If many of us were to ask our parents to describe hip-hop and rap music, more often than not they would inevitably bring up the stereotypes of gangsters, guns, and cuss words. Hip-hop has undeniably had a chequered past, so in certain times this would be a pretty accurate description, but we are surrounded by a very different musical landscape in 2013.
In the late 1980s, California’s N.W.A were the first gangsta rap group to truly turn heads with their 1988 platinum selling album Straight Outta Compton, making waves despite little airplay and no supporting tour. In the early 1990s, the East Coast of America started taking control of the hip-hop scene with groups like Wu-Tang Clan. This was before the media truly opened its eyes to hip-hop and realised the moneymaking potential of the feud between Bad Boy Records (West Coast) and Death Row Records (East Coast). The feud was like a contemporary Wild West for suburban American, with associates of each label being gunned down or jailed with alarming regularity. Sadly, this fiction for most Americans was a violent and bloody reality for many young black men in America. The deaths of 2pac and Notorious B.I.G falling so close together impacted the scene immensely.
Whilst never being embraced as mainstream music, gangsta rap had media attention but only as its own separate entity. With the deaths of two of its biggest stars, gangsta rap was heading the same way. The mainstream media ignored hip-hop until the late 1990s when Jay-Z gained momentum and a young man from Detroit surprised many with the release of The Marshall Mathers LP. 50 Cent brought back the sentiments of gangsta rap with Get Rich or Die Tryin’, but his album sales dropped midway through the decade. Around this point there was an emergence of more intelligent and accessible artists like Kanye West and N.E.R.D. as well as OutKast’s hugely successful fifth album by Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Despite these success stories, hip-hop was struggling. Starting in 2000, the sales of hip-hop music in the United States began to drop and in 2005, hip-hop sales had dropped 44% and declined to 10% of all music sales. Nas’ Hip-Hop Is Dead album released in 2006 proclaimed the end, but thankfully, Nas was wrong.
Throughout the mid-2000s rap verses in pop songs became more and more common, and by the end of the decade hip-hop was in control as Lil’ Wayne’s Tha Carter III was crowned the best selling album of 2009 in America. As the new decade approached, hip-hop artists were as much a part of mainstream music as indie bands or pop groups, but the stereotypes still lingered as the music form was at times misogynistic, violent, racist, and sexist.
The past few years have brought an unexpected and unprecedented change in hip-hop. The diversification of the genre has been incredible and the success of minority groups in hip-hop has been amazing. In a typically black genre, Eminem could have been seen as a moneymaking tool created by label executives had it not been for his exceptional ability. Nowadays, more and more white rappers such as Action Bronson, Yelawolf, Mac Miller, and the ubiquitous Macklemore have shown that they have the ability to battle it out with the best of MCs. Macklemore brings up the delicate place of white rappers in his track ‘White Privilege’: “Hip-hop started off on a block that I’ve never been to/ To counteract a struggle that I’ve never even been through/ If I think I understand just because I flow, too?/ That means I’m not keeping it true”. The origins of hip-hop may well be distant from Macklemore’s upbringing, but this should not stop him from creating hip-hop music. If we claim that only black, underprivileged Americans can make hip-hop because it originated in ‘their’ environment, does this mean we have to deny artists like Flying Lotus and TV on The Radio because electronic music and indie rock are ‘white’ genres? It’s a ridiculous and unproductive argument. To deny a musical genre to people is culturally destructive and unfeasible in a cosmopolitan society.
Homophobia is still a big problem in hip-hop but with a tide of openly gay artists like Le1f, Mykki Blanco and Big Freedia getting critical attention, the general attitude is quickly changing. Frank Ocean’s eloquent coming-out letter posted on Tumblr released a torrent of praise from artists and journalists. In an interview with NME, Angel Haze, who is a pansexual female MC, brought up the discussion point of female rappers: “we need to find some unity between women, it’s so easy to pit against each other… they want to be The One. I just want to be one of them”. Angel Haze is typically pigeonholed because of her gender and sexual orientation, but her musical output should be free from prejudice. Women are still overly sexualised and objectified in music, and whilst still a minority, females are growing in influence in hip-hop thanks to strong, uncompromising and talented women like Missy Elliott and Nicki Minaj.
Just because artists representing minority groups have got record deals does not mean that hip-hop is free from problems. Reebok recently dropped Rick Ross for his lyrics about date-rape on the track ‘U.O.E.N.O’ produced by Childish Major. His lyric “Put molly [MDMA] all in her champagne/ She ain’t even know it/ I took her home and I enjoyed that/ She ain’t even know it” are not words that should be coming from the mouth of a public figure or any respectable human. Rappers like Gunplay and Chief Keef are also bad influences with the latter being almost shamelessly exploited by his multi-million dollar record deal. Chief Keef (aka Keith Cozart) is a Chicago native who only just turned 18 in August and his immaturity shows with a long list of legal problems due to his gang related activities. Keef’s rapping is basic to say the least; a heavy focus is given to violence and his increasing public profile is a step in the wrong direction for hip-hop.
Thankfully, since the turn of the decade, a wave of intelligent, observant, and talented rappers have taken the burden from Kanye and OutKast. Drake rejected all notions of hip-hop being inextricably linked to a gangster lifestyle. Aubrey Drake Graham is a Jewish, Canadian, mixed-race former child actor. Drake doesn’t rap about hustling on street corners. Instead, he raps about breakups and emotions, and has been incredibly successful because of it. Kendrick Lamar has made an incredible impression on hip-hop with the platinum selling good kid, m.A.A.d city receiving overwhelming critical acclaim, with many proclaiming it an instant classic. Kendrick focuses on the struggle of growing up in troublesome Compton, Los Angeles. Songs like ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’ elaborate on the difficulties of fitting in with drug dealers and gun runners. The album also tackles religion, expectation and disenfranchisement with expert ability rarely seen in such a young artist.
The polarising rap collective OFWGKTA have turned heads with their unique group of rappers and producers fronted by the social media savvy Tyler, The Creator. Their buzz relies heavily on self-promotion and branding as well as a clutch of morally questionable music videos. Despite the gimmicks, they do have genuine talent in the ranks; Tyler is hit and miss, Domo Genesis is capable of a decent verse, and Earl Sweatshirt has just released his debut album to widespread critical acclaim. Odd Future are not gangsters, they didn’t hustle on the street corners, they don’t pack heat and they never claim to. What Odd Future do well is cultivate a strong internet following through clever use of Twitter, emphasis on merchandise, and work with other forms of media. They are also not afraid of being funny and this is an endearing quality that is not seen enough in music on the whole.
Even the fashion in hip-hop is changing with artist like A$AP Rocky and Kanye West launching their own fashion lines and wearing typically white designer labels. Numbered are the days of oversized jeans, tracksuits, and sports jerseys. Nowadays, you are more likely to see skinny jeans, Alexander Wang shoes and Dolce & Gabbana suits. This is another step in the right direction for the integration of hip-hop into mainstream culture. Whilst black fashion designers are not unheard of, it is an overwhelmingly white industry and with western culture becoming so cosmopolitan, it is only right that black designers are embraced and encouraged in the same way hip-hop is embracing change.
Whilst the transformation is not fully complete, we are at a turning point in the evolution of hip-hop and this era is packed with talented artists who are able to put out their music to a wider audience without fear of prejudice or persecution. The world has changed hip-hop for the better, now it’s time for hip-hop to change the world.By Joni Roome