“When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.” ~ Stuart Scott
I was born in May of 1973 in Brooklyn New York at Down State Hospital. A couple months later and roughly 20 miles away at a Bronx Community center basement party, Hip Hop was born.
I say all of that to say that Hip Hop is literally and figuratively the sound track of my life. Hip-hop’s story telling nature and keen ability to contemporaneously snap shot the times, it could easily be construed as the back drop of not just my life as well as the lives of most inner city and suburbanites– from generation X to the millennials to generation Z and beyond there is a shared sense of ownership and loyalty to hip hop and the culture that it has spawned in just under five decades. So it is with great sadness that I report that the cultural construct that has enveloped my existence is cancer stricken. The good news is that the immortal words of Stuart Scott, one of the great ambassadors of the culture is spot on when he surmised that death or even sickness from cancer does not equate to a loss to cancer. And that in order to avoid taking an L to the big C the, collective has to come to grips with the fact that the culture is ailing. The culture itself has to reexamine how we are living, why we are living and the manner in which we are living. In other words it’s time to re-calibrate, and in order to do that we need to peer deeper into the asbestos like elements that are giving rise to the malignant tumor growing in hip hop. Due to the genres ubiquitous reach to say that black culture is synonymous with hip hop culture is to speak the unvarnished truth. So the malady that besets hip hop is indeed one that besets much of black America. There are myriad carcinogens that actively contribute to the malaise that is hip hop. The following 5 are in my humble opine the biggest contributors to the demise of the culture and if we can remedy them at least in part, it will go along way into seeing this culture survive.
Carcinogen #1: The Gangster Rap subgenre
Street life and the inner workings of the hood has always been a major component of hip-hop. In fact the very definition of hip-hop could be summed up and defined as being a mirror to what’s going on in the streets of America’s ghettos and urban dwellings. For this reason there has always been a rebellious– anti-establishment edge to the the culture. It was and still is the single most expressive outlet for the most marginalized demographic in America– Black youth. It was and still is this particular demographics only outlet available to express the collective joys, pains, poverty and frustrations with life that both bonds the community as well as what tears it asunder. Before a category such as “gangster rap” was invented there were rappers that spoke about their dalliances with street life while painting vivid pictures with their words of what life was like for them in their particular projects, borough, county, state or municipal dwelling. They were relate-able stories that had wide spread resonance from state to state and hood to hood. They (nor their audience)however did not get hung up on the violent elements and negative optics, nor did they stake their claim to fame on being drug king pins, mass murderers and outright menaces to society. They were nuanced in their subject matter and story telling. The gangster rap sub-category was coined by outsiders that were hostile to hip hop culture from the beginning. They had a flawed understanding and a tainted interpretation of the almost esoteric form of urban mass communication known as rap music. To the outsiders, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s ‘The Message‘ was just as gangster rappish as Easy E and NWA’s ‘Straight out of Compton‘. It was all “gangster rap” to them, and since those outsiders had the ability to make labels stick, those labels stuck and served as self fulfilling prophecies. This point was ironically made clearer by none other than the former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke most recently when he said:
“Take a look at Gangster Rap…Take a look at constant media, chronic media. Talking about Gangster Rap elevating and making exciting Black criminality, thuggery, promoting drugs, promoting all sorts of sexual abuse, abuse of women. The videos for Black rappers and so forth show women at their feet, sucking their toes or God-knows what else. Just being practically slaves to Black males. You take a look at it, the media in this country—and it’s for white people too, European-Americans are affected by it too, but Black people have been really affected by it. This Black, so-called Gangster Rap and this other disgusting and degrading degenerate music which is the most popular music among the Black people and a good sector of the white people—just look at the Nicki Minaj. I don’t even want you to look at it it’s so horrible. You will never hear more of the ‘n-word,’ more words about ass—God knows I’m not gonna say all the things they say. Every kind of filthy word. Every kind of filthy, violent drug-promoting material. It’s just absolutely sickening. It’s the most amazing thing you ever heard. And the guy that produces all that, one of the Jewish producers, in fact, the entire music industry is absolutely controlled by the Zionists, the Jewish extremists, the same ones in the media that support Israel and basically pervert our country and the interest of America for that of Israel…One of the Jewish producers was boasting about the fact that every one of the Top 10 Billboard songs were those he controlled. So, I tell ya, even Rap music is not something that Blacks really were responsible for. It was the Jewish record producers who promoted this degenerate and sick music.” ~ David Duke
While Duke indeed makes some valid observations in his long winded missive, the single stroke brush is emblematic of how the art of hip hop was perceived by the masses (outside of the hood) from inception so he as well underscores how the outsiders contributed to the problem. But since we know the guy to be an avowed white supremacist it’s fairly easy to parse this particular musing to extract the relevant facts to corroborate just how bad the creation of the “gangster rap” sub category has been for hip hop, black music and the black community as whole.
