Gangsta Pop: The Death Of Hip-Hop

Even though I embarrassingly enjoy Hootie's ultra-pop, I know it sucks. It is to music, urban or otherwise, what Kraft singles are to fine cheese. But while it's pretty easy to tell that a rapper like Coolio is a joke as far as hardcore rap is concerned, what is not often said is that the whole genre has become a joke. It is no longer the "CNN of black people," as Public Enemy's Chuck D once proclaimed. It is now the MTV. 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, and the rest have gone the way of the beeper -- once a serious tool for communicating, now a fad to be consumed by every thoughtless teen. It wasn't always this way. Hip-hop was once ignored by radio stations, mainstream media, and the general population. Except for Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and a few other aberrations, rap music was reserved for rap fans, or those just so damn progressive, they listened to everything. Of course, there was another type of exception: NWA, Public Enemy -- artists who had so much to say that they couldn't be ignored. It is largely the look of the latter strain that has blossomed into today's music. Gangsta rap, or reality rap, took over and brought the inner city to the suburbs. But the point of gangsta rap was that the suburbs couldn't understand it. It wasn't for them; the suburban kids hadn't experienced the struggles, so they couldn't feel the emotion attached to it. As music transcends barriers, so hip-hop crept out of the ghetto, and left behind the emotion, the relevance. The prevailing form of rap today is thus not hardcore, but a hybrid of what was hardcore and the pop anomalies mentioned earlier. That's why it's okay for Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre to appear on the award shows and in the daily paper, why Coolio can be on the cover of Details. Hardcore rap hasn't taken over; pop rappers have taken hardcore styling with them to the top. I believe I heard Snoop mention in an interview that he'd like to tour with Hootie. Sounds cool, as long as it's not on the same night as the Old Dirty Bastard/Mariah Carey show, or that Coolio guest stars on Friends. Reggie Dennis, formerly of The Source, a leading hip-hop publication, essentially told me that he loves hip-hop, it's this damned rap music that's messing things up. I disagree. Rap is great -- as long as I don't expect more than about five albums a year to be worth anything. But hip-hop -- the remnants of what once promised to be an exciting subculture -- has become laughable. Wracked with infighting over territory, more chest-beating bravado than the worst Steven Seagal movie (is there a worst?), and a sad lack of a financial infrastructure, the "hip-hop community" has been reduced to a bunch of overgrown teenagers fighting to be elected homecoming king. I've suddenly become apathetic about the whole thing. I officially hang up my hat as a hip-hopper, b-boy, or whatever title once brought a smile to my face.Meanwhile, there is some good music left: Busta Rhymes, of the defunct Leaders of the New School, has a wonderful solo debut. The Coming combines Busta's often-imitated energetic growl with gritty, engaging production from the likes of Eazy Moe Bee (Notorious B.I.G., Craig Mack) and DJ Scratch (EPMD). The ladies of Zhan, known for their lighthearted party grooves, join with Busta to create "It's a Party," the kind of happily inane song that makes you nod your head endlessly while you hate yourself for liking it. While most of rap continues to dive further into the mainstream, the underground digs deeper. Lateef the Truth Speaker is just such a subterranean. His single, "The Wreckoning" b/w "Latyrx" (SoleSides) is some of the best "pure" hip-hop around. Avoiding pop song structures and satiny background vocals, Lateef and his producer DJ Shadow make the most of creative deliveries and spacy, engulfing sounds, respectively. For those days when hip-hop's innate contradictions are too heavy to bear, try some acid jazz. Once the name of a British nightclub and later a record label which pioneered a sort of jazz/funk/soul that, with the help of Brand New Heavies, caught on worldwide, acid jazz has become a blanket term for any sort of danceable jazzy soul. Although hated by those in the know, the term is so descriptive that it lives on. The James Taylor Quartet (no relation to either the soft-rocker or the singer from Kool and the Gang) is one of the better examples. Keyboardist Taylor and his three buddies keep the grooves flowing on In the Hand of the Inevitable (Acid Jazz/Hollywood). Actually an import from last year, the album is now available Stateside. The group doesn't stray too far from the trail blazed by the Heavies, but the CD makes for good listening and dancing nonetheless. Slightly more interesting, if a bit more eccentric, is Wisdom and Lies from labelmates Emperor's New Clothes. More Portishead than Brand New Heavies, the group takes some chances with unusual instrumentation and some free-jazz constructions over steady beats.

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