairly mainstream business. It’s big enough to warrant its own section at the music stores (urban and suburban)—though it would be interesting to see it combined in the general pop/rock shelves. Videos are seen regularly on all video-playing networks. Even hardcore-leaning artists have become genuine pop stars, like Jay Z, Busta Rhymes, and Snoop Dogg. Regional scenes for rap have become more prominent, especially in those areas historically devoid of one. There is often more than one rap act seen during the run of a music award show now. Rappers present awards and they host the shows as well. It’s not a rarity anymore to see a rap act on one of the late night or daytime talk shows. These are good things.
Some disappointing things have occurred as well, though. Pop-leaning rap acts occasionally bypass (or are bypassed by) Urban radio. So you have situations where you’ll hear a rap song (often, the artist is not black) on a pop station but not anywhere else. Unfortunately, most current white rap artists do not have a sizable black following. Eminem is the exception that proves the rule, because no other Caucasian rap acts are heard on Urban radio at all. Sure enough, there are plenty of hardcore-leaning and non-radio-friendly white rap acts who aren’t on radio in general. Yet the attendance at their shows (and by extension, sales) are almost exclusively white. Some operate websites, where cds, t-shirts and other merchandise can be purchased. Thus, these performers have been able to sustain careers autonomous from a relationship with black fans. Conversely, black rap acts, even ‘underground’ types, can still count on a sizable white audience at various shows, and if they desire mainstream acceptance, a relationship with white consumers is inevitable. If you look at it in a certain way, ‘white hip-hop’ becoming almost a sub-genre unto itself. Which is a not so ‘good’ thing, if only because a segment of rappers are virtually invisible to the audience that birthed the genre.
On another level, street-hustling-centered hip-hop has become the default thematic bent for most new artists. Specifically, songs that revolve around the lifestyle associated with the inner-city underworld: drug sales/use, gunfights, confronting rival hustlers, pimping/prostitution, heavy drinking, dive strip bars, and the like. By comparison, rap that does not engage in this general worldview is a relative rarity now. Further, politically-leaning rap has scarce presence on shelves, and scarcer presence on radio—Top 40 or Urban. Some current “conscious rap” practitioners are ambivalent to the term, if only to avoid being pigeonholed. Still, despite their efforts, most have yet to achieve the same audience share as most other rappers.
How can a man like me/ be walking around in a world of misery/ and if women want a man with a body, it’s not mine/ ‘cause they be walking past me like I was a stop sign… I go to the clubs, they wanna baseball-bat me/ I go to the mall, they throw their walkmans at me/…I’m so horny/ and every girl I know be like “he’s so corny”…