Rap: Popular and Underground Hip Hop
Since the early to mid 90's, hip-hop has undergone changes that purists would consider degenerating to its culture. At the root of these changes is what has been called "commercial hip-hop". Commercial hip-hop has deteriorated what so many emcees in the 80's tried to build- a culture of music, dance, creativity, and artistry that would give people not only something to bob their head to, but also an avenue to express themselves and deliver a positive message to their surroundings.
What does the term "commercial" mean? It can take on various meanings, but in essence that term is used to label artists who have alienated parts of the hip-hop culture in their work. The High and Mighty, a duo from Philadelphia signed to Rawkus Records, summed up what commercial hip-hop is in their 1999 single release "The Meaning". Mr. Eon says: "...they're tryin' to turn hip-hop to just plain rappin'/let the poppers pop/and the breakers break..."
But the disenchantment with artists who don't appreciate hip-hop as consisting of emceeing, breaking, graffiti art, beat boxing and dj-ing is not new. Underground artists, predominately hip-hop purists, have lashed out at biters and perpetrators for many years. For example, in 1989 3rd Bass released their first album, The Cactus Cee/D. Throughout the album, MC Serch and Prime Minister Pete Nice scold the commercialized booty shakers like MC Hammer for corrupting hip-hop, particularly on the track "The Gasface" they specifically call out Hammer for his antics.
Inside the album jacket, Serch sums up hip-hop in ‘89: "There was a time when nothing was more important than the New York Rap Scene." It's dilluted, but not divided." To hip-hop afficionados, Serch's quote sounds like the equivalent to a Vietnam soldier's letter home. Obviously, the group saw the possibility of the hip-hop culture being tainted.
Another good example of a group combatting the increase in commercial hip-hop was The Boot Camp Clik, consisting of Buckshot, Helter Skelter, Cocoa Brovaz, OGC, Illa Noyz and The Representativz. The Clik's slogan throughout the duration of their 1997 release Album for the People was: "Commercial rap get the gun clap". A descendent of the early backpacker days, Buckshot has always been opposed to mainstream artists who sacrfice artistic integrity in the lure for more money.
The underground hip-hop scene has emerged as a circuit where young, talented and intelligent emcees can thrive. Their message is less abrasive and violent. While not all underground artists are choir boys, they are not barking over mics in a frenzy either.. They play small, sometimes dark and dank venues in front of a couple hundred people or much less than that.
Like the Christians in ancient Rome who held mass in catacombs and spread their religion secretly, underground artists are privately leading a revolution in these small clubs now in promotion of returning rap to hip-hop, and there probably has never been such a fierce fire lit under the artists like there is now to bring change. Underground artists are fed up with how hip-hop is treated by a lot of major labels that have changed the structure of songs. In 2000, especially on the radio, you may hear one or two verses, an R&B singer lacing the track and then a hook that is repeated enough times to take up 3 plus minutes. This is a brash example of today's state of hip-hop, but the point is made- creativity in hip-hop has been pushed aside for tracks that incorporate overused samples, have no real message, and have virtually eliminated the DJ from the music.
Remember when you could listen to a song for five minutes and all you heard was Rakim bouncing outrageous similes and euphemisms off his tongue and Eric B. blessing the 1s and 2s. Not only was there depth in those types of tracks, but there was creativity and ingenuity. What about groups like Afrika Baambata whose songs lasted as long as infommercials. Eric B. & Rakim and Baambata are perferct examples of the true hip-hop culture because they were innovators and trendsetters, and Rakim never had enough to say.
Unless you are an underground fan, you never hear artists like that on the radio. In reality, people have been brainwashed into thinking that what they hear on the radio is hip-hop. It falls terribly short of hip-hop, and may not be worthy of being called rap. Since 1995, we have seen a trend in the implementation of R&B into hip-hop music. The problem with that is it has dilluted the music. Commercial artists like Jay Z, for example, know that the dough will roll in if Blackstreet does the hook for one of his tracks that he, as stated earlier, only writes a couple versus to. Money now controls hip-hop instead of the artists controlling it, and label execs have become more powerful in determining how an artist's music will sound. This explains the increase in the number of independent labels because artists have discovered that they lose creative control over their music when they sign on with major labels.
Now that I've ranted over the gripes we purists have about hip-hop as a whole, the next few chapters will deal with separate issues surrounding the decline, yet hopeful resurrection of the elements of the hip-hop culture.
Who Stole the DJ?
Ladies and gentleman, I'd like to announce that having DJ Skribble on MTV twice a week just won't cut it. MTV is a pseudo hip hop promoter. Tossing Funkmaster Flex on TRL three times a year is a feeble attempt at representing hip-hop and the art of dj-ing. Which poses the question, where is the Dj in hip-hop today. Well, dj-ing has long been an underappreciated art form to begin with. With all the "Get Your Roll Ons" and Jiggas out there yapping about their ice and Bentleys, there hardly seems room for any display of turntablism.
