“Hip-hop started off on a block I’ve never been to”: Why Conscious Rap is a Farce

I really like hip-hop. I listen to a lot of it. I listen to the stuff on the radio. I listen to the stuff not on the radio. I listen to old stuff. I listen to leaked stuff. I listen to whatever I can get my hands on.

My two favorite albums from 2012 are Macklemore’s The Heist and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. I like them for different reasons, and both are gaining a lot of attention from the online world. Lamar, by some, is being heralded as the face of a new age of hip-hop. Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation argues that Kendrick is the Pied Piper of the post-hip-hop generation.

The underlying message behind the positive reception for Kendrick is concerning, though. gkmc is good, apparently, because it’s smart. Chang calls it “conscious.”

Hip-hop critics understand this problem, though. Chang is quick to point to other leaders of the post-hip-hop generation, like the much-more-mainstream Kanye West. And when Jon Caraminica from the New York Times reviewed gkmc, he did so alongside a review of traditional radio smash rapper Meek Mill’s Dreams and Nightmares. This juxtaposition, however, only serves as a temporary band-aid to a growing divide in today’s hip-hop.

A generation of artists who can trace their genealogy back to gangsta rap are dominating the airwaves, while the Kendricks of the world struggle to get airtime or intentionally scoff at the radio (many of Kendrick’s songs on his new ablum are over 5 minutes long). The popular conversation surrounding this divide is that the Kendricks of the world are too smart, too conscious to be played on the radio. “They don’t play real hip-hop on the radio anymore.”

What is meant by real hip-hop remains to be seen. Most people probably think back to Tupac or Biggie Smalls or Nas (who is still dropping new albums).  But what is remembered is a golden-age of hip-hop that never really existed. In that golden age, all rap was “smart.” Tupac never rapped about girls or drugs unless he was doing so with some deeper meaning. But that’s simply not true.

Enter Macklemore. Macklemore, first off, is white and middle class (which means that we can’t compare him to Eminem, even though it’s tempting). But he can also spit. Like really spit. Macklemore is a suburban parent’s dream. He raps about getting clean and the harsh realities of drug culture. Expletives are kept to a minimum. And Macklemore’s songs about women are love songs in the most traditional sense of the genre.

And so Macklemore has been lauded by a lot of people. He has songs about marriage equality–“Macklemore bring[s] rap back to its political roots,” says Thought Catalog contributor Madison Moore. The assumption, of course, being that rap left its political roots, and thankfully, this white suburban dude was able to reclaim them.

This, of course, is balderdash. All hip-hop is political. It’s a requisite of the genre. Kendrick, Meek Mill, Macklemore, it doesn’t matter. Hip-hop, like jazz and rock and roll before it, is necessarily disruptive.

Perhaps the most criticized genre of rap is the brag rap. Brag raps are the ones that are filled with tales of sexual conquests, lots of expletives, and threats to rivals. They also tend to be the singles off albums. The “intellectual” perception is that the stupid common man can’t deal with the real themes presented on some rap albums and so brag raps offer a mindless entertainment. But, brag raps may be the most political of any rap. Brag rap has the most complicated genealogy of any rap genre. It begins with slaves. James C. Scott in Domination and The Art of Resistance writes about “the dozens”:

Compare, for example, the aristocratic tradition of the duel with the training for self-restraint in the face of insults found among blacks and other subordinate groups. Nowhere is the training in self-control more apparent than in the tradition of the ‘dozens’ or ‘dirty dozens’ among young black males in the United States. The dozens consist in two blacks trading rhymed insults of one another’s family (especially mothers and sisters); victory is achieved by never losing one’s temper and fighting, but rather in devising ever more clever insults so as to win the purely verbal duel. Whereas the aristocrat is trained to move every serious verbal insult to the terrain of mortal combat, the powerless are trained to absorb insults without retaliating physically. As Lawrence Levine observes, ‘The Dozens served as a mechanism for teaching and sharpening the ability to control emotions and anger; an ability which was often necessary for survival.’ There is evidence that many subordinate groups have developed similar rituals of insult in which a loss of self-control means defeat.

