Guilty as charged! Although I am a hip hop fan, I am admittedly underqualified to write a column titled â€œHow YOU Can Save Hip Hopâ€. Thousands of other individuals who live, eat, and breathe hip hop culture will forget more about rap music than I will ever know. And under normal circumstances, I might pull back. But these are drastic â€œpost-Imus-blame-hip-hop-for-everything-but-9/11â€ times where every media pundit, blogger, and visitor to the office water-cooler seems to have an opinion. Iâ€™ve heard enough and have concluded that if this national hip-hop exam is going to be graded on a curve, then I am â€œqualified-by-defaultâ€. A special thanks goes out to Bill Oâ€™Reilly!
Rapper “Common” recently advised: “If criticism [of hip hop] could come with love, we can make some progress.” Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Hammer, meet head of nail. Common loves hip hop the same way my big brother used to love me: He would routinely beat my ass, but still vigorously protect me from others who loved me less. “Love” has definitely been a missing ingredient in this whole â€œclean-up hip hop” national conversation. Questioning the sincerity of many critics comes easy when: the mainstream media disingenuously uses Don Imus, and not the countless past hip-hop summits led by concerned activists to spark the discussion; blatant hypocrisy exists where so much other music and art gets â€œlet off the hookâ€; many pop blood vessels discussing the music in the iPod of a 14 year old, but wonâ€™t raise an eyebrow when you bring up the piss-poor school that same kid attends. And of course, there is that ever-present racial subtext which ainâ€™t always so â€œsubâ€. Is it even possible to enter the hip hop fray without validating such a hypocritical backdrop? I really donâ€™t know, but I’m shooting for “progress”.
I. DOES RADIO REFLECT DIVERSITY in HIP HOP?:
Is â€œhip hopâ€ and â€œradio rapâ€ the same thing? Not according to legendary rap emcee Nas who, citing corporate takeover, argues that â€œhip hop is deadâ€. If so, others have argued that Bill Clinton killed it on the day he signed the bipartisan Telecommunications Act of 1996. If it can be revived, Jay-Zâ€™s own words should provide us with a moment of clarity on where to start:
I dumb down for my audience
And double my dollars
They criticize me for it
Yet they all yell “Holla“
If skills sold
Truth be told
I’d probably be
Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did five mil
I ain’t been rhyminâ€™ like Common since
When your sense got that much in common
And you been hustlinâ€™ since
Your inception, fuck perception
Go with what makes sense
Since I know what I’m up against
We as rappers must decide what’s most impor-tant
And I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them
So I got rich and gave back
To me that’s the win, win
– Jay-Z, Moment of Clarity
If Jay-Zâ€™s message is not clear enough, one might also want to listen to Eminemâ€™s REAL first album. Itâ€™s called â€œInfiniteâ€, it was never published, but the bootleg can be found on ebay. While Eminemâ€™s signature lyrical prowess can be found on the album, two things seemed to change after he signed an official recording contract. One, his musical production improved (courtesy of producer Dr. Dre), and, two, the messages in his music declined. The more positive content that could be found in â€œInfiniteâ€ was replaced in favor of an alter-ego character (â€œSlim Shadyâ€) who specialized in a rather sinister, misogynistic, and homophobic brand of comedy.
Jay-Z and Eminem have a lot in common with one another. Both grew up in poverty and neither has plans to go back. They are: lyrical masters whose artistic talent is simply undeniable; poets who serve as â€œvoices for the voicelessâ€; change agents whose crossover appeal has improved race relations; and most relevantly, they are two of the greatest commercial successes in the history of rap music. They have also parlayed that success into additional millions through business dealings. They have clearly told us that they arenâ€™t simply â€œartistsâ€, they are capitalists! They are as American as apple pie. They think like Bill Gates — they are just a tad less rich and a tad more hip. Both musicians have admittedly altered their art-form to fit the demands of the marketplace. By doing so, we were robbed of: the chance to hear the purity of Jay-Zâ€™s skills in its truest form; a more authentic and rounded version of Eminem; and a whole other cadre of young aspiring, but unsigned poets. If 50 Cent, a rap artist signed by Eminem and a very savvy, shrewd, and successful businessman himself, is willing to â€œget rich or die tryingâ€, why not provide him with a more lucrative option and see where the chips fall.