Not that the underground scene hasn't held down the Dj as the centerpiece of the music, but when hip-hop first became popular in the mid 80's it was laden with not only battle emceeing and storytelling, but Djs like Grandmaster Flash, Aladdin, and Marley Marl were shredding the wax and were main focuses of the hip-hop movement. Now, the songs the average hip-hop listener hears have generic scratches your younger brother could lay down on his Fisher-Price record player.
Without much attention from outside the hip-hop community, dj-ing has become turntablism and turntablism has become an art form all of its own. Grandmaster Theodore may have invented the scratch while fooling around with his James Brown records in 1976, but in the past ten years Dj collectives such as the X-ecutioners, Invisbl Skratch Piklz, and a wide range of other American and foreign Djs have made it the spectacle it is today.
There is a movement now to bring the turntables back into the public eye because these Djs are as talented as the world's greatest guitarists, and in fact, turntablism as it is called now is already considered neo-jazz. Who would have thought that a simple scratch would have led to two turntables and a mixer evolving into the world's newest instrument. If you ask anyone who is knowledgeable about turntablism, the will tell you that the 1s and 2s are an instrument.
Pick up any mixtape by Dj Q-Bert or Grandmaster Roc Raida. Using the turntables and mixer, they take hip-hop classic tracks and ones from other genres and turn them into completely new songs by manipulating sounds and vocals on the records. To witness this in person, is the equivalent to witnessing a David Copperfield magic show. You wonder how one person can create so many sounds with two hands, two turntables and one mixer.
Turntablism is a staple in underground hip-hop, with groups like Dilated Peoples basing their tracks on what Dj Babu does with the wax. What is imperative now is for turntablism to get more exposure on TV and on record, and promoting this art form, underground emcees will get more exposure as well.
What is an Emcee?
An Emcee or Master of Ceremonies(MC) throughout the history of hip-hop has been defined as the one who can control the crowd with his voice and crush opponents with his lyrics. The greatest emcees of all time like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One have been successful for their ability to create cadences that were unheard before their time. They had seemingly endless vocabularies and set the trend for later emcees who would try to emulate the way they wrote and the way the spoke. They had the intelligence, confidence, and storytelling capability to leave crowds and listeners in awe of their lyrical content, whether it was at a fast pace or slowed down.
Notice that these emcees have been around for years. If to pick out two emcees today who could compare to that kind of battle emcee ability that Rakim, Kane, and KRS have it would have to be Canibus and Eminem. Most hip-hop fans in the 80s and early 90s would be able to recognize the three that were listed above and then some, and that is the problem now. There is an enormous amount of talent in the underground scene, but the average listener knows Jay-Z, Juvenile,and Trick Daddy - three artists who are unbearable to listen and have shown either no lyrical ability whatsoever, or in the case of Jay-Z have just plain gotten worse over the years. Artists like Jay-Z have specifically expressed in songs that they do not love hip-hop. Jay-Z: "I ain't a rapper. I'm a gangsta that knows how to rap."
That is why the music some people this is hip-hop, is garbage. It's half-assed music involving no creativity at all, just a bunch of ignoramuses trying to get paid. Those with skill might get paid less, but they take pride in how much harder it is to be original than it is to mumble over tracks and stagnate this art form with tired topics.
What does this all mean so far?
You may ask be asking yourself these questions at this point: Why does this guy want underground hip-hop to get more attention? Wouldn't that cause some of the artists to become commercialized if they got paid more?
My answer is this. First of all, underground hip-hop already gets attention from its own fans- plenty of attention. But, not enough for it to influence our youth and everyone around the globe(though underground groups have succeeded overseas). Underground artists are notorious for being positive and sticking to the artistic aspect of things and bucking the norms of commercialism. If you listen to the radio, you hear a lot of artists who sound the same, talk the same, have the same beats, and talk about the same damn things i.e. money and cars, and don't have any message.
What message does the underground scene have that commercialized hip-hop does not?
The message is not always stated for you in the music. Three things that true hip-hop has over the radio rotation are creativity, originality, and experimentation, which could all mean the same thing to hip-hop fans. Still, there is a message passed down from the godfathers of hip-hop and that is: To earn respect, skills on the mic must be shown. The ability to rock a crowd with sheer lyricism, explaining why you are doper than the other man, and having a Dj who could support you with dope beats were essentials in old school hip-hop and still are in the underground scene.
Underground hip-hop is filled with groups such as The Pharcyde, The Roots, Jigmastas, and Jurassic 5 who use live instruments to not only enhance their lyrical talents, but also to give audiences a great show. All four of these groups are dedicated to preserving hip-hop culture. Emcees battle to prove they are iller, Djs do the same thing, and breakers, break dancers, poppers, whatever you want to call them, continue the tradition of mixing their dance art form of popping, locking and spinning using the music to help create different techniques.
What has been great for the underground scene is its ability to sell more records now, and that is by and large due to the increase of smaller, independent record labels(see chapter 1). Labels such as Rawkus, Fondle ‘Em, Stones Throw, Goodvibe, ABB Records, and others can compete with majors like Bad Boy and Def Jam now because they are backed by people who have money and want to see hip-hop culture survive.