Hip-hop carries many connotations and aims to trigger a reaction of love or hate in the audience. For an art form that rose to fame as channeled rage for the voiceless, hip-hop has gone the way of other subversive forms of music. Hip-hop, like rock-and-roll, once railed against the establishment. However, in the ultimate American move, even hip-hop has gone mainstream.
Tupac Shakur’s “California Love,” once a theme song in the violent East Coast/West Coast rap battle, now gets used in promo ads for “Law and Order: Los Angeles.” Good songs age well though. The crossover of artists into mainstream culture is more shocking. Sean “Diddy” Combs often lacked the critical acclaim or the creditability as an artist, compared to his contemporary stars. Many accused him of latching onto the coattails of “The Notorious B.I.G.” and being more about the money and the fame.
Diddy proved to be ahead of his times. “Ice Cube” gets regular work in children’s movies. His movie, “Are We There Yet,” is a lowbrow slapstick that could easily star any number of b-list comedians. How did one of the members of N.W.A. become so cuddly?
Ice Cube rose to fame as a subversive counterculture hero. He screamed “F— tha Police” and spoke for the voiceless and the exploited. Seeing Ice Cube sell himself as a kid-friendly dad shows that hip-hop might have started different from other forms of music, but success and money trumps all and absolves artists of almost any past sin.
While police departments begged for radio stations to ban N.W.A. performances, Ice Cube was toxic to the mainstream. When he became a successful solo artist, and showed he has some box office muscle, advertisers and studios happily shook hands with him and other artists, no matter what he or she said or did on the rise to fame.
As the Baby-Boom generation heads to retirement, journalists and historians reflect on how the once radical generation grew into the roles they once protested. The first generation of hip-hop stars took a similar path. Ice Cube is far more likely to have police protection at one of his million dollar homes than to call for protests against the establishment. Hip-hop pioneers positioned themselves as outsiders. The money and success that many rapped about proved to be more intoxicating and subversive than anything they smoked or the pleas for societal change they once called for.
Part of the change in hip-hop has to do with perception. Elvis Presley burst on the scene as a symbol of youth rebellion and sexual expression. The “King of Rock and Roll” left as a lounge act and an American icon. A lack of shock and gradual acceptance occurs due to familiarity. Hip-hop might have sounded like noise pollution to the “establishment” 20 years ago, but emerging business leaders and media professionals grew up with it. The first instance of explicit lyrics might have seemed extreme as hip-hop grew in the public conscience, but pure shock acts without substance have an increasingly short self-life.
The loss of an edge for hip-hop might can also be related to the goals of some of its trailblazers. Rejecting societal norms gave hip-hop its edge. Young upstarts ranted about gaining the wealth and fame that eluded most individuals in their neighborhoods. Gaining fame and cashing checks fulfilled the fantasy of their songs, even if it meant joining in with some of the elements that they professed to detest.
The decent of hip-hop stars into the world of celebrity earned the ire of younger artists who sought to stay true to the original voice of hip-hop. Lupe Fiasco went after artists that were only into the music game to chase celebrity. His slow and subtle song “Superstar” achieved moderate success and earned him the respect of hip-hop fans that did more than just listen to the Top 40.
“Superstar” maintained the voice that Fiasco established in his debut album “Food and Liquor.” He discussed issues that went deeper than some of the mainstream rap motifs of clubbing or womanizing. Rather than compromise his work for a higher Q Score, Fiasco has remained defiant to perhaps the detriment of his career. The release of his latest album, “Lasers,” has been delayed by his label, Atlantic Records. Rather than come to an agreement with his handlers, the hip-hop artist has joined with fans in actively protesting the decision to keep the album under wraps.
Perhaps hip-hop never lost its edge as a form of expression. Some artists just used it as a stepping-stone to achieve personal goals and were only about chasing dollars. For the original stars of hip-hop and gangster rap, losing the anger and protest of youth might be part of growing up. The fire that made them famous was a heavy burden to bear.