The vast majority of popular modern hip hop usually avoids serious social commentary, prioritizes simple hooks over thoughtful lyricism, and focuses almost exclusively on fun. So what will be the long-term effects of my generation’s fun music?
Trap music, modern-day “R&B”, and drill music are cool. I listen to it. Whether I’m at a party, out with friends, or at home alone, it gets regular spins. I enjoy the music just like most of my generation. The music sounds good, it makes us dance, and we have a good time. But that’s the thing, that’s all it does. When the song is over, and we’re waiting for the next song, what did we actually hear? What new thing did we learn? What did we get? Most of the time we didn’t get anything besides a good beat and a few clever lines. In other words, we haven’t learned anything new and there was no real message besides partying and debauchery. But hey, we’re just having fun right?
For me, that distinction isn’t mutually exclusive. We can have fun and learn at the same time. I’ve grown up playing sports, running through park sprinklers, and attending parties while still learning. Life itself is a constant learning process, and music has always been a big part of that. And lest we forget, embedding a powerful message in the music is one of the most important features of African-American (Black) music. In the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, fun music was played at parties and most of it still had a message. The same could be said about a lot of hip hop music of the ’90s. Each generation in these eras were by and large committed to making music that was both entertaining and informative. But I don’t think that a similar parallel can be drawn with my generation, as the bulk of artists in my generation are not focused on making music with a strong message.
When you consider the previous generations that came before mine, it appears that my generation is the first group to make fun music (music with very little substance or staying power) almost exclusively the primary goal. In the ’60s and ’70s, musicians like James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Nina Simone all made music that was enjoyable. People danced and had a good time to it, and when the song was over, they also learned something. In this way, they got a better return from the music of their generations. Songs like James Browns’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitions,” and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” were mainstays in the African-American (Black) community. “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” a dope funk song about being proud of your black heritage at a time when black lives mattered little in America, was a crowd pleaser and a commercial success. “Superstition” was another commercial success that had a message. The song largely served as a warning, discussing popular superstitions and their negative effects. “Mississippi Goddam” was a jazz tune Simone wrote in response to the Alabama church bombing in 1963. All of these songs that I mentioned here spoke to the issues of their time and still remained entertaining.
In the ’80s, when hip hop began to hit a new stride, the trend of delivering a powerful message with fun music continued. In the early ’80s, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five released “The Message.” While commercially successful, “The Message” served as an authentic take of the struggles in the inner-city. In the mid-’80s, Run-D.M.C. sent a strong message to the world. With the debut of their album King Of Rock, they furthered their rap-rock-fusion style, demanded respect for hip hop, and crowned themselves as the kings of rock. In the late ’80s, Eric B. & Rakim released their debut album, Paid In Full. Featuring Rakim’s dense lyricism and Eric B’s soulful production, Paid In Full not only had a message, it raised the bar of lyricism in hip hop forever.
In the ’90s, fun music still had a message. In the early ’90s, A Tribe Called Quest released two classic albums. In ’91, they released Low End Theory, featuring Q Tip’s notorious “record company people are shady” line on “Check The Rhime.” And in ’93, they released Midnight Marauders, featuring “Award Tour,” “Electric Relaxation,” and “Steve Biko (Stir It Up).” Around the same time, Public Enemy was making waves with their infamous “Fight The Power” track. By the mid/late ’90s, there was no shortage of music with a message. Nas released his debut album, Illmatic in ’94, Tupac put out All Eyez On Me in ’96, and Gangstarr dropped Moment Of Truth in ’98. Each album was as fun as it was educational.
While I understand every generation will have its own take on music, I believe certain core features should always be preserved. Everyone isn’t going to be a revolutionary, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that. But the vast majority of music makers within a given generation should at least try to make music (sometimes) with messages other than unchecked fun. And using youth as an excuse for not making music with substance is the worst kind of deflection of cultural responsibility. Stevie Wonder was just 22 years old when he released “Superstition.” Run and DMC were 21 and 22 (respectively) when King of Rock released. Rakim was 19 when he rhymed on Paid In Full. A Tribe Called Quest were a group of 21 year olds when they released Low End Theory. And Nas was 20 when he released Illmatic. These were young men, just one or two years older than me, revolutionizing music.
There will always be rappers who primarily make lyrical music and there will always be rappers who make fun music. But keep this in mind: In the ’80s and ’90s, lyrical rappers (so called now) were the dominant group that shaped the overall scope of hip hop. Today, lyrical rappers are the outliers, and the fun rappers dominate the market. So what will be the long-term effects of xan-poppin, lean-sipping, gun-bar ladened music? Everyday, teenagers listen to contemporary hip hop and draw inspiration from it. But today’s popular hip hop is largely disposable.
At this rate, the future seems grim. If this cycle continues, what kind of music will the next generations create? What will happen to those from my generation who don’t learn anything from our music other than fun? Will they be productive, critical thinkers? Or will they be non-productive and ignorant? And what about other forms of Art? What effects will today’s hip hop have on artists (and their work) who primarily listen to and draw inspiration from hip hop? If hip hop, long a source of information and inspiration, becomes a watered down fun city, what will happen to those people living in at risk communities? And what will happen to pop culture as we know it?
So how do we rectify this situation? Well it won’t be easy, and it won’t be a quick fix. In fact, there isn’t just one answer to that question. But I believe it starts with acknowledging where we’ve erred as a generation. Then we should try to discover, study, understand and appreciate the history of powerful music that came before us. This does not mean that my generation should look to copy what came before. It means, we should aim to build upon what came before. And this includes incorporating substance just as much as it includes making fun music.
The music and video below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.
James Brown – “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”
Eric B. & Rakim – “Paid In Full”
Nas – “Memory Lane”