Rhyme and Reason: The American Dream or Nightmare of Hip Hop?

 

Ice Cube and his transition from gangster to wealthy film star illustrates the debate surrounding rappers “selling out” and losing their connection to the streets.

When Hip Hop emerged in the early 1970s in the South Bronx, it reflected the disenchantment and frustration the African American community felt at that time. The Civil Rights era had ended and their leaders had disappeared, leaving the community to deal with high rates of unemployment, structural discrimination and a widespread lack of opportunity all alone. Through break-dance, DJs, rap and graffiti art, African Americans were able to express their disillusionment with the American dream that, since the nation’s birth, purposely excluded them. As Hip Hop and rap created celebrities and became profitable, however, some were able to use it to escape the hopelessness of inner-city life, prompting others to criticize their success.

The documentary Rhyme and Reason (1997) chronicles Hip Hop culture and the rap music it produced from its conception at block parties in the ghettos to it its prominence as a platinum-selling music business. Through interviews with over 80 artists and Hip Hop figures, Rhyme and Reason seeks to inform viewers of the evolution of Hip Hop and what it means to the community, but it also tries to reconcile the contradictions it creates. Rhyme and Reason asks, if rap music focuses primarily on the struggles of urban life and the hardships of the African American community, is it traitorous to accept the money and fame that success that rapping can bring? Are you no longer a part of Hip Hop culture if you are socioeconomically and physically separated from your old neighborhood?

Rhyme and Reason was filmed in 1997, during the height of the gangster rap (Tupac, Notorious BIG, Wu Tang Can) and eclectic rap (Fugees, Talib Kweli) genres. After asking these artists to define Hip Hop, Lauryn Hill describes it as, “the freedom to create what your heart feels”. In this sense, Hip Hop can include any and all sentiments of rappers, from the poorest areas to the richest. One artist proclaims that there is not one issue in America that Hip Hop hasn’t addressed, and in addition to Lauryn Hill’s definition, as long as Hip Hop makes a statement and helps you express yourself, it is acceptable to the community.

Many rappers such as Method Man and Pras from the Fugees, however, expressed the view that if you do not live in the same communities you did when you began rapping, you are not relevant in Hip Hop and have betrayed your community. They suggest, as many still believe today, that you cannot be truly Hip Hop if you abandon the projects that gave you life, street smarts, and eventually, the material to start your career. Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan proudly proclaims “We still live in the projects, we still keepin’ it real”. These “purists” expect every artist to stay exactly the same as they release more music and garner more fame and fortune- a lofty task for any individual.

Artists like Public Enemy embodied the struggle for equality and justice for African Americans, and their political music remains relevant today

Rapper Ice-T–born in Newark, New Jersey during the race riots, and infamous for his controversial song “Cop Killer” — embodied the West Coast African American frustrations of inequality and injustice throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, and emerged as a figure the Hip Hop community could look up to, as several rappers explained in Rhyme and Reason. The popularity he amassed from his hardcore gangster rap records allowed him to gain enough money to move to the Hollywood Hills, away from the dangerous streets of Los Angeles that forged his gang-banger identity. In the eyes of rappers like Method Man and Pras, this relocation was a betrayal of the Hip Hop culture that made Ice-T the man he is today. Ice-T succinctly refutes his critics by beginning his interview saying, “…nobody wants to fuckin’ live in the ghetto. The best thing you can do is get out and get your family up out of there”.

(For Pras and Ice-T interviews skip to 50:30)

 

Ice-T highlights the dangers and unhappiness in the ghettos, and explains that it is not a choice to stay in the ghetto—it is a reality forced upon the poor and oppressed. The American dream is to better oneself using whatever means necessary and available, and Ice-T asserts that instead of being called a traitor or untrue to Hip Hop, he should be looked at as an example of a success story for those in the poorest places that face hopelessness and despair.

Hip Hop began as a movement to express discontent and erase the helplessness of the African American community after their leaders were either assassinated or disgraced . It was a grassroots attempt to take control of their lives and change their futures from the jungle to a kingdom. In this view, it is only natural that when presented with the means to change their lives for the better and give their children a life of safety and stability, rappers take advantage of the opportunities afforded them through Hip Hop. In the 1970s, opportunities to better oneself were scarce to say the least, but due to the popularity of rap music and the Hip Hop culture, the 1990s presented rappers with the ability to get out of the lifestyles that almost killed them, and away from the places that forced them to live a trial by fire. Looking at Hip Hop from the beginning as told by its founders in Rhyme and Reason shows that that was its American dream all along, and rappers should not be considered irrelevant to Hip Hop for following it.

Rhyme and Reason does not present a bias, and this is mostly because it conveys its message about Hip Hop through interviews with rappers from all genres and generations of rap. All sides of Hip Hop and rap are represented, and it explores many themes and roles of Hip Hop that are still prevalent today simply through interviews, without narrative bias. I picked this film to blog about after our discussion about Kanye West and other rich rappers today—Ice-T and Pras brought up our exact argument of the relevance of an artist when their zip code or socioeconomic status changes. Hearing these arguments from inside the Hip Hop community itself in the context of its history and evolution illuminated new facets and ideas that I could never have understood, and increased my knowledge of both sides of the argument.

16 years after the release of Rhyme and Reason, rap music has changed but the debate still continues, and rappers are still criticized for “losing touch with their roots” in the streets.  Rapper Nas addresses this problem, and the issue of staying relevant even when not in the streets in a 2012 article in Hip Hop DX saying,

Just because they stay alive, doesn’t make you relevant. Your music should mean something, and that’s what I always try to do. I don’t work hard on anything other than being me, and if that resonates and they say that’s relevant, that’s official.

As successful and famous rappers grow older and richer, they become socially distant from the neighborhoods and younger demographics that launched them to stardom.  Can their rap still be meaningful for the Hip Hop community if they are more concerned about the state of their new Maserati than the source of their next paycheck?

Rappers like Jay-Z lead lives of affluence and relative ease, distancing them from the communities they came from

As the “titans” of rap grow older, the Village Voice suggests, their material should follow suit and mature.  Although they cannot relate to drug dealers or gang-bangers in inner-cities anymore, rappers can still be relevant; they just have to be relevant to a new audience.  Newer and younger rappers will take their place as the “hard” and “street” voices of the inner city as the famous rappers raise children, deal with fame and try to adapt to life without the same struggles.  They were born with and grew up with Hip Hop in their veins, and changing area code and clothing will not change that.

After watching this documentary in conjunction with our class readings and discussion, I believe that it was an intention of the original DJs and rappers in the jungle that was (and is) the South Bronx to elevate the African community to concerns above constant struggle. For further research, I would begin with more recent documentaries that focus on the older generation of Hip Hop- a type of “where are they now” piece, and compare their thoughts of the Hip Hop American dream with those of the hardcore “purists” of the 1990s determined to remain in the ghettos, come hell…or high fortune.

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