Music has long since been a part of human culture and has served not only as a means of enjoyment and congregation, but also as a link between humans that connects like-minded individuals together and helps to give explanation to the practices of people. The Hip-Hop genre, or rather art form, is one of many different shades of emotion, and it expresses these emotions with a plethora of different lyrics, some which may and often do offend others. For that reason Hip-Hop is often labeled as being the most negative form of music in modern history. Though hip-hop does have it's darker sides, these deep areas of emotion in hip-hop's repertoire of songs are often misunderstood. Hip-Hop, as a genre, should not be criticized because of its "negatively influential lyrics," as its positives outweigh it's negatives. Hip-Hop has given more support to the inner city youth of America than any other form of music or entertainment in the past 50 years or more. Because of this, it is hard to understand why it is being put under such a negative light.
Hip-Hop is an explosive genre filled with emotion and talent, which has given youth all across the world an industry to place themselves in that mirrors the environment they've become accustomed to. With its "street life" persona, hip-hop has gained significant grounds and appeals not only to the inner city American youth, but also adolescent, and occasionally adult audiences all around the world. The genre's high sense of verity is it's largest area of critique though, as the street life portrayals garnish more than a handful of negative lyrics, and often influence the impressionable youth to act in a manner considered less than respectable (McWhorter 1). For this reason, the majority of those who have listened to a "hip-hop" song consider the genre's lyrics disrespectful, negatively influential, and repressive to this generation's youth. With this view, disputers of the genre say the mark it has left on kids and even adults has scarred us rather than helped, and should be removed from the media and our culture. Before making a case of what should be done with something you do not favor, it is important to explore the origins of what it is you disagree with so strongly. Hip-Hop is entirely different than rapping, gangster life, or sexist statements. Hip-Hop is the ladder in the hole of oppression used by the oppressed to climb their way out.
In the early days, Hip-Hop, having started in the ghettos of New York City, could be categorized as upbeat party music that discussed issues no more important than having fun and enjoying popularity. Though as time progressed Hip-Hop music adopted a darker tone and began to explore areas of America's impoverished culture that many had neglected to listen to for years (McWhorter 2). In the dawn of its existence, common lyrics involved boasts about dancing skill and being able to rhyme well, in addition to being able to keep a crowd of fans entertained. Unity was strong, and often rappers formed groups with childhood friends, or even siblings. In the late 1970s all you could hear was the beat from a boom box and lyrics like: "
now what you hear is not a test, I'm rappin to the beat and me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet
" as sung by Grand Master Flash in "Rappers Delight". However, as hip-hop grew more popular, it grew more controversial as well. "Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge, I'm tryin' not to loose my head, it's like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder, how I keep from going under
", though much more mild than what we hear today, is in essence the first appearance of direct expression of an artist regarding the trials of everyday life in the inner-city. "The Message" was one of the first to explore the idea of violent rebuttals in regards to the stresses of inner city life. The overall message conveyed in the song was to say that because life in the ghetto is so frustrating and negative, that to the artist, violence is not only a logical way of expressing his feelings, but that it can be justified by the pressure of that lifestyle's effects on everyday man (McWhorter 2). Not even a year after "The Message" in 1982, groups like Public Enemy surfaced and took their lyrical perspective to a political level. This specific group was known for bringing to the table issues of controversy such as racism, sexism, and unfair treatment of urban folk in the media, and discussing their thoughts of such issues outright in their music. The album Fear of a Black Planet was one of high controversy as it spoke of how Public Enemy believed the government to be phobic of the world being controlled by a predominantly black upper class. Though controversial, the album was praised for raising discussion artistically on a subject many felt should not be talked about. Chuck D, one of the leaders of Public Enemy, dubbed the rap element of hip-hop music the "
black CNN of America
" (Chang). In saying that, it caused other artists to turn to a lyrically positive side and rap about things everyone else was afraid to rap about. It could be said that Public Enemy and their influence on the genre is the reason why hip-hop has such a high rebellious rate in fans and supporters.
During the period of time known as "The Golden Age of Hip Hop", which lasted just a short span from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, rap artists were known to contribute positively to the genre and to the genre's listeners (Dunn). As hip-hop's popularity grew, its radio airtime spanned from just the predominantly black audience stations to ones with a larger group of listeners with different ethnic backgrounds. Wealthy suburban whites started to listen to the voice of the inner city, and began to invest in the Hip-Hop industry more than ever and with more money involved the hip-hop industry became a monopoly, and the genre gave birth to several subgenres. The impoverished youth was still upset with the inconsistency of change in the poorer neighborhoods of America and "Gangsta Rap" emerged as the new voice of the 1990s generation (Mervis). By explicitly stating their minds, the youths of cities from Compton CA, to New York, New York, got off their chests what they'd been dying to say. Lyrics filled with talk of illegal drug trafficking and flamboyant reckless violence became the usual subjects in mainstream rap, while the positive lyrics seemed to dwindle away into Hip-Hop's near decade and a half history. The tectonic shift in the genre's overall message it seemed to be conveying catapulted Hip-Hop into an entirely new world of success, however this 'success' was actually a slowly evolving demise.
