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A Push For Parity in Hip Hop

I appreciate all types of Rap music. For my entire conscious life, I’ve been listening to Hip Hop. I was born in Boston, MA in 1980, the youngest of 3 by a good chunk. My siblings are 12 and 14 years older than I am, so at the age that my memory kicks in, right around 4 or 5 years old, my brother and sister were in their late teens approaching their 20s.  We’re of Puerto Rican descent, so we listed to plenty of Salsa, Merengue, and even some Cumbia, but my brother and sister were also listening to a lot of Rap music. Being the impressionable youngest sibling, I couldn’t help but to follow their lead.  This meant that my first musical preference was Rap music, and truth be told it has been ever since. I often say that Hip Hop and the Boston Celtics were my first loves, and I’m only half-joking. I’ll write about Bird, McHale, Parish, DJ, and Danny Ainge being responsible for many of my favorite childhood memories some other day. Today, my focus is on my love of Hip Hop, and more specifically, how much the lack of parity in the brand of Rap that the industry pushes these days is not only damaging to the culture, but frustrating for the ‘older’ Hip Hop head, such as myself.

To that end, I remember a time when there was in fact parity in Hip Hop at the industry level. For much of Hip Hop’s “first” decade, the 1980s, Rap music was relatively safe and non-threatening to the masses. I put “first” in quotations because the origins of Rap can be traced further back than 1980, but for the simplicity’s sake, given that many of the first Hip Hop records were released in the early 80s, let’s work with it. That said, though tracks such as Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s “The Message” took an honest look at inner-city plight, they were curse-free. Thought-provoking and revolutionary yes, but there wasn’t much push-back from mainstream America because lyrically, the tracks were clean. Acts such as The Fat Boys, Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J, MC Lyte, Run DMC, Slick Rick, Doug E Fresh, and Salt ‘n Pepa made tracks that were fun and party-oriented at times, and deeper and reflective of urban community struggles at others. Some tracks contained some sexual innuendo and even the occasional reference to street violence and gang activity. But again, with very little cursing going on and the focus more on lyrics and artistic expression, the mainstream wasn’t too concerned or threatened.

When Philadelphia’s Schoolly D. dropped ‘P.S.K. What Does It Mean‘ however, a stronger urban edge was introduced in earnest. Eventually acts like Ice T and N.W.A. would take that urban edge to another level, and lo and behold, the floodgates were opened for not just cursing (a lot) on records but more significantly, describing gang violence and sex in greater detail than ever before. At this point in the late 80s to early 90s mainstream America began to react to Rap’s newfound cojones if you will. The F.B.I. didn’t take too kindly to N.W.A’s ‘Fuck Tha Police’, sending the group a letter that condemned the track. 2 Live Crew would go to battle with the District Court in South Florida over the “obscene” nature of their record ‘Nasty As They Wanna Be’.  Even Tupac was called out by former Vice President Dan Quayle for the violent lyrics in ‘2Pacalypse Now’. Despite (and I would argue that at least partially as a result of) the push-back from mainstream America, Rap music was flourishing. And though these First Amendment battles may have been all over the news, they didn’t result in a situation where edgy Hip Hop was disproportionately pushed to the consumer.

Yes, Gangsta/Reality Rap was popular in the late 80s and early 90s, as was 2 Live Crew’s hypersexual approach to Hip Hop, but so was A Tribe Called Quest, Leaders Of The New School, Queen Latifah, Boogie Down Productions, and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. As a fan/consumer, between radio and music videos, you had as much exposure to Gangsta Rap acts such as Compton’s Most Wanted and Spice 1 as you did ‘safer’ artists such as Kris Kross and Young MC. All of these sub-genres of Hip Hop did well. Some fans liked the edgier street vibe, others preferred a more conscious brand of Rap. Either way you sliced however, they were all profitable and as such there was parity in the music at the industry level. So what the heck happened? How did we go from so much parity in Rap to today’s oversaturation of twerk anthems and gangsta motifs?

There are some theories on this, and rather than rehash them I’ll provide you this link and this one. In short, the theories link the privatization of the Prison Industrial Complex to high level music industry executives making the conscious decision to push dumbed down, overtly violent, and hypersexual Rap music to the masses. The idea is that doing so aids the fostering of a culture of young, impressionable, Hip Hop enthusiasts who are more likely to end up in jail due to music-induced bad-decision making. In other words, if you feed them music with a lot of sex and violence, many (particularly those from unstable households) will actually become hypersexual and violent and ultimately land in jail, thus ensuring the privatized Prison Industrial Complex remains profitable.

Some write off this line of thinking as being a conspiracy theory, so as to totally discredit it. Sex and violence are always going to sell well, right? So why does there have to be a back-story to that notion in the context of Hip Hop? To me this is a lazy approach to take, especially when you consider that as I’ve previously mentioned, all different types of Hip Hop were profitable way back when. If such was the case in 1992, why the gradual shift at the industry level to almost exclusively pushing sex and violence? Doesn’t it make more sense to push everything, so as to broaden your customer base? Sex and violence may be selling well, but isn’t the industry missing out on a consumers who want a little variety and (gasp!) positivity in their Hip Hop? It worked a couple of decades ago, no? So what’s the problem?

