Part I: 1989
"Oh 1989, man. I planned for it to be crazy. But s---."
—Chuck D (Jeff Chang, Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, 263)
This year in hip-hop was big, but then, so was every year in the late eighties and the early nineties. By 1989, hip-hop had long since graduated from its humble, thrilling origins as innovative party music in the Bronx in the late 1970s. Hip-hop had become a movement, a collective platform for African-American youth to voice frustration and inspiration alike. It had spread through inner cities and as far as suburbia, but was still seen as a sort of underground and lacked the big pop stars and cash flow of genres like R&B or rock. One of the biggest names in town in 1989 was Public Enemy, who called themselves "the Black Panthers of rap" and identified themselves by an image of a (presumably black) man in a beret in the crosshairs of a rifle scope (Chang 248). In other words, hip-hop was still in a pretty radical phase.
The term "gangsta rap" was coined that year by members of NWA, a crew that included Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. NWA's Straight Outta Compton went gold in six weeks in early 1989 without ever getting radio play (their lyrics were considered too sexual and too violent). The group, whose name stood for "N---s With Attitude," pushed back against a flood of conservative criticism as well as criticism from some black radicals and elders from the Civil Rights generation who thought they were putting forth a negative image for hip-hop.
It's certain that hip-hoppers were beginning to infiltrate the mainstream, but whether they were political activists or street-smart rebels, most still saw themselves as infiltrators, outsiders who had an agenda to push. Public Enemy, for example, had high hopes for pushing black radicalism through music. They put out songs like "Party for Your Right to Fight" and "Fight the Power" and made waves criticizing both white media outlets for misrepresenting them and black media makers who refused to focus on politics. They worried, along with others, that hip-hop culture would lose its political edge as it got more mainstream attention. Selling out, it seemed, was just around the corner.
The concern was that this exciting, youth-driven, black-centric music would be exploited by its growing marketability and move away from its roots. At the same time the debate about "roots" was as hot as ever: who defines authenticity? Can hip-hop talk about everything under the sun, or does it have to "represent" the black community in a certain way? Do hip-hoppers have a responsibility to the Black Power or Civil Rights movements some of them pay lip service to? Can rappers successfully exploit the industry and get into the spotlight on their own terms? These were some of the questions in the air. "It is 'make it' or 'break it' in 1989, the line between acceptance and exploitation is very vague," Chuck D wrote that year (Chang 288-289).
Music critics had started to worry about the same issue: "To fuss about the exploitation of hip-hop is quite often to take sides against the hip-hoppers themselves—even though in the end that exploitation is certain to prove a juggernaut that the hip-hoppers (and even the exploiters) can't control," critic Robert Christgau predicted in 1986. In 1988, The Village Voice expanded on that sentiment when Greg Tate wrote: "Hip-hop might be bought and sold like gold but the miners of its rich ore still represent a sleeping-giant constituency" (Chang 409-410). In other words, the best—and perhaps the worst—was clearly yet to come.
Part II: 1999
"Industry rule number four thousand and eighty / Record company people are shady."
—A Tribe Called Quest, "Check the Rhime"
Uh-oh. Suddenly it's the end of the century, and more than a few of the critics' warnings had come to pass. Chuck D described the state of the music industry at the dawn of the new millennium: "You got five corporations that control retail. You got four who are the dominant record labels. Then you got three radio outlets who own all the stations. You got two television networks and you got one video outlet. I call it 5-4-3-2-1. Boom!" (Chang 443). As Jeff Chang explains, "At the turn of the century the hip-hop generation was now at the center of a global capitalist process generating billions in revenues" (447). With the dawn of stars like Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and Jay-Z, the name of the game had changed. Hip-hop was not just a movement: it was huge business.
There had been some huge success stories, and some people were going far with the money and attention that was now available to hip-hop stars. Others, though, complained that record companies had pushed hip-hop into a set of pigeonholed roles. You were either "gangsta" or "conscious," and if you were "conscious," you couldn't get a good deal.
"That's the s--- that sells. Negativity. Drugs. Guns. B------. There really is not an alternative. You either rap like that or you don't sell. That's where you gotta come from if you wanna make it," said rapper J.O. bitterly (M.K. Asante, Jr., It's Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation, 26). Even though hip-hop's origins connected it to community activism and anti-violence work, the image of violent, sexist male rappers was the dominant moneymaker in the industry. This fact was even more complicated given hip-hop's growing audience.
In order to gain mainstream success, rappers had to sell to cross-over audiences, which meant that it was partially hip-hop's white audiences who had glommed onto gangsta rap's depictions of violence and misogyny at the expense of other black artists with more nuanced messages. Record companies, which were more often monopolies with tight and limiting control over artists, honed these images. At the same time, media fed the frenzy, recycling stories about rappers who were arrested for violence and drug dealing while passing over stories about the many other sides of the hip-hop story. Hip-hop heads and politicos alike worried about the implications of these changes—with more conservative voices expressing dislike for hip-hop in general, and more liberal voices pleading with hip-hop to change its message.
