Hip-hop originally emerged as a light-hearted alternative discourse in the aesthetic lives of black and Latino poor in the 1970s and 1980s Bronx. Hip-hop built on existing disco, reggae and funk genres and served as a creative outlet for those youth who maintained a zeal for life, despite trickle-down economics that never quite trickled down to the bottom. Contrary to the elitist posturing of many “real hip-hop heads,” the first rap songs were not about the problems of ghetto life, but instead were composed of nonsensical rhyming about fun and love. When the Sugar Hill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, hip-hop was music by ghetto people for ghetto people, and was about sustaining life, not replicating the misery of poverty.Like all oppositional subcultures, however, hip-hop was eventually faced with incorporation by the mainstream. Recognizing the potential profit, corporate America and hip-hop performers formed a relationship that would result in the near-total commodification of hip-hop. Some performers, like the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff, accepted this incorporation outright; others, like Public Enemy and the gangsta rap collective NWA (or Niggaz Wit Attitude), saw hip-hop’s expansion as an opportunity to vent their frustrations with the social order in America.
Ironically, while commercial hip-hop enjoyed tremendous financial success, it was gangsta and socially-conscious rap that dominated the media’s attention. In the beginning, gangsta rap’s obsession with reporting the conditions of ghetto life to outsiders granted America a great service: NWA’s “F--- Tha Police” exposed police brutality, while Public Enemy brazenly dissed Ronald Reagan by exposing the other side of his policies. This tradition reached its peak in the mid-1990s, when Nas’ Illmatic, the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers conveyed vivid street tales, but permeated them with a sense of triumph over abominable conditions. After this pinnacle, gangsta rap suffered a creative crisis from which it has yet to emerge.
With the best stories already told, the urban poets of the 1990s became fake black mafiosi with legendary gangster surnames, telling fantasy crime tales that were ridiculous to anyone familiar with real ghetto street crime. The socially conscious lament began to disappear with Dr. Dre’s 1992 magnum opus, The Chronic. The music that Chuck D had called the “CNN of the hood” was replaced by a downwardly spiraling culture defined largely by fraudulent performance and outright glorification of ghetto nihilism in exchange for financial success.
Some self-destructive blacks who actually suffer from nihilism—a sense of hopelessness so severe that a person no longer actively pursues a meaningful life—take hip-hop’s public celebration of this outlook to justify their lifestyle. Today’s hip-hop industry portrays such self-destruction as normative—a development which can only prove problematic for the advancement of black people worldwide. The rest of America, buffered by lingering segregation, is unable or unwilling to discern fantasy from reality and consumes this imagery as authentic, with real effects. Because they believe they are getting “the real deal” on ghetto life, they absorb gangsta rap’s reaffirmation of society’s devaluation of black life and love, and see ghetto blacks as willing, and even blissful, participants in a chaotic and impoverished existence on society’s margins.
Perhaps even more destructively, the attempt to reconcile the hedonistic lifestyle of the American nouveau riche with “authentic” ghetto nihilism has created impossible aspirations of “ghettofabulousness” for young people. In the fantasy world of the “ghettofabulous,” the empty pursuit of possessions and pleasure pathetically seeks to counteract a self-imposed degradation, while the reckless self-abandonment that occasionally bubbles to the surface is venerated as the highest expression of cultural authenticity.
But there is hope. For the first time, black artists are at the global forefront of popular culture. According to Forbes magazine, the hip-hop “nation” consists of approximately “forty-five million hip-hop consumers between the ages of 13 and 34” and wields about $1 trillion in spending power. Visionary artists and entrepreneurs recognize that hip-hop has become a force for wielding real social, political, and economic power across race and class lines.
These individuals celebrate black intelligence and creativity and provide a veritable light at the end of the tunnel. They have combined “Ghetto CNN” realism with early hip-hop’s vitality and an American entrepreneurial spirit. They showcase ways that we can use hip-hop’s best traits to attack nihilism and alienation in America by challenging the prevailing discourse and undertaking political and economic ventures to create change. If our generation fails to reclaim its most powerful cultural achievement from those who would put profit before progress, we will undoubtedly end up complicit in a larger moral catastrophe.
Brandon M. Terry ’05 is a government and African American studies concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears regularly. This column is the first of an ongoing series on hip-hop as a social and cultural force.