Esquire January 2012
In the early Eighties, a breathtakingly original new music genre burst out from the ghettos of the Bronx and captured the world’s imagination. Having achieved an unimaginable success, acclaim and influence, hip-hop’s popularity is now in sharp decline, while its globe-trotting superstars seem ever more removed from their audiences. Is their mid-life crisis nothing more than a blip or is it the beginning of the end for the greatest pop-cultural movement since rock ‘n’ roll?
Thirty years ago two singles were released which marked the end of the beginning for hip-hop. The Message, by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force came out in 1982. Although both only charted modestly, they set a new standard in artistic ambition for hip-hop that proved hugely influential. For the nascent music form that rose out of the block parties and housing projects of the Bronx and Queens during the 1970s it was a signal moment. Critics had dismissed earlier releases, like the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight and Kurtis Blow’s Christmas Rappin’, as novelties.
Now came the breakthrough, the first significant steps from ghetto subculture to global cultural force. In the decades since then hip-hop has established itself as the most exhilarating music of modern times with its stars a compelling presence in popular culture, commanding ten-times-platinum record sales (Eminem), marquee name movie celebrity (Will Smith) and fallen rock idol status alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain (2 Pac, Notorious BIG). In tandem, hip-hop has become the lingua franca of urban youth across the world, its sounds and styles adopted by legions of followers in virtually every conceivable location on the planet from Johannesburg and Tokyo to Tehran and Jakarta. more
The argument over causal links between pop culture and social behaviour is a well-rehearsed and inconclusive one. Yet it’s a debate that is tirelessly rehashed when it comes to rap music. Not long ago, David Blunkett and Kim Howells both denounced the dangerous effects on young people of songs by “macho idiot rappers” such as Jay-Z and So Solid Crew. more
Dr Dre helped pioneer hardcore hip-hop: violence against “bitches”, the love of guns and fast cars. Now a millionaire father-of-two, he says he’s turned over a new leaf – all that gangsta stuff was just about marketing, pleasing the fans. So who is the Dre of today? And has he really managed to break free from his past?
I’m on my way to meet Dr Dre, and I have a song in my head. It’s called Fuck You, and in it Dre explains, in some detail, how he just wants “to fuck bad bitches”. The streets of Los Angeles glare white in the midday sun. I struggle into the plush recording studio where Dre is working. We talk for a while about his latest album, Dr Dre 2001.
He recorded it, he tells me, because he felt misunderstood. “People definitely had the wrong idea about me. A lot of people were saying I was a mean cat, I disrespected women, a lotta bullshit, a lotta nonsense.” more