The first rap concert I ever went to was L.L. Cool J, Eric B & Rakim and Public Enemy at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1987. LL didn’t leave much of an impression, Rakim disappointed, but my young 18 year old mind was so blown away by Public Enemy’s righteous anger and they became my favourite group in rap, and favourite live show in any genre. I made it my business to see them every time they performed in London. Through the references in their lyrics and album sleeve notes, I was turned onto Malcolm X, The Nation of Islam, and Minister Louis Farrakhan, and the conscious rap of that era shaped my politics and the world view that I hold to this day.
“Farrakhan’s a prophet that I think you ought to listen to.”
Now fast forward to 2012. Rap music has come of age and rap groups now perform in arenas. The hottest rap concert of the year was Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne tour. They sold out five nights at London’s O2 Arena, and as a finale they shut the place down with four encores of the track Niggas In Paris.
Good friends of power couple Jay Z and Beyonce are American actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her English husband and lead singer of the band Coldplay, Chris Martin. Gwyneth took their two children Apple and Moses to see ‘Uncle Jay’s’ shows at the O2.
She also followed the tour when they performed in France. At one show after she joined them on stage she reportedly tweeted “Niggas in Paris for real.” This comment whipped up storm. Although Jay and Ye use the n-word too many times to count at every show, is white actress Gwyneth allowed to use the word just because she’s down with them? Members of the hip-hop fraternity weighed into the debate. Q-Tip took exception. Nas, who’s no stranger to the word himself, said that Gwyneth ‘gets a pass’.
Much as I love Jay Z and Kanye, as much as I love their album, and as much as I love that track, I’m not comfortable with them going all over the world, performing that song, and using that word in a context where white people who like hip-hop think its now okay for them to use that word too.
The use of the term by Black people amongst themselves is still controversial, but its hard to argue against when comedians like Richard Pryor and Chris Rock have used it so artfully in their stage shows through the years. But for white people who might be reading this and are feeling conflicted as to when it might be appropriate for them to use the term, let me give you some guidance. NEVER.
But stepping back from the ‘n-word debate’, whatever happened to conscious rap? Chuck D was not pleased when Jay and Ye released Otis, the first single from their collaborative album. He argued that it was insensitive for them to be rapping about their thousand dollar watches and million dollar lifestyles at a time when the world is in recession, and thousands of ordinary folk are struggling just to pay the bills.
“ New watch alert, Hublots/ Or the big face Roley I got two of those/ “Can’t you see the private jets flying over you?/ Maybach bumper sticker saying ‘What would Hova do’?
Sadly, no one seemed to be listening, because in 2012 Chuck D is no longer the frontman for rap music’s most high profile group, but, like a hip-hop Bill Cosby, has been relegated to the status of a kill-joy uncle grumbling from the side-lines at the family BBQ. “Ahh shut up complaining Uncle Chuck. Have another piece of chicken, go sit down with the old folks and let us young kids have some fun”.
But many of my generation agree with Chuck’s viewpoint. When we cut our musical teeth in the late 80’s and early 90s, rap was music of the revolution, a force for positive change. Rappers wore Africa pendants and Malcolm X caps, Public Enemy’s Fight The Power provided the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s greatest film Do The Right Thing, and the lyrics of KRS 1, Rakim, and Brand Nubian provided the running commentary to our daily struggles.
Sadly in the 21st century, rap music has become the theme music for conspicuous consumption. No longer quoting from the Qu’ran but instead reading from the pages of GQ and Forbes magazine. The Golden Era led by Public Enemy gave way to the Bling Era led by Jay Z, and the Dirty South sound that now dominates led by Rick Ross. As Talib Kweli put it on the Reflection Eternal album….
“These cats drink Champagne, to toast death and pain,/Like slaves on the ship talkin’ bout who got the flyest chain.”
Sadly, looking back on those glory days of the Golden Era, I realise that conscious rap was just an aberration, merely a temporary blip. Rap was always about ‘flossing’ and bling, or rather bragging and boasting as it was called back in the day. The very first rap record, Rappers Delight, released in 1979 by the Sugar Hill Gang, was little more than 15 minutes of braggadocio.
For those too young to remember, here’s a quote.
“You see I’m six foot one and I’m tons of fun and I dress to a tee/ You see I got more clothes than Muhammed Ali and I dress so viciously/ I got body guards I got two big cars, I definitely ain’t the wack/ I got a Lincoln Continental and, a sun-roof Cadillac.”
Remember that EPMD stood for Eric and Parrish Making Dollars, and Eric B and Rakim’s first album was called Paid In Full. Jay and Ye are just carrying on the tradition, only now they are talking about private jets. When people who are used to having nothing, get a little something, they just can’t help showing it off.
A similar thing happened in soul music. That socially conscious music of the 70’s that we love to hark back to, was just a blip disrupting the steady stream of ‘baby I love you’ lyrics that predominated from the 1950s right up to the present day. Stevie Wonder might have been talking about Living For the City and Jesus Children of America in 1974, but by the 1980s he was back to singing I Just Called to Say I Love You. Marvin Gaye might have been asking What’s Goin’ On? and Save the Children in 1971, but by 1982 he was back to singing Sexual Healing and Rocking After Midnight .
There must have been something in the air in the 70s and the 90s that woke Black people up and prompted them to look around and consider their circumstances. But that mood was soon lost and we returned to our slumber.
The truth is that Black music is more often something we use to forget our problems rather than address them. A soothing lullaby rather than a rousing alarm call. As the saying goes, ‘some people would rather die than think, and sometimes they do’.
POST SCRIPT – If I’ve gotten it wrong, and there are contemporary artists out there making conscious music, let me know. I’d love to check them out.