Monday, 16 June 2014

The fall of rap?

I wrote this piece a year or so ago, about the same time I was working on my Reading '92 article about Public Enemy. I had intended to use it before now, but could never quite find the right place for it.

What has hip hop become?  Looking at today’s generic blend of mass-produced, mainstream, so-called R&B ‘artists’ (I’ve used that word reluctantly), you’d think the likes of the Sugarhill Gang, Public Enemy and Grandmaster Flash never happened. Kind of like if you look at Keane, the Kooks and Razorlight, with their soft, safe, commercial radio friendly muzak, you wonder if punk really achieved anything.

Rap is like the blues. It is an art born out of oppression, repression, desolation, isolation, injustice, and disaffection. Those affected created their own languages (the creoles and pidgins of the slaves stolen from Africa and held captive by the white man cannot be considered any different to the street slang that evolved in the ghettos of the USA) and used music to express their feelings. While the blues expressed sadness, rap was more about anger and disillusionment and concerned itself with social and political themes more than the more personal woes of blues. Of course, like a lot of things, the more popular it became, the more sanitised and anaemic its output. Where blues went from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton, rap went from Grandmaster Flash to Vanilla Ice (evidence perhaps of the dumbing down influence of the white man…).

OK, maybe that’s not entirely fair. There are, if you look hard enough, plenty of gritty, rough-around-the-edges blues artists out there today. There are some hard-hitting, confrontational rappers out there too. Sadly, many of them remain underground, buried beneath the sludge that is celebrity, fame and immense wealth and the seemingly inevitable mediocrity that breeds. Rap music has historically been incredibly creative and experimental, fusing numerous genres from soul and jazz to rock and electronica. So why do today’s rap ‘superstars’ all sound exactly the same? Why is there a concerted effort to make everything fit a standard hit single formula? Why is everything saturated in vocal effects and awful screechy ‘oversinging’? It’s either that, or a rather pathetic, juvenile attempt at trying to sound all macho, controversial and offensive. Either way, it’s more about lucrative sponsorship deals and product endorsements than the music these days. Artistry is not even second to image, ego or notoriety.

Kanye West’s latest record 'Jeezy' at least tries to be different musically; it has some of the most exciting, challenging and original sounds I’ve ever heard. But he goes and screws it all up when he opens his mouth - the same tired, clichéd, expletive-strewn lyrics about bitches, dicks and all the other infantile nonsense you get in terrible mainstream rap music these days. The guy is clearly capable of so much more so what is he up to? (For the record, the music on 'Jeezy' is great, but Kanye is a total narcissistic prick and his lyrics suck.)

l-r: Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy, Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, Senser
I never owned a lot of rap music, but what I did have spoke to me. Public Enemy, De La Soul, Run DMC, Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, Senser, Rage Against The Machine, Beastie Boys – not all strictly ‘hip hop’, but all used rap as a means of imparting a message about the issues that affected real people, while blending different styles of music and sounds to create something authentic and meaningful. That, to me, is what rap music is all about.  

Though of course, I’m a skinny-assed white boy, so what do I know?

The Message - Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five (from 'The Message')

Famous And Dandy (Like Amos 'n' Andy) - Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy (from 'Hipocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury')

2 3 Clear - Senser (from 'How To Do Battle')

Riotstarted - Public Enemy ft. Tom Morello & Henry Rollins (from 'The Evil Empire Of Everything')

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