Dear Readers… as you all are aware, your favorite writer Typo-Critical has recently embarked upon a campaign to assess and project where Rap and R&B music appears to be going as we head into 2011-2020. To get a feel for where I’m going with these predictions, peep the first edition of “The Future of Music.” Now, on to my next one –
Prediction 2: “conscious” rap briefly re-emerges.
“I’m one of the few who’s been accused and abused/of the crime of poisonin’ young minds/but you don’t know shit ’til you been in my shoes!” – Dr. Dre, “100 Miles N Runnin'”
The last decade of the twentieth century (the 90s) witnessed a slight building upon what has been popularly referred to as “conscious rap.” Channeling oratorical masterpieces of poets of the 60s and 70s like Gil Scott-Heron and Amiri Baraka, conscious rap music was classified as any music that incited thought, discussion, or dissection of issues prevalent in a given community. The most distinctive difference between these past poets and conscious rappers of the 90s, is that the former often wrote pieces geared towards Black pride and challenging “the Man”; while the latter talked about the harsh realities that came with being a part of an underclass or underrepresented community.
Following groups such Eric B & Rakim and Public Enemy (when Flavor Flav was a rebel in his own mind instead of about chicken and chickenheads), arguably gangsta rap in its earliest forms could be considered the emergence of conscious rap in the 90s. I could literally dedicate a book to gangsta rap – indeed, it’s already been done – but just for a reference point, the rap group N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit’ Attitudes) was one of the earliest and most well-known gangsta rap groups. *Note: I say this with no disrespect to Boogie Down Productions, whose Criminal Minded album back in the 80s is credited with birthing “gangsta rap” before the group went conscious*. N.W.A. was largely credited with bringing in a very raw, uncut sound to rap music and hence starting a trend that continues to this day (although it has focused less on violence and more so especially on the drug-dealing/”trapping” aspect in the modern).
However, N.W.A. also challenged the establishment – their raw message was littered with numerous references to police violence and society’s categorization of “people who looked like them.” The hard-riding beats that accompanied N.W.A. songs made it easy to bob your head along to songs like “Straight Outta Compton,” and the rebellious nature of their music made you want to shout “Fuck the Police” right along with them. Importantly, N.W.A. embodied in their own way the idea that – to borrow two-hit wonder City High’s famous words – “For you, this is just a good time, but for me, this is what I call life”: Listeners were engaged and entertained by their music, so they didn’t always realize that the stories rap groups like N.W.A. had to tell were very much rooted in reality and spoke on behalf of those who could not.
N.W.A. was far from the only rap group of the early 90s to pack thought-provoking messages within banging beats; they would be followed by individuals such as Lonnie “Common/Common Sense” Lynn, Lauryn Hill, and BlackStar (Mos Def and Talib Kweli). But ultimately, around the mid-90s, conscious music fell off. It became less in demand and hence, available but “less present.”
“C’mon, I got that ignorant shit you need/ Nigga, fuck, shit, ass, b*tch, trick, plus weed/I’m only trying to give you what you want/ Nigga, fuck, shit, ass, b*tch, you like it, don’t front!”- Jay-Z, “Ignorant Shit”
Fast-forward ahead to the 2000s. Carrying over some of the remnants of the early gangsta rap movement – guys like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, and West Side Connection, all of whom had evolved from their “straight from the streets” early roots to adapt to the changing times and demands of the listening public – the first decade of the twenty-first century was largely permeated with what can be poignantly referred to as “ignorant shit.”
This type of rap of music usually tended to be pointless: it served no purpose and communicated no message other than the need to have a good time. It became customary for such “ignorant shit” to be marketed by record labels because that was what the people wanted – after all, if all you listened to was thought-provoking music, then, where was the fun in that, right? Dances such as “The Dougie” and “Crank Dat Soulja-Boy” (as well as this modern manifestation of the minstrel dance), and the emergence of the “crunk” and “snap music” eras (especially put on the map by Lil’ Jon and T-Pain/Dem Franchise Boys, respectively), became a standard. Artists with a message, such as Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique, and Little Brother, were largely ignored except by hip-hop purists longing for a movement in spite of (or perhaps, in addition to) “moving your body.”
However, the mid-2000s was also marked by emerging people who DID have a message amidst the madness. Kanye West, clearly a pioneer in the rap genre, utilized samples from sounds past and a stellar talent for storytelling to recount the “life of fame” but also to voice crucial commentary on every album (Kanye’s superior rap ability would ultimately be eclipsed by his irresponsible, egotistical actions, although his creativity would NEVER be doubted in spite of it all). Lupe Fiasco was another; Fiasco would layer ridiculous double-meanings in every song, almost subliminally begging the listener to “play me again” just so they wouldn’t miss anything. Finally, there’s Jean Grae, who packs a wallop in terms of her delivery over beats and her overall cleverness (she literally laced one song with references to the major record labels). Grae would garner a following but would sadly go largely ignored by the mainstream (probably because 1) she’s a female MC, and female rappers tend to not have a high “industry mortality rate”, especially when 2) you’re the “rebellious type” that doesn’t drip sex. Am I right, Roxanne Shante?).
So why does Typo-Critical think conscious rap will return (for a brief moment, anyway)? Because the mainstream artists have gotten on their Spider-Man tip: they’ve realized that “with great power, comes great responsibility” to give not only good music, but a message to listeners. Several mainstream artists have carefully slid one or two tracks onto their recent albums that incite serious thought. For example, Ludacris would call attention to child abuse his “Runaway Love” collabo with Mary J. Blige. Lil’ Wayne would drop “Georgia… Bush” and the haunting Robin Thicke collabo “Tie My Hands,” tracks loaded with barbs at and discontent towards the government’s failure to respond effectively enough when Hurricane Katrina hit his home state. And the aforementioned West and Lupe have garnered mainstream followings of their own.
I can’t say that conscious rappers as a whole will find a consistent career in the industry. After all, we’re still in the age where people would rather move than hear a movement. It does, however, appear to me, that for at least the next few years following 2011, songs that incite thought and discussion will pique interest. There’s a recent trend amongst rappers to discuss the dark side of their fame, and the natural progression from that, is surely societal commentary. I’m hopeful that conscious music and conscious rappers will get their fifteen minutes – and probably ONLY just 15 minutes – much like they did at the start of the 90s. The success of “the Obama song” just two years ago has hinted that the people are interested in thinking again. So don’t be surprised if artists like Drake, Wale, and Eminem (word to “Mosh”) start using their storytelling to raise awareness, if only for a short period of time.