I’ll just get to the point: I have a hard time listening to hip hop in 2016. The worst is that I’m a hip hop fan. Let me clarify: Most people, when they claim to be fan of something usually carry a pretty decent liking of it. For example, given a movie comes out with someone’s favorite actor in it. Most of the time, they’ll go see the movie, be excited that they’re there, and most likely forget about it two or three days later. That kind of fan. When I say that I’m a fan of something, I mean it in the word’s definitional sense: Fanatic. Such is my case with hip hop. When I hear an album, I’ve gotten to the point where I take it in like one would a glass of wine.

Me: “Ah, what’s this? To Pimp a Butterfly, you say?” (puts lips together) “Excellence. I’ll have two.”

Me: ‘Ah, and this one? Views?’ (puts lips together) “I’ll pass.”

But down to the more serious side of things: Hip hop is not what it used to be. In the 1980’s, there’s no way an artist like Rick Ross or O.T. Genasis could have been successful. The people simply wouldn’t allow it. Songs like “Cut It” from O.T. Genasis would have likely canceled all future career collaborations for him. In addition to media crucifixion. Songs like “Hustlin” from Rick Ross, would have come completely at the wrong time. William Leonard Roberts II might have had to answer questions from the real Rick Ross: “Freeway” Ricky- the Cocaine kingpin who led the 80’s crack epidemic.

The 1980’s hip hop audience was simply different. In the wake of a recession which benefited the rich, and stiffened employment prospects for the poor, crack’s enterprise appeal to the inner city swept in. Inner city youth who couldn’t get a profitable job saw the large profits they could bring in with the ‘hustle’ of selling crack. Richard Lowe’s Planet Rock: The Story of Hip Hop and the Crack Generation presents an excellent account of this. The voice of a 1980’s nightly news reporter from the program reads “You are a teenager, and perhaps, barely that. You live in an inner city ghetto. You probably have dropped out of school. And you have a chance to earn $1,000 a week selling crack. What do you do? You sell crack.” Such was the case in the majority of inner city ghettos.

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Though the profits from the drug trade were great for inner city drug dealers, the costs to the community were even greater. Bruce D Johnson (et al) in his journal: Drug Abuse in the Inner City: Impact on Hard-Drug Users and the Community, speaks on the impact of crack on inner city communities in the quote “The effects of drug abuse in the inner city have significantly contributed to a decline in the economic well being of most users and sellers, an environment of poor health and risk of death at an early age, and a weakening of family relationships.” “Risk” of death was an understatement. With crack giving rise to gang violence, murder rates skyrocketed in these neighborhoods. Even family members began to turn against each other to feed their addiction. It was this whirlwind of madness which birthed the next stage of hip hop.

HIP HOP NOW, MORE THAN EVER, WAS A POLITICAL FORCE. The power of hip hop from the 1980’s to the 1990’s came from the fact that it was a direct reflection of inner city conditions. Rappers were much like reporters from their neighborhoods. Rapping the truth of what happened around them.

Rappers like Eric B. and Rakim, KRS-ONE, Kool Mo Dee, Public Enemy, Snoop Dogg, NWA, and many more came together to create the early sound of the “hustler,” gangster rap, and songs of political protest. As they lived through the turbulent 80’s, they found rap as a vessel to escape the drug trade through enterprise, and empower change. Lyrics like “Young kids grow up and that’s all they know, Didn’t teach him in school now he’s slangin dope, Only thing he knows is how to survive, But will he kill another before he dies?” From Too Short’s “The Ghetto” show the concern that 80’s rappers had for the things going on around them. NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police” famously brought on post concert anti-cop rallies, in response to the abundant police brutality. Tracks like “Deep Cover” from Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre further addressed the drug trade and police brutality in their own style.

Early rappers did so much to address the effects of the drug trade on their communities. Hip hop then, actually generated responses and promoted positive action in their communities. People listened then. People still listen now. The only problem is what they listen to. Take the same beat from “Deep Cover” and fast forward about 20 years. We hear it on Tyga’s “Dope,” only, it doesn’t pack any of the same meaning it once did. The same has gone for most of hip hop. The grand majority of it has been drained of its political power. No one’s angry anymore. We just want to dance. Which is fine, don’t get me wrong, it wouldn’t be hip hop without it. But in the same instance, what hip hop is not supposed to be is devoid of meaning. As the “hustler” and “crack” culture reached a global audience at the end of the 1990s, and the crack epidemic began to wind down; crack somewhat dissipated, but its legacy has continued.

What’s popular now is what Planet Rock calls the “Reformed Gangster.” We’ve now seen so many success stories where a drug dealer becomes a rapper, and then raps about their life making lots of money on their albums. Perhaps the most popular example is Jay-Z. From selling drugs Shawn Corey Carter to rapping as the Jigga man. Among others are Kevin Gates, Pusha T, 2 Chainz, and many more. These guys just represent the Aftershock: the wave of “bricks to billboards” brought on by the crack epidemic. Their success is a good thing. Every inner city youth should get out of that lifestyle with whatever talents they have. However, what about people who use this formula for success being far removed from the harsh realities of the projects? What about that?

That’s where the Slim Jesus’ come in, the Rick Rosses, and Tygas, who advertise the violence of the hustler lifestyle, without thinking of the consequences.

This is where the state of rap falls today. Former crack dealer, Azie Faison speaks on the implications of this formula

These rappers don’t really understand what they’re doing, sending that energy out there to the people.

“That energy” being that of the “crack culture.” As a result, people become mindless consumers. Aftershock rappers continue to rap about the drug trade, even though they’ve stopped doing it, or have never done it in the first place.

As a by product of this type of rap, we’ve seen middle class white kids start selling drugs in their high schools just to be “cool,” and people putting on the “gangster” persona solely for the repute of the image. On an even deeper level, inner city youth are taught nothing greater than selling drugs, and then becoming a rapper as a career alternative. The cycle of crime and marginalized aspiration needlessly repeats itself.

What are we putting back into our communities? We’re in an age right now where we can afford to aspire beyond the confines of Tony Montana’s American Dream. What’s next?