Good Rap: On The Path To Commercial Success

Not too long ago, mention hip-hop as a lifestyle, and you'd be met with a dubious stare."I just don't like rap" was whined at least as often as the chorus, "How can you listen to that stuff?" and ultimately, the requisite put-down of any younger generation's chosen mode of expression -- "It's not even music!" -- was pretentiously invoked.That was then. Now hip-hoppers like Will Smith are movie stars saving the world in mega-blockbuster films.Yo.Early entrepreneurial supporters of the music, such as Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, are millionaire entertainment industry mavens.Yo. Yo.Madison Avenue advertisers are suddenly totally down b-boys and b-girls. Internationally known NBA superstars gloomily lament the fact that their rapping skills aren't taken seriously by the hip-hop community. What's up with that? Hip-hop sells expensive four-wheel drives and cheap hamburgers. Hip-hop sells. Period. Ya know what I'm saying?As always, the ultimate democracy of capitalism has had the last say. When white kids in Nebraska started lining up to buy NWA (Niggaz With Attitude) albums, bottom-line types everywhere were dutifully impressed and could give a shit what the initials stood for, where Compton was or who was coming straight out of it. The measure of how far the form has come is in the financial clout it now carries.In the '80s, you could watch MTV for weeks without seeing a musician of color. Now not only does hip-hop rate its own daily show on MTV, but the video from a majorly influential group like A Tribe Called Quest (last two albums platinum) will debut next week in heavy rotation, much like the video of any other majorly influential group, say, R.E.M. Progressive musicians from the rough edges of rock to the smooth grooves of jazz incorporate elements of the form into their art rather than dismiss it as the rants and raves of hooligans with drum machines. The socially conscious Smoking Grooves tour, featuring Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Cypress Hill, Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta-Rhymes and Spearhead is just the latest manifestation of hip-hop's transcendence into the big time.And so, when Q-Tip, one third of A Tribe Called Quest, addresses the question of hip-hop's worldwide influence during a national telephone press conference to promote the group's new CD, Beats, Rhymes & Life, it seems only natural that he speaks of the genre as a lifestyle:"Hip-hop is a kind of rebellious and liberal type of art form. It incorporates the freedom of youth. That's why it's been so popular. We go to England. We go to Paris. We go to Japan. And we see hip-hoppers worldwide -- you know what I'm saying? It's not just New York or American. It's worldwide. It's a way of life. It really is."That way of life was popularly considered thuggish for much of its early history. The media identified "rap" as the celebratory anthem of an urban black outlaw culture -- rappers were gangsters and gangsters were rappers.Many so-called artists exploited the nondiscriminating public's economic embrace of their often superficial personas. Los Angeles rappers Ice Cube and Ice-T were both able to transform gangster images into Hollywood movie success, much to the benefit of their sagging musical careers.Cube's limited legacy was mostly built upon a menacing scowl and recycled Parliament-Funkadelic and Isley Brothers riffs. Ice-T relied upon the modernist formula of combining "shocking" obscenities and brutal violent imagery under the bullshit cover of artistic license and First Amendment freedom. Lately, both Ices have melted creatively and sharper heads like Snoop Doggy Dogg, Coolio and 2pac have taken the gangsta lead.Coolio's hairdresser may be conceptually challenged, but his accountant is calling for backup. Coolio's crafty reworking of Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise" was not only a hit, but actually carried the pathetically wack retread movie Dangerous Minds, helping it become a success as well. While 2pac has kept himself busy writing the rapper's textbook on misogyny (with a guest chapter from Dr. Dre), his main preoccupation is making a run at Dennis Rodman's title of most self-absorbed psycho-celebrity. On his latest CDs, Me Against the World and All Eyez on Me, 2pac's popularity/infamy remain strong. Both Ice Cube and 2pac have worked with John Singleton, a hip-hop movie maker whose demonstrated lack of talent (Boyz in the Hood, Poetic Justice, Higher Learning) suggests he would have difficulty mounting a coherent sixth grade Christmas pageant. Singleton's work has less depth than an ABC After School Special; however, he has had the good sense to package his work with solid hip-hop ensemble soundtracks, marginally preventing his films from being completely beat enterprises. In the '90s, socially conscious, positively thinking hip-hop artists began to reject the gangsta mentality and call the wack MCs on their negativity and lack of creative vision. From KRS-One, Guru, and De La Soul to The Pharcyde and Common Sense, a broader based, more musically eclectic hip-hop aesthetic began to emerge. These artists challenge themselves, their audience and other members of the hip-hop community to act responsibly in all aspects of their lives. They question their own fame and popularity and reflect honestly on the price paid to achieve success in the entertainment business.One of the most progressive West Coast hip-hop ensembles is fronted by Michael Franti, Oakland-based leader of the group Spearhead. The intense, reflective vocalist and writer spoke from his new recording studio about his own perception of hip-hop. "The people who are creators of the music know that it is more than just DJs and rappers. It's about visual artists and styles of clothes. An attitude -- a style of dance. The people who create the music know they're creating trends. There's always been a fascination for people outside the black community to know what's going on inside the black community and co-opt that into their ways. The music itself is dope, ya know? I mean, why would any woman want to listen to Biggie Smalls' lyrics? You wonder why, but Biggie's a poet. The music that he's coming over with is this incredible sonic collage ... "It sounds appealing even if you don't like what he's saying. In the same way other people love the way Kurt Cobain screams and they don't know really what he's saying or what he's trippin' off of, but they like the way he sounds." Franti also feels the politics of the music are a natural outgrowth of the artists' relationship with their audience. "Hip-hop goes in flows and trends like anything else. But at the same time, it's very reflective of the community. There's another area of hip-hop which has always tried to push the envelope of politics, of reasoning, of understanding -- to be a process of upliftment for all people who find themselves in bad situations. It's always spoken to the black community in this way, but also the Latino community -- really anybody in the urban environment. It's broader than just the black community, although that's where it originated."With the Smoking Grooves tour bringing artistically mature hip-hop to a broad audience, musicians like Michael Franti feel they have an opportunity to make a significant statement. "Since RUN-DMC did the 'Fresh Fest' like 15 years ago, there's never been a major hip-hop tour that's played outside venues and gone around the whole country," he says. "One of the main things we're pushing for with this concert is about coming in peace."That's a dramatic reversal from the advice given by groups like NWA, who advised marginalized youth to "Fuck Tha Police," and one that seems all the more remarkable considering the plight of the inner cities has only worsened in the past decade. But mature hip-hoppers like Franti seem convinced that you can't fight fire with fire. "It's really important--in this year which is an Olympic year, and we have so many black people representing the U.S., yet we have church burnings every night -- that musically we show we can put on shows and do it peacefully."

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