Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip-Hop

Call it ironic or even fate that as I sat down to write this article, I decided to download Talib Kweli’s latest effort “Gutter Rainbows” and got a taste of just what I’ve been looking for in the chorus of the album’s title cut as the BK MC claims to be “the voice of the voiceless, hope for the hopeless”. Yeah, it sounds a little far-fetched, but that’s what he’s supposed to be, that’s what Hip-Hop is supposed to be. Over the last 20 years it’s lost its way and by no coincidence so have we, but that story won’t be told or downloaded to your iPod.

Hip-Hop “historians” will point to “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang as the song that made the mainstream aware of the new genre, but it was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five “The Message” that was indicative of what hip-hop was all about. Sure, the party vibe on “Delight” was fun and would be duplicated throughout hip-hop’s history, but Melle Mel’s commentary of early 80’s life in the ghetto laid the foundation for which hip-hop was built upon. At its best, Hip-Hop provides a platform for those without a voice and acts as a conduit between the hood and the masses, championing solidarity and decrying social ills.

Through the years that’s changed as the voice of the streets now raps about their “connect”, shootouts, high-end luxury items and sexual conquests, while the folks up the block, round the corner and down the street from where the pimps, prostitutes and drug lords meet go largely unnoticed. Throughout much of the 80’s those folks were extremely visible through the lyrics and performances of Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, Just-Ice, Queen Latifah, Eric B. & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul and to a lesser extent, Run-DMC, amongst others who displayed their lyrical superiority and were a gauge of the climate in their respective communities and reflective of what was really going on in the hood.

Then a couple of Niggas With Attitudes started reporting live from Compton, California and record executives saw dollar signs where millions of listeners saw a truth. From N.W.A. came the profit prospectus for a sub-genre known as ‘Gangsta Rap’ that turned West Coast Gangbangers into rappers and East Coast Hustlers into lyrical dons. Even the dope boys Down South traded in their corner stashes for ‘trap houses’ once they got in the booth. Record execs found black gold and marketed the hell out of ‘Gangsta Rap’, in spite of or because of the controversy it generated, along with record sales and millions of dollars.

Hip-Hop now had a grittier, darker edge that sold to the suburbs and showed young Black men (and women) at our nihilistic best, not showing off Africa pendants, historical figures and garb, instead flaunting the plague of drug and violence that haunted our communities. The activism in the music is absent, leading many to believe that it also absent in the community, because we’re seemingly happy with the spoils of drug proceeds, governmental assistance and the like. When Treach now-famously cautioned outsiders to “Stay the f*** out of the ghetto” at the end of Naughty by Nature’s hit “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”, it wasn’t a glamorization, but a warning to listeners that this isn’t the life you want to live. That’s a contrast to the tales of flipping rocks and popping glocks that have become a staple of Hip-Hop radio replacing songs like “Ladies First”, “Fight the Power” and “You Must Learn” on playlists and in the minds of fans.

While the gangster rappers and those that spun tales the DEA would indict them for ascended to the top of the heap, rappers that had a little more to add to the dialogue than gun busting’ and dope chopping, were relegated to a subculture known as ‘conscious rap’. This label refutes its viability and profitability, but also restricts is visibility, as ‘conscious rappers’ are not as well promoted or supported by record labels, radio and television outlets, obscuring their skills and messages. So as millions continue to live in sub-standard conditions dealing with abject poverty and insufferable school systems, not to mention proposed cuts in aid to Higher Education that will keep most of them there, mainstream Hip-Hop is not participating in the discussion on behalf of its community, abandoning them for greener pastures. So Jay-Z “dumbs down for his audience and doubles his dollars”, but we’re not hearing those who choose to use their words to reach those who “grow up in the ghetto living second rate and eyes sing a song of deep hate.”