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Rap: Bigger than Hip-Hop

Bigger than Hip-Hop
RAP MUSIC AS a recorded form celebrated its 21st birthday in 2000 (though hip-hop culture dates back at least five years before 1979's "Rapper's Delight"). Like any young adult, the genre seems to be grappling with its newfound maturity. That the culture has moved far away from its original b-boy stance is obvious, but this hasn't happened overnight. Once introduced to the American pop landscape by the Sugarhill Gang, hip-hop took 10 years to germinate and another decade to permeate the terrain. In that time, its culture has evolved from an inner-city phenomenon centering on DJs and including equal proportions of break dancing, MCing, and graffiti art to an MC-dominated business developed through cutting-edge independent labels and then to a multimillion-dollar, major label-affiliated industry emphasizing marketing and promotions.

But while hip-hop has become the province of cigar-chomping CEOs in boardrooms and suburban mall rats alike, it's continued to thrive in the underground. Exactly what defines hip-hop's cultural identity at this point is open to interpretation. Depending on your perspective, it is a violent, misogynist, profane genre, a commercially successful, mainstream musical style, a form of underground cultural expression, the word on the streets from a ghetto perspective, a grassroots-level political and social movement, or some or all of the above.

In 1993, KRS-One identified the cultural dichotomy as a case of "hip-hop versus rap," but in a post-Tupac and Biggie context, it's become clear that what's happening is part of a larger picture. It's no longer a simple case of East versus West, gangsta versus b-boy, DJ versus MC, backpack versus jiggy, independent versus major, or underground versus commercial. As Dead Prez related in "Hip Hop," today's rap artists are often forced to choose between "a Lexus or justice / A dream or some substance" - but the issues affecting the culture have become bigger than hip-hop itself. At times, hip-hop's internal politics have overshadowed these exterior issues - a point addressed by Dead Prez, who addressed their message to "rider by-ers," "flame igniters," and "crowd exciters" alike.

Nevertheless, rap's core audience of urban teenagers has expanded into previously uncharted regions of suburbia and adults over 25. As hip-hop's demographics have widened, its posturban soundscapes have literally become soundtracks for our increasingly nihilistic, high-tech society, as evidenced by RZA's score for Ghost Dog, DJ Shadow's contributions to Dark Days, and Chuck D and Gary G-Wiz's main-title music for the TV show Dark Angel.

There were several recurring themes in urban music in 2000. Mike Ladd told listeners, "welcome to the afterfuture," while Eminem rhapsodized on Dr. Dre's Chronic 2001 about traveling at light speed, "blazing chronic through the galaxy." Yet while hip-hop heads are always claiming to be "on some next shit," there were a lot more examples of everybody being on the same shit. Producers like Dre, Timbaland, DJ Premier, RZA, Tone Capone, Swizz Beats, the Alchemist, Hi-Tek, Jay Dee, and Mannie Fresh have become forces to be reckoned with in the music industry, yet for every case of sonic innovation it seems there are a hundred examples of imitation. Although there were unique moments in gangsta rap - like Natas' World Wide and the Country Boy Clique's Powder - they paled in comparison with the genre's overall homogeneity. That might explain Dre's lament "I started this gangsta shit / And this is the motherfuckin' thanks I get?"

If we can blame Dre for gangsta rap's sound, we can blame the late Tupac and Biggie for its thugged-out image. In their absence, we're stuck with a legion of tattooed street soldiers, bandanna-wearing hustlers, and corn-rowed mafiosos. Rap impresarios Master P and Puffy Combs both attempted to exploit this trend, with 'Pac sound-alike Krazy and B.I.G. clone Shyne respectively. Both P and Puffy proved adroit as well at cross-marketing, which has become an important part of the urban music aesthetic. The buck no longer stops at platinum records; today's hip-hop entrepreneurs have developed additional revenue streams through films and clothing lines, not to mention record deals for everyone in a commercially successful artist's crew.

