I recently edited an article called Rapping About Addiction and it was a useful opportunity to overcome my own prejudices about this musical genre.
Claudiu Revnic, the author of the piece, writes about "rap" and "hip hop" as if they are the same thing. Are they? I had no idea and I didn't want to show how uncool I was by asking, so I looked it up and found a really interesting Wikipedia page on the subject which says that hip hop is : "music that commonly accompanies rapping, a rhythmic and rhyming speech that is chanted."
Claudiu says that rap/hip hop was "Born in New York's Bronx District in the 1970s, original hip hop culture was all about being positive and breaking boundaries...and believing in the possibility of change."
This positive force for social change isn't what jumps to mind when I think about hip hop and rap. I think of Snoop Dogg, one of the few rappers I've actually heard of, and the story about him investing in an Uber-style-dope-delivery company and smoking the evil weed with his son.
According to our in-house expert (Claudiu) by the 1990s the genre was heading for the dark side: "hip hop, and rap music in general, was becoming closely associated with substance abuse and violence. The record labels were heavily pushing the gangsta rappers and sexually charged R&B." This is more like it; this is where my prejudice can get some satisfaction, and I'm not surprised to hear that the record companies were responsible for this negative direction. I've heard a lot of bad things about record companies, with their disregard for art and obsession with profit .
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
But my assumptions soon came under assault. Claudiu refers to a 1982 song that really did impact me when it was released. The song is "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
I was always impressed by the chorus -- "don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge. I'm trying not to lose my head" -- and listening to it now, so many years later, I realise it contains cutting edge social commentary.
"The Message" was the first hip hop/rap song that broke out of the ghetto and made it into mainstream culture. Unfortunately most people know the newer "gangsta" version by P. Diddy where the negative influence of the record companies can be seen: a high budget video with helicopter shots, an exploding Rolls Royce, a simmering sense of sex and violence but no real social commentary.
Macklemore on Drugs and Creativity
What really blew me away when I looked into this issue was this interview with Macklemore, a Seattle based rap star, who talks about his addiction with honesty and insight. I knew about this artist from a song my kids showed me -- Thrift Shop, which celebrates second hand clothes and mocks the fashion industry as a scam.
Macklemore addresses an issue that has been bugging me for a long time -- cannabis and creativity. I keep coming across pro-cannabis evangelists, people who want to legalise pot and who deny the damage it can cause (psychosis, schizophrenia, paranoia, sloth) and don't realise it will just become part of Big Tobacco if it's legalised. They also say that cannabis makes you creative and they quote artists like Snoop Dogg who says he couldn't get by without it -- and scores of others who have produced art works while stoned.
My feeling is that most people, when exposed to cannabis, are like Macklemore whose creativity is put on hold. This is how he puts it: "I wanted to be a musician and, knowing that I wanted to do this, I knew that I had to get sober. So I would go a month sober and make a bunch of music, and then fall back off and vanish for a few months. I'd go back and forth like that. If I'm using drugs and alcohol it means I've given up on my fullest potential."
Eminem Gets Clean
No article about rap and hip hop would be complete without a mention of one of the greatest rappers of all time -- Eminem. This remarkable man, whose real name is Marshall Bruce Mathers III, is not only a great rapper but he's a record producer and an accomplished film actor too -- his semi-autobiographical film "8 Miles" won an Oscar for best original song and is a highly respected insight into America's underclass.
Eminem nearly died from a methadone overdose and, after several attempts at rehab, eventually got into recovery. He raps in his song "Not Afraid": "We'll walk this road together, through the storm...Just letting you know that you're not alone"
Eminem's song "When I'm Gone" is a brilliantly constructed scenario that starts in an AA-type meeting, moves to his home where he cruelly dismisses his young daughter, then onto a stage in Sweden and then it becomes nightmare: his daughter appears in the front row at the gig and says "Daddy it's me, Help Mommy, her wrists are bleeding."
The importance of Eminem stating the advantages of recovery from addiction cannot be overstated. He has sold over 45 million albums in the USA and his influence is global. I hope he will help turn the tide from rap's association with gangs, guns, sex and drugs onto recovery from addiction and insightful social commentary.