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More Than Music: A Retrospective on Conscious Hip Hop

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Where oh where has Hip Hop’s social consciousness gone? These days it seems you can’t turn on the radio without being forced to hear someone who has dedicated a whole song to superficiality and misogyny. Now I like my uncomplicated bass level entertainment just as much as anyone, but there has to be a balance. I was a child at a time when gangster rap was on the rise, I can still remember my mother’s perturbed face as she attempted to digest the brashness of NWA (Niggas With Attitudes).

She didn’t see the point in detailing such an ugly and harsh reality, and wasn’t trying to hear the “they are just talking about what they see on a daily basis” argument. My mother like many in her generation, prefers music that offers an element of peaceful escape. My mother would much rather a funny and slightly cornier diddy from the likes of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, who reflected rap’s earlier playful party roots, over anything that was coming out of the west coast at that time. My father on the other hand, having been a member of the Black Panther Party, was more keen on a new sect of Hip Hop emerging at the same time, it was just as gritty as Gangster Rap but had the mission of educating and liberating young black people, as opposed to just shaking things up or giving youth music to dance to. Artists like Public Enemy and The Boogie Down Productions (BDP) used Rap as a platform to address socio-political imbalances and racial injustice head on.

Just as we could rely on NWA and Ice T to detail the ugliness of crimes prompted by poverty and ethnic despair, we could count on hearing the reasons for and motives for the frustrations and angst coming out of the ghetto either from a Gagster Rapper himself, as many of them dealt with issues like police brutality and racial profiling, or from his rebellious counterparts who would later become known a Conscious Rappers.

Fueled by the the energy of their poetic predecessors of the 70s, Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five released the 1st “conscious” Hip Hop song in 1982 called “The Message.”

“The Message” with its infectious hook of “don’t push me cuz I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head. Its like a jungle sometime that makes me wonder how I keep from going under” could be heard everywhere in the black community at the time, and has been sampled and used throughout hip hop history. Some would say that “The Message” is responsible for both conscious and gangster rap as the song embodies elements of both, and no one could deny that rap had been changed forever from just the fun party music it had been for the years prior.  Artists like Public Enemy made this political, community conscious, rebellious music stick and created a lane for artists like Arrested Development, Dead Prez, Lauryn Hill, KRS-One, Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, The Roots and Nas. Nowadays Hip Hops trajectory is completely different, as it seems that most rappers, though they have the ability to write narratives of the black experience, would much rather tell stories about the GREEN experience. Money and the perception of wealth is what lines the top 40. We want to make love to our money, wage war with our money, and if money can’t change it or serve as the way to engage whatever the issue is Rappers aren’t trying to touch it. It has gotten to the point now where if you are fortunate enough to hear a socially conscious Hip Hop song on the radio the author is more than likely white.

Maclemore and Ryan Lewis took 2013 by storm and the way they did it was by picking up a more traditional style of Hip Hop that seems to have been abandoned. Their first single “Thrift Shop” actually reminded me a lot of party driven hip hop of the early 80s mixed with the flows out of Brooklyn in the 90s. “Thrift Shop” was catchy and danceable, but when they released “Same Love” and began sweeping awards for the “Hip Hop” category everyone was like “wait, so the white boys winning all the hip hop awards, and for a conscious song? But that doesn’t sell.” Yeah Yeah I know “when whites do what blacks have done for years everyone is amazed” but when we have all but given up on a certain style because we view it as “less than marketable” this is the outcome. So conscious Hip Hop goes the way of Jazz and Rock and Roll before it, to our white counterparts, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

About the author

LDub has written 65 articles for BE Entertained Magazine

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