“…What’s gettin ready to happen with Hip-Hop?”
(Where do you think Hip-Hop is goin?)
I tell em, “You know what’s gonna happen with Hip-Hop?
Whatever’s happening with us”
If we smoked out, Hip-Hop is gonna be smoked out
If we doin alright, Hip-Hop is gonna be doin alright
People talk about Hip-Hop like it’s some giant livin in the hillside
Comin down to visit the townspeople
We are Hip-Hop
Me, you, everybody, we are Hip-Hop
So Hip-Hop is going where we going
So the next time you ask yourself where Hip-Hop is going
Ask yourself: where am I going? How am I doing?
One of my earliest memories is sitting in my dad’s house whilst “Public Enemy” blasted through the house. Chuck and Flava Flav were part of the sounds of my childhood. Depending on what song he was feeling at the time, he would play it through to the end then rewind the tape (For the younger readers, tapes were like old MP3 players. Ask your grandparents about them – Ed) and start it again. He had this habit of tapping me on the arm to make sure I was concentrating when there was a lyric he really wanted me to hear.
There was a lot of tapping.
It wasn’t just “Public Enemy”. Today, I only need to hear lyrics like
“I’m expressing with my full capabilities, and now I’m living in correctional facilities”
“It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under”
“Thinking of a master plan
Cause ain’t nothing but sweat inside of my hand
Whoop! Whoop! That’s the sound of the police
And I am immediately transported back to that time. These songs were my favourite subjects in my early education. They let me know that what I experienced as a child (getting in trouble for speaking up, poverty and police harassment) were part of a wider consciousness. I may have been more Camberwell and Canterbury than Compton, but these rappers provided a lexicon for my life, providing me a foundation that let me know that I was part of a worldwide community that looked, sounded and acted like me.
Or at least the bits that my parents let me listen to. I listened to “Express Yourself” thousands of times, but to this day, I’ve never heard “A Bitch Iz A Bitch”, I guess because my parents thought that lyrics like “F**k you! Suck my d**k, b***h! You scandalous-ass, doo-doo dog breath, stinking, ugly…” weren’t as inspirational as:
“I don’t smoke weed or sess
Cause it’s known to give a brother brain damage
And brain damage on the mic don’t manage”
This dichotomy has been on my mind recently. How can the same musical artists who inspired me to be the best version of myself also, in many cases, be, well, see for yourself? The more I thought about it, the easier the answer became. I didn’t have to look too far. The answer was at home. I know I’m not the only person who has a father that is inspirational, hard-working, generous, self-made, gregarious and funny – and also abusive. As Bernie Mac famously said, “I ain’t ashamed to tell ya. Some of your family members ‘f****d up too, you know”.
But actually that answer is too convenient. It’s too easy to blame a parent. The true culprit was me. As a teenager, my musical tastes grew more diverse. I’m not embarrassed to say one of my favourite songs of the 90s was “MMMBop” by Hanson, and I defy anyone to find any criticism of “Middle of Nowhere”, their first album. If you do find any, please send your response to firstname.lastname@example.org. As diverse as my tastes got, hip-hop remained my first love. I always leaned towards the conscious rappers like KRS One and Mos Def, but also guys with strong wordplay or delivery like Outkast and Pharoahe Monch.
Except that’s not the whole truth. I loved Mystikal (Bend over ho and show me what you’re working with!), 2 Live Crew (I’ll fall in love if you suck that d**k) and DMX (What these b*****s want from a n***a) and could repeat hours worth of their music proudly. I was able to compartmentalise their lyrics – I didn’t disrespect women – I’d be offended if it was even inferred (Move b***h, get out of the way!). I couldn’t disrespect women because I was raised by a unicorn mum and a unicorn older sister (F**k all you ho’s).
The dichotomy of hip-hop is not difficult to decipher and has never changed. As Mos Def says ‘We are hip-hop’ and ‘we’ are more than one thing. Hip-hop has done some great things and yet, one of the men who is credited with pioneering it has been accused of child molestation. Mos Def may have been taken to court over child payments, but I can’t think of too many people who have had a more profound impact on my life. I love KRS One; he has spent much of his life speaking out against violence, but his initial responses to the Afrika Bambaataa situation disappointed me. The truth is that yesterday’s rappers are as flawed and imperfect as my family. And yours, too.
Why am I writing about this today? Because I am tired of lazy narratives surrounding hip-hop today. The idea that today’s rappers aren’t conscious or ‘woke’ unlike those that came before them is to suggest that all rappers before today were conscious and ‘woke’. I don’t like a lot of modern rappers, but I do like Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Kano, Wretch 32 and Chip. They talk about topics as diverse as police brutality, fate, false bravado and mental health. They also use a whole variety of derogatory terms and have videos that use badly outdated tropes, especially the scantily clad female surrounded by clothed males. The truth is that today’s rappers are exactly the same as the rappers from the past. For better or worse.