Is Hip Hop Dead?

Bayshawn Davis

from @deathofhiphop
from @deathofhiphop

In the winter of 2006, widely acclaimed hip hop artist Nasir “Nas” Jones made the daring, yet chilling, proclamation that hip was dead. According to Nas, hip hop is dead “because we as artists no longer have the power…” However, while Nas was the first rap artist to make such a bold statement commercially, the sentiment of hip hop as a decaying or diluted art form has been expressed by numerous artists within the hip hop music industry, from old rap legends such as MC Lyte, Nas and Jadakiss to newer artists such as Kendrick Lamar and J Cole. If rap artists no longer have the power to control their music, who does? Most importantly, what does it mean for a rapper to have power and how – if even possible – do artists get this power back?

As for the first question, the answer as to who has the power may be found in DMX’s provocative poem “The Industry.” Performing his spoken word piece at Def Poetry Jam, X spits his rhyme about the corporate side of the hip hop music industry that tries “to control the way {artists} MC” by telling them to “dress like this and talk like that.” In other words, it is the power exercised by corporate executives within music networks and radio stations that determine what socially relevant hip hop styles and modes of delivery are. In striking contrast to the past where rappers within the hip hop culture once wore the baggy clothes and fitted hat turned to one side or other, contemporary rappers can be found with “skinny” jeans, wore past their butt, fitted shirts and other kinds of styles that reportedly characterize hip hop today. It supposedly signifies the changing times, a transition from the old into the new.

Still, the power by corporate executives exerted over artists’ style and dress extends beyond the superficiality of appearance, deeply affecting rappers’ content.

In other words, executives also control – with precise certainty – the messages that artists’ provide to the consumers. For many legendary artists such Nas, Eminem, Joe Buddens, and DMX, it was the lyrics (the message) within rap that provided the hip hop culture with substance. It was the sociopolitical and cultural messages in songs like 2 Pac’s “Changes” and NWA’s “Fight The Power” that reflected not only the economical and social conditions of black people but also provided hope and a sense of unity among these same people. In deciding what should be rapped about (drugs, guns, women and money), executives define the social conditions that surround {the rapper} by directly influencing the rhetoric that occurs within the hip hop environment. Put another way, they determine the socially relevant messages that they believe are suitable for the consumer.

The discontent of such power confinement is felt by many and can be heard in statements such as, in regarding contemporary rap, “All the rappers sound the same” or “it’s bubble gum rap.” Even new rappers such as Kendrick Lamar and J Cole have felt the transition from what I once meant to be rapper to today. In his “Control” verse, Kendrick Lamar challenged all the newer rappers to step up their game “because he was trying to {lyrically} raise the bar high.” Instead of the “bubble gum” rap characteristic of most rap today, Kendrick asserted how he needed to bring the lyricism back to hip hop, challenging his peers to do the same. When viewed from this light, it appears that even he as a new artist wants to bring substance back to the hip hop culture.

From this it appears that the one sure way to give power back to artists is to have artists decide that enough is enough and take their music back lyrically, incorporating that older spirit of educating through messages. Artists must take a stand and decide that what they want to put out into the world must edify and not destroy. It is only in the light of this fact that hip hop will continue to see an increase in more J Cole’s and Kendrick Lamar’s because in the words of DMX, “the industry couldn’t make a dime without you.”

Bayshawn Davis, Rutgers Student SAS 2016, writes weekly columns published every Friday at noon

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