This market strategy often resulted in a glut of mediocre-to-average product that can be filed under the category "thug lite." On "Oooh," De La Soul remarked, "A life filled with guns / That's what thugs love," and true to form, the Lox's "Ryde or Die Bitch" masked its unapologetic sexism in gangsta romanticism. Singles like Black Rob's "Like Whoa" and Dre's "Tha Next Episode" were captivating at first, but after being played every 12 minutes on "Hot Urban"-formatted stations, the thrill was gone. New York rappers used to exhort their peers to keep it real, but it's the catchy hooks of Southern rap that get collars poppin' nowadays, as evidenced by Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin'" and "Snoopy Track" (featuring UGK and Juvenile respectively). Tight cliques like Roc-A-Fella, Ruff Ryders, and Cash Money Millionaires dominated the aboveground rap scene, but subtract Jay-Z, DMX, and Juvenile and you're left with a bunch of overrated second-stringers like Memphis Bleek, Drag-On, and B.G., whose albums offered little more than variations on a tired theme.

On commercial radio and in the clubs, sex styles ruled, from Juvenile's "Back That Azz Up" to Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass." Although Outkast's Stankonia was funky enough to free minds while moving derrieres, hanging out in strip clubs didn't inspire every artist to create a timeless masterpiece. Much more common were instantly catchy and ultimately forgettable ditties with limited shelf lives. For every instance of pure artistry, like Ghostface Killah's "Cherchez La Ghost" and Common's "The Light," there were many more of pure banality - like Sisquo's "Thong Song," the Yin Yang Twins' "Whistle While You Twerk," Ja Rule's "Between Me and You," and Ludacris's "What's Your Fantasy" (better known as "I wanna lick-lick-lick-lick you from your head to your toes").

Amazingly, amid the celebration of ghetto-fabulous aesthetics, something of a hip-hop revival took place in 2000. Ironically, with few exceptions - like Tony Touch's "(I Wonder Why) He's the Greatest DJ," whose video featured the Rock Steady Crew - the homages to old-school tradition originated from outside the five boroughs. Britain's Creators went so far in pursuing a Cold Chillin' aesthetic that Juice Crew member Craig G. appears on their album The Weight. Similarly, L.A.'s Dilated Peoples not only shot the video for "The Platform" on a subway train but commissioned EPMD's Eric Sermon for a vinyl-only remix. Furthermore, local heroes Zion-I incorporated Bambaataa-esque electrofunk on their single "Revolution," subtitled "B-boy theme."

In years to come, Y2K may be remembered as the year when the Cali underground scene came of age. For the past three years, the West Coast has been ground zero for hip-hop's so-called indie revolution, so the emergence of Bay Area- and L.A.-based artists on a national stage is more of a natural progression than a sudden paradigm shift. Leading the way were Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5, who after being signed to major labels spent much of the year on the road promoting their respective albums, The Platform and Quality Control. The two groups coheadlined on the "Word of Mouth" tour and were further exposed to a wider, more mainstream audience with opening slots on national tours with D'Angelo (Dilated Peoples) and Fiona Apple (Jurassic 5). Quannum launched an extensive European tour, and Zion-I toured the Midwest, further expanding the West Coast underground's core audience.

It's too soon to tell what the impact of all this activity will be, but check out the skater types sporting J5 T-shirts at Maritime Hall shows. Dilated Peoples also crossed over heavily into the skating crowd, whose demographic has shifted from suburban to urban in recent years.

Outside the Bay Area, who would have predicted the ascension of Planet Asia to the upper echelon of hip-hop MCs? Cali's lyrical champion popped up just about everywhere in 2000. His discography for '00 includes his Last Stand EP, the Cali Agents' How the West Was One, and cameos on Bahamadia's "Special Forces" and Dilated's "Ear Drums Pop" remix, as well as an indie 12-inch with his East Coast counterpart, the equally meteoric Talib Kweli.

There were too many notable local releases in 2000 to name them all, but among the cream of the crop were Encore's Self Preservation, Del tha Funky Homosapien's Both Sides of the Brain, Foreign Legion's Nowhere to Hide, Quasimoto's The Unseen, People under the Stairs' Question in the Form of an Answer, Slumplordz' Yakuza, Souls of Mischief's Trology, and Zion-I's Mind over Matter. Hot Left Coast compilations included Rasco's 20,000 Leagues under the Street, ABB's Bigger and Better Volume One, and Pirate Fuckin' Radio 100. Each offset the predictable rap paradigm with lyrics that challenged listeners and music that didn't sound like Swizz, Primo, Fresh, or Dre.

