Lately I’ve been ruminating on the subject of hip-hop. To be truthful, it was only in the last couple of years when I have grown to appreciate sample culture as something artistic. I had previously held the party line of white guys with guitars – “if you can’t play an instrument, then you’re not a musician”. But it was brought to my attention that even my beloved Beatles had tried their hands at incorporating sampling into their work. The calliope sounds from “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” was certainly not belted out by John Lennon. It was George Martin and Geoff Emerick who cut up bits of tape and spliced them back together. It was music from another time and made by others, but it had been transformed into something new.
In hip-hop culture, at least at one time, much of the sentiment of the civil rights movement was an integral part of the music being made in that present day. To sample a James Brown vocal, or horn shot, or whatever, was not to steal something better than anything you could do yourself, but was meant to tie you to a historical past, making the music part of a continuum. It was cultural continuity which was the object, and it had become realised in a brand new way. I had never before looked on it quite that way and I grew to deeply respect this dynamic. It was merely another way for modern musicians to take up the mantle of their heroes such as Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and Gil Scott-Heron as well as incorporating European music like Kraftwerk and Can.
Also, it became the music of protest, especially during the 1980’s with Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” and later with Public Enemy. Chuck D was quoted as saying that “hip-hop was “the CNN for black people”, which it may well have been. Some of what was being produced was meant to be the expression of rage – “Fuck Tha Police” by NWA being a prime example. Of course, much of the sentiments behind it – helplesness, frustration, ghettoisation – were eclipsed by how the masses interpreted it as a dangerous, even murderous statement, alienating the white establishment and presumably, much of the potential white record buying public too. Then, things began to change.
Talking with hip-hop fans today, even they are aware that hip-hop has become little more than an individualistic and unsubtle money-grab. The talk of protesting against political oppression has become supplanted by a “bling-bling” mentality, where self-promotion and individual wealth was the object, no longer a linking itself with the communities out of which the music had first come. In order to get out of the ghetto in this new world, it must be every man for himself – “Get Rich Or Die Tryin'”. There is no longer any talk of community, or of drawing common bonds and goals together. The anger of marginalisation has turned into shallow individualism, where self-perpetuated myths are so well constructed that even hip-hop figures from middle-class backgounds – like P.Diddy – have taken to going back to a ghetto of the mind, where the world of brandished weapons and street gang ethics are taken on not as a means to survive, but as garish fashion statements. The words seem emptied of any social value in a genre which was once supposed to be “the CNN for black people”. Without the input of figures like Tupac Shakur, who was certainly interested in making political statements before he was murdered in the street, there are no prophets left to take his place, but there are plenty of people singing about record deals and getting paid.
I suppose one could argue that all music is now devoid of social comment. It might also be argued that political leanings in musicians have never been anything more than careful image construction, or at very best well-meaning but ultimately naive sentiment of how a world should be, but not how it actually is. But for hip-hop to have lost its way is more of a shame to me, just because it’s form gives so much space for this kind of unbridled expression – there need not be “verse-chorus-verse” with a catchy riff in hip-hop, a dynamic which can bog down a lot of rock music. The most important thing in this genre has always been, as Grandmaster Flash called it, “The Message”. Yet it seems to me that that message has been drowned out, or silenced entirely, by the sound of cash registers, which is the least funkiest sound I can think of.