7 June 2012

Less talk, more hip hop.

Dean Hapeta (aka Te Koopu) of legendary New Zealand hip hop crew Upper Hutt Posse recently said that hip hop used to be a form of activism and that todays' big artists had nothing of value to say. While he has a point, in that most of the hip hop we see and hear in popular media forms is there for entertainment value only, that doesn't necessarily mean that hip hop has strayed from it's original path.

To me hip hop has always seemed to have a lot in common with punk. Both sprung up to reflect the society that the participants in both movements saw around them; in both cases a society that treated the people involved with hip hop and punk poorly and offered little opportunity or hope to them. So it makes sense that hip hop had a sense of activism and rebellion about it, just as punk did. But like punk, a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon without any regard for the roots of the music, and labels saw it as just another way to make quick money out of hardworking artists.

But even in its' early days hip hop wasn't all about speaking up about the problems in society. For every Public Enemy rapping about inequality and racism, there was a Will Smith asking you to ring his bell while he was getting jiggy with it. But if you look at the artists who get a lot of attention, there has always been a split between entertainment and serious messages, regardless of the genre.

Even those in the mainstream can have a message though. Wu Tang might have spent a lot of time talking up their Shaolin roots as they hit the charts, but they also hit back at what they saw as some of the ills of society, pointing out that cash rules everyone around them, and telling their listeners that if they party their life away their kids will grow up to emulate them (to paraphrase just a little). More recently, artists like Lupe Fiasco have got a lot of airtime while still pointing the finger when they need to.

To say that there is no (or at least very little) conscious thought in hip hop any more, and that none of the major artists has anything important to say is to ignore the good work that a lot of artists are doing. Entertainment sources/mainstream media is probably more to blame, as they value image over substance. The challenge for musicians, in any genre, with a message to get across is to find a way to package it to make it appealing to mainstream media, and the audience that that media caters to.

Do you think hip hop, or any genre, has a responsibility to address serious issues? Or is music an art form that should remain politically neutral?

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