“It’s become the lowest-hanging fruit.”
That was Will.i.am’s assessment of hip-hop in an interview with Rolling Stone over the weekend (Dec. 1), and another troubling quote in the ongoing fallacy that rap is somehow a lower form of art. It’s the same trope many rappers – especially those who tend to steer towards white audiences – lean on when they want to “evolve” or “grow” as artists. Kanye West would rather design water bottles than dabble in the slums that are rapping. Tyler, The Creator wants to score movies because rap isn’t good enough. Miley Cyrus is going back to country because “Come sit on my d**k, suck on my c**k” and “Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my c**k” music is just too vulgar for her.
Even if part of Will’s point, that the bar for entry into hip-hop is low is true, the situation is more nuanced than that. The bar for entry has historically been low, which is how you end up with “Ice Ice Baby” running the world in the same year Ice Cube told us about AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, or 69 Boyz’ “Tootsee Roll” doing the same while Nas gave us Illmatic and Biggie gave us Ready to Die.
If anything, the bar isn’t any lower, the net is just wider. Hip-hop has expanded so far beyond its Bronx house party origins that calling it worldwide feels like an understatement. If aliens are picking up Earth’s frequencies somewhere, there’s a good chance they’re hearing some hip-hop whenever they do. It’s that big.
In the ancient rap world Will speaks of, the one where he was part of a Los Angeles backpacker group that existed far, far away from the mainstream, rap was not a privilege, it was a necessity. Most of the black men and women who lunged towards rap did so as an escape and last resort. They did so from impoverished conditions, with few options and even less hope. Rap was a way out and, for some, the only way. It was truly life or death as their choices were either make it big by telling your story or return to your desolate conditions to live out the rest of that story. So they persevered.
This, of course, led to the golden era of rap, but plenty of sameness as well. Many of the stories were the same, even if the lexicons between regions were different. As rap continued to evolve, so too did the stories, and the perspectives that were introduced into the zeitgeist.
Don’t let them tell us hip-hop is the low hanging fruit when we know it’s the whole damn tree.
Eventually, we grew to a place where rap became a privilege and not a necessity. Now, after generations of rappers setting trends and generally being the coolest people in the room at all times, kids were aspiring to be rappers, not just resorting to that profession when they were out of options. Now, kids could study their favorites their whole lives and work towards being that. Suddenly, and perhaps unintentionally and with a ton of misinformation, rap was a desirable profession. Jay-Z rapped because he had to. It was that, or sell drugs and play that story out. J. Cole raps because he heard Jay-Z and wanted to follow in those footsteps. That’s growth of a genre of music and of a culture as a whole. That’s admirable, not scornful.
With that new influx of hopefuls came a whole new set of perspectives as well. If rappers in the ‘90s had to be the coolest and hardest mothaf**kers in the room, rappers in the 2000s changed that just a tad. Before then, rap only had Will’s perspective, the cool cousin who got all the girls and wore all the best clothes. When folks like Kanye started striking platinum, rappers could be Carlton as well.
In this era, the perspectives widened even more as the talent pool got exponentially bigger. As always, music and technology walk hand-in-hand as well. At the same time all those aspiring rappers began to come of age, technology advanced to a place that made it easier for them to try their hands at achieving their dreams. Computers made music easier to make, functionally not artistically, and the internet made it easier to spread it around. Before, if a young Chris Wallace wanted to make it rapping, he had to find a state of the art studio, pay large sums of money to record several songs, and then do the footwork towards getting attention from record labels himself. Now, Malcolm McCormick, a son of an architect and a photographer, only needed a computer, a microphone and an internet connection to rise to worldwide rapping fame.
In the world we live in now, we don’t get just Deebo’s story in rap–we get Craig’s, Smokey’s, Joi’s and Big Worm’s, too. Hell, we get Hector’s and the Pastor’s, too. And if we fall deep enough into a SoundCloud wormhole I bet we get Mr. Parker’s story, too. For all the complaints about Lil Yachty and the like, we still have Kendrick Lamar and his gravity. If you hate Lil Baby, you can find J.I.D. on the same playlist on your streaming service of choice. All of them exist, and none spite the other.
And this is all a good thing. Where hip-hop was once a specialty store, a Foot Locker of sorts where you could buy new sneakers and maybe even some socks and a shirt, now it’s a whole mall. You can get anything you need in hip-hop, as long as you’re willing to go find it. Foot Locker is still there, but you can go to Macy’s or PacSun, too.
With all of that comes plenty of music we don’t understand or value, but that doesn’t mean that music isn’t good or important. Mainstream has always gravitated towards a more accessible, or dumbed down sound when it comes to hip-hop. Some of the greatest rappers of all-time have capitalized on this trend and made careers out of that. That is why it’s called the music business. But that doesn’t mean the artistry isn’t there still. The current generation’s mastery of melody and cadence is just as impressive as the complexity and poignant lyricism of eras past. It’s just impressive in different ways. Jordan won one way, LeBron won one way, and now Steph Curry and his buddies are winning in another. But the game is still putting the ball in the hoop and preventing the other team from doing the same. The game is still telling our stories with an immaculate collection of sounds and organizing them into a song.
All of hip-hop comes from the same rebellious spirit that was encapsulated at those Bronx block parties in the ‘70s. All of it. Everything is about that youthful energy, and counter-culture. In taking the traditional, and changing it enough to invent something our own. Sure, we might not all enjoy the Lil Pumps and Tekashi 6ix9ines of the world, but somebody younger than us does, for sure. And sees it in the same light as we saw our heroes. Trend-setting, rebellious deities, speaking for us and telling our stories. They all come from the same place, even if they don’t sound the same. The bar is not lower, the net is wider, and the window into understanding the youth may be a little more opaque than it used to be. But that’s what age does to the eyes and the ears.
The constant degradation of hip-hop, its culture, its values and most importantly its sounds, is beyond problematic. The people who belittle the genre in an effort to hold it down, are the same ones who dabble in it every time they need a boost in popularity or the coolness factor. Hip-hop is the culture where they find their looks, their sounds, and everything else. We can’t let them work to depreciate the value of the culture they so often steal from.
It’s a classic case of gentrification, but this is a soil so pure it can’t be salted. This is a neighborhood so culturally rich, its natives can’t be run out of town even in the harshest of conditions, because we know once they buy up all this land they’re going to try to price us out. Don’t let them tell us hip-hop is the low hanging fruit when we know it’s the whole damn tree. If they can’t reach the sweetest of fruit at the top of the tree, that’s their fault. Not ours.