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Hip-Hop: So now what?

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.

Three decades of power and influence should be a cause for cheer. But the mood among fans and critics has hardly been celebratory. In recent years the New Yorker, the Village Voice and Time have all run articles declaring the death of rap. That’s something of an exaggeration. Great songs are still being made and the likes of Lil’ Wayne, Game, Lupe Fiasco and Drake have all scored number one US albums in the past year. But the genre is clearly ailing. In 2000, 107 million rap albums were sold in America. But that was before a half decade of straight decline with sales plunging from 75 million in 2005 to 41 million in 2007 and 33 million in 2009. To picture that fall in real terms, look at the drop suffered by 50 Cent over the period – from a mighty eight million sales of his debut Get Rich or Die Tryin’ in 2003 to a puny 500,000 copies of his fourth album Before I Self-Destruct in 2009. US rap album sales actually increased slightly in 2010 but even so the genre accounted for only 27.3 million units for the year. In a period of endemic piracy you might say that such figures are still respectable.

The trouble is that even at a time when album sales are falling across the board, hip-hop has been plunging heavier and faster than other genres. At the close of 2010, rock album sales stood at 103.7 million, country at 43.7 million and R&B at 30.5 million. The only mainstream genre rap was beating – and then only just – was Christian/Gospel with sales at 24.2 million.

But the malaise affecting hip-hop is artistic as well as commercial.

The genre’s biggest stars, such as Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, Eminem and 50 Cent, have remained unchallenged for much of the decade leading to a sense of stagnation at the top. And many of the big selling newer names – Black Eyed Peas, Nikki Minaj and Jason Derulo amongst them – have adopted a tinny pop sound, courtesy of house producer David Guetta, that preferences bubbly clamour over artistic innovation.

As it crests to middle age hip-hop is facing a crisis of direction that threatens its future as a meaningful cultural form. The closest parallel to the current state of affairs is probably the sclerotic condition of rock in the 1970s. If there’s a symbol for rap’s current sense of drift, it’s probably Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne. Recorded at exotic locations around the world, including Honolulu, Sydney and the Le Meurice hotel in Paris, the album is jarringly out of sync with the times. From the high-end watch brands name checked on its songs (Audemars Piguet, Franck Muller, Richard Mille) to the gaudy gold cover art by Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, it is hard to believe the record was made during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

That’s all the more alarming because hip-hop is all about context. At their best, rap  artists demonstrate an acute awareness of place and purpose and history. That’s what makes, say, Nas’s Illmatic, with its deftly wrought portraits of life in the housing projects, so compelling to listen to. Needless to say that’s something Jay-Z himself has excelled at on Reasonable Doubt and later albums. But for the most part, Watch the Throne, is the document of a gilded super-rich lifestyle. And, stripped of reference to the lives of its listeners – some of whom will be among the one in ten Americans without a job – its relentless materialism risks sounding aloof and contemptuous. True, some may empathise with Jay-Z’s horological dilemma on Otis: “New watch alert/ Hublot’s or the big face Rollies/ I got two of those”. But it’s just as likely that many will agree with one critic’s tart assessment of it as “Two fatuous, wealthy rappers celebrating their good fortune in the face of massive global inequality”.

How did hip-hop get this way; so self-regarding, so out of touch?  In a revealing recent interview with Pitchfork, Questlove of the Roots claims a pivotal moment came at the second annual Source awards, in New York, 1995. On that night, three competing hip-hop tribes were vying for honours: from the East Coast, Sean Puffy Combs, Notorious BIG and their Bad Boy records retinue; Suge Knight, Dr Dre and the West Coast posse of Death Row records; and the New York underground, with Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, Nas, the Roots, Busta Rhymes and others in attendance. Although bitter rivals, both Bad Boy and Death Row favoured a slick, polished production sound for their artists.

In effect, the hip-hop world faced a choice of direction. On one hand the radio-friendly gangsta rap and huge sales of the Bad Boy/Death Row axis. On the other, the grainy verite style, artistic integrity and limited sales of the New York underground. In the event, the underground was the loser with the majority of split between Bad Boy and Death Row. Even Illmatic, an acknowledged classic, failed to win any awards. Individual careers have continued but the underground lost a level of influence that night that arguably it has never recovered.

With it, the notion of a progressive, experimental hip-hop at the vanguard of rap, an heir to the legacy of Bambaataa, Public Enemy and the Natives Tongues, faded from sight and has not held sway in hip-hop or with popular audiences since then. “Nas’ body language that day told the whole story of where we were about to go,” says Questlove. “The more he got ignored for Illmatic, I literally saw his body melt in his seat. Almost like he was ashamed. He just looked so defeated. I was like, ‘Yo, he’s not gonna be the same after this shit.’ None of us were the same after that day. The ideology of what I considered “real” hip-hop died. I feel like the true underground lost its oxygen that night.”

To understand how hip-hop made the choice to turn from art to commerce you have to go back to the origins of the music. In its early days rap took pride in its rootedness. Created by young, poor African-Americans in the mid-Seventies who had little stake in mainstream society, its rise precipitated the decline of the polished soul and disco that until then had been the prevailing sound of black America.