That's when Dead Prez came on the scene, and this duo had a mission. M-1 and stic.man had met in 1990 as college students and quickly bonded over their desire to become young revolutionaries. They joined the Uhuru Movement, an international black socialist organization, and together they honed their knowledge of Black Power history and community organizing while also working themselves up to be a fierce rap duo. They wanted to send a clear message with their music: a message about black unity and against police brutality, racism and poverty. When they pulled together the songs on Let's Get Free, they also set out their own definition of hip-hop. They didn't accept the more conservative criticisms of hip-hop, but they did want to question people who were motivated mainly by greed and money. More than anything, "Hip-Hop" promotes the idea that what hip-hop stands for can't be controlled by the industry and sales numbers (which have never been big for this pair).
Hip-hop to Dead Prez meant being involved with political activism and challenging racism in their music and on the streets. They weren't trying to call other people sell-outs, but they were also dedicated to avoiding the possibility of selling themselves out. The message on Let's Get Free was loud and clear, and "Hip-Hop" was a fun track to bring the message home.
In the years to come, plenty of others would join their cry for the re-politicization of hip-hop, including the recognized father of the entire genre, DJ Kool Herc. In his introduction to Jeff Chang's authoritative 2005 history of hip-hop, Can't Stop Won't Stop, Kool Herc had this to say: "Hip-hop has always been about having fun, but it's also about taking responsibility. And now we have a platform to speak our minds. Millions of people are watching us. Let's hear something powerful. Tell people what they need to hear. How will we help the community? What do we stand for? What would happen if we got the hip-hop generation to vote, or to form organizations to change things?" (Chang xiii).
Part III: 2009
"When it comes to people of color, the corporations that own these outlets understand the manipulation and they don't want to sell us no revolution, because that would be selling us freedom."
Dead Prez hung in there through the 2000s without signing another deal with a record label or "selling out" their own image. They put out four mixtapes and an album with former Tupac collaborators The Outlawz. They kept up the revolutionary buzz without pandering to the pop-ifying hip-hop market. In the meantime, rap became the domain of figures as varied as Eminem, Lil Wayne and Kanye West, who each broke out of previous tropes of rap real-ness. Simultaneously, hip-hop as popular music became the rule, rather than the exception. 2009 was a pretty awe-striking year for the mixing of hip-hop sounds with pop sensibilities: Kanye West rapped about love (and sang, too), T.I. collaborated with Justin Timberlake, and the Black Eyed Peas…were the Black Eyed Peas, which pretty much sums up that issue.
To at least one critic, a shift away from pushy innovation and toward formulaic, poppy hip-hop marked "the death of hip hop." Others began to use the phrase "post-hip-hop generation," most notably writer and thinker M.K. Asante, Jr. His 2008 book, It's Bigger Than Hip Hop, was a passionate call for the new generation—not the hip-hop generation of people who grew up in the 1970s through the mid-1990s, but what he calls "the post-hip-hop generation"—to revitalize community, politics, and music. Asante is not anti-hip-hop, but he recognizes that pop hip-hop does not (and cannot) speak for black youth in general. The post-hip-hop generation, he says, need to push forward a new political agenda that escapes the commercial trappings of pop-hip-hop. To Asante, hip-hop as we knew it is dead, in a way—but that doesn't mean the music can't still be a force for good.
Asante's allies in his argument are none other than Dead Prez themselves: they give a chapter-length interview with Asante where they talk about police and racism, activism, and the future of music. It's bigger than hip-hop, Asante and Dead Prez agreed. It's about pushing for social change at every turn, and hip-hop can't represent that cause all on its own. Artists need backup in real-world politics. At the same time, Asante argues, hip-hop culture should support artists like Dead Prez who have a serious message that forgoes sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll in favor of serious political discourse. "Hip-Hop" is a fun, upbeat, and meaningful track that sits right on that line, advocating something better while also embracing hip-hop culture as a location for that bettering.
Dead Prez celebrated the ten-year anniversary of Let's Get Free with a new mixtape, Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz. In a 2010 interview about what had come to pass, HipHopDX Magazine asked them a predictable question: "Is Hip Hop music still a forum for politics?"
Here's what M-1 said: "If we don't make it that, then it's our fault and our bad. The reason why I say that is because everything in this world is political. Every conversation that we have, even if it seems to be a-political, it has a lot to do with the sway of power in the world. Even if you just choose to ignore it, which is also a position to take, so for Hip Hop not to be used as a tool, to put out the voices of people and all kinds of communities that deserve to be heard and counted when it comes down to how we reconcile with this wicked system that seems to barrel over the majority of the people in the world. We need voices in Hip Hop that are going to be able to talk about that."