And though there is merit to the argument that it’s on the artists themselves to produce more positive content, and I agree wholeheartedly by the way, at the end of the day it’s not hard to understand why they typically don’t. If you’re trying to make some money and your label’s promoting a certain type of Rap more than anything else, well, why wouldn’t you as an artist gravitate towards making that type of Rap? Yes, it would be awesome if more artists fought the system and demanded that their labels level the playing field. I want this to happen and firmly believe there are enough powerful emcees and Rap groups out there to force the industry’s hand. At day’s end however, I do place significantly more blame on industry execs for the lack of parity at the industry level in Hip Hop. The truth is that there is in fact a good deal of positive Rap out there, it’s just tougher to find because the industry isn’t pushing it. So we can’t place equal blame on Rap artists for this lack of parity because though many do in fact feed into the type of music the industry pushes, there are several others who steer clear of industry conventions and create the type of music they want to put out.

Again, as I mentioned earlier, I love all types of Hip Hop. I like Gangsta rap and club jams as much as I like conscious Hip Hop and even comical Rap. From my standpoint, if the song’s well done I’ll give it a chance and if it sucks I won’t listen. That’s regardless of the sub-genre. I’m not going to ignore a Gangsta rap song because it’s violent if I actually like the track. I’m also not going to push a particularly positive track to all of my friends if the message is the only thing about the song I actually enjoy. What bothers me about it all is that at the industry level, they’re feeding us a bunch of crap. It just doesn’t make sense to me, and not only that, I really do get frustrated at times sifting through a bunch of formulaic ‘new music’ that does nothing for me. Again, I do find some stuff I like and though it’s not always the cleanest, most wholesome music, I’ll rock with it. What’s all too often difficult to find however is good, positive music. I’ve become crafty enough in web searches and keeping my ear to the underground where I actually do find some great, positive tracks every so often, but it’s rarely by way of major label or major radio promotional efforts. To me, that’s a terrible reality to maneuver if you’re a True School Hip Hop head.

As such, in a very long-winded way, that brings me to the point of this post. I often piss and moan about the lack of parity in Rap music at the industry level. So I thought to myself, well, instead of complaining about it, why not do something about it? I may not (yet) have the power that a high-level industry exec has, but I do have this website, no? So with that in mind, here’s a preliminary list of positive Hip Hop tracks that I’ve come across recently and enjoy very much. My hope is to expose you, our faithful readers, to some music you can enjoy and feel good about as well as to encourage you to do some digging yourself. Again, there IS a lot of non-crappy Rap out there, you just have to make a concerted effort to find it. I’m hoping this post can be a catalyst for that process. We’ll start with the five tracks featured below and hope that with your help and participation we can strengthen the effort and grow the movement.  I welcome you all to take a listen and share your thoughts with us.  Enjoy.

Give We Some Pride‘ — The lead single off Chuck D’s latest album, ‘The Black In Man‘, this track features legendary R&B/Gospel singer Mavis Staples who provides empowering vocals on the hook and bridge, imploring the youth to take pride in their culture and to be wary of materialistic trappings.

Standout lyric, right from the hook:

Give me some pride, Lord! Make me feel proud of myself.

Let me walk with my head up high. Let me know that I’m fly.

I said don’t worry ’bout the gold and jewelry that don’t do nothing for me!

‘Cause I got the best, most beautiful, brown or chocolate, cocoa butter skin in the world!

Fight‘ — More from Chuck D, this time teaming up with Boston’s own Edo G. on the first offering from Edo’s latest ‘After All These Years’.  The duo delivers a hard-hitting, message driven track that talks about a lot of the same issues I’ve detailed above.

 

Standout lyric, from Chuck D on verse 2:

I spent the last three months and a half, fighting the hate.

As usual, you know how we do.

I’m the contributor to bragging and fighting wrong, because they distribute these stupid rap songs.

Easy raps, giving claps, forcing young emcees from L.A. to Boston to just spit crap!

Hope‘ — Boston’s own Akrobatik teams up with J-Tronius on an inspiring track from Ak’s latest, ‘Built To Last‘.

Standout lyric, from Ak on verse 1:

You can feed your seed if you can feed your weed habit. 

Opportunities like these, indeed – grab it. 

Our community is in need, can we please have it. 

Young, intelligent minds conceive magic.

Dear John‘ — MC Lyte and Common team up on a track that praises responsible men for raising their children and implores all men to do the same.

Standout lyric, from Common on verse 2:

A letter to the better, the better the demonstration.

Situation got you wishing for ventilation.

Can’t a brother breathe?

Tryin’ to find what I believe.

It’s hard for a tree to grow when a father figures leave.

Daddy’s Baby‘ — Along the same lines, Kasinova Tha Don provides us with another ode to fatherhood, off his 2012 ‘2Faces Mixtape‘.  On the track’s outro he asserts, “hope I gave all you fathers some inspiration.  Take care of your kids, man.  Take care of our kids.”

Standout lyric, from verse 3:

I hope to give my real fathers just a change in thought.

Don’t let your baby lose his daddy over child support.

I know the mothers can be greedy but they see it in time.  

I give it up to the star fathers willing to try.  

No sympathy to the deadbeats.  

How can you help your child’s life if it’s not complete?  

So take your child’s hand and let him know that you understand.  

And please teach him how to be a man.

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