Justin Bieber, Kanye West, and Raekwon: The End of Hip Hop?

09/02/2010

So first, if you didn’t know Kanye West, Raekwon and Justin Bieber collaborated on a track called “Runaway Love.” See below:

So now that you know, let’s get into it. In light of this odd collaboration (Justin Bieber), One Thirty BPM raised the question “what is real hip hop?” On the one hand it’s suggested that Kanye West and Raekwon are the essence of hip hop. No one would disagree that their contributions (Late Registration or Only Built 4 Cuban Linx) are “classics” in the list of top hip hop albums–not to mention all their other contributions (Raekwon with Wu-Tang Clan or Kanye’s production work for Jay Z and others). Then you throw the wrench into the argument: They sold-out collaborating with pop star Justin Bieber and now aren’t “real hip hop.”

One Thirty BPM continued to explain how disappointed his friend (whom he’s having this argument) was when The Roots (the quintessential underground hip hop group) went “mainstream” as the backing band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. This isn’t a new criticism. Someone will always argue selling-out means losing credibility. The argument can be applied to collaborating with pop stars (Snoop Dogg & Katy Perry), selling song rights for commercials (Black Eyed Peas “Let’s Get It Started” for the NBA formerly “Let’s Get Retarded”) or being a backup band for Jimmy Fallon. Even in music, rappers criticize each other when they become successful: “You’re an actor, an entertainer not a hustler,” or “You don’t have your ear to the streets.”

The Black Eyed Peas is the optimal example of a group that began as an underground success (Behind The Front and Bridging The Gap) later crossing over into a mainstream mega-group (The E.N.D. and The Beginning). A critic will point to Fergie as the “difference factor”: adding an attractive female singer, and focusing on pop–rather than “real hip hop.” The Black Eyed Peas were always about dance music. Their first MTV video “Joints & Jam” featured the group break dancing (around 2:30 min). Honestly, Will.i.am just figured it out the same way Timbaland has.

Black Eyed Peas: “Joints & Jams

Where I diverge with One Thirty BPM is in the discussion of “real hip hop.” Let’s talk the roots of hip hop. One Thirty BPM talks about the origins of hip hop music coming out of New York:

But here’s the thing: at the beginning of the hip-hop movement in the mid-‘70s, going back even before the first rap records were made, the point of the MC was to talk up the DJ and get people excited about his block parties. So wouldn’t Lil Jon, by definition, be more authentic than someone who’s consciously old-school, like a Brother Ali? Hip-hop was dance music in the beginning. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when it transformed into a primarily recorded genre, that the values people attach to it today started to fall into place, and since then, hip-hop purists have become more dogmatic and hard-line about what does and doesn’t “count” than fans of any genre outside of punk.

It’s a good point. Originally an “emcee” was basically a hype man touting the Dj and encouraging the crowd to dance. It’s true—hip hop began as dance music. Sociologist, and hip hop scholar, Tricia Rose, discusses in her book Black Noise that the conditions in the late 70s and early 80s (economic downturn, crack, Reagan era) were the main catalysts that created hip hop. People didn’t have money to go to clubs, so they created their own in parks. Like the role of the emcee, the style of rapping evolved.
afrika bambaata

Hip hop, “real hip hop” music is much much more than just dance music. If you ask any member of the Zulu Nation (like Afrika Bambaataa pictured above), hip hop consists of djing, b-boying (break dancing), graffiti writing and rapping. Some members might even say there is a fifth which is the embodiment of all four of those elements.

My criticism for today’s popular hip hop music is that it all oriented to dancing or touting drugs. I can understand the friend of One Thirty BPM’s disagreement with the Roots playing on Jimmy Fallon, or Bieber teaming up with “real” hip hop icons like Kanye and Raekwon. Both are affirmations that the other forms of hip hop (gansta, lyrical, story-telling, etc.) are not widely accepted and often disregarded by the mainstream (and then called underground).

For me personally, when I act as the obnoxious music snob that says, “I miss the days of real hip hop music,” I’m not implying like One Thirty BPM asserts:

“The thinking goes that artists who rap about Really Important Social Issues are somehow more legit than rappers whose subject matter is more lighthearted. Whenever you hear somebody talk about ‘bringing back real hip-hop’ what they usually mean is that they aspire to sound like Public Enemy, Run-DMC, or A Tribe Called Quest.”

I’m asking for a balance of styles. I want a healthy dose of Madvillian’s “Fiagro,” with a side of Nas’ “The World Is Yours,” topped by Digital Underground’s “Freak of The Industry,” and served in the contemporary context of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” Good hip hop isn’t just about drinking, buying jewels, or telling drug stories. Nor is good hip hop simply politically filled lyricism, or word playing. What made Eminem loved by both the underground and main stream listener was his balance. Eminem makes pop songs like “Slim Shady,” tells stories like in “Stan,” raps politically on “Mosh,” and word play like few others on tracks like “Infinite.”
Eminem: “Infinite
Eminem – Infinite by vivexta
To simplify the matrix of hip hop as one type or blueprint limits the art form that had made hip hop a lasting popular genre (much longer than most critics assumed). If readers are interested, I can write more about the different styles, how they verged and reflected the times. Needless to say—real hip hop isn’t more Immortal Technique than Ludacris, nor a collaboration of Mary J. Blige with Method Man compared to Justin Bieber, Raekwon and Kanye West. Hip hop is all of it. We hip hop enthusiasts are just pissed off most people think of it as only dance music.