WORDS SETH COLTER WALLS
“Who the fuck is Margiela?”
-Yasin Bey, “Niggas in Poorest”
Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Niggas in Paris” gave hip-hop culture plenty to work with in 2011. There was that spring-loaded beat, so tempting for would-be remixers and verse-jumpers, as well as the popularization of the adjective “cray.” But it also opened up an avenue for socioeconomic critique—one which Yasiin Bey, the MC formerly known as Mos Def, explored early this year, with his “Niggas in Poorest” riff, released online.
In it, “ball so hard” morphed into “poor so hard,” and “don’t let me get in my zone” got twisted into “don’t get caught up in no Throne,” as Bey rendered the glinting, flossy track into a piece of classic conscious rap—one focused on a world very far away from the four-star hotel rooms in which Watch the Throne was recorded. No matter one’s feelings about the original, it was hard not to cheer when Bey took ’Ye’s shout-out to a Belgian high-fashion designer (“What’s that jacket, Margiela?”) and responded from the streets.
That might be because Bey’s angry complaint sticks out like such a sore thumb. In 2012, the 30th anniversary of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message” (which we might agree to call the birth of conscious rap, before it had to be called that), at a time when hip-hop has come to dominate the global pop marketplace, in a year that will see the first Black president run for re-election, months after the eviction of Occupy Wall Street protesters from New York’s Zuccotti Park, the music that Chuck D once called “the CNN for Black people” seems less concerned with social or political issues than ever. From big sellers to blog favorites, Rick Ross to A$AP Rocky, no one’s much discussing the problems of the world. Even the most “thoughtful” of today’s rap stars—J. Cole, Drake—tend to focus their rhymes on the personal side.
The sense of frustration is evident, even among artists who have transitioned out of the genre. The Sundance Film Festival isn’t usually where you go to hear lectures on what contemporary hip-hop should or could feel like. But when Ice-T—who these days receives more attention for his role on Law & Order: SVU than for music—took a new documentary to Park City, Utah, last month, he used the opportunity to vent his frustrations about the state of the message in rap.
“My mind won’t allow me to not be curious/My folk don’t understand so they don’t take it serious/But every now and then/I wonder if the gate was put up to keep crime out or keep our ass in?”
-Cee-Lo, Goodie Mob, “Cell Therapy,” 1995
“Pop music is cool, but…I don’t really feel that they’re using the music at full power,” Ice said, describing the new generation of rappers to the online film magazine Indiewire. “I don’t want to sing about girls and parties. I want to sing about movements; I want to sing about Wall Street; I want to sing about the shit that’s happening in the war. I miss that.” Call it an old man’s lament if you want, but the refreshingly honest MC-turned-actor is ready for that. “I’m looking for a 19-year-old Public Enemy…or N.W.A,” he said at another press conference at Sundance, as reported by the New York Post in January 2012. “It’s gonna take nuts. I’m too old—the kids won’t listen to me.”
Clearly, “conscious rap” as a label has lost a good deal of its shine since its late-’90s peak. So it’s understandable that relatively few up-and-comers are eager to take up the mantle and fix their star to that dated bit of terminology. Even the leftfield Los Angeles rapper Busdriver opened up his 2009 album by saying, “Yo, be real: Conscious rap failed us.”
“What’s the solution to stop all this confusion?/Rewrite the constitution? Change the drug and what you’re using?”
-KRS-ONE, “Stop The Violence,” 1988
Remember, though, that consciousness in hip-hop didn’t start circa Black Star, or even with the Native Tongues Clique. Cynics can be cynical about the state of the record business and the need for corporate-friendly commercial branding. And yes, sometimes a rapper like Common will go from putting a vintage picture of a “colored only” drinking fountain on the cover of an album titled Like Water for Chocolate to making Gap ads. That’ll always happen. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t ask, especially of rising stars, what happened to that message in the music?
In talking to MCs, both those well-seasoned and those relatively new on rap’s radar, you’ll hear some expected answers (yes, radio play is still important) but also some surprising things. Brooklyn’s Talib Kweli—Yasiin Bey’s once and future partner in Black Star and a man who ditched his major-label deal with Warner Bros. back in 2010—doesn’t put the drop in conscious rhymes at record labels’ collective door. He believes it was a natural process, driven by history. “You gotta think: Kids then who were singing, the rappers who were on that consciousness, were children of Civil Rights activists and Black activists,” he says. “They were coming of age in the late ’80s, early ’90s, when they were becoming adults. So you hear their parents’ echo. The next thing after that, after the Black Power movement, was sort of like the ’70s Blaxploitation era, where everybody wanted to be a player, you know? So that’s the next wave that you saw in hip-hop. It went from Black consciousness to ‘I’m a pimp, I’m a hustler,’ with a little bit of gangsterism in it. People embrace what it is that they grew up with. So now you have kids who grew up with hip-hop, which is why you got A$AP Rocky, who’s dressing like a drug dealer from the ’80s. That’s what he’s appreciating.”
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