Crooners like Teddy Pendegrast and Luther Vandross, who dressed in dinner jackets and whisperedsongs about seduction, still held to an ideal born out of the civil rights struggles that music should be a source of inspiration and uplift to black people. But by the end of the Seventies, the utopianism implicit in that belief seemed painfully misplaced. New York was bankrupt. Heroin was decimating the inner cities. And the songs that seemed to make sense for the times were tracks like The Message: “Rats in the front room, roaches in the back/Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat”. Rappers spoke of “keeping it real” as a moral imperative, a means of faithfully reporting the reality of their lives.

For all the bleakness of songs like The Message though, hip-hop had its own creed of optimism. But where soul, with its roots in the civil rights movement, believed in music as a vehicle for collective empowerment, rap’s principles were Reaganite ones of me-first, individual success.

Here was a music with transformative powers. A force that allowed the overlooked and despised of America, its young black men, to remake the world in their own image through little more than ambition and imagination. Taking inspiration from the drugged out space funk of Parliament and Funkadelic, the first generation of rap artists imagined themselves as superhero gods bestriding a new realm. Clive Campell (DJ Kool Herc) and Joseph Saddler (Grandmaster Flash) were among the first. But in their wake came any number of fabulistseager to don a new identity and conjure themselves mythic: Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic 3; Count Coolout; King Sun-D Moet; The Fearless Four; King Tim III; Grandmixer DST and the Infinity Rappers.

What’s staggering to consider is that they got away with it. From the projects of New York, an upstart sound built out of repurposed technology was heard across the world. Its self-declared heroes really did become icons. By 1985, a group like Run DMC, who’d only recorded their first single two years earlier, had already gone multi-platinum and were playing Live Aid in front of a 100,000-strong crowd chanting along to the words of Walk This Way.

Impossible dreams abruptly realized. And with them laid bare the defining tension at the core of the music’s particular abrasiveness and its enormous success. On the one hand, hip-hop is angry and restless – the sound of young African-Americans railing at their benighted lot in US society. But it is also deeply wedded to the American dream. Rock icons from the Hendrix to Nirvana to Radiohead have found mainstream success painfully troubling. By comparison, hip-hop reveres money and fame as the pinnacle of attainment. Rappers want to get paid. They want to make it big. And they are unstinting in their admiration of those who do, whether they’re pimps and drug dealers or Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Not for nothing does Snoop Dogg’s debut album Doggystyle open with a sampled passage from the 1972 blaxploitation movie Super Fly, about a big-time coke dealer looking to get out of the game: “You’re gonna give all this up? Eight track stereo, colour TV in every room, and you can snort a half of piece of dope everyday? That’s the American dream, nigger!”

This duality, between bitterness at society and faith in its values, between alienation and conformity, isolation and integration, is at the heart of what hip-hop is. In these terms there is no such thing as selling out. The more money you make off your name the more astute it proves you are as an artist.

But context remains crucial. At the same time their coveting mainstream success rappers are also paying homage to their roots in Queensbridge, Compton or elsewhere. In return for their professions of loyalty, fans have continued to give legitimacy to those same rappers even as they are signing the lease on their first private jet.

You could say this is the social contract hip-hop has maintained with its fan base since the origins of the music. It is in pursuit of that dichotomous ideal that wave upon wave of prospective Gatsbys have sought to make their fortunes in the rap game, each of them pledging eternal love for the hood as they head for the big time. Most will fail completely or at best shine briefly. But a very few do grasp the brass ring. And in the process some have accumulated wealth of staggering proportions.

This is the rarified apex occupied by the likes of P Diddy and Jay-Z, who command net worth of $475 million and $450 million respectively, according to Forbes.

Prosperity of this scale puts them among the richest African-Americans in history. But it also raises a big problem. Hip-hop’s multi-millionaire elite have now become so fantastically wealthy that they cannot claim to speak for the poor and disenfranchised in any meaningful way. That raises the question of whether the social contract that’s existed between artists and fans for the past three decades now broken down? Is hip-hop creatively in the doldrums because its dominant figures now live the strange, floating lives of the fabulously wealthy? Has rap has lost its moorings? And if so, can rap claim any more to be the true voice of young black America?

Some of those same questions seem to have been troubling Jay-Z and Kanye too. Strip away the bombast on Watch The Throne and the album reveals itself as a meditation on the troubling nature of giddy success. Sure, it’s great to be super-rich. Extreme prosperity has taken each rapper far from their childhood circumstances. For Jay-Z that’s meant an astonishing leap from Brooklyn’s Marcy projects to paling around with Chris and Gwyneth and marriage to America’s most adored woman. For Kanye, it’s brought the means to hang out with supermodels and fashion designers and buy seven-figure Japanese Pop Art. But in the process both men now find themselves in the unanticipated position of racial pioneers, inhabiting terrain few African Americans have occupied before.  They’ve gone from outsiders to establishment insiders in the space of a decade. Jay-Z’s even on black slapping terms with the president. Watch the Throne, is shot through with reflections on their unlikely status as poster boys for the age of Obama. To hear them speak, it’s an unsettling business.  And an isolating one too. “Only spot a few blacks the higher I go,” says Jay-Z. “In the past, if you picture events like a black tie,” adds Kanye, “What’s the last thing you expect to see? Black guys.”

