My marriage to hip-hop and its culture starts in 1979. I hear a "Flash Tape" and immediately I want to do whatever it is that makes this sound so good to me. Some call it epiphany, others fate -- for me it was hip-hop. There's a bit of a distance between 1979 and now; yes, things have changed. Most notably, the term hip-hop is now (amazingly) a household word. The rules are different. And yes, mediocrity has reared its ugly head.
Throughout the years I've become what is called a "music technologist." I spend time equally within the music and tech industries. I'm fortunate to have friends and colleagues in both sectors. Without question, this leads me to interesting findings, to say the least. I'm a strong advocate of these two industries learning from each other, and I've even managed to organize a business doing such. I work with several software startups and music companies/artists developing products and services. The challenges are plenty, and (I imagine) in a similar fashion that Silicon Valley aficionados say the tech world has changed, I say the same about hip-hop.
Change is not always good, or bad. Change is, and that can sometimes make it difficult to digest. Speaking of change, the entire inception of hip-hop evoked change. I not only remember, but I lived those days. The days of being told we were a passing fad. The days of being scolded that we weren't "real" music. R&B artists hated us. Pop artists had no idea of who we were. Still with all of the nay-saying (is that a word?) we continued with the determination of a young Larry Ellison. We had a point to prove, and so we charged on. Of all the things we may have been accused of, mediocrity was not on the list. We had no "status quo," we made one. We rhymed for social good, neighborhood bragging rights, and the progression of our (hip-hop) culture. Our founders (these and more), Afrika Bambaata, Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flash, laid the ground rules. We never had to "keep it real" because we kept it regular. The music of hip-hop is two turntables and a mic. We are a collage at its finest hour. Borrowing, breaking, and remaking pre-recorded music for MC's (rappers to you) like myself to say the darndest things.
To provide a short history lesson, making records (CDs to you) was not part of the original plan. In the beginning, we plugged into street lamps as an electricity source for sound systems, and came out every night (summertime, school vacation) with new lyrics to be heard by spectators, party-goers, and rival crews. So to say the same rhyme twice was a no-go. To make a record meant the same rhyme over and over, and that wasn't "fresh." Somewhere along the line, the idea was abandoned, but it still took us a long time to learn to make records well. An example is even though the Sugarhill Gang has one of the most memorable rap songs of all time, the first album by the group was composed of rapping and singing. They had no idea an album full of rap lyrics could/would be accepted. Still, we trudged on. By the late '80s, we figured it out. Chuck D of Public Enemy's "rap is the CNN of the black community" comment summarized our activity.
From NWA, The Ghetto Boys, The Click, and Kool G Rap, we knew what the inner-city had to say. From Heavy D, Kid N Play, Salt N Pepa, and De La Soul, we knew the emotion of our youth. From Arrested Development, Stetsasonic, Boogie Down Productions, and of course Public Enemy, we knew of injustice, and how we planned to deal with it.
I find it hilarious that when asked what they'd be doing if not rapping, today's (so-called) rappers often answer "I'd be in the street." Huh?? It's difficult to digest that every rapper on the radio today is a former criminal, thug or drug dealer -- nonsense. And this is where the mediocrity sets in. I'd never get all my food from one restaurant. I'd never buy all my clothes from one haberdashery. So why would I buy (although a YouTube rip would do fine) hip-hop from one source of artists? There is no political correctness in my rant. Just facts. Without diversity, there is no hip-hop, even if you choose to call it that. Hip-hop is not a reality TV show. Hip-hop is not a pair of pants sagging. Like the startups I deal with daily, hip-hop has founders, innovation, and purpose.
J Cole and Kendrick Lamar make hip-hop records. Kanye (I'm sure he knows how, but) doesn't. And Maybe LL forgot how. The culture had no voice, so here I am. Open to suggestions and criticism, just know if you're even a little off I'll tap that jaw. I miss that we (at least in this country, see my treatise on international hip-hop here) speak for all facets of society and not just one of misogyny, bottle poppin' and Bugattis. I'll be speaking more so stay tuned.