Five or six years ago, as hip-hop was evolving under a less hyped and commercial aura, you’d walk around downtown’s Washington Square Park or the corners of the Lower East Side and see some future MCs sliding down the vigorous streets of New York, chugging forty ounces of Olde English, sparking a blunt of smoke, sitting on a brownstone’s stoop and passionately engaging in a rhyming freestyle session. Growing up in New York City and hanging out with local artists and graffiti crews, I was witness to the evolution of a style of music that emerged from underground street poetry with a gangster ethic to poppy, catchy party anthems, delineated by redundant themes and subjects. Times have changed, though, especially in the context of rap music and concerts.
Luckily, there still is a notable underground scene in New York that lives up to its name quite firmly, but it has become a minor sector of current rap trends that are turning up every time you turn on MTV. One seldom finds MC’s grouped up in a circle on a corner, huddling in the cold of the winter to express their feelings and views through rap lyricism. This is partly due to the recent “renovations” undertaken by Giuliani to “clean” up the city, which have led to the sweeping away of struggling street artists, beggars and wanderers who really contributed to the charm of downtown’s bohemian lifestyle.
Hip-hop has created a specific culture that values independence, rhyming, poetry and artistic integrity. Lately though, rap has been driven to an influential and universally preponderant style of music that glamorizes the life of stardom, the use of drugs and expensive alcohol, the demeaning role of women and the unbounded power of money. Hip-hop artists have, in a way, accomplished the American dream of success, defying the inconsistencies of the system. While rap has always touched upon the subjects of sex, drugs, alcohol and the struggles for money, the problem here is that it has become glamorous and now creates trends in the style of music itself as well as in the lifestyle of listeners.
Rap artist Ludacris, for example, finished off the homecoming celebrations with a show at the UC patio. I didn’t expect too much from the performance, knowing that Ludacris is not a very talented MC, but he does have the vitality to stir up a crowd with his catchy and well-known songs. Occasionally, he would try to excite the crowd by generally asking about “all the pretty ladies out there,” shouting out to “all the fellas smoking weed” and to all the college “alcoholics,” and inviting everyone to “throw their middle finger in the air and say, ‘f*** the cops.'” The concert defied the purpose of true hip-hop. It satisfied only the hunger of mainstream rap listeners who may very well believe that Ludacris encompassed the realm of a hip-hop concert with his cliched shout-outs and explicit, party-going tunes.
Rap had greatly affected the aesthetic culture of the mass public. These days, kids of all classes and races sport rap apparel, try to talk with a ghetto, hip-hop lingo, bump too loudly the daily hits of the radio in their cars, smoke and drink to oblivion, and dream of “living like a baller.” A decade ago, this wasn’t happening, but now hip-hop has become trendy. In my early teens in New York, I would see the Lyricist Lounge show, where local talents would gather on stage and exhibit their rhyming skills in intellectual and often poetic battles that portrayed the artistic aptitude of the artist. Yes, there were also shout-outs to the smokers in the crowd and to the beautiful ladies, but the performers and the show itself did not stress the current “bling-bling” and bigheaded, sensationalist atmosphere of mainstream rappers.
Hip-hop has always had its gritty, street-life edge, but it originated with songs emphasizing lyricism and independence as opposed to flashing money and nice cars. Classic artists and groups such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Common and the Roots have put together a number of impressive albums, a lot of which have intuitive rhymes and enlightening reflections on society. It’s harder now to find new albums that can live up to their predecessors.
Omar Sommereyns is a sophomore majoring in print journalism.