I love going into schools and talking with kids. Before making music I taught high school full time. Ironically, students pay infinitely more attention now that I'm a rapper. Class always begins the same way. "What is hip hop? When you think about hip hop, what comes to mind?" I'm good at asking in a tone that suggests I'm curious to hear what their answers are, but I could write them all up on the board without calling on a single student.
"Money!" The class murmurs in agreement.
"Cars. Clothes. Jewelry. Watches." I suggest that that kind of falls under the money umbrella. They agree.
"The streets." I play dumb to flush this answer out. "What do you mean the streets? Do you mean like, concrete? Driving directions?"
They laugh, then correct me. "No. Street stuff. Ghetto stuff. Drugs. Crime. Shooting people."
I thank them for the clarification, and ask if there's anything else. Everyone knows what the last answer is, but depending on the grade, it may take some cajoling on my end to get a student over the embarrassment of blurting it out.
"Sex!" And the room erupts in laughter.
If my opening question were asked to 100 people on an episode of Family Feud, it would be pretty easy to sweep the board. To the casual listener (or the avid listener obsessed with what is most popular), hip hop has become pretty much devoid of topical diversity. Moreso than ever the genre is defined not by sound or musical composition, but by the actual content being covered. Simply put, certain subjects are seen as way more "hip hop," than others.
But it wasn't always that way. Themes like sex and violence have always existed in hip hop, but as a child my first deep connection to the art form came in 1987, when I first heard DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince's "Parent's Just Don't Understand." Only seven years old, I couldn't relate to L.L.Cool J and Big Daddy Kanes' harems of door knocker clad women, or Kool G Raps tales of shooting people in the belly just to watch them bleed. But when I found out that a famous rapper hated discount department store school shopping as much as I did, I was hooked. Children are bright shining balls of insecurity, craving validation at every turn. Here was a famous rapper, clearly deemed "cool" by societal standards, who shared something in common with me. I must be pretty cool too I thought. Good feeling.
Who knows what would have become of me had I grown up in an era where my idols, the preeminent examples for success from communities like mine, limited their content to the four or five themes that dominate today's hip hop landscape. Unable to identify with someone "cool" who was like me, I would have been left with no choice but to alter my behavior to fall in line with one of them. But instead I had options. With the way I looked at myself. And they way I looked at the world.
KRS-One questioned the health benefits of red meat on "Beef," and at the age of 10 I learned that you didn't have to eat what everyone else eats. What everyone else eats might even be bad for you. Which of course gave rise to the idea that the correctness of something should never be judged on whether everybody does it.
Older, but still very impressionable (perhaps we're all very impressionable until we're dead?) I remember my first time hearing Mos Def's "New World Water." Listening to Mighty Mos break down the commercialization of earth's most precious natural resource stopped me dead in my tracks. Changed the way I looked not only at everything that was for sale, but at the abundance that we take for granted in the United States that is absolute luxury in other parts of the world. Here was a hip hop song that actually made me a wiser, more compassionate, and well rounded person.
Topical diversity was never limited to health and wellness or global politics though. Between KRS-One and Mos Def's releases, GZA released "Labels," where he somehow managed to fashion the names of all of the major record labels into a coherent story who's moral was to watch what dotted lines you sign on. Ten years later DANGERDOOM actually released a song about vats of urine (understandably titled "Vats of Urine.") Despite being grossed out, the creativity of the subject matter instead made it a fan favorite. No one was put off my any of these records because they weren't covering the same old topics. On the contrary, breaking new ground while still managing to make undeniably dope hip hop made these artists accomplishments all the more impressive.
I myself have always tried to break from convention with regards to what it is I'm rhyming about. My second album's "Mambo Tail Tale" is a story of having to learn to mambo on the fly to get the girl. My latest release includes "Not Really," a song about how being well known for being yourself it's much different from being yourself when no one's looking. It's arguably my most well received single to date.
However, these songs aren't perceived the way that they would have been had I released them 20 or even 10 years ago. They're not looked at as regular hip hop songs today. They're looked at as different. They're labeled "conscious," "quirky." As if they are something different from default hip hop. Sadly enough, they are, but the truth is that my uniqueness and individuality make for my greatest weapon. That people know that they're going to hear something different when they listen to me is what allows me to thrive despite inclusion in a genre driven on big budgets and publicity machines that I've never had.