Nas, a critically acclaimed artist has said that rappers in this day and age are under the impression that they'll be unsuccessful if they step outside of the mainstream rap boundaries. In his generation (the golden age of hip-hop) many rappers emerged and went through the struggles of verbally expressing themselves through their lyrics while also fighting to get their material played. He believes that the artists of his generation understand the roots of hip-hop and have matured in a way that allows them to convey their messages clearer and with less usage of profanity. "Everybody forgot the fun and the art of the game, so that now people do not know what it is anymore
" he says. "We forgot that it's about more than just money
You've got to enjoy your life and live the American Dream, but at the same time you can't let money run you." (Jones). What makes hip-hop such a great thing for so many is that it is one of the only forms of art that allows the artist to accurately communicate with the audience and make the audience feel the emotion of the artist. Hip-Hop is a music for those who struggle, and many early artists in the genre had only hip-hop itself to save them from a life of thievery, drug dealing and murder, proof of this is often displayed in many artist's lyrics like Notorious B.I.G. or Big L. Every now and then though, a performer has it "up to here" with what's happening around them, and that forces them to cry out in the oddest ways.
As police violence against blacks and hispanics grew more frequent by the day, residents of cities like Los Angeles, and Compton began to fuel outrage. Fed up with years of abuse from the "system" or "the man," artists spoke out with high amounts of violence against the ruling class of everyday Americans. Politicians, police officers and the like, were now being directly targeted in rap lyrics. In addition to Gangsta Rap, Horrorcore exists as another subgenre of hip-hop, and it has picked up quite a following. Though not as large of a following as "gangsta" rap, horrorcore does have fans that could be considered those "affected" by hip-hop's so called negative influence. The late Big L, a Harlem based rapper released the song "Devil's Son" in 1993 in which he claimed himself to be the only son of Satan, and gloats about his escapades of murder and wrongdoing. While the song was filled with obviously fictional claims of murderous acts committed by L, he did explain that the song connected with what he saw on a daily basis on the streets of Harlem. When asked what made him write the song he replied; "I've always been a fan of horror flicks. Plus the things I see in Harlem [are] very scary. So I just put it all together in a rhyme." (Daniel) In the same interview Big L crowns himself as the originator of the horrorcore subgenre, or at least, the first to release a horrorcore song as a single. However, his involvement in the forming of such a genre does not make him a constantly contributing member. While he did release the song, his objective was not to continuously spread a negative message; it was simply to communicate his enraged emotion as a youth based on the environment he'd grown up in.
The song "Devil's Son" features two vocal samples from Nas, "When I was twelve I went to hell for snuffin' Jesus
" and, "I'm waving automatic guns at nuns
", which loop several times throughout the song. While it's appalling that the artist would say such a thing, it is interesting how far one would go in order to get a point across. When later interviewed in 2008 Nas refers back to his influence on artists, and most notably why he said the things he did: "
I was a different guy, I was coming in the game trying to shock you, to get your attention. Cuz' you had these fake rappers at the time, so to get your attention I had to say something nobody was saying, and when I did that it kind of started something that was crazy
but I got something that's coming behind that but a lot of artists were inspired like Big L, rest in peace, who made an album and went all the way there, [he] did something called the 'Devil's Son' and it was just a little too far." Big L also made comments on how he wasn't in favor of producing material that gave off those messages, because in reality, that wasn't who he was, or what he was about. He was asked if he'd continue making songs like "Devil's Son" and replied: "No, I'm not really like that. I'd rather make people laugh than say something bugged out, or try to scare somebody 'cause that ain't me. I feel the best way to say something in rap is to stay true to yourself. A lot of what I say is kind of humorous, but it's also serious at the same time. And plus being funny comes natural to me." (Daniel) Both Nas and Big L have released tracks that give positive messages to inner city youth, most notably Big L's "Street Struck" and Nas's "I Can".
The general idea here is to say that these artists do not do, or advocate what they speak about in their music. However, they do feel that the situation at hand requires them to step beyond the boundaries of what is known to be normal, and say things that will bring attention to them. By doing so, they can get out a greater message they have in store, and that alone, could be what hip-hop is defined as; the unwavering courage to step up and say what needs to be said, regardless of the consequences.
