I have a confession. Every few months I like to go on YouTube and check out the latest popular hip-hop songs. This guilty pleasure compensates for my reduced outings to clubs and distaste for many music radio shows. It also acts as a form of social observation, as by seeing what is popular I like to think I am gaining an insight into today’s youth culture. Mostly, I just like the catchy beats. However, something has been troubling me lately since I listened to the latest tracks, like ‘Wiggle’ by Jason Derulo or Chris Brown’s ‘Loyal’ – they are all trash. Worse than that, they are often not just full of nonsense lyrics, but socially harmful lyrics. Whatever happened to the social resistance that lies at the core of hip-hop?

Hip-hop emerged from the dregs of disco in 1970s New York and was a site of social resistance and what Questlove of The Roots calls ‘expansive discovery’ (I highly recommend his six part series on how hip-hop failed black America, from where this quote is taken). Popular 1980s artists such as Run-DMC and Public Enemy infused their songs with anti-establishment, socially conscious lyrics. Just look at Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ for ample evidence of the tone of the day. More than that, Run-DMC changed the whole concept of ‘cool’ clothing. From the disco remnants of leather and tight clothing, Run-DMC stuck to accessible basics of trainers and sportswear. Fans could identify with the band’s image and lyrics, and that’s exactly what Run-DMC wanted.

Present day hip-hop centres on the complete opposite, the differentiation between the artist and their fans and the inaccessibility of their lifestyle. Take a look at these lyrics from Jay-Z’s ‘I just wanna love U (Give it to me)’:

Got six model chicks, six bottle of Crist’/Four Belvederes, weed everywhere

Jay-Z and his contemporaries pride themselves on their material wealth and at times their imaginative ways of expressing it. Whilst there may be allusions to their less than glamorous pasts, such as in ‘Hard Knock Life’ or Kanye’s ‘Through The Wire’, these are few and far between. Whilst arguably these artists are the epitome of the ‘American Dream’ and inspire generations of youths stuck in ghettos, hip-hop used to recognise that the dream was in fact a nightmare or a calculated scheme and hence they resisted through art, but today’s artists are happy being complicit in the calculations if they reap the rewards.

There are some artists who exhibit glimmers of social consciousness, on both sides of the Atlantic. British stars include Akala, who refers to himself as ‘the black Shakespeare’ due to his skilful handling of the spoken word, and Lowkey, a British-Iraqi activist for Palestine and rapper. US counterparts include hip-hop duo Dead Prez (you may have heard their track, aptly named ‘Hip-Hop’), and The Roots, who cross many genres with their eclectic sound. The latter are fairly well known, at least for their anthemic song, The Seed (2.0), which ironically is regularly interpreted as an analogy for the clandestine rise of a new sound and direction in hip-hop.

Maybe there is no better illustration of the disparity in hip-hop than the numbers. Soulja Boy Tell’em’s ‘Crank That’, featuring lyrics such as ‘Superman dat ho’ and ‘I’m cocking on your bitch ass’ sold more than three million digital downloads (breaking all previous records) and was Billboard magazine’s number one for seven weeks. Akala’s ‘Roll Wid Us’ as featured in the film Kidulthood and with inspiring lyrics like ‘never fell for the spells they tell in this world/I read Malcolm’ reached just number 72 in the UK charts‘. The likes of Run-DMC were so popular in their day their album ‘Raising Hell’ went multi-platinum within a year, but social commentary no longer has the same status and appeal.

Why is this happening? Many socially conscious rappers aren’t seen as commercially viable to the big record labels. Take uplifting Lupe Fiasco. Atlantic Records delayed the release of his third album, Lasers, for a couple of years due to contractual disputes, and only agreed to release it after some of their musical hooks were included and there was great pressure from Fiasco’s fans to release it, including a protest outside Atlantic HQ in NYC. As Lupe Fiasco said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, ‘I had to create this commercial art that appeases the corporate side. I had to acquiesce to certain forces.’ Some artists, such as Akala, create their own record labels to avoid this corporate control, and also because they just do not have the offers from the big players.

At this point you may be wondering how I can dismiss artists such as Kanye West, who does rap about social issues such as ‘Diamonds from Sierra Leone’. I am not dismissing Kanye, he in fact gets his own special category alongside the likes of Jay-Z and Eminem as being the most dangerous type of artist. By oscillating between social commentary and hedonism, these rappers condone a contradictory lifestyle where one good deed, like buying non-conflict diamonds, or putting on a music festival to raise awareness of inequality, can somehow compensate for a selfish, narcissistic action, such as, say, big pimpin’.

The demise of social resistance in mainstream hip-hop is ultimately not just the fault of record labels. It comes down to what consumers demand, and unfortunately the hoards demand catchy beats with vacuous substance. When people ask me why this matters, I like to compare it to news sources. Just as many people are discerning about the media they read due to their distaste for the promotion of stereotypes, lies and fluff, surely the same applies to what you listen to?

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