Beats, Rhymes, and Progress

Hip-Hop’s Division Dilemma and the Forces That Can Break Boundaries

Two years ago, pundits in this country spoke of electing the first “hip-hop president.” There were a lot of problems with the term, but perhaps the biggest one was that it made the election of Obama out to be the pinnacle of hip-hop’s struggle. And in the midst of the hopey-changiness, it almost seemed like it could be true. The months leading up to election ‘08 were a time when emcees, DJs and producers of all stripes saw the Obama phenomenon as an opportunity to speak out on health care, the war on terror, and the persistent inequality that has run through American society.

Now, that hope seems to have curdled like so much oil in the Gulf. With a Democratic majority in tow, Obama has delivered just shy of nothing to workers, people of color, or any of the base that voted him into office. New battle lines have been drawn, and while so much of the energy that pervaded through hip-hop seems to have faded, a closer look will reveal a crop of artists clearly grappling with the question “what next?”

Reading much of the hip-hop blogosphere, though, you couldn’t tell that was the case. In fact, many commentators, including those on the left, appear to be falling into the old confines of the sub-genre–confines that looked to be in the process of fading not too long ago. What’s more, the persistence of these old divisions has led to a kind of malaise among so many of those who would otherwise see hip-hop as the soundtrack of coming resistance.

On the one hand, there’s the irascible waxing over the existence of “conscious rap.” Ever since the label emerged it’s been a troublesome one–so much so that lately some commentators have been attempting to single-handedly put it to death! Back in January, Omar Burgess of Hip-Hop DX penned an article titled “When the Casket Dropped: An Obituary for Conscious Rap.” It’s become something of a minor sensation online in the months since.

As if to mirror Burgess’ lament, the week after Labor Day saw Eric Arnold, writing for the website of ColorLines magazine, pessimistically ponder the future of “gangsta rap.”

Says Arnold: “Some critics have hastily written gangsta rap’s obituary. But in 2010, the genre remains a commercial force; what has declined is its gravitas as protest music. Once outspoken on the subject of police violence, in recent years, hip-hop broadly has been all but silent on politics of any sort, at least from a mainstream perspective. Back in the days, gangsta rappers faced off against label executives in corporate boardrooms over freedom of speech; now they entertain marketing meetings over energy drink endorsements.”

There’s no doubt that both Arnold and Burgess are true believers through and through, and that their attempts to throw their hats into the ongoing debate shows how that kind of hope continues to resonate through the ranks of the hip-hop world. Still, neither of their relatively grim outlooks tell the whole story. A lot has happened since January (as it so often does; time is funny like that). In fact, sitting at the back-end of summer, hip-hop seems to have produced more than a few reasons to be hopeful right now.


This past spring ended with a shot across the bow. The passage of SB 1070 in Arizona provoked broad mobilizations well beyond the state’s borders. Echoes of the 2006 movement to strike down the infamous anti-immigrant bill of Wisconsin Senator James Sensenbrenner–which some called the “awakening of a sleeping giant”–haven’t been lost. Naturally, Public Enemy’s “By The Time I Get To Arizona” took on a whole new relevance, including an eight-minute remake featuring somewhere around a dozen Arizona-based emcees protesting the new law.

Five months before 1070’s passage–around the time Burgess was hammering the last rhetorical nail in the conscious coffin–Jeff Chang sat at the front of the auditorium of the National Geographic headquarters in DC alongside Nas and Damian Marley. “[T]here’s a global context now,” said Chang. “In order for all art forms to move forward, you have to have someone like Nas or Damian Marley to step up and push the edge.”

That’s exactly what they did. No shortage of emcees have paid homage to rap’s reggae roots, but given the lay of the land, the release of Distant Relatives took on a whole new layer of meaning. Dropping six weeks after Gov. Jan Brewer signed 1070 into law with all due vitriol, the collabo had already become the year’s most anticipated. The mixture of Nas’ ghetto manifestos and Marley’s Rastafari testimonial could have been an unwieldy balance–especially with the added lens of Africa’s long struggle for freedom. Songs like “Tribal War” got it just right, though:

Man what happened to us?
Geographically they moved us
From Africa
We was once happiness pursuers
Now we back stabbing
Combative and abusive
The African and Arab go at it
They most Muslim
We should be moving in unison!