The message is clear: If you want artists to be more â€œpositiveâ€, then compensate them for their sacrifice. If the radio industry and consumers reward violence, misogyny, and materialism then those artists that donâ€™t conform will often be replaced by those that do. If at your workplace almost every colleague you ever saw get promoted cursed in meetings and smacked their co-workers, then you just might be inclined to follow suit. (And don’t we all have that ONE coworker…) The cold hard truth is this: we are a nation of hip hop â€œhypo-criticsâ€. We sit around hoping that Young Jeezy finds Jesus, yet we refuse to buy his CD after he gets baptized.
II. ADDRESSING COMMON CRITICISM:
Routine Interruption #1 (Free Speech): This column is anti-censorship. Art is art. All voices have a right to be heard –even if not necessarily subsidized on our airwaves. And “voices for the voiceless” often deserve our ears even if we don’t always like the delivery. Having stated that, the pendulum has swung an awful long way since NWA came “Straight Outta Compton” in 1989. When yesterday’s “voiceless” become today’s “industry standard” then a new batch of muzzled artists deserve protection. True first ammendment advocates must now fight to remove the de facto censorship that drowns out the voice of hundreds of lesser-known, but more talented artists who end up selling CDâ€™s out of the trunk of their car (if they are lucky). Here is an example:
â€œWe don’t wanna hear about dimes and dope
We don’t wanna hear about nines and smoke
We don’t wanna hear about movinâ€™ packs and foolish cats
Who lie and boastâ€
– Lecrae, “Jesus Muzik” w/Trip Lee
Routine Interruption #2 (“Artist Pass”): This criticism usually includes something about giving â€œgangsta rap artistsâ€ a â€œfree passâ€ soon followed by calls for their â€œpersonal responsibilityâ€ as the ultimate solution to radio’s lack of diversity. …If I ever become friends with 50 Cent (or Quentin Tarantino for that matter), Iâ€™ll surely schedule that â€œheart-to-heartâ€ with him. Until then, Iâ€™ll have to settle for taking those closest to me to task about the personal responsibility of their own purchasing power. Ironically, focusing on artists is not only short-sighted and unproductive, but it diverts attention from and often gives that very â€œfree passâ€ to the REAL power brokers â€”top industry executives and consumers.
The REAL Free Pass: Who is more powerful: Redman or Sumner Redstone? The latter is Viacomâ€™s chief boss and controls hundreds of radio stations plus MTV, BET, and VH1 — home of many wholesome videos. Clear Channel controls the playlists of 1200 radio stations across America. How often is a tirade directed at CEO Mark Mays after Snoop is turned into Dogg food? Are we so caught up with Snoopâ€™s boasting, that we canâ€™t recognize the REAL pimps? You may not know the most powerful industry executives, but longtime DJ Davey D does. In his informative essay, a letter is referenced that Lisa Fager, president and co-founder of the media-watch group Industry Ears, recently sent to US Senators. She asks this simple question:
â€œIf NBC were to show a porn movie at 5 p.m., would you call porn star Jenna Jameson or NBC President and CEO Jeff Zucker to the carpet?â€
No reply is necessary. Let’s just agree on a moratorium on all “artist bullying” until some much bigger fish are fried. Great! Questlove of The Roots explains how “payola” works and how it cost close to a million $$$ to get a positive song on the radio (go to 4:45 marker of video clip for his explanation). Crazy, isn’t it? Weâ€™ll address fighting the super-corrupt music industry in another article. The rest of this column is all about you and me!
III. MAKING A DIFFERENCE:
“I have finally realized that EVERY person is either a part of the problem or part of the solution and that is why I have decided to take a stand!” — Rapper Master Pâ€™s recent open letter.
This author did not deliberately capitalize “EVERY”, Master P did. However, his words have been taken to heart, and the rest of this column follows his lead.
