Rap and Hip Hop are Dead -- Long Live the Funk

In 2001, the premier vocalists on the music scene don't rap. They sing, they soul, they funk, they tell stories, they write great songs, they do spoken word poetry. If the soul died when Marvin Gaye was gunned down by his father, then it was reborn in this generation of young hip hop-influenced musicians and vocalists.

On stage, and increasingly in the hearts of the people, they knock the current stars out of the box. Witness 28-year-old Philadelphia native Jill Scott. Her debut CD, "Who is Jill Scott?" has earned her Grammy nominations for Best New Artist, Best R&B Album, and Best R&B Female Performance, and sold more than two million copies.

"The now-familiar sounds of rap and hip hop have morphed into just a style of pop music and soon will be only a memory. A new wave of artists, however, come from places no pop artist can reach . "
But what has propelled Ms. Scott to young diva status is her connection to the pulse of the Black community. She combines the vocal power of Aretha Franklin, the consciousness of Curtis Mayfield, the rap/hip hop stage presence of Queen Latifah, the poetry of Nikki Gioviannni, the blues of Bessie Smith, the funk of Chaka Khan, and the jazz sensibility of Ella Fitzgerald into a single package.

Ms. Scott has the kind of buzz in the Black community that propelled Erykah Badu to the head of the neo-soul diva class in 1997 with her first release, "Baduizm." Everybody and their auntie in urban USA is bumping Scott's CD.

During her inspired set at the Paramount Theater in Oakland last week, women of all races were singing her lyrics word for word -- evidence of her impact. Ms. Scott brilliantly went through a set of her music, drawing from every part of Black expression -- storytelling to scat singing. (Ask the average MC to improvise or do something outside of a well-rehearsed music set and you will be very disappointed.)

Once a bona fide white rapper like Eminem, with skills, crossover appeal, and street credibility (think Elvis on weed and Ecstasy and crank) has taken over the scene, you can bet the movement of Black music will find some new well to tap.

As we move forward, we are rediscovering our past -- soul/funk/jazz. Hip hop, once anti-pop and now just a style of popular music, has been wack for a while now. The tightest young vocalists in our musical world are not MC's. DeAngelo, Badu, Musiq Soulchild (also from Philly), and Angie Stone have a retro feel that, infused with hip hop and funk, comes off as new.

Any of these artists would sing/rap/scat/play circles around any of the current stars of rap music. In the '80s, hip hop dominated over R&B. Prince and Michael Jackson were outshone by LL Cool J and N.W.A. because they reflected an urban reality that R&B stopped addressing in the era of Reagan/Bush, jheri curls, and crack.

Now the reality of Black life and ghetto living is being sung again. And "Pop Hop," instead of addressing the real-life drama of urban America, gives the people million-dollar dreams and pimped out fantasies.

Ironically, it was hip hop that kept the roots of funk and R&B alive for this generation. When radio was dominated by disco, hip hop mined James Brown and Sly Stone and George Clinton, bebop jazz, and even punk and heavy metal for inspiration, reminding us of our musical roots and opening the possibilities of musical expression at the same time.

"Now the reality of Black life and ghetto living is being sung again. And 'Pop Hop,' instead of addressing the real-life drama of urban America, gives the people million-dollar dreams and pimped out fantasies."
Veteran hip hopper DJ Jazzy Jeff, who first came into the music biz as one-half of a duo with his partner, The Fresh Prince (a.k.a. Will Smith), produced "Who is Jill Scott?" Her music has an undercurrent of hip hop sensibility -- placing her in the here and now, while making music that draws from the past, a trick that hip hop used to pull off regularly.

White popsters like Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and the Backstreet Boys have made multi-platinum careers out of singing R&B music. What separates them from this new crop of Black artists is the funk. Funk is James Brown's holla: hey, hey, owwwww. It is the zany quest for freedom from restriction in Parliament/Funkadelic's grooves. It is Larry Graham's bass guitar slaps.

Funk is something that can't be faked or imitated. It has to be lived, breathed. Funk is us. It is the musical expression of our collective desire to be free, while reflecting our current reality of de facto bondage.

You really have to be connected to the Black community to feel it--and accurately reflect it -- because we have a unique and particular experience in America that creates the funk inside our bodies, in our hearts, and in our streets.

Hip hop used to be funky, but the funk is leaking out of the form. Pop can never truly be funky, because it's an imitation of the soul/funk. Black urban artists are doing the new thing that happens to be old, while destroying the dominant vocal styles and giving the movement of African-American music new life.

Kevin Weston is verse editor of the San Francisco Bay View and co-editor of YO! Youth Outlook, a publication by and about Bay Area teens published by Pacific News Service.

What do you think? Is soul really where the truth in today's music industry lies? Sound off at our Message Boards.

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