What's more, whenever higher profile acts stray from the what's become the stereotypical paradigm, they enjoy greater success too. Kanye West's career would not have had the foundation to go where it's gone today without "Jesus Walks." At the forefront of every conversation that I've had about Nas' latest release, is praise for "Daughters," the single about how challenging it is to raise a daughter in today's hip hop society, where he actually questions and criticizes the ideals of the culture he's played such a prominent role in creating. It's tough for him watching his daughter act lewd and date guys that think that life is all about the things that people rap about today, and he openly admits it.
Despite being a rapper I'm not the most tuned in to what's considered "current" in today's hip hop. On the morning of September 19th I tuned in to Hot 97 via the Internet from a hotel room in Birmingham, Alabama, for a random sampling of what people listening to the most famous hip hop station in the world are hearing today. The first rap song I heard was French Montana's "Pop That," an ode to clubbing, money, cars, drugs, and jewelery. I realized that I was going to have to take breaks during my listening session for my own mental health, so I started writing down the times they were aired. I tuned back in at 10:42 and heard Busta Rhymes' "King Tut." It too was all about about money, alchohol, jewelery, watches, cars, and sex. So was 2 Chainz's "No Lie," at 11:11 (with a bit more murder and violance sprinkled in), and DJ Khaled's "All I Do Is Win" at 11:21. I vowed to listen to five songs to inform me better towards writing this piece. The only one that wasn't a rap song was Rihanna's "Man Down," which most people will tell you is a metaphor for breaking a man's heart. There's no mention of any love or romance within the song though. "Pull the trigger," and "I'm a Criminal," are chanted hypnotically throughout the song.
I've had the honor of becoming friends with Crazy Legs of Rocksteady Crew, the legendary breakdancing crew that was featured so prominently in early hip hop movies like Style Wars and Wild Style. A conversation that I had with him about hip hop's birth (which he was there for in person in the 70s in the South Bronx) helped me formulate my theory about why hip hop has become the most popular musical genre among youth in the entire world, to where Rio de Janiero is denser with graffiti than Queens, and kids in the Czech Republic wear baseball caps and call each other niggers. It's because somehow all those broke South Bronx kids captured the essence of cool. The spirit of it. Couldn't be cool because of money, everyone was broke. Couldn't be cool because of where you lived, everyone was in the slums. Couldn't feel good about yourself because of your school because schools were a nightmare, or even because of your family as families in the South Bronx in the 1970 were plagued with every societal ill that society has to offer. But if you were an athlete, you could be a bboy. If you had some charisma, you could be an emcee. If you were artistic, you could be a graffiti writer. This was the inception of hip hop. Being cool without anything. Without being any certain type of person. Being cool only because of your talent.
Thirty five years later mainstream hip hop has come 180 degrees. Hip hop is no longer an arena where you can be cool without anything but being yourself. Where you're free to rap about what you want, paint what you want, or dance how you want as long as you do it well. According to the gospel of hip hop you become cool today by having certain things and behaving a certain way. The same things. The same way. Talent, creativity, innovation, indeed musicality itself, are all afterthoughts, if they have the good fortune to be thought of at all.
While alcohol and technology and car brands that advertise through hip hop are raking in the dough, kids in classrooms in New York and New Jersey and across the country are paying the price. They can only think about certain things. They can't be creative. They're ridiculed for breaking rank. For thinking freely. For being different. The heroes of their culture all appear to be the same person, and at these students vulnerable, insecure age, nothing could be more important to them than becoming that person too. A lot of them are going to ruin their lives beyond repair going for it.
English teachers in urban New York City schools are too concerned with getting students up to 6th grade reading level to teach Orwell's 1984, where culture is prophetically whittled down until entire languages consist of merely hundreds of words limiting peoples abilities to think. Young people today get the majority of their knowledge today from the media they consume, and fans of hip hop just can't fathom the idea that it might all of the uniformity might be part of a ploy carried out by gigantic corperations seeking to turn everyone into mindless consuming drones. Of course they can't. They've never heard Deltron 3030.