With uber-conservative pundits calling for politicians to batten down the hatches at the border, with the accusations of “terrorists” “stealing jobs” reaching a fever pitch, Nas’ lyrics stated a simple truth that put it all in perspective: that the west was built on the resources and humanity stolen from the global south. Any violence visited on the US can’t be viewed separate from its own long legacy of state-sponsored terror–from the African Horn to Sonora to South Central.

To be sure, Distant Relatives’ world-wide themes didn’t just drop from the sky. Just as the effects of globalization has had unseen consequences for immigration and labor, so has hip-hop’s now global reach come back around in recent years. Somalia’s K’Naan, Ghana’s Blitz the Ambassador, not to mention the revival of Fela Kuti’s works from Mos Def to Broadway have all shed light on rap’s cross-continent dominance. Marley and Nas just put a point on the trend.

This from the same emcee who ten years ago was most recognized for his beef with Jay-Z. This from the same artist who five years ago declared his “first love” of hip-hop dead.


Ten days after Distant Relatives dropped, another summertime collaboration revealed the opposite side of the coin. If Nas has spent the past several years fighting the definition of what it means to be “mainstream,” then Talib Kweli has been long public about his discontent at being saddled with the “conscious” label. The irony, of course, is that, between Black Star, Reflection Eternal and his own solo work, Kweli can easily be considered one of the key accidental architects of the whole conscious sub-genre.

And so when the first Reflection Eternal album in ten years hit the stores, the risk of sounding a dated product of the niche market ran high. Like Distant Relatives, Revolutions per Minute provoked fervent anticipation. Like Distant Relatives, it pleasantly met and exceeded expectations by going outside the box. And like its counterpart, Revolutions per Minute has exhibited a timeliness both eerie and appropriate.

Kweli and Hi-Tek took to the airwaves a few days after RpM’s release to perform with the Roots on Jimmy Fallon’s Late Show. It was an appropriate pairing, given that the Roots have likewise struggled with the “conscious” pigeonhole–so much so that when they announced their intent to stint as The Late Show’s house band, the hue-and-cry over “sellout” seemed particularly potent.

Such concerns weren’t entirely misplaced. This is network television after all, and the Roots wouldn’t have been the first to trade in their rebel message for a secure gig. Those expectations have been thankfully and repeatedly defied, however, and that was confirmed when Reflection Eternal led the collabo in a live rendition of “Ballad of the Black Gold.”

Thus-far “Black Gold” has yet to be released as a single off of RpM. It is one of the album’s most outstanding tracks, weaving the woes of global war, colonial oppression, economic meltdown and ecological devastation around the dark maypole of Texas tea:

How they banking while the auto industry is tanking?
Leadership is sinking, oil pollution in the water stanking
Loyalty to petroleum, royally spoiled the economy
We won’t get it poppin’ till we’re oil-free

If you’re oil-rich then we invade it
They call it occupation but we’re losing jobs across the nation
Drill, baby, drill while they make our soldiers kill
Baby, still the desert where the blood and oil spill

Kweli isn’t clairvoyant; there’s no way he could have known how relevant these words would end up when he wrote them months before the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico (and while the song makes specific reference to Exxon and Shell, BP isn’t included). The decision to perform this particular song live, after untold millions of gallons of crude had spread through the Gulf, was hardly a coincidence. It was proof-positive of what kind of message an engaged artist can deliver when he has an opportunity–however slim–to defy categorization and get the kind of platform that so many others squander.


“I think if two people love each other, then what the hell? I think that everyone should have the chance to be equally miserable, if they want.”

