Hip Hop is Dead

I just finished reading Michael Eric Dyson’s Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop. It is a brilliant, insightful discussion on hip hop and its history, it’s problems, and how it relates to society as a whole. Anyone who is interested in what hip hop really is about and where it’s going needs to read this. My particular favorite parts of this book are the discussion of the older generation’s hatred of hip hop (just as the previous generation’s parents hated Soul, Funk, Rock, etc), and why that has hurt hip hop and caused (or at least reinforced) some of the problems found in the hip hop culture today (materialism, misogyny, violence). If hip hop was embraced by the past generation when hip hop was at it’s best, in terms of social and political statements, then it could have, in my opinion, a very different culture today. If they fostered and nurtured the creativity instead of blasting it, then maybe the hip hop youth wouldn’t have rebelled, or at least not as much. Of course, the shunning of the new by the old isn’t the only cause of the current state of hip hop, many factors are to blame, such as Reagan era economic policies, the introduction of crack into the urban centers of America (which was ignored if not helped by the CIA), and the prejudiced justice system, among other things.

In the last chapter, before the Outro written by Nas, Dyson talks about Nas’ symbolism in releasing a hip hop record that states hip hop is dead. This wasn’t to be taken literal, it was commentary on how clever rhetoric was “replaced by the mindless redundancy of themes we’re all too familiar with: women, weed, wine, cars, and jewelry. The thug persona has replaced skillful exploration of thug’s predicament: hustling in a culture where crime is the only option of the economic vulnerable.” The movement started by Nas is a response to this mass-marketed culture. So is hip hop dead? By saying so Nas proved the exact opposite (which was no doubt intentional). He brought it to the forefront of musical discussion. It made people think about what was actually being put out by record companies. Conscious rappers like Common, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, and others are heard more. People started blasting Nas for saying it was dead. Others agreed. His mission was (at least) partially successful. People were talking. Of course the consumer is the real judge. The hip hop culture will always be there. The question is, what image will be shown to the masses. On September 11th people have a choice of which hip hop they want, an album by 50 Cent or and album by Kanye. Do you want the thug persona, or someone that explores broader social issues (such as blood diamonds in Kanye’s song Diamonds from Sierra Leone) and that skillful exploration of the predicament?