Brag rap, then, started as a coping mechanism, not for the rapper but for the listener. And it is this tradition that exists in rap music today. And it is for this reason that Meek Mill is just as political as Macklemore. To suggest otherwise is to ignore hundreds of years of racial oppression that have led to a very specific celebratory musical genre.

Macklemore, interestingly, answers many of these questions about “conscious” rap in his song “White Privilege.”

He raps:

Now I don’t rap about guns so they label me conscious
But I don’t rap about guns cause I wasn’t forced into the projects
See I was put in the position where I could chose my options
Blessed with the privilege that my parent’s could send me to college
Now who’s going to shows the kids on the block starving
Or the white people with dough that can relate to my content?
Marketed the music now adapted to the lifestyle
What happened to jazz and rock and roll is happening right now
Where’s my place in the music that’s been taken by the media
With white corporations controlling what their feeding ya
I brought up aesop rock but I’m not even dissing dude
We love hiphop and what do you think caucasians are listening to
And I speak freely when I write this
If a black emcee examined race there goes half their fan base, white kids

Macklemore sees himself as a peer of all other emcees. Earlier in the song he mentioned Aesop Rock, but in this verse he qualifies what he said. He’s not dissing Aesop. He’s not dissing contemporary mainstream rap. He’s dissing a system–a system that has made a spectacle of the slave trying to grow a thick skin so he won’t lash out when his master berates him. A system that makes this spectacle and then accuses the slave of being out of line, of saying too many bad words, of being too angry. A system that simultaneously fetishizes the sexual prowess of the slave while punishing him for talking about sexual conquests. A system that celebrates blackness as long as it is only an extension of whiteness.

All this to ask the question: can we please drop the conscious/non-conscious distinction in hip-hop?

Columbus’s Christmas Idol

I am interning at a middle school over break. The school’s choir is currently in a contest. The video below is their submission:

If you are impressed, vote for KIPP Journey Academy, here . There are a bunch of really awesome students who would appreciate it.

An Incomplete Thought About Being Exotic According to Musical Tastes

There’s a race going on, and it has nothing to do with running. It has to do with media consumption.

It used to be that when someone asked me about a show, a musician, a book, a movie, if I hadn’t consumed it, I became apologetic. I went out and found it immediately. I thought other people saw it as an affront to my intelligence or culture if I didn’t know what they were referencing. I had to be in on the conversation. It was important.

When you are constantly consuming media that people tell you is life-changing and essential, you start to learn something. You learn that everyone has their own list of life-changing and essential media. It’s not really the same for anyone.

I really like the Dave Matthews Band. I started listening to them in high school because a lot of my friends were. But then I grew attached to them because I liked them. Then I got to college. And almost no one I befriended listened to Dave Matthews Band. Everyone else became really exotic and different and sophisticated and cool because they listened to the xx and Bon Iver and Grizzly Bear and stuff like that.

What I failed to realize is that I was just as different and foreign to my Bon-Iver-listening friends as they were to me.

Media should never be a race. It should be enjoyable.

Winter Break Is Like Camp

I’m a little bit into hiphop. For a white kid who grew up listening to classic rock and easy listening, this is kind of strange. I don’t quite understand how it happened, but I’m glad it did.

I like hiphop, I think, because I am a fan of writing, and lyricism in hiphop is more than putting pretty words together. The good kind is clever and conscious and political and sometimes life-changing.

One of my favorite artists, Childish Gambino (real name, Donald Glover), released his first full-length album a week ago. I have been listening to it pretty obsessively. It speaks to me. Sometimes albums do that. They articulate exactly where you are in your life. And so I have been finding all of the lyrics profound.

