Each time I look at the image you see above you,it epitomizes an artistic expression of how I view many of the people involved in the culture of hip-hop. Now Drake is an artist that I’ve been paying attention to since his second album Take Care was released late in 2011. This Canadian MC,a native of Toronto has grown in the past five years from relative obscurity into the lexicon of modern hip-hop royalty. With the popularity of the previous wave of hip-hop before him-including his collaborator Lil Wayne and perhaps musical rival Kanye West still prominent in the public eye,Drake has fashioned a persona for himself expressed as much in his album art and musical backup as his rhymes. Drake’s lyricism is often very much in the contemporary (and often highly profane) idiom of contemporary rap/hip-hop. Conceptually however he is one of the more popular modern artists who chooses to take a long,hard look at the excesses that have come with hip-hop becoming,in Smokey Robinson’s words,the mainstream of popular music. And listening to Drake’s new release Nothing Was The Same has bought out the need to express my own views on the subject of hip-hop.
My own personal relationship with hip-hop has had an extremely strong ebb and flow about it. Now I have to admit I’m part of the hip-hop generation. Many people born during the same general age bracket of the late 70’s/early 80’s were blanketed in the hip-hop culture from the early days of Sugarhill and Def Jam all the way up through sociopolitical developments such as Public Enemy,the Native Tongues collective of groups and Arrested Development. In my particular case my own musical upbringing was based in jazz and funk. And while my family fully embraced hip-hop,they viewed it in its original context: as an aurally healthful alternative to mainstream pop music. Something to compliment it on another level,not to overtake it completely. As I entered adolescence and became…as it turned out far far more independently minded (if not always more independently mobile) person than many of my peers,it had already became clear to me by the mid 1990’s that hip-hop was already the mainstream. Even the modern soul/R&B music of the day was influenced by the beats of hip-hop and it’s accompanying MC’s.
Considering hip-hop’s influence on even live instrument oriented groups of that era,it became apparent that more and more younger people understood hip-hop far better than the funk,soul and R&B music that preceded it. This was a fact that saddened me deeply. Now within the world of the musician and the artists themselves a greater level of understanding was certainly present. A perfect example would be Public Enemy’s Chuck D. For all intents and purposes he is a funk musician-using the medium of samples,rapping and a rhythm section to create his grooves as opposed to a large live band. Of course I did not know any of this during the 90’s. The audience of hip-hop were all I was exposed to. None of them had any realization of the importance of the musical evolution of funk and soul music,the very lifeblood of hip-hop itself. Rap’s connection during this time to the most cynical type of profane juvenile delinquency only compounded this ethic. By the time I was 16 years old hip-hop was something I saw as being anti music rather than musical itself. I completely agreed with my elder detractors of it’s profane lyrical content-rampant with sexism,homophobia and violence. I became completely disgusted with the way in which hip-hop had regressed,especially during the gangsta rap era. From the mid 1990’s on I wanted nothing to do with hip-hop and concentrated in immersing myself in it’s lifeblood music’s instead.
This opinion of hip-hop continued on for at least another decade-finally coming to a head in 2005-2006. After living among people for a time who one could describe as part of the street hip-hop culture I saw up close and personal the destructive effect that self imposed level of poverty had on humanity. Not financial poverty but rather poverty of the heart,mind and soul. A person living in the ghetto with no intention of getting out of the ghetto. Stevie Wonder’s story of lower economic class perseverance of his “Living For The City” kept ringing through my head. This lead me towards an appreciation for the emerging neo-soul scene. Thematically the music of India.Arie,John Legend and Jill Scott at least reached for a more positive musical ethic I could relate with and be inspired by. But at that time they were still deeply effected by the all important presence of hip-hop in in their music. Since it was now understood fully as the mainstream of pop music,hip-hop just had to be part of almost any soul/funk/R&B artist looking to getting heard at that time. Plus a newer generation emerging found that blanket of hip-hop is all they knew. My resentment to hip-hop,already high,grew even deeper. Rap/hip-hop music and culture had no longer become a symbol of an alternative youth society. It had become parasitic in society. It was eating away at musical progression for several genres and leading to a musical wasteland so it seemed.
Since around 2009-2010 a slew of mainstream soul and pop artists such as Robin Thicke,Bruno Mars and of course Janelle Monae have begun to look outside of hip-hop for their musical inspiration. In that case often utilizing the help of people such as OutKast’s Big Boi,who along with Andre 3000 were once the epitome to me of anti hip-hop/hip-hop to a degree,were helping these artists to create live instrumental expansions on the jazz/funk/Latin/soul spectrum of music that the commercialization of hip-hop had served to marginalize for so long. All of a sudden there was all this new,and often popular,music for me to explore that expressed the meaningful ethic of soul/funk based dance music and ballads. Being satisfied in this manner I actually began to explore backward a bit to see if there’d been anything enormous that I’d missed within hip-hop during my long decade and a half of passionate resentment to that music and what seemed it stand for. As it turned out? I’ve now come to realize that many hip-hop artists themselves were actually having the same feelings as I did about the genre. Only in their case reflecting back even on themselves. Today I am even finding my hip-hop collection,which consisted of only a handful of CD’s from the 1980’s,expanded to one whole rack or more. Often showcasing albums released during the era of hip-hop that even today I still decry on occasion.
Is this all a major contradiction or a broadening of the musical heart? Have to say its the latter actually. Many of my opinions on the hip-hop culture have not changed one bit since the 1990’s. I am still completely convinced that the music can thrive on it’s own terms without the hateful profanity and use of self hating phrases. Also that the more hip-hop continues to remain in the mainstream,the more it defeats it’s purpose. It all comes down to a quotation from the late Gil Scott-Heron in Wax Poetics magazine where he stated “I haven’t seen hip-hop in a long time. I see rappers as individuals”. Listening to Drake’s music today and hearing him torn between the profane world of commercial hip-hop and the desire to create inventive rhymes and be a creative artist has me coming full circle in that ebb and flow I’ve had with the music. The image of the adult Drake staring back at his nappy haired/afro picked childhood self,which itself has a strong funk era aestetic, is really doing much for me in terms of building up hope that the culture and music of hip-hop will strive forward to find its way. There is a way to be true to yourself and commercial without pimping the pleasure principle by selling unloving sexuality and various hate speech. Hip-hop is not politically correct. But it needent be pointlessly vulgar to maintain recognition either. So not only was nothing the same in hip-hop. But hip-hop may be something its own artists need to ask more questions about now more than ever.