With the hip hop industry today largely dominated by content laced with an obsession for money, fame, sex and drugs, it has become incredibly easy to forget about the once historic roots of hip hop culture. But as hip hop heads continue discussing the responsibility weighing on the shoulders of individual rappers, many would argue that the conversation about mainstream media and corporate greed is just as important, if not even more vital, to finding the key to saving hip hop.
As hip hop veteran Q-Tip once explained, “Hip hop is an artistic and socio-political movement/culture that sprang from the disparate ghettos of NY in the early 70’s coming off the heels of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT” and served as a “way for [Black people] to [exhale], to scream, to dance, to laugh and find OUR VOICE.”
During a time when the movement for equality and justice within the Black community needed a stage, hip hop proved to be just that.
It was powerful. It was unapologetic. It was legendary.
It was not, apparently, unforgettable.
Over the years the once passionately rebellious musical genre has been transformed and shifted away from its indignant roots.
In order to break through the seemingly impenetrable barriers of mainstream media, hip hop stars would become the latest victims of corporate greed that would eventually work to devalue Black art.
The once booming, thunderous voices of the historic genre would be muted by mainstream culture and reduced to nothing more than a timid whisper being washed away in the sounds of trend-driven, misogynistic, disingenuous white noise.
Rather than focusing on an agenda, the genre has become obsessed with dollars and cents.
“Today, with Hip Hop earning its place atop the hierarchy of pop culture, the genre has become a corporate culture,” Julian Mitchell, an award-winning content marketer and editorial director for Sean Combs’s Revolt Media & TV, wrote in a blog for the Huffington Post. “Rap now magnifies what sells, at the expense of abandoning the core principles that preserve the Hip Hop as a pillar of inspiration, guidance and social justice. The private components that once made it a coveted art form now have a public price tag.”
It’s a price tag that was, unfortunately, well within the budget for mainstream media and cultural appropriators who are now tirelessly working to obliterate what hip hop once was.
“Because Hip Hop is in such high demand, talent is being bought up by the bulk, inevitably cheapening the value,” Mitchell continued. “The painful result is an all-powerful art form now oversaturated with seasonal trends, empty messages and no clear vision for where it desires to take the millions following.”
While today’s artists themselves share quite a bit of responsibility for compromising their voice in the midst of their “pursuit of money and status, driven by ego” there are also those unseen forces at work that have created a perception of hip hop that is one-dimensional and completely shallow.
In an industry where female rappers are rarely allowed to cross from the indie scene to the mainstream stage, it may be less than a coincidence that Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea, both very hypersexualized depictions of women, are being promoted as the face of female voices in the genre.
For those who insist this is merely driven by what listeners are into, Iggy Azalea’s album sales have never been particularly impressive and her relevancy so far seems to be limited to online streaming and pop culture tabloids.
But while social media feuds and clever diss tracks seem to be the majority of mainstream’s coverage of hip hop, the voices that once dominated the genre have been pushed into the background and seemingly forgotten.
White musicians from the same era, however, have maintained pop culture relevancy as classic rock stars and pop icons regardless of whether or not they had the credentials to support those claims.
This is exactly what has caused “forgettable white ‘classic rock’ acts like Steely Dan and the Eagles to pack stadiums” while “some of the biggest names in rap history are forced to slum it in clubs,” The Daily Beast contributor Stereo Williams writes.
“In 2013, hip-hop luminaries LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and De La Soul hit the road together for the ‘Kings of the Mic’ tour,” Williams wrote. “…When these icons of classic hip-hop hit the road, they were booked into venus like the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan, The Fox Theater in Atlanta, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. These are respectable amphitheaters, but a far cry from 20,000-seaters like The Garden.”
He also lists other troubling facts including Nas never gracing the cover of Rolling Stone and the fact that VIBE and XXL have been pushed out of the print business.
“Without the sort of media onslaught that accompanied rock’s second generation as it moved into middle age, classic hip-hop’s biggest names have been reduced to just ‘old-school rappers’ who used to be hot in the ancient times—that sepia toned yesteryear before Jay Z was turning dope tales into dollars,” Williams explained. “For all the conversation about hip-hop’s ascendance and status as the dominant musical and cultural influence of young people over the last 25 years, it’s still disseminated in a way that conveys a disregard of its artistic legacy—and thus, hip-hop’s elders are not being perceived in a way that properly recognizes their respective artistic genius.”
Classic hip hop radio stations have only recently started to emerge while the radio industry has dedicated stations to classic rock for years.
So-called rock legends are not still at the forefront of America’s minds because they were greater than the hip hop icons of the past. They are there because they still cover today’s popular magazines, appear throughout mainstream media and are discussed by entertainment’s elite—luxuries that are not extended to classic hip hop stars.
Williams insists that “until hip-hop media and pop culture decide that this music matters” hip hop will never be elevated the way it should be, its iconic voices will never reemerge and attempts to convince the new wave of hip hop stars to ditch their pursuit of fame and wealth in exchange for a pursuit of purpose will be useless.
For that reason, all eyes are on the few exceptions to the rule.
The Kendrick Lamars and J. Coles of the rap game will be watched closely as their conscious flows, incredible stories of humility, bold attempts to take on controversial subject matter like racism and cultural appropriation and public displays of concern for their communities continue to squeeze their way into mainstream discussions of entertainment.
“In the midst of these projected possibilities, one thing is certain,” Mitchell says. “The power of Hip Hop is immense and unwavering. But, how the art form is used from this point forward will determine the type of power we truly want to have.”