Perhaps too Watch the Throne is chafing at the notion that to be authentic, rap has to stay grounded in the experiences of ordinary people. Hip-hop of course, can and should be about anything it wants to be. Some of the greatest joys the music offers come from following the free associative trails laid down by a rapper such as MF Doom. But like any other artistic form, rap  needs to keep innovating or face death. In recent years there’s been little sign of that in the mainstream. The last genuinely thrilling period – 2003-4, when the Neptunes, Timbaland and Kanye were producing a raft of scintillating hit records for themselves and others like Jay-Z and Snoop – is now almost a decade old. Meanwhile, the trend towards Eurodisco-inflected pop-rap is only further evidence of a widespread willingness to chase commercial gain over artistic innovation.

If that’s the case what’s the future for hip-hop? Further creative stagnation and declining sales? Or are there artists willing to take risks, cause trouble and stir things up? It took punk to eviscerate the complacency of the Seventies and scare rock into starting over. Maybe rap needs its own revolution?

Look to the fringes of the hip-hop world and you can sense something stirring.

Scattered across America, from New York to LA via Detroit, a new school of underground rappers is emerging whose unifying characteristic is contempt for the materialist values and glossy production standards of their forebears.

Take the Brooklyn-based Mr Muthafuckin’ eXquire for instance, whose favourite subjects are getting drunk, getting into fights and sleeping with large, unattractive women. eXquire inhabits a

neon-lit of demi-monde seedy bars, strip joints and piss-drenched back allies. From where he’s standing, the notion of making it big time isn’t so much a remote possibility as a bad joke lying in wait for the guileless. As he puts it a song named after the star of the Eighties action movie American Ninja, “The American Dream will drop kick your ass like Michael Dudikoff”.

Last year eXquire released a remix of his track The Last Huzza, which featured several of the leading lights of the new school including the Detroit MC Danny Brown. In a milieu where bling and bragging are de rigeur, Brown cuts a forlorn figure. Aged 30, an unpromising time of life to be launching a rap career, he has a self-confessed drug habit, two missing front teeth, an eccentric early-Eighties New Wave haircut and a taste for blousy, pattered shirts that, he claims, put 50 Cent off signing him to G Unit records. He is also a talented, bitterly honest rapper whose most affecting song, Scrap or Die, unfolds like a scene from The Wire: a tale of grim childhood misadventure about breaking into abandoned houses at night with his uncle to salvage wiring, aluminium siding and old kitchen appliances.

Heems and Kool AD, two members of the Brooklyn trio Das Racist also featured on The Last Huzza. The Das Racist sound is scratchy and lo-fi and their style is consciously unpolished. One of their most popular songs is an ode to the horrible lure of fast food called Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. The group’s songs have a tight, rhythmic urgency and you get the feeling they could smarten up their act if they wanted to. But their aversion to personal grooming or slick production seems to be a matter of philosophical principle to them. Heems and Kool Ad met at Wesleyan University, a liberal arts college in Connecticut. Their rhymes bristle with erudite references to thinkers like Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak and they describe their approach as “deconstructionalist”. As Heems put it, “We dabble with nonsequiturs, Dadaism, repetiton, repetition. We make dance music about non-dancey things.”

The most notorious members of hip-hop’s new school are the LA collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Led by the precociously talented Tyler the Creator, who cites Joy Division, Nirvana and the Sex Pistols as inspiration, the group have generated huge excitement for their high-octane live performances. They have also triggered equally frenzied controversy for repeated songs that fantasize about the rape and murder of women. Tyler appears unconcerned by the criticism (“It’s fucking art, listen to the fucking story”) and it’s hard not to see a strategy at work behind the lurid imagery. In pushing hip-hop to new extremes, Odd Future are staking out territory that rap’s elite, with too much to lose by way of reputation and contractual relationships, cannot afford to follow them to. As a consequence, the collective comes to represent something dangerously new and transgressive while pushing the old guard towards obsolescence. Or as Tyler says: “I created OF ‘cause I feel we’re more talented/Than 40-year-old rappers talking about Gucci”.

That doesn’t mean Odd Future hasn’t caught the attention of the 40-year-olds. Tyler has recorded a track with Game and Lil Wayne and is set to go in the studio with Nas. His bandmate, the heavily in-demand singer/songwriter Frank Ocean, features on two tracks on Watch the Throne.

For all their grunge aesthetic, the new school may find themselves faced with the very same dilemma as previous generations about how to retain a meaningful artistic connection to their origins while pursuing success. Odd Future and their ilk may not necessarily be the salvation of rap. But they are likely to make its progress less predictable and more gleefully wayward in the

coming years. In a recent interview, Tyler pondered the wealth of a hip-hop star who’d spent sixty thousand dollars on a chain. The money seemed a lot to him and turning it over, he framed a question that sums up as well as any other the approach that – for now – he and his peers have to material reward: “You know how many fuckin’ tree houses you can make for sixty thousand fuckin’ dollars?”

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