Friday, March 26, 2010

The death of conscious rap

Few terms provoke so much debate among hip-hop heads today as the word "conscious." Ten or fifteen years ago, this might not have been the case. When the label first arose it was an attempt by those inside and outside of the scene to differentiate between the flashy materialism that had seemingly come to dominate hip-hop and those whose style and content seemed to take the genre back to its "purest" form.

Now, however, it's a term that most emcees avoid like the plague. Back in January, Omar Burgess of Hip-Hop DX wrote "An Obituary For Conscious Rap." Despite it's often simplistic faults (men aren't "emasculated" by turning their backs on sexism, for example), the article is thought provoking. Few can disagree with Burgess' assertion that "At worst, Conscious Rap was dreadfully corny and heavy-handed with the messages. From Tribe’s 'Ham ‘N’ Eggs,' a few dozen horrible imitations, and even my beloved dead prez with the throwaway 'Mind Sex.'"

A recent interview with Kidz in the Hall's Naledge promoting their new album found the lyricist rather perplexed to have the term applied to him--and indeed the Kidz' subject matter doesn't really seem to gel with what most may think of as conscious. True, Naledge's rhymes tackle social issues just as much as the next, but there really isn't much that makes him especially "conscious."

Which brings up an interesting question. What is it exactly that makes a rapper "conscious?" In the most general sense, conscious rap has been counterposed to the "mainstream" of the genre in its aesthetic and content. As a starting point, conscious was supposed to be far less materialistic than its MTV-hawked counterpart. Instead of Diddy flashing wads of cash and driving in Bentleys or Jay-Z touting how much he's spent on his suits, we had Talib Kweli poetically relating how hard it was to "Get By," or the Roots placing their emphasis on their organic and soulful sound.

Back during the hey-day of conscious rap (which I consider to start somewhere around the early-to-mid '90s and peaking around '03), knowledge that something like this existed could really be a breath of fresh air. While the militancy of Public Enemy had dominated a mere few years before, its replacement seemed at first glance to have "sold out." All sorts of conclusions about conscious rap could spring from the insistence that it was less materialistic and still somehow true to the genre's early years. Folks insisted that conscious rap was less sexist, less homophobic, less violent, blah, blah, blah. The implied assertion was that rap had somehow lost its way and these artists were here to help it get back to its roots.

But hold the phone! Is the lack of these elements really truer to rap's roots? Didn't Grandmaster Flash use the word "fag" in some of his songs? Didn't Run-DMC have a little track called "My Adidas?" At times even the much-revered Public Enemy would loosely throw the word "bitch" around.

Furthermore, there have been no lack of "conscious" artists with their own ideological contradictions. Mos Def's "The RapeOver" insists that "quasi-homosexuals is running this rap shit" (and no, there's no way he's being ironic here). A Tribe Called Quest's lyrics have sometimes drifted into lauding promiscuity and objectifying women. Close examination will yield that few of the sub-genre's best-known artists pass the litmus test.

As the divide between "conscious" and "mainstream" became more pronounced, it also became more of a liability. Talib Kweli spoke around the turn of the decade about how the label had made it harder to get several gigs because he might not "fit in" with more mainstream artists. This reveals something rather insidious about the term itself. As its prominence increased, it became a tool for the record industry to sideline artists whose content might have proven a marketing quandary.

It also allowed the suits to distract attention from some of the very real consciousness that existed in even the most mainstream artists. When NaS' Stillmatic hit the shelves in '02, the tracks that sharply protested war and police brutality were ignored by the marketeers in favor of songs that included homophobia and sexist language. The press papered over his engagement as an activist with his much overblown beef with Jay-Z.

In short, "conscious vs. mainstream" became a way for rap to be more easily controlled, marketed and ultimately segregated. What may have started out as a vague, casual description was now a tool in the hands of the folks whose only concern with rap's content was how many units it could move.

The past few years, however, have seen a marked shift in the dichotomy. In fact, it would be pretty disingenuous to say the divide even exists on any kind of real level among today's artists and emcees. The sharpest political statements have increasingly come not from the "conscious" emcees, but from the likes of Bun B and Young Jeezy, the latter of whom has been more associated with crack rap than anything else. The reckless abandon and muscularity that conscious rap often kept at arms' length definitely jives with the outpouring of urgency and energy that the Obama campaign provoked.

On the other end, many of the most "conscious" artists have taken steps that would previously be considered to fly in the sub-genre's face. The Roots are now Jimmy Fallon's house band. Common and Mos are both pursuing big acting careers. And musically, many artists seemed to have been pulled out of rhyming about consciousness and into the realm of actual activism.

In some ways, this was always an area in which more "gangsta" sounding acts had a leg-up. While so many conscious artists would rely on "uplift"--an individualistic take on self-empowerment--acts that were more "thuggy" were never interested in denying where they came from. The rage they felt against poverty, the cops, the rich was visceral and uncensored (unrefined as it might have been and as backwards as it could come across). The instinctual outrage has always been more intact in the sub-genres like gangsta, crack rap, crunk, etc.

And that's what is actually so encouraging about today's rap. Is any working person out there not angry? This is what has always connected folks to rap, why they have resonated with it. The first glimpses or real resistance have been seen over the past year and a half, and has already started to influence rappers of all stripes. And just as we cannot expect artists to consciously turn their backs on sexism and homophobia without the presence of a real and vibrant movement against oppression, the opposite side of the coin is that the class anger has opened the door for just such a movement to rise up and for artists to play it back for us.

Basically, the wall between "conscious" and "mainstream" has proven to be false. At best, it was impressionistic. At worst, it was the industry attempting to placate rap's rebel instinct. Now, with the internet, with any emcee able to put their work out online directly to the listener, the industry is in trouble, and rap has the potential to go well beyond what the execs might otherwise have planned for it.

Today's new crop of emcees take a cue from both sub-genres. Pac, Big, NaS and Jay are mentioned in the same breath as Black Star, Kwe and Blu. What this means is hard to predict, but the key element in rap's future will have to be the struggle we create on the streets. We've seen what it's like when anger and ideas are separated. Now let's see what happens when we mix them up!

1 comment:

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