Did Hip-Hop Fail Urban America?

Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, bandleader for the Roots,  is in the midst of a weekly editorial series about hip-hop music and culture and its relationship with the current state of African American economic and cultural interests.

Thompson's second essay can be found here: 

Hip-Hop's been praying at the altar of celebrity billionaire Warren Buffett for years, even if the vast majority of artists have no idea who that is..  ;)  Rappers can go on a rant against recently-embattled Los Angeles Clippers' owner Donald Sterling (bravo) but in various other aspects of their lives and songs, it's not unusual to find them openly fantasizing about having his same lifestyle as Sterling and his contemporaries, with virtually the same disdain for the have-nots: ostentatious wealth continues to be implicitly equated with moral righteousness.  Artists claim perpetual outlaw-status while several flaunt their endorsement deals/co-ventures with assorted high-end corporate brands.

It's another excellent commentary by Questlove on the current state of hip-hop music/culture. The Roots’ “What they do” has come home to roost. (Feel free to YouTube it; it's quite good). Ironically, I think Jay Z put together his own ‘backpacker’ satire video shortly after. Of course, they all did Unplugged together, so it’s not like there’s beef.

It seems like so many artists of today—in terms of lyrics-- have topics that revolve around a zone of billionaire envy and egregious mobster fantasy that I scarcely even find anything engaging with what’s on the radio now. To me, a lot of stuff that’s out now is damn near self-parody, or heck, it just is. Who’s the guy who keeps going “Versaci versaci versaci versaci” in his rap? As far the music/rhythm tracks go, whenever ‘keyboard-beats’ became the standard, I guess Reagan-era-rap-spoiled me started to find a lot of "hot" instrumentals barely tolerable.

Going to and from work, I'm usually tuned into (non-opinion) news radio or NPR. Besides that, I'll flip around to jazz/soul, country, classic rock... I’ve come (slowly back) into listening to top 40 “churban” stations (ostensibly pop/rock crossover driven with an expanded emphasis on hip-hop/R&B) in recent years. Somehow, I’m finding that quite a bit of ‘hip-hop’ has been coming from pop artists- various pop performers either share producers with rappers, (Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Kesha) or even if they don’t, hip-hop informs a lot of contemporary pop production (I'll hear a breakbeat cut/scratch on Taylor Swift and Leann Rimes songs.)

The critique that "rappers" aren't expected to be "uplifting" while their pop-rock contemporaries are allowed to be "vapid and meaningless" is valid, to a degree-- however: based on many of the interviews that rappers conduct, the self-absorption is rather grating. Audiences have been subjected for years to revolving doors of "street reporters" who nonetheless seem to have more in common with the performers from World Wrestling Entertainment. To confront any of them that what these "artists" are all about is just schtick to make their bucks is met with glowering resentment that implies a certain form of cultural treason. For many of them, apparently, the vices of the ghetto are signifiers, freely used to support their self-directed commercial enterprises.

The notion that a strip-club anthem all of a sudden makes somebody an activist/ revolutionary along the lines of Stokely Carmichel is ludicrous on its face. But this is kind of where the standard is. Performing de rigueur community service activities like donating holiday turkeys & gift baskets is nice-- but heck, when every other rap is "I've got a fleet of Maybachs and you don't", the philosophical cleavage is rather stark. Being a flamboyant self-aggrandizing entertainer doesn't make somebody Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, even if social conservatives offer plenty of "hate me now" fodder.

Unfortunately even when there’s a thoughtful reaction (and not just a reactionary reaction) to the dumber stuff in the culture, the observer(s) often get put into a zone of blanket-hater and bourgeois-flag waver. Sometimes this comes from hip-hop journos and editors themselves, when they could be aiming for the middle ground. For the urban-music mags that are still staying afloat, only the handful of megastars from 10 years ago and beyond get feature articles even if they’re still active, and you can almost forget about the cover. Hip hop's media infrastructure (terrestrial, non-internet, non-satellite broadcast radio, magazines, online) has yet to create a cultural "classic rock" zone for most veteran acts of the 80s and 90s.  That would go a long way to help nurture a niche through which veteran hip-hop acts could maintain a presence in the consciousness of the music's initial (and successive) audiences.


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