Hip hops addiction to the crack game is perhaps one of it’s most self perpetuated self defeating attributes.The “trap music” trend started in the late 80’s and reached a crescendo in the 1990’s. Today sadly it’s almost a prerequisite for any young aspiring emcee to hear his music on the radio. And it’s not just the youngins that are beholden to the commercialized thug culture. Former corrections officer Rick Ross is a 40 something year old rapper mimicking the style, likeness and subject matter of a 20 something year old rapper that died over 20 years ago. From Rick Ross co-opting the name of one of the most notorious exporters of cocaine in urban American history to Bobby Schmurda playing the starring role in an episode of “when keeping it real goes wrong” , the incestuous relationship that hip hop has with the crack cocaine trade has been as regressive to the genre as it has been to the communities where it has served as a 30 plus year staple.
2. Carinogen #2: Viacom
There was a time that MTV would not play rap videos. In fact MTV did not play any videos made by black artists. It took the king of pop to break the video music television color barrier before we were able to boast of seeing the likes of Fab Five Freedy and Yo MTV Raps. At the time it was something to celebrate. Generations later hindsight suggests that we integrated the genre into a burning building. The advent of the gangster rap subgenre coincided with the introduction of rap music being brought to life in video form. Being able to see what was vastly becoming the trend in hip hop (studio gang banging) in visual form made it that more attractive to the lay person and subsequently that much more potent form of cancer. The optics had indelible affect on the ethos of the culture. Not only were we able to hear about the imaginary gangster chronicles of the young and misguided. We were able to watch it in motion picture form. It was reality television before reality TV. As a matter of fact you can probably credit the marriage between MTV and hip hop for birthing that garbage industry as well because if my memory serves me correct it was the Flava of Love show that made popular the kind of rampant disrespect and disregard for black women that seems to be the most common theme of all of these shows.
BET prior to being bought by Viacom was at least halfway decent. They had Video Soul, Teen Summit, The BET News, and the Tavis Smiley show–all of which gave the network, genre and black culture a positive if not fair and balanced presentation. Shortly before the merger all of those programs were canceled and in its place came more of the same that was offered on MTV with even less creativity, thoughtfulness or balance. BET Uncut was born into existence and it codified and cemented the already burgeoning sexist and misogynistic trend within the music. And while it’s been almost two decades since BET Uncut was canceled, it has been replaced by a series of what seems like tri-annual award shows that serve only to further impugn black people and black culture.
The BET and MTV hip hop awards are analogous to a minstrel award show. If there were an awards show for the performances given by Amos and Andy or Steppin Fetchin back in the day it would have no doubt looked a lot like the BET Awards. I’m actually surprised that they have not posthumously given them lifetime achievement awards since cooning, shucking and jiving is what they all seem to strive for at these award shows anyway.
Carcinogen#3:School budget cuts and forgoing music and arts education
When I was in school I was nothing close to being musically inclined. And I’m still not. That however did not stop the mandatory music classes that I had to attend in elementary and junior high school from playing a role in how I appreciate music today. Being introduced to the tonal scale was much more than simply learning about “do-re-me”. It was about planting the seed of musical discernment in the young and malleable subconscious mind. One that could be relied upon from youth through adulthood to make and appreciate the music, art and culture of their time for posterity. The birth of hip hop unfortunately came during the same period that birthed the current anti-intellectual bend that has engulfed much of America.
