I used to have three separate playlists for all of my rap music. One list, Hippity Hop, was the music that told a story or shared a message. That list included emcees like Yasiin Bey, Tupac and pre-Bitch Bad Lupe Fiasco. I had another list that covered hip-hop guilty pleasures like Trinidad James and Nicki Minaj and I aptly named that one Let’s Get Ratchet. The last one was simply titled TWERK. That list, capital letters and all, comprised all things ass shaking from old-ish songs like Juvenile’s Back That Azz Up to more current tunes like Soulja Boi’s Donk. When I made these lists, I was under the impression that I had to keep the Mos Def and Tupac separate from the Soulja Boi and Trinidad James because I thought the latter wasn’t “real hip-hop.” Although Trinidad can’t touch Mos’ talent, I still consider him to be a part of hip-hop. I’m sure many folks clutched their gold chains at that sentence. A few years ago, I would have had the same reaction. As a teenager, I hopped on the hip-hop is dead bandwagon but thankfully, I eventually fell off.
When I was in high school, I went through a special snowflake phase. My classmates lightly teased me because they didn’t think my interests were black enough so I concluded they just didn’t understand me. I decided to do what I could to distance myself from what I thought was black culture. My 16-year-old mind thought listening to My Chemical Romance and Evanescence made me a punk rocker so I decided to dress the part. I started wearing all black and buying jewelry with skulls on them. I also became a bit of a hipster when it came to music. I was mad as hell when the Party Boyz released Party Like A Rockstar because I thought my classmates were stomping on my territory even though I was a poser my damn self. I had a similar reaction when Nicki Minaj burst onto the scene with her Harajuku Barbie Style because I thought buying Harajuku Lovers bags and shoes made me more authentic than Nicki the Ninja.
I couldn’t pinpoint the exact time I started to change but my guess would be around the time I started taking African American studies classes in college and getting into feminism. I was exposed to texts and scholars that allowed me to open up my mind a bit. I was also exposed to new roomies and friends that liked the ratchet stuff I pretended to hate. Eventually, I loosened up. Instead of whining about Nicki Minaj being a poser, I ended up writing a research paper about her music and how it represents women. When I use Spotify to listen to hip-hop music, I use one list. In the last 10 minutes, I’ve heard Tupac’s Changes, Ludacris’ Southern Hospitality and Busta Rhymes’ I Know What You Want. I have become an active listener and analyzer instead of a passive complainer. One thing I’ve learned is hip-hop isn’t a genre that can be taken for face value and every song has its purpose. In a 2005 op-ed piece for the New York Times, writer Brent Staples wrote a scathing piece lambasting rappers like 50 Cent, Dr. Dre and Eminem for spreading negative messages that could negatively influence their fans.
While some of Staples’ commentary was on point such as his criticism of the “misogyny, materialism and murder” that is prevalent in a lot of artists’ music, he made the same mistake countless others, myself included, made. “Promoters will need to make heavy use of metal detectors to suppress the kind of gun-related violence that gangster artists celebrate,” he wrote. “That this lethal genre of art has grown speaks volumes about the industry’s greed and lack of self-control.
But trends like this reach a tipping point, when business as usual becomes unacceptable to the public as a whole. Judging from the rising hue and cry, hip-hop is just about there.”
Staples cherry-picked 50 Cent and related rappers as proof that hip-hop is going to hell while ignoring countless others, mainstream and underground, that were releasing content during that time. A quick Google search gave me a list of 100 songs that came out that year that included Common’s Testify, Lil Kim’s Lighters Up and Chamillionaire’s Ridin’. Those songs are different from each other and they are different from 50 Cent’s catalog. They all serve their own purpose. I use Donk to twerk some, Mr. Nigga to relate and All Gold Everything to chill.
After little epiphany, I put all of them on one list. I threw out the respectability politics, posing and pearl clutching and listened to the damn music.