What is hip-hop? To different people, it can mean a wide variety of things, from rap music to graffiti. Princeton Wordnet calls it “an urban youth culture associated with rap music and the fashions of African-American residents of the inner city,” while a hip-hop advocacy website calls it “the constantly evolving spirit and consciousness of urban youth that keeps recreating itself in a never-ending cycle.”
While I can’t speak with the same authority as globalawarenessthroughhiphopculture.com, I have my own definition of hip-hop. At the time of its formation, hip-hop was a novel way for young and underprivileged minorities to express themselves and become more than what society gave them. Rap music, graffiti and anything else that can be attributed to “hip-hop” stemmed from a collective desire to nurture and create, in direct opposition to the hardships and hate faced by minorities of the 70s.
Fast forward to 2013. Today’s league of popular hip-hop artists includes a woman-beater, a crack dealer and a violent homophobe. Popular song themes include violence, materialism, mysogeny, and hard drug use. The original pioneers of rap and hip-hop music — Afrika Bambaataa, The Sugar Hill Gang, etc. — weren’t known for lyrics involving rampant drug use or hate speech, so what happened?
Enter “gangsta rap.” In the mid to late 80s, this new sub-genre of hip-hop music emerged, employing themes of violence, crime, and ego. The genre slowly increased in popularity, finally hitting a peak with Christopher Wallace. Wallace, known in the rap industry as the Notorious B.I.G., or Biggie Smalls, entered the rap arena in the 90s and seriously changed the game.
Wallace had a criminal past which he was not ashamed, but proud of, and which permeated his lyrics. Combined with his impeccable talent for rhyme and the popularity that spawned from his feud with 2Pac (the two are each argued to be the greatest rapper of all time), his work greatly shifted the focus of hip-hop culture towards materialism and personal gain. Granted, Wallace wasn’t the only factor in hip-hop’s decline, but by capitalizing on and subsequently perfecting the emerging “gangsta rap” sub-genre, he spawned numerous copycats, including the now-famous Jay-Z.
While modern rappers don’t come close to the lyrical quality of Biggie Smalls, the problem with this isn’t the music itself. The tragedy here is the change in society which it reflects and feeds. Still tied closely to its music, hip-hop culture today centers around vices that we should be teaching the next generation to avoid. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a conundrum. In a perfect world, inner city youths would be learning their morals and values from their parents, instead of their rap-idols. Instead, the parents themselves now have a tendency feed into the cycle. The only hope for change is for hip-hop artists to reevaluate themselves, and how they impact the culture they emerge from. Good luck with that.