The Hip-Hop Debate: Conscious vs Commercial
I was first introduced to the words “conscious rapper” in 2004 during Kanye West‘s entrance into the music industry as a rapper. Having been a fan of hip-hop music since the tender age of 10, I found it strange that it took almost a decade until I realised that there was a segment of rappers considered to be more conscious than the superstars that I was use to. Since that day I have been asking the question: “What is a conscious rapper?” and almost a decade on I am still yet to hear a definition sufficient enough to close this chapter in my life.
Ask a fan of “conscious rap” to define the sub-genre and they are more than likely to use the words Political rap or socially conscious. Now, the reason this fails to register to me as a sub-culture is the fact that “consciousness” cannot be attributed to any particular group of rappers, because:
Consciousness: although difficult to define most reasonably educated people would agree that consciousness is about having awareness, feelings and thought about the external world.
“My president is black, my Lambo’s blue
And I’ll be goddamned if my rims ain’t too
My momma ain’t at home, and daddy’s still in jail
Tryna make a plate, anybody seen the scale?”
Awareness: His president is Black and his Lambo is blue
Thought: He would be god dahmed if his rims aint too.
Feelings: His momma ain’t at home, and his daddy’s still in Jail
Action: He has to eat, so he needs to hustle
Now, we all know Young Jeezy is not one of the rappers that would be classed as a “conscious rapper” and I ask why not, when in his own weird way he shows all the ingredients for consciousness. To some extent he also shows political awareness by knowing the pigmentation of his president. But if you actually listen to the song, you will hear that Jeezy and Nas’ message is about the importance of protecting the livelihood of those around you and by any means necessary regardless of the colour of your presidents skin. #NoMalcolm
Yet after all these 16 bars, a hook and adlibs, Young Jeezy is never going to be considered as a “conscious” rapper because 90% of the time he makes the type of music that the so called “conscious” fans would argue “is killing our community.”
On one hand you have rappers that make politically influenced rap such as Dead Prez, Immortal Technique etc and on the other hand you have “Blowing Money Fast” hip-hop from the likes of Rick Ross and Lil Wayne. Now this might come as a shock to you all, but I honestly believe -exclusively- none of what these two type of rappers are doing is going to help sustain the entire culture or better the lives of the rest of society. Here are the reasons why.
Remember: The key words in that sentence are: “exclusively” and “entire”
Take this an analogy:
You go to church for the first time, you are baptised and born again, thus making a conscious decision to attend church every sunday. The preacher talks about how you need to be conscious of the word of God and treat other the way you would like to be treated. There is totally nothing wrong with this scenario, except that after a few months you realise that he has been preaching to the same people that are already born again. Now Immortal Technique and Dead Prez are like church pastors who preach every album, mixtapes and shows to the same “conscious” listeners. But rather than these conscious listeners spreading the gospel they use it as a parameter to beat down the “non believers”.
“Conscious” fan: “You call yourself a hip-hop fan, and you don’t know who Jay Electronica is?”
“Born again” Brother: “You call yourself a righteous, when is the last time you went to church?”
How can you change the world when you scare away the people that need to hear the gospel? The problem here is not the preacher (rapper) nor the gospel (content) but the followers. Just because you find Jay Electronica entertaining or stimulating doesn’t make you any more “conscious” then a guy who chooses to listens to Rick Ross. Other people don’t need a rapper to tell them about history and world affairs, music to them is a form of entertainment.
Whereas rappers like Dead Prez seem to show collective consciousness, BMF rappers seem to concentrate on themselves. History has proved so many times that greed and self focus has never helped sustain any community. The BMF fans would argue that “political rap” is boring and doesn’t apply to them, once again this is short sighted and I am sure we all dread the day when everyone is making it rain over auto tuned beats.
What the game needs is a balance, because not everyone wants to hear complicated theories or be reminded of how much more richer their favourite rapper is to them every time they turn on their iPod.
Here is an example of how such a balance has worked in the past.
In 2005 Kanye West released “Diamonds” single, which was later remixed by a local Chicago rapper by the name of Lupe Fiasco in which the young MC talks about the conflict diamond industry which exploits young African kids. The song went on to influence Kanye to revise the title of the single to “Diamonds of Sierra Leone” and a remix in which Kanye West raps:
“Though it’s thousands of miles away,
Sierra Leone connect to what we go through today,
Over here, it’s a drug trade, we die from drugs,
Over there, they die from what we buy from drugs,
The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses,
I thought my Jesus Piece was so harmless,
‘Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless,
And here’s the conflict,
It’s in a black person’s soul to rock that gold,
Spend ya whole life tryna get that ice,
On a polo rugby it look so nice,
How could somethin’ so wrong make me feel so right, right?”
Off of the back of the remix and the conceptualised video, and – coincidental popularity of the “Blood Diamonds” blockbuster, there was a greater state of consciousness amongst rappers when buying diamonds. This later sprung up the wooden Jesus piece accessories, which has created business for UK urban entrepreneurs such as NorthSkull and ended up bringing Lupe to the world.
Its a win win for the entire hip-hop community, the “conscious” listeners get a new rapper who wouldn’t have reached the masses if it wasn’t for a “commercial” rapper. Yes, Kanye was most probably doing it as a gimmick to sell records, but we must remember that a single “conscious” line from the likes of Jay-Z or Kanye West on a “dumbed down” track is more powerful than a whole discography of a conscious rapper, who only reaches 10,000 people.
Conscious rappers opinion on Commercial rappers
Great lyricists such as Talib Kweli respect commercial rappers like Jay-Z and vice versa. It is the followers who have it twisted and try to segment the genre into sub-genres which in reality doesn’t exist.
I have always had the idea that the moment an artist puts his or her music up for sale, they are commercial, because that is called dealing in commerce. If these dudes were really doing this to make a difference, they would be standing in front of Niketown preaching like the brother at Oxford Street. Now that is a dude, who believes in something so much that he is on the gospel whether rain, sun or snow. Until I see a conscious rapper doing that, I will not be able to buy the concept of “politically or socially conscious” rap or at least not differentiating it as “non commercial.”
The concept of differentiating commercial and conscious rap seems like a metaphor within the black community, where on one side we have the people who wish to overcome societies short coming by looking at the root cause and reminding everyone not to make the same mistakes in the past. Whilst others go out there with a different approach and take chances. As you have probably realised at this point I lean more towards the latter, but I am fully conscious that one cannot exist without the other. The Lupe – Kanye scenario highlights how the underground and commercial scene benefit from each other.
So the next time you argue wether or not Jay-Z is better than Common, remember the line from Moment of Clarity “…truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense”. Or better yet when Jay Electronica finally releases his album, it is worth looking at the Executive Producer, very likely to be none other than Shawn Carter.
We are fighting a losing battle trying to claim one form of hip hop is greater than another, when really we should just be enjoying the diverse nature of our culture.
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