I like rap music a lot, and I don’t see the term “rap music” as an oxymoron. It was one of my signatures back in the 90’s, when I started following it, even though the late 90’s were a materialist dark age for the genre. A lot of my memories regarding music back then come from lyrics bragging about money, women, and stuff; and the industry – not the music itself, but the industry – turning into a soap opera which, were it going on today, would make a fine reality TV show. Snoop Dogg’s label switch from Death Row to No Limit was a bigger story than any CD he released, and it didn’t even get him the better producers he desperately needed. There was a popular skit character on Bad Boy records called The Mad Rapper (“We’re here today with The Mad Rapper, and, well, he’s pretty mad.”) whose real identity was a secret for years, until there was a drama about an insider threatening to reveal it. Rappers came together often to form rap supergroups, which never seemed to last (Westside Connection, The Firm). I don’t even want to write about the East/West feud, given the consequences that thing came to.
Of course, most of the rappers I listened to were the mainstream rappers. That was both a blessing and a curse. Some of the great landmark albums of rap music were among the most popular: Dr. Dre’s The Chronic; Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle; The Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die; and Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted – all giant hits, all critical successes. Like everyone who listened to mainstream rap, though, I also made my share of mistakes. Master P has to be one of the most overrated rappers alive, and going crazy for Ghetto D – his supposed magnum opus – back then makes a strong case for my being a lot dumber than I think I am. Tupac was in his Death Row phase when he finally entered my consciousness, which meant my first exposure to him was All Eyez on Me, a double album populated with the sparse personal song or social comment but swimming in so much violence and decadence that it was almost cartoonish.
What a knock it was when I finally came to the realization that mainstream rap artists – good or bad – were writing those anthems to glorified, stylized violence and hedonism strictly for teenagers like me to shock their parents. Although most listeners in my situation would have been disillusioned and gone strictly back to their white suburban classic rock roots after learning that, I continued my journey into the world of rap music. I can’t take all the credit for my good taste; back when I hit the no-turning-back phase of rap fandom, I began to look a little deeper into the music world. Being an aficionado for local indie artists was a real advantage, because I knew where to find rarer records and information. When the beat trail finally led me past the rap mainstream, what I started to hear floored me: There was A Tribe Called Quest, pioneering the alternative rap movement; De La Soul giving us the concept of psychedelic hip hop; and The Roots, with the Philadelphia sound. The fact that I developed a taste for alternative hip hop made me weird even among rap fans, when guys like Talib Kweli found recognition in the last decade, I knew I had been on to something back them. It was shocking to hear The Roots become Jimmy Fallon’s backups because I still consider Illadelph Halflife the greatest rap record ever made.
Let’s be clear about that: Illadelph Halflife is a record the rich, scared suburbs still haven’t even heard of, unless someone happened to mention it in passing on Fallon once. I don’t care how weird my taste makes me look, either; Illadelph is going in the desert island chest long before anything Kanye West ever recorded. I’ll be taking along my Tribe Called Quest collection, too.
The amazing thing about alternative hip hop, to me, is the fact that the artists who create it aren’t vying to be MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice, guys who hit it big by making rap more palatable to the parents of the kids who begged for the records. None of the alternative rappers I like will pull punches when the necessity of dropping swear words comes up. But they don’t use curses as substitutes for the messages they’re trying to get across, either, and they recognize that hip hop has a meaning beyond just scaring white suburban parents to death. One of the things I noticed early on about alternative hip hop is that the artists place an enormous amount of emphasis on the artistry of rap itself, and tend to take roles as both creators and observers. A lot of the songs I heard from the first alternative rap groups I listened to regularly actually seemed to be bemoaning the mainstream and accusing it of losing sight of the real message of hip hop.
There’s no blaming the artists who believed that. Hip hop in the late 90’s seemed to have lost everything that made it such a force in the 80’s. Public Enemy sort of disappeared after their sterling, socially conscious works, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. Gangsta Rap – or as I’ve come to referring to it, shock rap – took the things Public Enemy spoke about to an extreme, and suddenly rap was about who could create the most outrageous character. While the cartoonish extremes of violence and materialism seem to have been kicked back a little bit, rappers today have also transcended the music world to such an extent that it’s difficult to imagine them being the raw, young talents they broke musical ground as. They’re entrepreneurs now, and while entrepreneurship in itself doesn’t bother me, many of them have also become the stalwart pillars of the very system they previously ranted against. Jay-Z can be held up as the most egregious example: He’s known more as the businessman who married Beyonce and owns the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets now than as the flying lyricist responsible for Reasonable Doubt, the influential, intense debut album that put him on the map as a rap force comparable to Rakim.
If a rapper releases a strong debut that also happens to sell well, there’s pressure on him to live up to the former sales figure. Not necessarily the music, but the sales, so it’s understandable that he might try to outdo himself on a follow-up by taking everything people loved about the debut, ramping it up to Mark McGwire steroid levels, and bloating it so he doesn’t miss anything. Since alternative rappers frequently aren’t superstars, they tend to be a bit looser and revel in creative freedom because, why not? They’re not the ones trying to appeal to the middle class, so they can afford to experiment, show musical growth as opposed to bloating, and write gradually maturing lyrics.
It’s in alternative hip hop where the real appeal of the genre lies, at least for me. Every expert on the planet says hip hop is not about graphic violence, swearing, and how many nice things the rapper can buy or the women he can get. Unfortunately, with the mainstream having placed a massive emphasis on all those things during the 90’s, that’s the image hip hop is still trying to shake. Alternative hip hop displays rap at its most creative and versatile, and it therefore best makes the argument that rap is an art form, here to stay, and totally worth preserving.