Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of The Paper.
Hip-Hop and the effects of its influence on the Black community is a topic that often polarizes those who engage in a discussion of it. There are those who believe that the music we know as hip-hop has declined since its inception, and that it has been transformed from an innovative creation to merely another way for corporations to make billions. Others argue that hip-hop has to grow and change, and that to expect hip-hop music to be and sound the same way it did when it was created is a narrow outlook that limits the artform and does not allow it to flourish. Many who grew up on hip-hop will make the distinction between the music of yesterday and contemporary rap and point to the glaring differences in content, sound and purpose. The issue with many of these assessments is that it is often done in the spirit of lament without a careful look at the scene in its entirety.
Recently, rap music was the subject of the 4th Great Harlem Debate, with the lead question being: “Is Hip-Hop good for Black People?” This four hour discussion was divided between those who argued “Yes” and “No” While its impossible to capture the entire forum in this medium, I want to point to some key things that were raised by the “No” side. I feel as though those arguing on the “No” side expressed an overall tone of disgust with what has happened to rap music and some made it clear that they believed that it has nothing to offer in terms of substance. In hearing all of this, I couldn’t help but come away with the sense that our way of viewing hip-hop needs to be reworked. While what transpired is a great starting point, there is a need to discuss these matters, however it is time to go a bit further in our assessment of the music and what it means.
One of the first things that has to be understood: there is more than one hip-hop generation. There are at least three: The generation that started it in the mid 1970’s and pioneered the first artists in the early 80’s. Then there is the generation who were listeners in the golden era (1985-1995), and the era of hip-hop that we are in currently, which some argue began in 1996/1997 with the passing of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. Its necessary to note this in order to see that what transpired at the 4th Great Harlem debate was essentially an all out verbal assault from the older fans of hip-hop against the current generation.
Now, most would consider a statement such as this an inflammatory generalization, but in the context of what was actually said at the debate itself, I feel as though it is warranted. If you are going to talk about how some of the rap music can be a bad influence then fine, but its not productive to just act as if somehow everyone under a certain age is being hopelessly mislead by gangsta rappers and the major companies that finance their careers.
This is just another representation of an ageist outlook in much of the analyses done on hip-hop music. Unfortunately, it also mirrors the contempt that folks who grew up on 1960’s and 70’s music had about hip-hop when it first began, saying that it wasn’t “real music.” Why repeat the same patterns of division? When the civil rights generation resorted to protesting individual rappers and stomping on records in the streets, it lost the ear of those younger, and the elders of the hip-hop generation are at risk of doing the same.
Some went so far as to say that there is nothing good going on in hip-hop today. While there is no shortage of bad examples of what has been done with hip-hop music, it is an overstatement to say that nothing is good about it currently. The only thing that results from older fans of hip-hop lambasting everything that came out after 2000, without open ears is mutual disrespect. The younger hip-hop fans will not take to the argument well that everything that came before is superior to today’s music. There is even an emerging contempt by contemporary hip-hop fans for the music of the 80’s and 90’s.
This view also doesn’t take into account the role that the music industry plays in marginalizing and in some cases outright suppressing the more conscious artists. The independent acts and the underground circuits are just as much apart of the hip-hop scene as the mainstream acts are. One does have to have the patience to wade through most of what is presented to find those hip-hop records which are meaningful.
It is important that there be open ears on both sides, whether or not the music is from the new or old eras. If we don’t change our outlook, then we stand to just reinforce the gap between different generations, and contribute to us not being able to understand one another. At a time when things are changing around us, it is not progressive to recapitulate the generational divisions, but we should struggle to move past blatant ageism and wholesale condemnation.