It was an endorsement of same-sex marriage that came from the unlikeliest of places in mid-June: Eminem. That Em–after a five year absence and mediocre comeback record in ‘09–could skyrocket back to the top with this summer’s Recovery was a big enough surprise. Now he was slapping down his past of homophobic rhetoric by saying he supported the rights of LGBT folks to get married (albeit in a typically sarcastic way).

Outlets that reported Em’s reversal acted as if the whole thing took place in a vacuum. “My overall look on things is a lot more mature than it used to be,” was the front-loaded quote. What nobody acknowledged was that this change of heart came against the post-Prop 8 backdrop, after a massive LGBT liberation movement had taken over the streets of DC, and about a month before Prop 8 was struck down.

Nobody could deny that Recovery displayed a different Em on many levels. Critics have noted it to be much less graphic and violent than previous records. Not that the material on the record is child’s play. Case in point would be the second single “Love the Way You Lie,” which seems to have ignited a debate around the message of the song and video. Do they, as some media have claimed, glamorize domestic abuse? Do they, as some others insist, condemn acts of violence against women? What is the meaning of Rihanna’s presence?

In perspective, it’s a message much more complicated than the infamously horrifying barrage of, say, “Kim.” A worthy question might be what affect the movement for LGBT rights might be having on Eminem’s general ideas about gender. When he faded into the background five-and-a-half years ago, he was the establishment’s poster-boy for everything wrong with rap–a convenient scapegoat who could be singled out for his misogyny and gay-bashing by politicians who otherwise couldn’t give a damn about such issues.

Now, with his comeback, Em has shown himself to be the one thing censors hate: an artist whose ideas can change in the midst of bottom-up struggle. For sure, it’s not the first time it’s happened to him; during the ‘04 election season he released what was arguably the best anti-Bush song of the year in “Mosh.” Just like the strong anti-war sentiment that pervaded those heady days, he’s obviously been affected by a groundswell that seeks to go beyond the narrow confines of “men do this, women to that.” One wonders what he might be capable of if that movement can manage to gain back its steam in the coming months.


If there’s any rap group who had embodied the conflict of “conscious” and “gangsta,” it’s been dead prez. M1 and have, unsurprisingly, never really accepted the conscious label, instead embracing and propagating an aesthetic of “Revolutionary But Gangsta” (RBG). Still, their proud and vocal identification as revolutionaries, lauding of African identity and healthy living have lead more than a few to saddle them with the label. In fact, dp are mentioned explicitly by Burgess as an example of how “emasculating” so-called conscious hip-hop can be when he quotes their admittedly ham-handed “Mind Sex.”

And certainly, “Mind Sex” hasn’t been the only misstep to come from M and stic. But since bubbling up from the underground a decade ago, despite being more-or-less blackballed by the liked of MTV and mainstream radio (“turn off that bullshit!”), they’ve managed to maintain themselves as one of the most respected acts in hip-hop.

That was merely confirmed on June 22nd, when dead prez dropped their Turn Off the Radio Vol. 4: Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz mixtape for free on their website. Released a little less than a year after their previous volume, Pulse of the People, with the explosive beats of DJ Green Lantern, volume four takes a different approach.

What’s immediately apparent is that Gangsta Grillz was dropped as a celebration of the ten-year anniversary of dp’s landmark album Let’s Get Free. Lead track “Far From Over” makes this clear by directly referencing the lyrics of their breakout “Hip-Hop”:

One thing ‘bout music, when it hits you feel no pain
Ten years later, ain’t shit changed, but the players in the game…

It doesn’t matter how many records they sellin’
‘Cuz all this bullshit that they’re yellin’ gon’ start a hip-hop rebellion
In the real world don’t have no boundaries and fears
This word-sound power that we puttin’ in their ears
Can change the real world!

The next thing that’s apparent is that the beats are taken directly from Drake’s “Over.” In fact, most of the mix’s beats are based 2010’s most recognizable mainstream tracks, but reversed with dead prez’s specific brand of militant Afrocentric uplift–Young Jeezy’s “I Luv It” is flipped into “Gotta Luv It,” Lloyd Banks’ “Beamer, Benz or Bentley” is turned inside-out into “Malcolm, Garvey, Huey,” and even B.o.B.’s “Nothing On You” is morphed into a celebration of black female empowerment on “The Beauty Within.”