The Complaining Critic Responsibility: If every citizen in America who has ever complained about commercial rap purchased just one CD â€“ JUST ONE — from some of hip hop’s more positive artists (as a gift if rap is not your cup-o’-tea), the rap industry would be revolutionized overnight. If they say non-voters forfeit their right to complain about politicians then shouldn’t it follow that…
The White Consumer Responsibility: Any honest discussion on improving today’s radio rap would be highly irresponsible if the white consumer wasn’t specifically addressed. Why? Whites purchase almost 80% of rap music and, thus, ultimately control the marketplace. Trust me, 50 Cent is well aware of this little factoid. So if the the vast majority of consumers (and top execs) are mostly white, how exactly did fixing commercial rap get reduced to a “black problem”? With all due respect to Oprahâ€™s town hall meetings, the Essence “Take Back the Music Campaign”, the NAACPâ€™s â€œStop Campaignâ€, and Al Sharptonâ€™s Decency in Music initiatives, these efforts from various sectors of African-American leadership will garner limited results without a separate complementary movement in white communties that addresses white purchasing patterns. For starters, white community leaders, pastors, educators, parents, and young people would all have to assume communal responsibility in creating a culture that promotes, educates, and supports diverse and positive hip-hop amongst other whites. A good place to start might be the social adoption of…
…The “3-to-1 Rule”: When a new authentic and skilled voice emerges even this sometimes self-righteous author might support them despite content unfit for Nikelodeon! In such cases, it is helpful to adhere to a “3-to-1 rule” where three more positive CDs get purchased as a package deal. This allows true artistic “voiceless representatives” a place at the table without spoiling the entire meal.
Finally, not everyone can be influenced into supporting diverse artists. My mother would rather get her teeth drilled than listen to a rap album no matter how virtuous the lyrics. And I would rather get mine extracted before burning good hard-earned money on a crappy CD. But thankfully, there is no shortage of top-shelf diverse and positive musicians to choose from. …So is “hip-hop dead” as Nas claims? Has corporate radio successfully killed it? …Only if we, as consumers, allow it. Now letâ€™s create a movement and revive it — one purchase at a time:
IV: SUPPORT DIVERSE HIP HOP NOW!
Seriously, I mean RIGHT now! Pick a CD. Any CD. See sample videos below and purchase with one click. You donâ€™t like hip hop? Perhaps someone you know does. Get them a gift CD or email them this article asking them to choose one. The list below focuses on current artists whose talent far exceeds their album sales. Of course, there is still a treasure trove of older musicians and underground artists that is not represented here (please forgive me!). Now whip out that credit card, and show Nelly what else can be done with it! WARNING!: These videos do not have half-naked women gyrating in them!
PICK 1 of 20 and Pass on!
The Roots (purchase) are a hip hop BAND who built a following the old fashioned way: non-stop touring. They are innovative (video), classic (video), and can also rock (video). In contrast, “Nappy Roots” are a band of voices who have something to say in their country way. NR is 2 for 2 in quality albums (purchase) and will be back again this summer.
Common (video – purchase), Talib Kweli (video; purchase), and Mos Def have sacrificed income for integrity for years. Their music contains intricate lyrics and messages of social uplift and social justice.
Grits (video; website/purchase), Cross Movement (video; purchase), Lecrae (video; purchase) and KJ-52 (video; purchase), represent a growing movement of Christian rap artists who show that religious-based messages are as much a part of hip-hop as anything else.
Women? You wonâ€™t find too many catchy hooks with poet Jean Grae (video – purchase) just profound and complex lyrics. Floetry (video) who blends hip hop with soul, and C-Mone (purchase) represent a growing rap movement out of the UK.
Common Market (website/purchase) and hip hop band The Procussions (video â€“ purchase), should appeal to â€œold schoolâ€ fans who wax nostalgic about hip hopâ€™s â€œgood old daysâ€.
Voiceless? You can learn more about life on a north american reservation in two videos (#1 – #2) by War Party (purchase) than in two years of watching CNN. Chinese rapper Jin (audio; purchase) is no novelty act and his lyrical skills prove as much. Joell Ortiz, who won’t be confused for a boy scout, has a voice, skills, and spirit that deserve to be heard.
â€œStrength of a Nationâ€ by YDRF (Purchase â€“ Scroll Down) and Youth Under Construction (purchase) represent compilations by youth-serving organizations who for years have been promoting positive hip-hop AND positive youth development without media attention. They have used hip hop as a successful educational tool. Join their youth movements.
This starter list does not include many other worthy artists. Just add what has been missed to your feedback in the comments section!
CONTESTS & INITIATIVES:
“Strength of a Nation 2 Contest” from YDRF: $500 Youth Awards for 10 Best Songs! Targeted for Youth Programs and Schools
Supersista’s Video Contest: Make a Hip Hop Video. Win $1000! Submit by July 1
Essence Take Back the Music: 2007 Songwriting Contest – See who won!
CONGRATULATIONS! You are now part of the movement! Letâ€™s keep it going!