The Reagan years started a trend whereby austerity at the expense of posterity was the order of the day. They cut services and funding to the schools for extracurricular and even even primary curricula activity– Art and music education being the biggest casualties of this assault on public education. With all manner of artistic expression and discernment stripped from the preceding generations (post 80’s babies). The genre and more importantly the impressionable youth that serve as it’s target audience were primed for maximum exploitation by corporate owned radio. No longer did the rap audience and fan base decide what and who was hot. The corporate radio via the new 5-6 song rotation format dictated to the fan base what was good music and absent their own music sensibilities they are today rendered powerless when it comes to abating the harmful imagery inherent in the music or even when it comes to seeking out and finding alternative choices to mainstream and make hot. What was hot in the 80’s and much of the 90’s were well versed lyricists that were creative with their word play–even if what they said boarded the negative. Today what’s hot are ‘ring tone rappers’– emcees that I have no lyrical talent or skill. In most instances they don’t even have a command of the English language so they compensate by relying on a hot beat that has maximum resonance that they simply mumble on in between a catch phrase or cliche for a hook with a few inaudible southern drawls thrown in. Straight garbage!
Carcinogen#4:The Telecom Act of 1996
The telecommunications act of 1996 signed into law by Bill Clinton was largely remembered for the sweeping changes that it brought to the telecommunications industry. The lesser known but more viscerally felt changes that came as a result of this bill were in the music, radio, television and print media. The bill that the FCC boasted would create more competition did the exact opposite. At least as it pertained to radio. With the FCC removing the cap on spectrum ownership they all but eliminated competition and diversity. Before the 1996 Telecom Act a single corporation could own no more than 40 radio stations nation wide and no more than 4 in a given market. The idea was basic and sound economics–you know the anti-monopoly type duh 🙄. Once that new act was signed to law the cap on FCC spectrum for national ownership went from 40 stations nation wide to an unlimited amount of spectrum ownership nationwide. The cap for local market ownership also went up from 4 stations to 8. The actual results of this dynamic are even more astonishing:
- Just over a week of that bill becoming law over 700 million dollars in buying and selling of stations ensued. There were station mergers left and right.
- In less than 5 years the the number of radio station owners dropped 25 percent (5100 owners of spectrum to 3800).
- By 2001 two companies, Clear Channel and Viacom (Parent company to Infinity Broadcasting) laid claim to 42 percent of the commercial radio listening audience and pocketed 45 percent of the profit from the industry.
- The biggest single owner of radio stations nationwide in 1996 was 39. By 2003 that number ballooned to over 1100.
The affects of these corporate takeovers reverberated throughout the industry because of how wide and deep their corporate tentacles reached. Clear Channel for instance is today the preeminent owner and controller of radio. Well they also own about 100 performance and amphitheaters. And even more clubs and arenas around the country. This means that they have unprecedented, unchecked and most importantly undue powers in the industry to make or break artists. They are controllers of the manifest destiny that is hip hop in ways that are dangerously untenable.
Carcinogen #5 Studio Technology
The fifth carcinogen is perhaps the hardest pill to swallow in so far as accepting that which is wrong with hip hop. Any lover of the culture or lover of music period whose ear buds date back to the days that vinyl was the standard could appreciate all of the advantages inherent in going from an analog world to a digital one. Expedience with standing, this digital age has in addition to making the average emcee rather lazy brained due to people being much more enamored with a hot beat than lyrical skill, has removed one of the primordial and quintessential components of hip hop from the equation–the DJ.
I’m the Rapper he’s the DJ was not just a Will Smith album. It was the codec of the culture. The DJ was part and parcel (in a major way) to the foundation of hip hop. Were it not for the wide spread misogyny, rampant promotion of drug use and drug selling the most sacrilegious aspect of hip hop today would be the manner in which the DJ’s importance has been downsized and swept under to the side. Jam Master J, Africa Bambatta, Scott La Rock, DJ Premiere, Spindarella and the list goes on, were all pioneers in hip hop. None of them get the due that they deserve.
If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to attend a party with a Kid Kapri or Ron G or Biz Markie on the ones and twos than you know the importance of what a DJ is to the culture. You would also be able to better understand how and why DJ Cool Herc is universally seen and respected as the father of this great culture.
Perhaps if we bring the father back into the fold the family unit could begin to self repair.
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