A Rhyme To Kill
No, hip-hop is not “dead.” It’s going through the same growing pains every other musical genre has gone through
Freedom or jail, clips inserted, a baby’s being born/same time a man is murdered; the beginning and end -Nas from “Nas Is Like” (1999)
Despite being less than fifty years old in its commercial form, hip-hop music has always been obsessed with death. From album titles — Death Certificate, De La Soul is Dead, Ready To Die, countless others — to actual deaths of luminaries such as Notorious B.I.G., Big L and Big Pun, the “alpha to omega” finality of life within the culture has always been prevalent. There is a think piece surely to be written about the sociological circumstances of the artform’s purveyors and how that has shaped the macabre fascinations…but, this is not that.
Hip-hop is not dead. Not commercially. Not artistically. Not culturally. You cannot kill a movement and way of life that affects millions and permeates pop culture on countless levels, from fashion to slang to influence. The word “bling,” for better or worse, is in the Webster’s Dictionary for a reason. Hip-hop, at its core, is the new jazz: a form of music that is 100% American. Curated and cultivated by all walks of life, the culture is advanced by various races and genders, which is part of its inherent beauty.
To “purists,” album covers like Lil Yachty’s above represent the culture gone awry. Absent are the menacing scowls, sullen stares and mean mugs of album artwork’s past. Instead you see the acceptance of all potential listeners, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. Simply put: the future of this country.
While certainly not a pioneer, Lil Yachty and others have helped to proliferate the “mumble rap” wave that sits atop Billboard charts weekly. The syncing of nursery rhyme-level lyricism with down-tempo, brooding bass lines have captured the ears of many, young and old. For others not quite ready to unlace their Timberlands and slice cuts in their snugly fit denim, the new era has been hard to adapt to. This is not to say “real” hip-hop has vanished. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, WestSide Gunn, Conway The Machine and countless others continue to produce timeless music with equal fanfare; and this is what makes the culture transcendent.
The bridging of these ideologies and the prominence that both subgenres have within the progression of hip-hop, is something other genres have seen for generations. Limp Bizkit was the biggest “rock” group two decades ago and from that spawned “post-punk” megabands such as The Strokes and The Killers. Music always has a way of self-correcting to its truest form, both commercially and subversively. So to all of my “hip-hop heads,” take a deep breathe and repeat the words of early 21st-century poet, Kendrick Lamar: “we gon’ be alright..”
#SaturdaySeven Vol. 6- MCs Who’ve Passed Away
On Tuesday, June 20th, hip-hop lost one of the most influential street MCs of all-time, Prodigy from Mobb Deep. If it is fair to say that he had lost a little off his fastball in recent years, then it is equally fair to say that in the mid-late 90’s, he was Pedro Martinez. He will forever have listeners “stuck off the realness,” and his place in hip-hop’s Cooperstown is undisputed.
When five is not enough and ten is too many, I present the sixth weekly installment of #SaturdaySeven (note: yes, it’s Friday this week). This is less a “ranking” than just a list of handpicked favorites, but #7 will always be considered the “top.” The lists will frequently be somewhat random and niche. You can find last week’s list here. Up next: Top MCs Who Have Passed Away Far Too Early.
- JUST missed: Ol’ Dirty Bastard (arguably the inventor of “mumble rap,” this Wu-Tang legend was for the children), Pimp C (rappers today really need to put down the styrofoam cup), Freaky Tah (get you a hype man like him), Heavy D (got nothin’ but love for him, my bad if I’m not currently into “Black Coffee,” though), Easy-E (didn’t write his own lyrics, but a legend nonetheless) and finally, what is sure to be controversial — Guru (I’m not sure if I have to turn in my “true hip-hop fan” card, but Guru was not good/influential enough in my opinion for this list. Not to say of course that Gangstarr is not legendary, or that he’s not talented. He just never suited my personal taste and if I have to argue to defend that position, I’m ready. Speaking of controversial…)
- 2pac (Tupac Shakur, 1971–1996) OK. Full disclosure: I am not a fan of 2pac. I was not a fan of him when he was living and did not change that stance after his passing. Maybe it was growing up on the east coast and idolizing NYC rappers. Maybe it was a subconscious desire to go against the grain. Or maybe, I was entranced by the complex wordplay of artists like Nas and his simplistic style never grabbed my ear. Regardless, he was a hip-hop legend and probably the most famous artist on this list — certainly the best-selling. While he will rank higher than this for most, he checks in at the bottom for me, personally.
2. Sean Price (Sean Price, 1972–2015) Arguably’s Boot Camp Clik’s most well-known member and certainly the most-prolific in the 21st century, P(!!) earns his place on this list with his honest “brokest rapper you know” creed and unflinching loyalty to the boom bap culture.
3. Phife Dawg (Malik Izaak Taylor, 1970–2016) Representing one of the GOAT hip-hop groups, A Tribe Called Quest, the 5-foot Assassin produced three decades of witty wordplay punctuated with honesty and sports references. One of the more distinct flows and voices on the list.
4. Prodigy (Albert Johnson, 1974–2017) As outlined earlier, the most recent addition to this list will be remembered posthumously as a street hip-hop pioneer and figurehead. And if you disagree, he’ll throw a TV at you, crazy.
5. Big L (Lamont Coleman, 1974–1999) While well-known to seasoned hip-hop fans, Big L’s passing nearly two decades ago is often forgotten simply from a lack of commercial success. Would that have changed had he signed with Jay Z? Without question. Alas, we are only left with “what if’s” and fuego freestyles like this.
6. Big Pun (Christopher Lee Rios, 1971–2000) Terror Squad’s muscle passed right as his career was reaching the stratosphere. While not matching the acclaim or sonic boom of his first album, Capital Punishment, Pun ominously proclaimed on his second LP, Yeeeah Baby that he “just lost 100 pounds, I’m trying to live!” The album was released weeks after his death, but his legacy was well secured.
*SEVEN* The Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls (Christopher George Latore Wallace, 1972–1997) If your hip-hop Mt. Rushmore does not have this man’s face on it, then it is null and void. The “King of New York” reigned over the entire industry in the middle of the 1990’s and perhaps his greatest accomplishment was producing two instant classic full-length albums in his first two — and only two — attempts while living. Someone once asked me what I thought made a great rapper. My answer was simple: you had to be exceptional at some or all of these three traits: voice, flow and lyrics. If you went into a lab and constructed the perfect MC to embody each of these characteristics, your Frankenstein would be The Notorious B.I.G.
Rest In Power to all that the culture has lost.