E-40 deserves a special mention for being the Yay Area's baller of the year. Along with releasing two albums (Charlie Hustle and Loyalty and Betrayal) and a self-produced autobiographical documentary, he finally earned name recognition among East Coast fans when he was (unfairly) blamed for starting a melee at the Source Awards. The lifelong "ballaholic" showed there's no need for rehab with songs like "Big Ballin' with My Homies" and current radio hit "Nah, Nah." He even introduced yet another signature slang word into hip-hop's lexicon, "nevin." As in, when is 40 gonna fall off? Nevin.

Turntablism continued to be a big part of the Bay Area scene, although it remains submerged nationally. Artists like Mix Master Mike (Eye of the Cyklops), DJ Cue and Eddie Def (DMT), and Disk (No Forcefield) continued to innovate musically, yet their raw creativity may still be too abrasive for delicate mainstream ears. Still, Livehuman shook up the prog jazz bag with their Matador debut, Elefish Jellyphant, and Q-Bert premiered his animated film "Wave Twisters" at the history-making turntablist conference Skratchcon. Unfortunately, the film has yet to see as wide a release as the predictable concert documentary Backstage or, for that matter, the forgettable Mack 10 vehicle Thicker than Water.

Although Dre and Snoop were among the most prominent national artists (grossing a reported $150 million on their "Up in Smoke" tour), the most complete artistic statement coming from the West Coast in the last 12 months may have been Blackalicious's Nia. The critically lauded album lived up to its title, derived from a Swahili word meaning "purpose." While not as concept driven as, say, the Infesticons' Gun Hill Road, Nia did contain some solid arguments against jiggification. The single "Deception" accurately related the current state of the rap world's materialistic obsessions, like a Y2K version of BDP's "Love's Gonna Get'cha."

Blackalicious could very well have been speaking to Lil' Kim, a marginal talent with a boob job, a blond wig, and Chanel accessories. While her performance at "Summer Jam" left much to be desired, you couldn't open up a magazine without seeing the female MC turned product spokeswoman (for Iceberg Jeans, MAC cosmetics, and others). Kim's tireless self-exploitation overshadowed the lyrical efforts of Bahamadia and Rah Digga (who has skills but kept getting asked by magazines about the wildest place she's ever, you know, done it).

Therein lies the fault: no matter how much hip-hop attempts to elevate, it remains shackled to cliché. Throughout the year, rap and violence continued to be linked in the media. Headlines screamed about the deadly conflict between rival record labels in Hunters Point; the five people stabbed at a Cash Money-Ruff Ryders show in Boston; the riot that ended the Oakland Coliseum Cash Money show before the group even went on; Puffy's wild ride with Jennifer Lopez following a nightclub shoot-out; and the controversy surrounding basketball star Allen Iverson's homophobic, misogynist lyrics. Behind every successful rapper was a legal case, it seemed, from Eminem's arrest on charges of pistol-whipping his estranged wife's lover to ODB's going AWOL from rehab to Dre's suing Napster.

Like many big news stories this year, the Napster issue became as much a P.R. battle as a legal issue. And as the presidential election proved, what you see on the news doesn't always accurately reflect reality. Peeping beyond a corporate media-informed worldview, this year there was a tremendous upsurge of political content in hip-hop not seen since the Reagan era. At the vanguard were Dead Prez, whose Let's Get Free created a nationwide buzz among grassroots activists with blistering sociopolitical commentaries like "They Schools" and "I'm a African." Proposition 21 passed in California, yet compilations like No More Prisons and the Unbound Project warned urban youth of the dangers of the prison-industrial complex, a much more tangible foe than the faceless Illuminati who were all the rage a couple of years ago. After Amadou Diallo's killers escaped justice, hip-hop demanded respect with "One Four Love," an all-star jam along the lines of "Self Destruction" and "Let Me See Your I.D." There were other signs of life as well. Common's Like Water for Chocolate, Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek's Reflection Eternal, and De La Soul's Art Official Intelligence proved that thought-provoking hip-hop could be as commercially viable as thugged-out "murda musik" or basic booty-shaking material. In hip-hop, as in life, "it ain't all good," to paraphrase De La Soul and Chaka Khan, but it ain't all bad either.

By Eric K. Arnold
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