I recently decided to go to a lounge to enjoy an old school hip-hop night with friends. Well, those friends never made it, but I actually found some old ones I had long forgotten were friends. The DJs had a pretty elaborate set up in which they not only played music but also projected music videos on a screen. I was instantly taken back to that time when I loved Rap City and looked forward to seeing Yo! MTV Raps on Saturdays to see the countdown. I was always into many genres of music, but rap was something I loved because I learned so much from it. Chuck D and Public Enemy were so essential to my evolving political conscious along with groups like Boogie Down Productions and X-Clan.
Yet, I was so excited to see MC Lyte’s “Cha Cha Cha” because after all these years it is probably still my favorite rap song of all time. I was reminded of how great a song The Geto Boys’ “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me” was and still is. There were also cuts from Queen Latifah, Pharcyde, Heavy D, Slick Rick, Digable Planets and even some hip-hop soul from SWV, Groove Theory, Soul 4 Real and Zhané. As much as I loved that music, what really sealed the deal was the chance to revisit those videos and remember what I used to see back in the days of my adolescence.
So many of those videos were done with a shoestring budget and took place in the very streets that music sprang from. Black-and-white video may have been more of a practical choice than a stylistic one, but they made it work. Sometimes those streets looked a lot like the ones I grew up around in my own Southern city and they became an extension of what I knew about black existence in other places. This wasn’t seeing how the other side lived but finding another point of identity with black folx growing up in different parts of the country. The Audobon Ballroom meant nothing to me before I saw it in a video by Public Enemy and later found out it was where Malcolm X was assassinated when I read his autobiography in 8th grade.
Yes I also liked the less heavy, more mainstream likes of MC Hammer, Young MC and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince just as much as I liked GangStarr and Third Base. Rap acts like Digital Underground, P.M. Dawn and De La Soul held just as much appeal with their out of the box styles as anyone who charted higher and longer than they did. I still remember one hit wonders like Skee-Lo, Paperboy and Mellow Man Ace (who actually did Spanglish better than Gerardo). And I don’t think I can ever truly describe how I felt the first time and every time I hear A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Appelbum,” especially now that I recognize that Rotary Connection sample. Don’t even get me started on the video either.
One thing I also realized is how not unusual it was to see black women heavily represented not only as background dancers and video vixens. Salt-n-Pepa were heroes to me and I loved women like Yo-Yo (whose Black Pearl is actually a great album). I remember when MC Trouble died and the entire hip-hop community mourned her early passing. I loved groups like Silk Tymes Leather even though they never made it very far into the mainstream. Monie Love was a lot of American blacks’ introduction to black Brits and a great moment of female solidarity with her classic duet with Queen Latifah “Ladies First.”
Yet, in a sense, both rap music and I grew up, but in the process of growing up we concurrently grew apart. I would still listen to a compilation of Source Awards nominees every once in a while, but artists like The Roots, Mos Def, Common, OutKast, Blackalicious and pre-Fergie Black Eyed Peas became my new rap heroes. Despite my issues with Snoop and Dre, I still knew all the lyrics to “Nuthin’ But a G Thang,” clean and explicit versions, but that particular sector of rap started to become foreign to me as I mostly let go of the genre.
Interestingly, I only saw a couple of the faces that managed to last into the new millennium after Puff Daddy and his lack of originality took over the game. Nas is still representing and Latifah is more of an actress now than a rapper. LL Cool J is also another one who managed to reinvent himself and the notion that Ice Cube now has lots of family movies under his belt seems almost surreal given that he was once the voice and face of gangsta rap.
In a way, it makes sense that many of these artists have moved on this way. Thanks to the best efforts of the likes of Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, rap was marketed as a music for youth and does its best to divorce itself from it black and Latino roots much like rock-n-roll was made into the property of young white males. However, rap is still a primarily black genre and has managed to still provide a voice for those who originated it, but a friend of mine has already predicted that the history books will say that Eminem invented hip hop.
Recently, I have found that I do still enjoy rap music. I still mostly stay away from what will typically be played on Clear Channel radio, mostly because it all sounds alike in a bad way. However, it seems that the black female presence that had begun to disappear in rap music a few years ago is resurging. I have found music from lots of women such as Glam.I.Rock, Angel Haze, Azalea Banks and THEESatisfaction who have not given up their place in hip-hop culture and provide a much needed voice in the rap game. And these voices are so diverse. The free mixtape or album download from up and coming artists and DJs are keeping the original spirit of hip-hop culture alive and showing that the mainstream has not completely taken away the essence of rap music.
The one thing I have loved about the Internet is that I found that originality has not gone completely from music. I may be older now and rap does not speak to me in the same way it once did, but it still makes me happy to see that it has lasted and continues to speak of the many changes black cultures go through over many periods of time. I just wonder how long it will last.
I wonder if 20 years from now, someone my age will sit in the lounge and reminisce over the days when she could see herself and all that she used to love about a music meant to speak to her after it has been made the property of those it was meant to fight against. I wonder if she will have access to those who still dare to claim something that was always theirs even if they have been erased from its history and its current commodification. She may have her own rap music revelation and remember that she came from a culture that moved the world despite its birth from pain and despair.