Has anyone else noticed how irrelevant hip hop was to the 2008 election?
Ten years ago it would’ve been inconceivable not only that a black man would be elected president but that the major form of youth expression would have almost nothing to do with shaping views about him. There are plenty of indicators that hip hop (in America, at least) has lost cultural market share but few as damning as the fact that the music’s contribution to the election was basically a handful of forgettable lyrics like Jeezy’s “My President is black/my Lambo is blue/and I’ll be goddamn if my rims ain’t too.” Really, Jeezy?
Last year I had a novel experience in the hip hop culture class I teach. Fully half the students enrolled in the seminar not because they were die-hard hip hop heads looking for an excuse to analyze lyrics or get credit for delving into its history but because they didn’t know what the big deal was. These are 20 year-olds for whom hip hop is just (sometimes) cool music not part of a broader worldview. Standing in my class detailing the meaning of Rakim I felt vaguely like the aging boomers who were teaching courses on the 1960s back when I was in college and struggling to convey the deeper significance of Dylan.
There are lots of reasons for this demise but they can be summed up as a failure to grow the fuck up. Take Ice Cube’s performance in Atlanta last week. Cube has apparently taken a break from his film career to go on the road in support of his new release “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It.” Not the catchiest of titles, but more on that later.
He was prefaced by possibly the worst opening act in known history. A group whose name I willed myself to forget five minutes after hearing it and whose version of warming up the crowd included shouting lines like “I’ll Fuck You Up” and “Rep Your Hood” over 90’s era beats. There is something almost tangibly pathetic about seeing paunchy middle aged men shouting lines that would’ve been simplistic when they were twenty year olds. And this was an Atlanta hip hop crowd, meaning mostly thirty-something professionals for whom repping their hood means being elected to the condo board.
They interrupted their threat-mongering to give a shout out to Barack Obama (the Obama shout-out is surely the new version of thanking Jesus for helping your x-rated album go platinum) then ended with this jewel: “we just wanna say you don’t have to talk to the police – wait til your lawyer get there.” Nevermind the fact that half the folk in there probably were lawyers.
Twenty minutes later Cube was on stage performing “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It” – a song that offered an aged defense of an even more aged genre. Blah, blah, blah “Gangsta rap didn’t start the war in Iraq” blah, blah “we didn’t fuck up the economy. Blah, blah, etc. etc. The problem is that no one thinks the music did any of those things but at damn near 40, I have no illusions about its hands being clean. Delve into the offerings and you get a definitive, glorified type of cynicism that was (if we’re being honest) precisely what the Obama campaign spent the past two years fighting to uproot.
Cube might’ve done well to ask himself: when was the last time a politician even bothered attacking “gangsta rap”? (Or, better yet, when is the last time you even heard the term gangsta rap?)
Twenty years after its birth, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls are dead, Suge Knight is broke and being knocked senseless in nightclubs and Cube himself making family fare like “Are We There Yet?” and the “Barbershop” series.
By way of defending his body of work Cube pointed out that “If things were good we wouldn’t have nothin’ to rap about” – yielding the idea that somehow violence and strife are the only subjects worthy of a song. At the same time he obviously believes that he can make films about a wide variety of subjects. Which brings us to the fundamental maturity problem.
You could chalk it up to a bad concert if it didn’t highlight the bigger issue. Hip hop has been declared dead more times than Jason from Friday the 13th but this time the rumors are not exaggerated. Its core audience has simply outgrown the music and doesn’t have time to hunt down the dwindling number of underground and alternative acts who aren’t stuck in middle-aged adolescence.
Notice that Barack Obama’s most notable engagement with the hip hop community was having to denounce Ludacris for calling Hillary Clinton a bitch last summer. Jay-Z did concert for the Obama ’08 campaign in Detroit but it was only because he has in some ways transcended the label of hip hop. Truthfully his appearance was not significantly different from Springsteen doing a show for those working class whites in Pennsylvania.
There are no more major labels like Deathrow and Bad Boy in the 90s; only a handful of bankable icons and most of its brand name moguls have moved on to other industries.
I bounced well before Cube had worked through his set. These days my version of repping my hood is getting up early to rake my leaves before the neighbors complain.