“They say keep’em on gangs and drugs/You wanna sweep a nigga like me up under the rug/Kicking shit called street knowledge/Why more niggas in the pen than in college?”
-Ice Cube, “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate,” 1990
Then there’s the danger for limiting oneself, of putting oneself in a box. The negative label thing. Kweli’s forthcoming sixth solo album is titled Prisoner of Conscious, suggesting the danger of getting too political. “It certainly can be a gift and a curse,” he says. “To say I’m a prisoner of consciousness is not completely accurate—but I think someone could easily become that if they’re not careful of that as an artist.”
On the other side of the experience spectrum, you can find a rapper like Big K.R.I.T., a mixtape favorite who has been breaking his way into some higher-profile guest spots—T.I.’s “I’m Flexin’,” The Roots’ “Make My.” The Mississippi native proclaims an enduring affection for Southern rap’s conscious history, one he identifies as running from UGK to OutKast and Goodie Mob, but cautions that rappers today have more than just record-company cynicism on their minds.
“It’s hard, brother,” K.R.I.T. says with a laugh, pointing out that fans can be just as jaded as rappers. “Only because, just from the outside looking in, it could seem like [a rapper is saying] ‘Vote for this person, and my album’s comin out!’ You got your release date, know what I’m sayin’? As a business- person, you should be trying to promote yourself—but it’s very difficult to be serious about your career, promote your business and, you know, do something with politics, because people say, ‘Oh, he’s just trying to sell his album.’ And you don’t wanna take the seriousness out of the situation.”
None of that is to diminish the fact that the record industry plays its part in tamping down anything resembling radical social content in hip-hop. After all, Chicago’s politically outspoken star Lupe Fiasco spent a well-publicized interim between 2007’s The Cool and 2011’s Lasers fighting with Atlantic Records over the tone of that latter album. Last year, just before the release of Lasers, he wasn’t shy about revealing what had happened in the intervening years. “I asked, ‘What album do you want at this point? You’re shitting on my creativity,’” he recalled. “And they said, ‘We want Top 40. We want No. 1 smashes.’ So the focus for everybody, from A&R down to the writers that I write with, went to ‘Let’s get these smashes, write these big-ass hooks and get these big humongous beats.’”
“Rats in the front room/Roaches in the back/Junkies in the alley with the baseball bat/I tried to get away but I couldn’t get far/’Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car…”
-Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, “The Message,” 1982
K.R.I.T. talks about similar pressures facing artists trying to break in, admitting that he’s made plenty of music he considered less than world-improving. “I’m out here trying to survive, man. I was tryin’ to make music. That was how I was tryin’ to support myself. Once you get in, you know, now that you have a voice, I would hope that everybody would, in the midst of the party records and the hustling records, still put something that’s positive and uplifting in your music. Because it’s about overall balance at the end of the day.”
K.R.I.T.’s most focused song, in this respect, is probably “Another Naive Individual Glorifying Greed & Encouraging Racism”—just piece together the acronym for yourself. “It was like, Aight, I dealt with this growing up. Racism isn’t over,” he says of the song. “There’s still a lot of ignorant things goin’ on out here, and I just felt like rapping about it. I might not [make] an entire CD full of that, but two or three songs that really touch on America and politics and things like that, or what might be goin’ on in your own backyard.”
Kweli seconds K.R.I.T. here, saying that internal questions of balance are paramount. “I truly believe the intention of the artist is to be as honest as possible. Now, if I’m gonna be honest with myself, I’m not conscious 100 percent of the time,” he says. But Kweli also notes that the lack of balance in the rest of the hip-hop world is what makes him seem like an anomaly. “I truly feel like my music is extremely balanced, but because of the lack of consciousness that you see in mainstream music, my music seems like it’s overtly conscious. But my focus is on the art. You wouldn’t even be talking to me if I wasn’t a dope MC.”
“’Cause I’m Black and I’m proud/I’m ready, I’m hyped, plus I’m amped/Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”
-Chuck D, Public Enemy, “Fight the Power,” 1989
Really, though, rap’s critics and fans have to look at themselves first and foremost. Music is always a reflection of the culture at large. Put another way, conscious rap is only ever as strong as the social consciousness of rap’s audience at any given time. Remember the then-still-named Mos Def ’s spoken intro to 1999’s Black on Both Sides album: “People talk about hip-hop like it’s some giant livin’ in the hillside, comin’ down to visit the townspeople. We are hip-hop. Me, you, everybody—we are hip-hop. So hip-hop is goin’ where we goin’.” At moments when social-activist passion is focused and strident, whether by generational influence or by activist movements just booting up, consciousness becomes a big enough part of the hip-hop world to merit its own genre tag. But when that passion flags, so does the evidence of it in rap.
That may be changing, though, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. “A lot of artists decided that they would take a stand [there],” K.R.I.T. notes. Kweli was certainly one of them. His early appearance at Zuccotti Park back in October, during which he delivered a freestyle and a rendition of Black Star’s “Thieves in the Night,” was an early shot in the arm to the encampment.
“I’m going to incorporate some of all that on the album, Prisoner of Conscious,” he says. “Regardless of what’s going on in Oakland, regardless of them getting kicked out, the image of that protest is forever ingrained in our mind and it elevated the people. It really elevated the voice of protest to the national stage in America. They took their cues from what’s goin’ on in the Arab Spring and they really did a good job, man. From the Vancouver group Adbusters, to the people in Occupy D.C., Wall Street, Houston, Oakland especially. I went to Occupy Alaska. It was 12 degrees, and it was five people out there in the snow. Can’t nobody tell me that’s not focus and dedication.”
We’ll see. This summer, when the weather heats up along with the presidential race, if that kind of protest culture takes seed across the nation again, perhaps it’s not too much to expect that a group of rising rap artists will emerge with some message- oriented work meant to help sustain it.