Violence, aggression, guns, sex and drugs are what most people think of when asked about Hip Hop. This is the image of the industry perpetuated by the mainstream media due to its controversial lyrical content, like 50 Cent's smash hit In Da Club "If you watch how I move you'll mistake me for a player or pimp/ Been hit with a few shells but I don't walk with a limp."
However, other sub-genres of Hip Hop promote positive messages, often referred to as 'conscious' rap, a prime example of this content comes from Common in the track Book of Life: "As I walk down the road of existence/ I get resistance from all angles".
But 'conscious rap' is itself a controversial term within the Hip Hop world, sometimes perceived as an ugly, unhelpful label. This is an issue which sparks debate between followers of Hip Hop because there appears to be somewhat of a division between fans of mainstream and conscious rap, which holds stronger ties to the original foundations of Hip Hop. Does content which aims to enrich the lives of those listening mean more than songs about the reality of some artist's experiences in 'the hood' while encouraging you to drink and party?
Personally, I feel that Hip Hop is a genre big enough to encompass both types of rap and it is hard to say which type I prefer because that depends on my mood on that given day. However, generally I would say that I find listening to so-called conscious artists such as Nas, Common, Kendrick Lamar, Bashy and Akala more rewarding because I am constantly learning new things about the track each time I listen.
Conscious rap developed in the 1980's and aimed to challenge the dominant cultural, political, philosophical and economical consensus. The first socio-political rap song can be tracked back to 1982 and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five with The Message which disparaged the poverty and violence that black youth had to live within at the time. Lines such as "I can't take the smell, can't take the noise/ got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice/ Rats in the front room, roaches in the back/ junkies in the alley with a baseball bat" painted a vivid picture of what life was really like in the urban, inner cities in America and called for change.
The crack cocaine epidemic of the '80s and '90s meant that the content of rap developed into hard-core Hip Hop or gangsta rap, as many rappers depicted their real life, or that of many other young black males around them, through their music. This was popularised through Ice T and the N.W.A but quickly escalated and the gangsta lifestyle the music depicted became a bit too real after the deaths of megastars Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. These untimely deaths rocked the industry and after a period of recovery, the emphasis of hip hop was then placed on celebrating the rags to riches story of rappers and how far they have come.
An example of lyrics which boasts of material goods excessively is Jay Z and Kanye's joint effort N*ggas in Paris with lines such as "what's 50 grand to a mothafu**a like me/ can you please remind me?" Hip Hop and Public Enemy legend Chuck D called out the Watch the Throne rappers for bragging about how much money they have amidst one of the most devastating periods in economic history.
Northwest London spoken word artist and social commentator George The Poet believes the label conscious rap itself may need addressing: "Why is there a category called conscious rap? You tell me what that implies about the rest of rap. Unconscious rap. Do you think I came out here to be unconscious? Rap was hijacked, first thing you need to understand is that rap came from a poor community and there is a direct correlation between poverty and crime. So, a lot of the narration is conscious!"
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Nevertheless, these artists face many challenges when making songs with a 'conscious' message and Tottenham rapper Wretch 32 says he's friends liken him to a preacher when he makes such records. "You definitely face the challenge that people say or think you are boring. I've noticed that when I've made certain records, even my own friends will say it to me. My mate will say to me 'ah bro stop preaching man, if people want to hear that they'll buy a book.' That's just some people's philosophy on the whole thing."
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Sometimes I find it hard to conceive that records about going to a club, getting drunk and doing drugs are more celebrated, and obviously sell more, than tracks trying to tackle serious issues in the world.
This is the world we live in and individual artists cannot be blamed for wanting to make money and neither can their capitalisation on the situation to become successful be knocked. George concurred with this point as he said "You've got people selling illegal arms to regime's that they shouldn't be doing, I think there's a lot worst things in the world going on than making music for money."
However, there is sometimes a lack of balance in Hip Hop as some very talented artists lack the required content or desire to be commercially successful, while others have a knack of being able to make 'hits' without any real meaningful lyrical content.
The most exciting rap song of the year came from 20 year old Bobby Shmurda with the smash hit Hot N*gga. I absolutely love this track, like most of the hip hop community do, but the strengths of the track clearly lie in the beat, the hype and rawness of Shmurda. The lyrics are far from inspiring and after this one video went viral along with the Shmoney dance, Shmurda signed a record deal with Epic.
Wretch 32 questioned this aspect of the game: "You might have a rapper who has popped up, he's got one tune and he's come through and he's as big as the guy who has done like 25 mixtapes, and it's not weighing up sometimes."
I am producing a feature for London's Westside Radio aiming to address whether conscious rappers should be celebrated more, particularly in the Hip Hop world at least. It is always difficult to argue that one type of music should be valued more highly than another, however, I feel that argument is what we have on our hands here.
Up and coming UK rapper Yungen feels that it is not necessary to compare mainstream and conscious rap: "I would just say there different types of music. It's the same thing with RnB and Gospel, they're both singing but they're just different types of music. So, I wouldn't compare it, I wouldn't say J Cole and French Montana are the same sort of rapper but they both rap."
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While Hip Hop is big enough for both of these genres to co-exist, why are we as a society, drawn more to the controversial content in Hip Hop, rather than the conscious, positive material?
Be sure to catch #hiphoplifelessons on Westside Radio, 89.6 FM, starting on 10th November and a London 360 Hip Hop special on the Community Channel.Suggest a correction