For sure, nothing new; hip-hop is built on artists appropriating and reappropriating beats. But while many of these can end up feeling redundant, as if nothing has been added to it, the end result of Gangsta Grillz is how well dp’s radical rhymes mesh with this summer’s most well-known tracks. It’s a reminder that, perhaps, the realms of street and revolutionary aren’t separated by such a wide chasm.


That’s always been true too. It’s worth repeating that the division between “conscious,” “gansta” and most other sub-labels has, from the beginning, been a creation of the industry–rising in tandem with an effort in the wake of radio’s deregulation in ‘96 to sanitize and segregate rap from its own complex insurgent roots and into the realm of easy marketability. Says Chang in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop:

“Just as brands developed their niches, each niche, in turn, came with its own set of brands. ‘Political rap’ was defanged as ‘conscious rap,’ and retooled as an alternative hip-hop lifestyle. Instead of drinking Alize, you drank Sprite. Instead of Versace, you wore Ecko. Instead of Jay-Z, you dug the Roots. Teen rap, party rap, gangsta rap, political rap–at the dawn of hip-hop journalism these tags were just a music critics’s game. Now they had literally become serious business.”

That “serious business” is just what the industry does. It divides in order to conquer. It might seem all-powerful when you step back, but looking at it more closely you can see how many exceptions there are to the rule. The four examples from this past summer–from Nas to dead prez, Em to Kweli–are really just a few of the palpable examples that play at transcending this imaginary division. There’s plenty more to talk about: the return of Lauryn Hill to the scene, the return of the mix tape via mp3, the amount of emcees–mainstream and underground–who have gotten on board with the Sound Strike. It all goes to show that what unites hip-hop is a lot greater than what separates it, and that the powers-that-be ultimately don’t have as much control as they think.

But as always, it’s going to be the next generation that shapes hip-hop’s future. Some have been quick to slap the label of “hipster rap” on rising acts like the Cool Kids or Kidz in the Hall, most likely with an intended effect similar to the “conscious” label. Both have dismissed the term and proclaimed the influence that all rap has had on them.

Richard “Epic” Wallace, one of the three emcees that make up the swiftly-rising Chicago group BBU, notes “[the division between sub-genres is] all built up from the top-down. We understand where that trickle-down effect comes from. You got these figureheads standing at the door, and they tell you ‘this is where you’re gonna fall.’” Since forming three years ago, BBU have been recognized for both their radical politics and their strong, party-oriented beats.

In the end, it all starts at the grassroots–for music and struggle. Even now, with so many dark clouds on the horizon, hip-hop can’t help but be affected by what happens on the ground. It can’t help but be swayed by the anger against BP, the fights for immigrant rights and LGBT liberation, and the unquenchable longing for a better world. Rather than obsessing over the outdated, capital-planted divisions, it’s worth remembering that no matter how raw it is, there’s no way to make rebellion safe.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at Read other articles by Alexander.

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  1. hayate said on September 29th, 2010 at 5:02pm #

    “Two years ago, pundits in this country spoke of electing the first “hip-hop president.” There were a lot of problems with the term, but perhaps the biggest one was that it made the election of Obama out to be the pinnacle of hip-hop’s struggle. And in the midst of the hopey-changiness, it almost seemed like it could be true. The months leading up to election ‘08 were a time when emcees, DJs and producers of all stripes saw the Obama phenomenon as an opportunity to speak out on health care, the war on terror, and the persistent inequality that has run through American society. ”

    To give a benefit of a doubt, it’s called zionist money. This obama is the tel avivian candidate. Any one who thinks this blair in blackface is on their side has to be a zionist. Any other way of computing the equation defies mathematical laws and is an exercise in self delusion or dishonesty.