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Musical opinion by Stephanie Ortega, Journalism 3300


The images that motivate today’s young people come from role models, just as they always have for every generation, and today’s role models are hip-hop artists or rappers. Somehow hip-hop changed from a form of expression to an exercise in self-promotion. What happened?

In the late ‘80s Biz Markie released a song called “The Vapors.” “The Biz” predicted that rappers would soon be producing hip-hop songs for the sole (no longer soul) purpose of acquisition: jewelry, cars, cash, and girls. Soon enough the pure hip-hop poetic consciousness gave way to a new form of hip-hop that showcases rappers such as Nelly, Ludacris, 50 Cent, Cash Money Millionaires, and numerous others who lack poetic meaning and speak on levels that require little thought. Their songs categorize minorities in stereotypical ways, and their values, like their songs, are entirely about how much money they have, how much stuff they have bought with it, and how many girls they’ve impressed with what they’ve bought, blah, blah, blah.

Early hip-hop rappers produced poetry: stories created from rhymes and rhythms, metaphors and similes, with plots, themes, and meaning, if not significance. For example, a metaphor for life on the streets of a modern city suggested that despite being devoured by a huge monster, one could live in the belly of the beast, sell drugs to stay alive, and duck bullet spray on a daily basis.

Today, the art of storytelling has diminished to the art of childhood comprehension. From “The Breaks” to “Nelly I Love You,” lyrical content only seems to be important if you can learn it in one day after listening to the radio. Play the same Nelly song 40 times a day, and you will hear the same thing every time. Play a Talib Kweli song, and you will learn more lyrics each time.

Grandmaster Flash had a message in the song “The Message,” about life and its dangers, and through it he changed people’s views of everyday life. KRS-One and Public Enemy made numerous songs about political views of the government. Boogie Down Production produced a song called “Illegal Business,” where the subject matter is drug control by a government that says drugs are illegal unless they are drugs the government is providing.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, popular hip-hop transformed itself and began showcasing grimy street-life rap. Wu-Tang Clan helped pioneer this movement by celebrating their project lifestyle, selling drugs, holding guns. Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, and Jay-Z were all pioneers who spawned the thug-life image picked up by others such as Mobb Deep and Fabulous.

Today, a performer such as Jay-Z says he’s not a rapper (he’s not), and he goes right on making songs that sell. He calls Americans who listen to hip-hop a nation of fools. And he may be right, as they go on supporting his lifestyle.

Cash Money Millionaires blatantly brags about gator boots, Gucci clothes, and booming systems in SUVs. Most people who are listening to this music can’t relate to owning a pair of gator boots or even Gucci knockoffs, but they seem to want to.

These days it’s all about platinum chains, and it’s gotten so bad that some children have admitted aspirations of dropping out of school and becoming a pimp with gold teeth or running the streets. The Wu-Tang Clan or Biggie Smalls didn’t choose to live the street life, they had to. They had no other way to survive. Maybe this was true of Tupac, too, but many believe the whole East Coast vs. West Coast media-hyped battle was staged so Tupac could sell records and make money. It exploits hip-hop, and it exploits us, when the public wants to buy CDs just to hear what the performers (not artists) have to say about each other.

The Dilated Peoples, West Coast hip-hop from California, and Jurassic 5 still keep the music alive, bringing enough subject matter for listeners to focus on. The Roots deliberates on hip-hop’s state in “Y’all Ain’t Saying Nuthin’ New,” implicitly rejecting songs about “bling, bling, bling,” and “ching, ching, ching.” Common Sense describes more, evoking feelings and using word play. Mos Def and Talib Kweli touch the subject of life, use vivid imagery, evoke passion for our rights, and teach us to seek the sense of our own self-knowledge.

We’re tired of hearing how Puffy needs a girl. Tired of hearing how Eminem is controversial, and how people think this about him and that about him. Come on Slim, quit talking about yourself and produce some more hip-hop. Rap music is a form of expression but switch it up a little; the modern rap has become too repetitious, too self-involved.

The art form has become a commodity, and therefore, has lost its original purpose. The days of the BBoys are gone, and all these “thugs” are on the top of the game.

Times change, but truthfully, most of us miss listening to true hip-hop and being intellectually stimulated. What we hear on the radio is not hip-hop, but hip-POP, made to sell, made to be catchy, made to appeal to an ignorant generation to whom nothing matters but what these rap artists create as an image of what is cool.

There are exceptions. Conscious rap still exists, but for the most part, underground. Black Thought, the MC of the popular hip-hop group The Roots, according to his fans, delivers poetry. He uses words that are not in most people’s vocabulary, and most people can’t understand the metaphors until he’s explained them with five or more similes. He’s ruthless about requiring his listeners to put their minds to work in order to comprehend his music.

True or not, an extensive vocabulary makes the listener work harder to understand, so the listener learns, unless the rapper is not intrigued by a deeper meaning than “bling bling.”




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