brings you The Barbershop Notebooks a
column by our friend and family Marc Lemont
Hill. Hill's on the site because like
they say "Great minds think alike"
and Hill will bring you a wise youthful
voice of cynicism, candor and analysis.
Be sure to check it out on a regular basis
as Hill goes over all topics under the
sucks. There, I've said it. After years
of ignoring my feelings and hoping that
things would change with the next album,
video, or artist, I have finally accepted
the fact that hip-hop simply isn't good
anymore. The swagger is gone. Hip-hop
is still cool but it's no longer fly.
It's still hot but it's no longer dope.
Most important, hip-hop is no longer fun.
I can't say for sure when it happened,
but somewhere between Wu-Tang's grimy
"Protect Ya Neck" and the Ying
Yang Twins' disgusting "Whisper Song",
hip-hop became boring and predictable.
be sure, my disaffection is likely a natural
response to having recently suffered the
indignity of turning to the local urban
radio station and discovering that one
of the songs that I listened to in high
school had been relegated to the "old
school lunch hour".
like any newly made hip-hop "old
head", I now invoke a degree of nostalgia
in order to protect my most precious memories
of the recent past from what Stuart Hall
calls the "tyranny of the new".
As such, I must hate a little on the new
stuff in order to keep the old stuff fully
relevant and valuable to me.
I maintain that we have reached a low
point in hip-hop culture. But unlike most
of my friends who have elected for early
retirement from hip-hop fandom, I am not
content to simply walk away in a self-righteous
huff. Instead, I am willing to put my
issues on the table in the small hope
that things can turn around. After all,
unlike Common, I still love H.E.R. I just
can't find H.E.R.
this recurring series, I provide some
of my explanations for hip-hop's decline.
Moving beyond the more frequently discussed
issues like wanton materialism, female
objectification, or corporate co-optation,
I point to some equally critical issues
within hip-hop that have pushed me to
this point. Here goes:
my girls at?
Although hip-hop has always been a hyper-masculine
boys club, quality female representation
has dipped to an all-time low. No one
has picked up the baton once carried by
MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, or Salt n' Pepa
and successfully run with it. Even the
sex driven (and often ghostwritten) acts
of Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown have been reproduced
as uninteresting caricatures like Khia
and Trina. While Missy Elliot's creativity
and old school flavor keep the music fun,
her lyrical abilities are drastically
sub-par. Artists like Bahamadia and Jean
Grae keep the underground alive with their
top shelf skills, but their lack of selling
power makes it difficult for them to start
a movement. Our brightest hope was Lauryn
Hill before (she became) Unplugged, when
she ranked among the illest MCs on the
planet, male or female. Word on the street
is that she's on the road to personal
and lyrical recovery. We'll keep our fingers
don't freestyle no mo'
Not so long ago, freestyling was a centerpiece
of hip-hop culture. In order to be considered
a complete MC, an individual had to be
literally battle tested in the world of
improvisational rhyming. Until the mid-'90s,
the mixtape market, live shows, and local
ciphers all served as fertile sites for
freestyle raps from both seasoned veterans
and hungry up-and-comers. Today, mixtape
and live show "freestyles" are
little more than album pre-releases and
verses retrieved from the cutting room
floor. Even worse, many underground and
national rap venues (like BET's Freestyle
Friday) privilege predictable one liners,
insults, and clearly rehearsed verses
over the raw, perfect imperfections of
an authentic freestyle. There are exceptions,
of course, like Toni Blackman's "Freestyle
Union" movement, as well as rappers
like Common who aren't scared to drop
a verse from the dome in front of thousands.
Nevertheless, the future of the freestyle
is pretty grim.
Like the freestyle, MC battles have been
the lifeblood of hip-hop culture since
the '80s. LL Cool J vs. Kool Moe Dee,
Roxanne Shante vs. Real Roxanne, KRS One
vs. MC Shan, and most recently Nas vs.
Jay-Z, have all marked highpoints in hip-hop
history. While there is certainly no shortage
of battles in today's rap world, there
has been a dramatic shift in the quality,
authenticity, and motivations for the
latest rap wars. Since the overwhelming
commercial success of the Nas vs. Jay-Z
feud, it seems that every new MC must
find someone to beef with in order to
make his or her mark and boost record
sales. Perhaps the most transparent example
of this is 50 Cent, who managed to stir
controversy with Nas, R. Kelly, Fat Joe,
Jadakiss, and Game right around the time
of his album release date. In addition
to the WWF-esque feel of the battles,
the lyrical quality of the latest feuds
has waned considerably. Instead of engaging
a spirited game of the dozens filled with
personal and professional disses, most
rappers use the songs as a space to make
personal threats and air dirty laundry.
For this reason, it is no surprise that
so many of today's beefs have extended
beyond the songs and into the streets.
While hip-hop has always had its share
of elite producers, the last 10 years
have given birth to a new breed of "superproducers".
Beginning with the ever-present P. Diddy
(née Puff Daddy), this group of overexposed
hit men has moved from behind the boards
and into the videos and songs of their
artists. Superproducers like the Neptunes
(particularly Pharrell) and Kanye West
have become so large and appear so frequently
on the songs they produce that they almost
always overshadow their artists. Furthermore,
superproducers have created sounds so
distinctive and, as of late, predictable
that the hip-hop Top-40 sounds like one
big remix album. For example, even Lil
Jon' himself would have difficulty distinguishing
between the beats for his 2004 mega-hits
"Freek-a-leek" and "Yeah!"
Another consequence of this sonic oligarchy
has been the construction of barriers
for many talented young producers to gain
access to the big stage because of their
lack of star power or failure to reproduce
the sounds de jour .
The only viable alternative for many is
to serve as a ghostproducer for the giants
of the day and patiently wait for a chance
to get noticed. The only catch is that
the role of ghostproducer requires them
to constrain much of their own creativity
in order to approximate the sounds of
the superproducer. The rich get richer
. . .
Lamont Hill is one of the youngest members
of the growing body of "Hip-Hop Intellectuals"
in the country. His work, which covers
topics such as hip-hop culture, sexuality,
education, and politics, has appeared
in numerous journals, magazines, books,
and anthologies. In 2005, he was named
by Ebony Magazine as one of Black America's
30 future leaders. He is currently working
on several book projects, including New
Dilemmas of the Black Intellectual (with
Gregory Seaton), Media, Learning, and
Sites of Possibility (with Lalitha Vasudevan),
and a book of African American cultural
criticism. Marc Lamont Hill is an assistant
professor of Urban Education and African
American Studies at Temple University.
Trained as an anthropologist of education,
he holds a Ph.D. from the University of
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