A social media war of words broke out late last month after Angel Diaz, a writer at Complex, threw down the gauntlet and proclaimed that fans of “real” rap were basically haters, beginning his piece by writing, “You old head, super lyrical motherfuckers need to get over yourselves,” and proceeding to go so far as to name names: “I’m dead tired of you cats, man. You make my head hurt. Can’t be listening to Talib Kweli rap off beat and Lupe Fiasco deep cuts at BBQs.”
Talk about shots fired.
Talib and Lupe, understandably, did not take kindly to these words and responded in kind, ultimately forcing Complex Media Chief Content Officer Noah Callahan-Bever, a writer whose work I like a lot, to address the situation.
What a mess.
The debate between “real” and “not real” hip-hop is quickly approaching its thirtieth anniversary, though it feels much longer than that. I was once a soldier in this seemingly 100 Years War, a devout follower of the holy book (The Source pre-1999), ready to sacrifice my life (not really) and become a martyr (figuratively speaking) for the cause of “real” hip-hop.
I spent years of my life fighting this battle, telling people that what they liked was wrong, that most of what they heard on the radio was awful, and that they were personally complicit in the downfall of hip-hop as it became increasingly intertwined with pop music.
In hindsight, I regret this. Most of these people weren’t aware of this cultural conflict, nor did they really care; they were just trying to listen to music they enjoyed. And maybe it’s true that the industry really does brainwash the public to like bad songs, but are you really going to stop it?
Hip-Hop is too big for any one person to protect or direct. There are no gatekeepers. It’s a business just like any other. At some point, you need to give up and realize that you like what you like and other people like what they like. Otherwise you’re just the old guy standing on a soapbox, didactically lecturing people on their subjective tastes until you drop dead from a heart attack because of all the stress.
This is also not a new debate.
Let’s try to pinpoint when “real” hip-hop was overtaken by posers and charlatans. Questlove believes it died at The 1995 Source Awards. Others say it happened in 2006, when Houston began dominating the charts and the airwaves. Or was it long before that? 1990, the year such classics as AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Fear of a Black Planet, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and Step in the Arena were released, was also the year of Vanilla’s Ice’s To the Extreme and M.C. Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. Or perhaps it occurred way back in 1979 when The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” reached the Top 40, a song in which the rappers performed verses that they had not written, something that is still controversial three-and-a-half decades later.
The point is that this has been an issue almost since the birth of the genre.
Perhaps we’re simply ignoring the backward fitted-adorned, baggy jean-wearing elephant in the room: music is made for young people and my generation is rapidly approaching middle age. Every generation is defensive about its music and we’re no different – it was okay when our favorite artists portrayed themselves to be something that they’re not. Why? Because they’re ours.
Honestly, what’s being missed in all this is that Diaz’s overarching point is deeply flawed – not because in referencing how The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z were once considered R&B rappers, he fails to acknowledge that the definition of “real” in hip-hop has changed drastically over the past twenty years – but because the concept of “real” hip-hop has always been a bit ridiculous.
After all, N.W.A – the realest rappers ever, the world’s most dangerous group, the crew that terrified the FBI and had parents locking up their daughters – was not exactly the most authentic musical act in history.
The second paragraph of N.W.A’s biography of page on Rolling Stone begins as follows: “O’Shea ‘Ice Cube’ Jackson, born and raised in a two-parent, middle-class home in South Central—and always more interested in music and books than in gangs…” Everyone makes a big deal about Cube going from N.W.A to Are We There Yet? but, in truth, it was almost a full circle return to his roots. Most young people go through an experimentation period in which they adopt and test different looks and styles, but it’s just that Cube’s took place in public and happened to change the direction of popular American culture in the process.
He wasn’t the only one. In 1995, the movie The Show was released, giving a never-before-seen backstage view of the world of hip-hop. One of the most telling quotes came from Cube’s N.W.A groupmate, Dr. Dre, when he said: “Living up to what you say on records, it’s all entertainment. Anybody in their fucking right mind know you can talk about shooting somebody on the record, but motherfucker ain’t finna really go out there and do it unless you just stupid. Ya’know what I’m saying? It’s entertainment. We make records. Entertainment – that’s all it is. This is, like, our fucking jobs.”
How is that different from Rick Ross? DMX barked and growled in verses and shouted out his dead dog in songs. Is that real? No one knows, but it sounded great. 2Pac is one of the greatest ever, but the leader of Thug Life grew up writing poetry to Jada Pinkett, not pulling drive-bys in his stroller.
In the end, it comes down to skills and what connects with the public. Personally, I can’t stand either Future or Drake. It’s not because they’re not real (although it is funny to hear a former child actor talking about “starting from the bottom”), but because I just can’t stand their music. I’ve given multiple chances to Mac Miller, Fetty Wap, YG, 2 Chainz and most of the new batch of artists that have come out in recent years and they just don’t do it for me.
But I love Skyzoo, I think Kendrick Lamar is a once-in-a-generation talent, I believe Nicki Minaj could one day become the female G.O.A.T. and I have been a staunch defender of Macklemore. That doesn’t mean they’re more real. It just means that they connect with me as a listener.
To me, the most insightful thing Diaz wrote was also one of the most overlooked: “More importantly: Who cares what mainstream rap is doing when you have the Internet? There are so many great artists out there waiting for you to discover them. The game is changing and it’s for the better. Yes, you read that right. Because of the Internet, one can bounce around from genre to genre effortlessly. No one is forcing you to listen to Drake and Future.”
Seriously, who listens to the radio these days? I haven’t listened to terrestrial radio in almost ten years and I haven’t expected it to expose my ears to great new hip-hop artists in twice as long. “Real” hip-hop isn’t dead; it never existed in the first place.
And that’s real.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, including the brand new In Defense Of…, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. In addition to his own site, his work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.