Hey you guys,
To readers o' The A.V Club it's no secret that I'm a big fan of the hippety hop. Then again I'm in a very privileged position to dig hip hop. I get sent tons of free rap CDs. I interview many of my favorite artists and have a professional obligation to keep abreast of what's rocking and rolling in the world of rap.
But I very much get the feeling that a lot of my friends and fellow Gen-Xers (I'm thirty and no I'm not interested in hearing why I'm slightly too young to qualify as Gen-X) are growing increasingly disenfranchised with hip hop. I suspect that a lot of Gex-Xers have had the following relationship with rap:
Their first real experience with rap was Run DMC and "Licensed To Ill" era Beastie Boys and they were fucking amazing. The sound, the look, the vibe, the videos (even the ones featuring Larry "Bud" Melman), the singles, the classic albums: they were all fresh and new and exciting and revolutionary and irresistible. Then came middle school, high school and college and a barrage of amazing golden age acts who made rock and roll seem like the domain of irrelevant dinosaurs.
They have fond memories of coming of age pop-culture-wise at a time when hip hop was at its peak, artistically if not commercially. Public Enemy was making front page news, selling millions and opening minds. Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Pete Rock And C.L Smooth, Gang Starr, Eric B And Rakim and Digable Planets were all making music that radiated musicality and bohemian cool yet were eminently accessible.
On the other side of the country NWA and Dr. Dre and Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg and the G-funk revolution were making music feel dangerous and relevant again. "Ain't Nuthin But A G Thang", "It Was a Good Day" and "Fuck The Police" provided the soundtrack to college house parties where they drunkenly sang along and pretended that a good day was any day you didn't have to use your AK.
There was a voyeuristic thrill to listening to what you imagined was unfiltered voice of angry black America. Even the FBI seemed scared of NWA and Death Row raised the ante even further.
Then came graduation or careers. The further they got from adolescence or college the weaker their connection to hip hop became. They began to feel like they were growing up while hip hop was stuck in eternal adolescence. Sure Wu-Tang Clan and their solo albums and Biggie Smalls and 2Pac were cool but the music was becomingly increasingly violent and nihilistic. The deaths of 2Pac and Biggie just underlined that.
The deaths of Biggie Smalls and 2Pac spurred the rise of Puff Daddy and Master P and suddenly rap didn't seem so cool or relevant or dangerous anymore. If talent-impaired jokers like that could become household names did the music really have any integrity?
There were still artists making great music–Outkast and Black Star and The Roots and The Fugees and Jay-Z and Missy Elliott Lauryn Hill and The Streets and maybe the Quannum contingent and MF DOOM and the Stones Throw and Def Jux brigade if they were feeling adventurous and underground–but hip hop increasingly seemed obsessed with crass consumerism and chasing trends. Just how many 2Pac wannabes could the market stand?
They still tried to keep up with rap, in part because they didn't want to feel like their parents, cluelessly condemning music they didn't understand but it didn't really speak to them or their lives anymore. They were becoming parents and buying houses and if they had a daughter suddenly all that "bitches ain't shit but hos and tricks" talk didn't seem like such a nifty outlaw pose anymore. They were getting well past the age when smoking pot or getting drunk every night seemed cool.
The very qualities that made hip hop seem so transgressive and illicitly exciting when they were in high school or college–the misogyny, the anti-authoritarianism, the glamorization of drug dealing, drug usage and pimping–began to seem obnoxious and irresponsible.
Mainstream rap seemed mired in self-parody, obsessed with increasingly inane forms of conspicuous consumption. What the hell are rims and why did rappers seem so obsessed with them? Did they really think those hideous "grillz" were cool or attractive? They listened to Eminem because even their kids' third grade teacher claimed he was a genius but listening to the big hip hop releases began to feel more like a chore than a pleasure.
To keep in touch with the music and stave off the deadening ghost of middle age they still bought a handful of the biggest, most hyped releases–this year that might mean Jurassic 5, Outkast, The Roots, Pharrell, Jay-Z, Lady Sov and Gnarls Barkley–but they began to wonder whether it was even worth the bother anymore. What the hell kind of an Outkast album doesn't have a single knockout single? Where the hell were the songs on the Pharrell album? Sure the singles were great on the Barkley but who listens to the entire album?
What the hell was up with Crunk? Reggaeton? Hyphy? Grime? Rap began to seem like something their kids would listen to. The heroes they grew up with were largely missing in action–Q-Tip, Rakim, Lauryn Hill, Del The Funkee Homosapien, Slick Rick, Mos Def, Digable Planets, Dr. Dre (as a rapper at least)–or achingly irrelevant: Public Enemy, KRS-One, Wyclef, Ice Cube, RZA, Pharcyde.
Sure acts like De La Soul, Beastie Boys, The Coup, Ghostface Killah and The Roots have proven it's possible to grow older and mature without compromising or becoming irrelevant but they increasingly seem like the exception that proves the rule. And they aren't exactly dominating radio or MTV either.
Does this sound like you or anyone you know? Or am I totally off base? I don't mean to be judgmental or condescending. Heck, if I wasn't a hip hop critic (or a serial avoider of adult responsibilities) I'd probably follow this arc from infatuation to disillusionment as well. I'd probably go from being gruntled and illusioned to being disgruntled and disillusioned. I know there's a great danger in generalizing about anything, particularly hip hop (it used to be awesome, now it's all about the bling bling, etc) but part of a critic's job is discerning trends and themes and I think Gen-X and rap have definitely arrived at a strange crossroads. I love being a cheerleader for rap but I can also understand why a lot of people are turned off by it.
So here's my question for you, dear reader. What has your relationship with hip hop been like? Has it followed the arc I just mapped out? Or are you more passionately in love with hip hop today than ever before? Do you think what I see as the growing Gen-X disillusionment with rap is a generational thing? A class thing? An inevitable side effect of growing older and being less plugged into youth culture? Do you feel rap has lost its freshness? Its integrity? Its soul?
One of the great things about the blogs and the message boards is that it's given us A.V Clubbers a better idea of where our reader's heads are at pop culture-wise so please, if you'd be so kind, let me know what hip hop means to you in 2006 as opposed to what it meant to you in 1989 or 1993 or 1998. Thank you for your time.
Hey you guys,