When the M.C.'s Came to Live Out Their Name

My first album had no famous guest appearances/The outcome, I’m crowned the best lyricist
Nas – “Got Urself a Gun”

At the time, Nas was taking a thinly veiled shot at Jay-Z, but he was also recalling a time when being respected as the top M.C. was nearly unrivaled in hip-hop.  Back when Grandmasters Caz and Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, their respective crews and others were trekking through the Bronx and Harlem with their routines and freshest raps, being the superior M.C. (or M.C.’s) was the focus. This was long before Erick and Parrish were making dollars or Ace Hood woke up in a new Bugatti. This was hip-hop; a gladiator like sport where only the strongest, freshest and most original survived. As we celebrate hip-hop’s 40th anniversary and laud Kendrick Lamar’s possibly game-shifting verse on Big Sean’s “Control”, it’s important to note that this is nothing new, we’ve been here before.

Hip-hop has always been the ultimate platform for the “I”, the outlet for the megalomaniac. Think about it, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and others hired rappers to boast about how great they were on the turntables; the natural progression was for the M.C. to begin to tout his own greatness as well. He may have rhymed about how many girls he got or his threads, but it all came down to talking about how well he put his rhymes together and just how bad you were. The lot of those early hip-hop battles were about M.C.’s and crew asserting their superiority on the M.I.C., reppin’ their crews, blocks and boroughs while tearing down anyone who dare to oppose them. 

It was a sport, a game, it was hip-hop.

Big Daddy Kane and Rakim have never appeared on the same song. That sounds absurd in 2013, but in 1988 when both were vying to establish themselves at the top of the pyramid, it made perfect sense. There have been rumors of the competition nearly making its way to wax or subliminal lines directed at one or the other, but thankfully they let the music speak for itself. As we look back over rap battles pre-1994, they were spurred by competition; Kool Moe Dee thought LL Cool J was too big for his britches, KRS-One felt M.C. Shan slighted the South Bronx and so on. By the time the smoke clears on the Biggie and 2Pac situation (and also the East Coast/West Coast propaganda), rappers are multi-millionaires, household names and so-called beef records are promotional tools used to enhance a career and make a few dollars in the process. We had our share of fights, gunshots and prop-ridden performances, but not a lot of good music emanated from the era.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the money involved in rap music has greased the palms of goodwill in hip-hop culture and created an environment in which collaboration has overtaken the need for planting your flag as the best M.C., thus alienating many at the top of the power structure and ultimately cutting your profit potential. I remember the first time I heard “The Symphony”, “Dwyck”, Scenario” and “Headbanger”; not because they all became classics in hip-hop, but because of the feeling associated with having some of my favorite rappers appear on the same song. At the time, featured artists on an album were a treat for fans, now they’re almost the rule for a first single. I look over the tracklisting for “Insert Contemporary Rapper’s Name Here” and try to recognize who’s not featured on the album.

As a positive, the blurring of lines between regions and crews is great because it rescued us from a dark time in hip-hop, but it also placed us in a holding pattern. The key to hip-hop’s progression has, and will always be, competition. The bar must be raised consistently to showcase the evolution of the emcee. Kendrick Lamar has drawn a line in the sand, basically inviting the conversation of being the best right now, yet having this verse speak on his behalf. The M.C.’s of his era should all take his challenge and step their bars up, put more thought into what they’re saying and realize the money will still come, because the overall product will improve.

How are we supposed to differentiate between Drake, Wale, Lil’ Wayne, Meek Mill, Rick Ross, French Montana, Big Sean and others when they’re all over each other’s songs and the songs all sound the same? The money involved won’t break up many of the studio power couples we’ve seen over the last few years, but hopefully the competitive element will allow a few of this era’s elite to follow in Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole’s lead and stand on their skills to sell records.

This is still hip-hop.

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