One of the biggest complaints I hear from people that used to be huge Hip Hop/Rap fans that really aren't anymore is that Hip Hop has lost it's balance. They also feel that the next generation of emcees and Hip Hop fans have all dropped the ball and let the culture down. I'll explore that concept in depth in this Watchmen inspired blog entitled "Fearful Symmetry". Enjoy:
I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've heard it before, "Hip Hop isn't what it used to be!". "It used to be fun!", "Whatever happened to the emcees?" blah blah blah. Please, I know what you're gonna say next because I was the first cat saying it back when the shit first hit the fan. I was rocking Ecko Unlimited gear back when it was Echo Unlimited gear and buying obscure 12's on Sandbox Automatic while frequenting underground Hip Hop spots that are now long dead. I was one of those cats that HATED anything that Sean Combs was attached to...which was odd considering that he's actually a family friend.
Nothing incensed me more than knowing that every time I turned on the radio or turned on BET or MTV there were people rapping over some old 70's or 80's hit and dumbing down their bars. Then came the shiny suits and the champagne and the Phantoms and the Bentley's all over the television and airwaves. Everyone else had to follow suit with what was hot at the time or become irrelevant. Underground hero Mic Geronimo put out the lead single of his sophomore album called "Nothin' Move But The Money". In the video he was seen dancing around like Mase and spittin' like him, too. Backpackers screamed bloody murder and didn't check for his album thinking that he sold out and switched over to "that bullshit".
Mic Geronimo wasn't the only one that Puff got his hooks into, even all time great femcee MC Lyte began making moves with Puff. The worse part was that kid everyone thought was the second coming of the Microphone God Rakim Allah went off on that don/mafioso bullshit, too! I mean when the Wu did it shit was coll but now these shark niggas are coming out of the water and walking on land like shit is really sweet...what part of the game is this? It sure as hell WASN'T "Halftime", I knew that much! All of the conscious emcees and groups got dropped or released from their labels or broke up. The Wu couldn't even get on the radio anymore!
Things weren't completely lost yet, though. At least in 1997 a gang of great "non Jiggy" albums dropped, the problem being was that the closer we got to the new year we just knew that a sea change was coming and pretty soon it would all be over for the entire Hip Hop/Rap industry as we knew it. Several of us already had our fire exits mapped out and our contigency plans were pre-made. The second this shit completely took over we were gonna throw on our backpacks and abandon ship. We became less impressed with the coverage in The Source and started reading these other mags on the racks instead. We began looking for new shit on the internet via 88HipHop.com, Sandbox Automatic and UndergroundHipHop.com.
There used to be a balance at one point on the major label level. You could have Kid N' Play, Kwame & A New Beginning, Special Ed, Chubb Rock, Redhead Kingpin, MC Hammer, Ice T, Ice Cube, Cool C, Steady B, Big Daddy Kane, Kool Moe Dee, Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers, King Sun, Lakim Shabazz, Roxanne Shante, Queen Latifah, Above The Law, Run DMC, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Salt N' Pepa, Paris, Too Short, Kid Frost, Powerule, AMG, DJ Quik, Compton's Most Wanted, LL Cool J, Black Sheep, Naughty By Nature, Geto Boys, Heavy D. & The Boyz, KRS One, KMD, 3rd Bass, Eric B. & Rakim, 2 Live Crew, Eric B. & Rakim, MC Lyte, D Nice, Kid Rock, Tairre B., Schooly D, The D.O.C., Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Slick Rick, Dana Dane, Ultramagnetic MC's, etc. ALL in your tape/record collection and no one would bat an eyelash. Never no more.
Lines were now drawn in the sand. You either made that shit that got spins on the radio or you just got out the game entirely. The rules and the game had changed. You either rolled with the program or got rolled the fuck over. You wanna kick some knowledge? Kick rocks! You wanna drop some positivity? You'll GET dropped! There was no time for dancing...at least not while your rapping. If you were AT the club, it was all good, though. The good thing was that the South was finally getting heard...problem was that some of these cats weren't exactly advancing the culture of Hip Hop. But really does that matter when you're in the business of moving units? No, no it doesn't.