With that said, Conscious hip-hop (note the change from use of the word "rap", to use of the genre's name itself) now takes its stand. Though only a mere subgenre, Conscious hip-hop is noted as being among the genre's most original forms as it honors and incorporates what a founding father of Hip-Hop, Afrika Bambaataa, notes as the four elements of Hip-Hop, B-boying, MCing, DJing, and Graffiti. The intended purpose of Conscious Hip-Hop is to spread an exact opposite message of that which is spread by Horrorcore, and the predominant Gangsta genres; violence, pride in material worth, and misogyny. In Conscious Hip-Hop, you'll find majorly positive messages, and through these messages "conscious rappers" empower those who listen closely to the lyrics in their music. Now while positives are what you majorly find in conscious hip-hop, this statement is not meant to convey the idea that negatives play an important part in the message the music presents. The negatives of Conscious Hip-Hop spawn strictly from either self experiences of rappers themselves, and are used as examples on what NOT to do when growing up impoverished, or are parodies of the now normal Gangsta activities in the genre's mainstream culture. What is interesting to note most about the subgenre is that the majority of it's contributing members are considered "underground" artists; and while few of them, most notably Common, get radio play, the message you hear in the songs played on the radio is not nearly as inspiring as the message you hear in their radio-rejected songs. Again, this is the media's defacing of the art form known as Hip-Hop. Mos Def, one of the most famous rappers known to participate heavily in the Conscious Hip-Hop subgenre, once shared his perspective on the term "Conscious Hip-Hop" and being himself dubbed a "Conscious Rapper", he stated:
"They've got their little categories, like 'conscious' and 'gangsta'. It used to be a thing where hip-hop was all-together. Fresh Prince would be on tour with N.W.A. It wasn't like, 'You have got to like me in order for me to like you.' That's just some more white folks trying to think that all niggas are alike, and now it's expanded. It used to be one type of nigga; now it's two. There is so much more dimension to who we are. A monolith is a monolith, even if there's two monoliths to choose from. I ain't mad at Snoop. I'm not mad at Master P. I ain't mad at the Hot Boys. I'm mad when that's all I see. I would be mad if I looked up and all I saw on TV was me or Common or The Roots, because I know that ain't the whole deal. The real joy is when you can kick it with everyone. That's what hip-hop is all about.
They keep trying to slip the 'conscious rapper' thing on me. I come from Roosevelt Projects, man. The ghetto. I drank the same sugar water, ate hard candy. And they try to get me because I'm supposed to be more articulate, I'm supposed to be not like the other Negroes, to get me to say something against my brothers. I'm not going out like that, man." (Stewart)
In essence, what Mos Def is attempting to say, is that while consciousness is an important part of Hip-Hop itself, it is not the entirety of the art. Rappers can express their emotions in many different ways, and what is truly a gift is that these artists can communicate from different points of view. However what Def is not in favor of, is when only one viewpoint is focused on, as it corrupts the image of what Hip-Hop is truly about, expression.
The positive side of Hip-Hop is evident in the artists, be they of the Gangsta tribune or the Conscious one, on several occasions have artists shown themselves to advocate a positive message despite their negative lyrics. In July of 2001 Charles Fisher formed an organization called the Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council. The goal of this organization is to use the medium of Hip-Hop music to spread knowledge, awareness, and love throughout public schools and communities nationwide about a variety of issues and positives that affect our youth. Currently, the organization has established groups in schools and communities in over 60 cities, and now teaches 7.5 million public school kids about evading drugs, guns, HIV/AIDS, and a list of other things. From everyday men and women, to celebrities, professional athletes, and even politicians, a multitude of individuals have joined the Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council in their journey to enhance the communities, and develop the youth of America into being better citizens (About the HHSYC).
The Council has seen hundreds of rap artists and record producers in Hip-Hop giving support to it's cause and among these contributors are Nas, Young Joc, Cam'ron, Joe Budden, Foxy Brown, and Jim Jones, just to name a few; and mind you those few are all known primarily for their Gangsta lyrics. Artists like Common, Ciara, Cassidy, LL Cool J, T-Pain, Mya, Big Daddy Kane, ?uestlove, Ludacris, and Doug E. Fresh have also contributed to the cause, and appeared at Hip-Hop Summit events. In October of 2005, the Organizing Committee of the Millions More Movement deemed the Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council the "Model Program for the Country" (About The HHSYC). In addition to The Hip-Hop Summit and it's branch organizations, One Nation Hip-Hop, OaklandLeaf, YouthUprising, R.A.P. Academy, and The Hip-Hop Congress, exist and are all similar in their attempt to use Hip-Hop to empower and educate the youth of America, and the world.
So what's being said here? Our conclusion would arrive at the doorstep of this statement: Hip-Hop is an art, a musical genre, a fashion, an attitude, a mentality. This culture is neither all good nor all bad, but the contributors to the culture are who tip the scale in either direction, as well as the media who broadcasts the voice of these good or bad artists into our ears. Artists aren't always in favor of the media's corruption, or of what they must do in order to present their message; and if their "on stage" persona gives the message that it is okay to violently attack society and mistreat women, they at least preach against such a message when their voice isn't being constricted. It is as touchy as a subject as what kills a man, the gun, or the man pulling the trigger to fire it. The answer is in fact clear in all instances, the man kills the other man when he pulls the trigger; the gun never fires itself. Hip-Hop is just a medium on which a message can be sent to those who are listening. What vibe the message contains, is within the control of the rapper, or unfortunately in our case, in control of the media.