Rap traces its roots to Jamaica, where, in the late 1960s, party DJs would often "toast" or speak in a sing-song over a rhythm dance track. Hip-hop became, and is still, the preferred staple for partying, from Tone Loc's "Wild Thing" in the '80s to Will Smith's recent hit, "Getting Jiggy Wit It." But from its introduction, rap wove itself into American black culture. The first huge rap anthem, 1979's "Rapper's Delight," celebrated both the art form itself and the easy pleasure of hanging on the corner, trading rhymes.
Soon, alongside the partying, other strains developed. In the early '70s, with the rise of radical groups like The Last Poets, rap became a rapid-fire mechanism for communication in the information age. The 1982 hit Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" portrayed the starkness of inner-city life: "It's like a jungle sometime/It's a wonder I keep from going under." Public Enemy's Chuck D has called rap the "black people's CNN"--the place where the folks get their information. In 1988, N.W.A.'s profane "[Expletive] Tha Police" was considered appalling. Three years later, after the Rodney King verdict, it seemed prophetic, and suddenly rap became more credible in the wider culture as a political, spiritual, even a journalistic voice.
Meanwhile, the competing, and often contradictory, building blocks of contemporary rap were being put into place. KRS-ONE and his Boogie Down Productions offered philosophy; Public Enemy preached its radical form of politics; and, on the West Coast, N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) offered a raw, cynical nihilism, sneering, "Life ain't nuthin' but b**ches and money."
The latter, sad to say, seems to have come to dominate. The popular white rapper Eminem, who was discovered by N.W.A. founding member Dr. Dre, has received negative attention for lyrics that insult gays and express violence to women (including, in one song, the mother of his child).
Though rap's core audience now is young whites, it has been spared the fate of jazz and rock and roll: It is still overwhelmingly produced and performed by African-Americans. Eminems are still somewhat rare. However, more and more white rockers, like Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, and Rage Against the Machine, are incorporating rap rhythms and style into the traditional rock structure. As the sound is annexed by white groups, the cultural-political aspect has accordingly become more derivative. Public Enemy and N.W.A. correctly identified some of the troubles of urban America that produced the L.A. riots--but what's next?
That may depend on the genre's more hopeful, but limited, spiritual strain. "Hiphop is not Rap!" declares KRS-One on his new release, "A Retrospective." "Rap is something you do, Hiphop is something you live." KRS, the former Chris Parker, has lived it. He has been in the game for nearly 14 years. Following the release of his first album, "Criminal-Minded," KRS-ONE's producer/partner/mentor Scott LaRock was gunned down. Since then, he has been the leading proponent of a form of rap that is philosophical in both content and tone. An early hit was even called "My Philosophy." Another was an exhortation, "You Must Learn." Parker perceives himself as a teacher. Appropriately, he sprinkles much of his work with various Afrocentric themes and "lessons."
Today, Parker speaks of a "Temple of Hiphop," and while no one doubts his sincerity, his hold on the truth is questionable. Hip-hop may be a culture, but that doesn't make it a religion. Or rather, Parker confuses a religious culture with a culture that can lead to religion. Is hip-hop a very creative culture? Most definitely. Can it be an informing culture? At times, yes. But KRS-ONE himself has predicted what bedevils the art form most. On his album, "EDUTAINMENT," Parker warns, "Love's Gonna Getcha (Material Love)," a fable about a young boy who gets caught up in the gangsta life. As of today, hip-hop seems to have become "caught up." It worships most the mighty dollar, and can do so in the most bracing, appalling manner.
I knew his life deserved a chance But everybody told me to be smart Look at your career they said "Lauryn, baby, use your head" But instead I chose to use my heart.
Zion is Hill's son, whom she brought into the world. What is not in the song, but happens to be the case in real life, is the fact that Hill is not married to Zion's father (Rohan Marley, son of the famed reggae singer), and the couple later had another child out of wedlock before marrying. As commendable as Hill is for resisting calls for abortion--or even adoption for that matter--a smart young woman like her can't ignore the huge stress illegitimacy puts on today's black community, with nearly 70% of children being born out of wedlock. Her message, spiritually attuned or not, is mixed.
Similarly, "Just the Two of Us" by former "Fresh Prince" Will Smith is a good example of how rap's spiritual uplift turns out to be convenient justifications for less than admirable situations. Initially a song about a man and woman, "Just The Two of Us" turns into an ode about a father's love for his young son. The mother seems to be the odd one out. Is it too much to ask for an intact non-dysfunctional family within the context of this art form?
Without a doubt, rap has made essential contributions to the African-American community. Music writer Nelson George (no relation), who has been observing rap for decades, says hip-hop differs from previous styles of black music in a crucial way. "There's greater entrepreneurship in this generation." George points out that, not just in music, but in fashion, movies and the internet, today's young people are taking the energy, style, and attitude of the music and creating companies of their own. There is much to applaud about this entrepreneurial spirit. But as Peggy Lee said, "Is that all there is?"
It would be wonderful if KRS-ONE's prediction that the culture of rap can fully evolve into a spiritual medium. There are glimmers: Brooklyn rapper Mos Def seems to be a worthy heir to KRS-ONE. His "Black on Both Sides" (1999) is probably the best of recent rap albums, mixing philosophical and spiritual sentiments. The first track, "Fear Not Of Man," asks the right questions:
"Hip-Hop won't get better until the people get better then how do people get better? ... People get better when they start to understand that they are valuable And they not valuable because they got a whole lot of money Or 'cause somebody think they sexy But they valuable cause they been created by God. ..."
Mos Def devotes "Speed Law"--with its haunting chorus of "Slow down"--to showing the dangers of mindlessly chasing the misguided pleasures of street life. But like the old Public Enemy, he also decries the everyday frustrations of racial profiling and poverty.
Mos Def also owns a bookstore, devoted to Afrocentric history and spiritual themes. Clearly with a Mos Def around, appeals to thoughtful and eternal truths will certainly remain an element within rap.
However, as long as the lure of material gain remains prevalent within the larger mainstream society, hip-hop will continue to reflect and amplify those excesses. The most significant cultural creation of the last 20 years still has a ways to go before it can completely overcome the limitations of its foundations.