No one likes change. No one likes to admit it, but change absolutely terrifies people. I can use a slew of examples, but the most simple and obvious to me is music. Look at the backlash of certain types of music every time a new genre was introduced. Blues was at first the “devil’s music”. Rock n’ Roll was for “youth underclass”. And then of course there’s hip-hop that until this day, receive criticism from the likes of Mark Steyn who, “discussed rap ‘music’ (a symbol of the decline of the West if ever there was one)”.
With these critiques however, the reigning similarity is that they were made by those who knew nothing of the music genre. They were outsiders (mostly white, middle-class America) critiquing and condemning minorities (African-Americans) for their innovations in music. Not to say that those critiques don’t hold validity – it is possible that they may, but for someone like myself who can identify with the culture, I can counter critique those who made assumptions about the art forms because they did not perhaps rhetorically listen or thoroughly interact with it.
But what happens when the critique of the music genre, of the art form is coming from within? Do the critiques hold more validity? Or can they be just as problematic as the critiques offered by outsiders who are not critically analyzing or listening to the conversation being had?
This is the current state of hip-hop. Starting sometime in the mid to late 2000s, the argument was made that hip-hop was dead for a plethora of reasons, the main one being the shift from old school rap to new age rap. Not all argued that it was completely dead however. Some believed the current state of hip-hop was perfectly fine. Others believed that it didn’t die, but is just taking course into a new direction.
Who is right and who is wrong is debatable, but who is more likely to agree with the statement that hip-hop is dead and who is more likely to disagree is very dependent on the relationship someone shares with the culture. How one relates to the culture has many different factors as to how and why. That has everything to do with (in my opinion, and I offer my opinion as a true fan/critic of hip-hop) age, socioeconomic status, education, etc., although it does not have to be the case. These factors can stand-alone or mix and match depending on each person. Power, language, civility, and propriety all have special relationships as well – in relation to how the argument is made and put forth into the public sphere. For example, the power as to whose voice is heard or deemed worthy of having an opinion differs depending on what side of the argument one rests upon.
Whatever side of the argument one may be on and factors that place them there, it is also interesting to notice that a lot of the argument focuses on stating personal opinions, without thoroughly listening to the other party’s argument. I believe that at certain moments in people’s arguments, they have not thoroughly analyzed the other arguments and made statements/opinions based on personal tastes and discomfort of change or discomfort of critique. Because of this, the argument could be made that these critics don’t really understand the depth of their argument.
I will be analyzing these arguments looking for similarities, as well as exposing holes them. I will also share my own opinions from analyses I made from listening, or rhetorically listening to the best of my ability, to the arguments being made.
Hip Hop Is Dead vs. Hip-Hop Isn’t Dead/It’s Just Taking a New Direction.
When it comes to the argument of hip-hop being dead, there are a plethora of reasons for it being considered dead. One reason is the idea that it has moved from its original purposes and moved to meaningless content. To make this argument, is to argue that hip-hop was created with a specific intention and to serve a specific purpose. According to Billboard, “[hip hop] built its history on songs of overcoming the harshest of hard-knock lives…its lyrics tell stories with insights and uncommon honesty, traits that have ultimately taken the genre from niched inner-city beginnings to a longstanding place at the heart of pop culture.” This closely correlates with the specific purpose and specific intention that some look to when listening to hip-hop. If the music stems away from uplifting the culture or having prolific lyrics, then it is said to be the reason for hip-hop dying. Here, language and power guides the argument. There are certain expectations for some that the message, no matter how language is used, from clever lyrics from A Tribe Called Quest or more militant and straightforward lyrics from Public Enemy, needs to spark and inspire. It gives power to those who are often powerless – both the artist and those who listen and resonate with the lyrics. In the same respect, the person who sides with this argument mirrors the same type of language and power from what I have witnessed. Often, there is either anger or disappointment in the language used from those who believe hip-hop is dead, and more often than not they are able to make their arguments by expressing themselves in a more “eloquent” matter. They exert power or have power because they are or consider themselves journalists or bloggers or artists who have really delved into and “understand” hip-hop as a culture, sometimes so much they never state their credibility.
For example, “These lyrics are especially depressing when juxtaposed with the lyrical prowess of Hip-Hop/R&B song writers of the past…”
“Is hip-hop dead? It sure sounds like it if you turn on the radio. What used to be exciting, groundbreaking music seems to have been reduced to a one-note din. The only topics discussed are bling-bling materialism, how many guns you have, and ‘ho’s.’”
In both these articles, both authors stress the importance of language and its ability to create content, meaningful content specifically. The same importance they stress is used rather well in their articles. However their points of power, or the power they believe they have, creates a space where they state their opinions without giving any credibility. You cannot find information on the authors and if they are actual journalists or have studied hip-hop, whether academically or on there own. They fail to give any real evidence. The first article mentioned gives examples of lyrics she believes holds no “meaningful substance”, but can substance be measured word for word, sentence by sentence, or by the piece in its entirety? They also fail to analyze if all songs from the reigning years of hip-hop, the 80s and 90s, have produced meaningful content. One could argue that the 1990 hit “Humpty Hump” by the hip-hop group Digital Underground was a “feel good” song, asking nothing of its audience but to try out a new dance. Was there not always misogyny in the lyrics of hip-hop songs reflecting on the patriarchal society we live in and the black masculinity complex that is a very real thing in the African-American community? Because another hole in the argument could be the fact that sub-cultures are intertwined and heavily influence by mainstream culture, values, and beliefs.