After Def Jam managed to find a way to convince "the hood" that the music that was blasting all over the airwaves and getting mad burn on the Viacom networks was "that authentic shit" even though it was actually outselling Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw. The sound changed from that raw Hip Hop sound we were used to growing up to having the radio all sound like Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Puff Daddy, The Neptunes or Swizz Beatz produced EVERYTHING.
The balance was completely gone now. Damn near everyone sounded the same and if you did do something different that resonated with people you had at least 3 clones dropping the next quarter. If you wanted to be political, extra lyrical, have a message, be conscious or just even experimental you could always go to an indie label and just completely forget about getting on the radio or BET/MTV. If DMX was hot, you hit next with Ja Rule. If Ja hit you followed up with Drag-On. Rather, rinse, repeat. Soon every female rapper that got signed was pretty much either doing a Foxy Brown or Lil' Kim impression...or both.
While this complete and utter lack of balance was tearing away at the Hip Hop/Rap industry at the major label level and more and more labels were being dissolved and stripped away as they all merged it become even more of a business and less about the music or the overall quality of the project. More and more albums were full of filler and radio fodder instead of album tracks like the past. This lead to a great deal of albums only having between 3-5 "good" songs out of 14 total tracks. This was where Napster, Kazaa and LimeWire all made their prescence felt. Why buy an album for $12.99 for 4 songs? Fuck that shit!
While CD's were still flying off the shelves and some of our favorite groups who were still on majors were hanging it up or having their last hurrahs, the only fans that could really overstand what was going down had pretty much abandoned the situation when the big hand wrote "Mene Mene Tikel Upharsin" on the wall a few years back. The kids that grew up knowing nothing else that had just gotten into music were clueless and the college kids that hadn't go into Rap before "No Way Out" and "Harlem World" dropped didn't know what was going down either. To them Mase, Nas, The LOX, Jay-Z, DMX, Foxy Brown, Eve, B.G., Lil' Kim, Ja Rule, Lil' Wayne, Beanie Sigel, Master P, Mystikal, Juvenile, Method Man and Redman was all the diversity they needed in Hip Hop/Rap. Ah well.
As more time passed, even our once thought to be safe existence was shaken to it's core. Rawkus ended up collapsing on itself, Fondle 'Em soon dissolved and so we all ran under El-P's tiny Def Jux umbrella instead. One thing cannot exist without the other as they provide Ying and Yang to ensure the neccesary balance to make living things thrive and grow. Hip Hop was divided in half right down the middle and on both sides commercial interest had slowly sucked away it's soul. Are things completely dead today? No. This is because Hip Hop cannot die. Is it exactly as we remember it being when we were kids or young adults? No..but WHAT is? NOTHING. Change is natural and man was has lasted on Earth so long because of his adaptability.
So what if kids today don't know who Lord Finesse is, tell them! Share his music with them and fill in the generation gap. If an 18 year old doesn't know that Just Blaze isn't the end all be all as far as producers go then break out your records and sit him down and have a real open dialogue about it with him. If young girls think they have to rhyme or look a certain way to get noticed by labels and her talent and lyricism doesn't matter then show her the long line of proud female emcees that demanded respect and forced to look them in the face and acknowledge them as equals and peers. Like Mos Def said "Hip Hop is as we are".
One day I just got sick of complaining and blaming everyone else about the current state of Hip Hop culture and decided to actually do something about it. Back in the days I just pretty much ran from the situation and hoped it would all just pass and blow over soon. After a while, I realized that things would never go back to the way they were and maybe I just should've stuck it out instead of abandoning the situation altogther and retreating underground.
* Fearful Symmetry references a chapter of the world famous graphic novel "Watchmen" that will be appearing as a feature film on March 6, 2009.