Childish Gambino in his hiphopster glory

There’s this one chorus, though, that goes “There’s a world we can visit if we go outside/ outside/ outside/ We can follow the road/ There’s a world we can visit if we go outside/ outside/ outside/ No one knows.” Or something like that. I find it very profound, but I don’t really know why.

Ohio University went on break today, which is cool. It’s cool to not have to worry about homework and class and stuff. But break scares me because I’m scared that even when I have no excuse for not going outside, I still won’t. We should never have to articulate that there is world outside. We should be engulfed by it.

“What’d I Say” About Trying to Force Things

I wrote a post a while back about listening to jazz while I do work. Recently, I fast forwarded to listening to 1950s R&B, and I think that was a marvelous decision. Ray Charles has been one of my go-to’s

Ray has this one song called “What’d I Say.” It’s almost a six minute song and Ray wrote it by improvisation at a show one night, and it quickly became a crowd favorite. It became so popular that he made his producers record it.

The problem was that at the time, singles didn’t really go over three minutes. In the dramatized cinematographic version of Ray Charles’s life, the producers threaten to cut out a verse or two. I don’t know if that’s true. But I imagine something like that is. We always want to put new things into the mold of old things.

Ray and the studio came to a compromise – they would record the whole song, but they would split it up into an A-side and a B-side. While that worked out, I suppose, the entire six minute song is really worth listening to all the way through.

And the song deserves a full listen. It almost brought on the genre of soul all by itself.

The point of all of this is to say two things.

1) We should probably stop trying to make new things like old things. New things would be more successful if we let them be new.

2) Sometimes, though, even when we mess up and think that new things need to be like old things, magic still happens.

Waking Up with Michael Jackson

I am horrible at waking up. I was supposed to wake up at 8 today to give myself an hour to write my blog post because the rest of my day has been scheduled away to the man. Instead I woke up at 8:40. So that is really horrible.

I wish I had a really creative way to wake up. I have a good friend who does. Instead of just drinking coffee or something, he turns on a good, upbeat song, gets in front of his computer and dances and wiggles his way to morning awareness. He recently started posting these “morning rituals” on Youtube, and you should check it out. Maybe he can help you wake up, too!

Catch that Panther Pride

I am writing from home this weekend. I hail from a very special community that exists in southwest Ohio. This weekend is Homecoming. The high school is on fire with school pride. I love high school pride. It is one of my top favorite things. A lot of people think it’s fake or phony or something, but I think that is mostly because you read Catcher in the Rye in high school. In Catcher in the Rye, everything is phony. So we can’t trust that.

School spirit can be a really cool thing. It unites people. It energizes them. It drives creativity. When I was a senior, one of my good friends got elected to Homecoming Court for the first time. We were all really excited, but the thing was that he was the voice of our class. One day, I’m pretty sure he’s going to host The Price is Right. He was supposed to emcee the halftime show, not be in it. And so the school had to find a replacement. They asked me to do it, and I accepted because I had a public speaking course that semester, and I was pretty sure that talking in front of a classroom was the same thing as talking in front of a football stadium.

It wasn’t.

And there are all of these pictures of me looking a little bit awkward. But I think if you listened to a recording of the halftime show, you would find that I may have done relatively well. And I loved it. I loved every minute of it.

I bring all of this up because this story is the first time I was asked to be THE MAN in a situation. If the halftime show had failed, it would have been on me. But it didn’t. And this whole experience was brought about because of school spirit.

I have one legitimate little brother, but I really have three little brothers who are all seniors at my hometown high school. And I got to see today how good school spirit has been for all of them. I went to the Homecoming pep rally. My real brother was dressed up as a cheerleader. And my other two brothers rapped. And it was great. But everyone was surprised. (Not so much about my cheerleader brother; people expect things like that from him.) But multiple teachers approached me during the day and said, “I didn’t know Zach and AJ rapped.” My point is that perhaps these teachers would have never known if not for school spirit.


What’s your Homecoming story?