There can also be the argument of the current American culture built on heavy consumption and materialism that would place the lyrics of current hip-hop songs to be true. But again, the power that hip-hop artists & critics who take this specific position exert or believe they have block them from looking at these points. Other positions that are popular are, the white-washing of hip-hop music, the saturation of the genre, the heavy influence of other genres, etc. Again similar to the argument made about content, these arguments fail to actually listen and study the material they critique before making their claims because of the power they believe they have and exert in the knowing of the topic. What’s different is that they believe their power, of the power of the culture of hip-hop is in harm of being stripped away or has been stripped away. “The menace of major label exploitation of rap music is real. More than an unfair playing field, it released psychosocial implications that had terrible effects on the genre.” Although it may be true of the exploitation of hip-hop as a business, is that an actual cause of death of it as a culture and art form?
There is also the lack of civility in these arguments in relation to the power exerted by those who take these positions. They deem not the other party as “ruining” a genre. Even the usage of the word death would conclude the other as murderers, criminals even. It deems the other party as lacking propriety because they have veered away or against what they believe hip-hop to be and what it always has been.
Those who see hip-hop as being very alive and well either refute arguments from those who claim it isn’t, or offer another alternative to what may be happening. The language and power dynamic is similar to those of the opposite side. In terms of power, rarely do they mention why they are credible enough to make their point, but at least they have it accessible. For example, in The True Meaning of Hip-Hop Culture by Afrika Bambaataa, there is a foreword written by a member of the Zulu Nation, a prominent group in the hip-hop world during the 80s and early 90s. In this foreword, the author explains who Bambaataa is, what his “titles” are in the hip-hop community, as if that is credibility enough. His title gives recognition as to why his opinions may hold validity. The very idea that someone else is speaking on his behalf shows the power that he holds within the context. When Bambaataa begins to speak, he also holds the same type of authorative power. “… Just look at yourselves, sounding like a bunch of fools, who really don`t have any true knowledge of self and knowledge of hip-hop culture and what it`s all about. First of all, let me tell you that the music (beats) that makes up hip-hop, comes from different nationalities and races, especially from black people, and if you think I am a brother who don`t know what he is talking about, just check out many of the music, beats, grooves and sounds that many of your rappers use to make their records or rap over.” Again, there is this idea that because of who I am and what my title is, I know what I am speaking about, and because I know what I am talking about, the other position doesn’t.
“But in ever art form, measuring greatness should resemble a three-dimensional graph, with infinite possibilities and directions to explore and perfect. Rap is no different.
In the past 10 years, we’ve seen the standards of rap change drastically. The premiums put on knowledge, difficulty of execution and dexterity of flows have evaporated.
Some people cry over “ignorant” rap. As if nihilistic, material-obsessed content isn’t the perfect reflection of modern society…
In conclusion, to all you old, bitter heads complaining about how rap is dead, I’m sorry to tell you that you have expired, not the genre.
You’re the same as the people who protested that rappity noise when it first debuted, the same classic rock fans who were disgusted by punk, and the same country music fanatics who dismissed The Beatles.
You’re fighting against evolution, against creation, against inevitability. You’re on the wrong side of history.”
In this analysis of the situation offered in another online publication, the opposite side is again made to look more incompetent. There is a shared anger with both sides of the argument that creates a space where both sides would rather tear each other down before actually allowing the other side to get their point across and actually listen to what is being said. Should we be a little more concerned about the excessive misogyny and materialism found in today’s hip-hop community? Why is that cancelled out of the argument in order to validate hip-hop being well and alive?
The civility and propriety share the same type of relationship as well. There is a lack of civility when it involves death, a rather sensitive subject when it is discussed in other contexts. Here, the death is similar to a savage war, where words are meant to cut and execute the other position. In a state of war, there is no civility or propriety involved. It is about wining, by any means. At some points, facts may be offered to validate their opinions, but in the true nature of war, certain words are used in order to pack a harder punch to their opponent.
These tactics make it hard to determine who is right and who is wrong about hip-hop being dead. It becomes more about how someone positions their argument rather than what is actually being said. Who can crush their opponent better by offending them, without offending their audience? Who appears more confident and more knowledgeable about the topic, whether they are or aren’t? It is enough to disagree with a point being made and offer no reasoning; so long you can make your opponent appear weak.
So is Hip-Hop Dead? From the current conversation being held, I think its time to phrase the question a bit differently and pose a discussion with open minds rather than a war of words coming at each other’s neck. But then again, in the true essence of hip-hop, there is only room for the best lyrically posed Emcee. So maybe, just maybe, the war or words that is currently reining the discussion of the current state of hip-hop is with great reasoning.
May the best Emcee win.