Posts Tagged ‘The State of Hip Hop’

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The Story

Any Hip Hop head who has ever entered a debate about a particular rapper they are feeling or supporting has had to have the debate about album sales. There are some Hip Hop fans who believe that the greatest or only measure of a rapper’s success or talent is measured by how many units he/she can move. Well, I believe nothing can be further from the truth. Album sales do have an effect on a rapper’s career and presence in Hip Hop history in a number of ways, but none of those ways dictates talent or relevance. Let me explain…

Album Sales

Album sales, for the record labels, dictates the worth of an artist. That’s not a bad thing per se. They are not looking at it from a business aspect in which they are going to make an investment and, therefore, they want to see a return on their investment. That’s business. However, business is dictated by things like radio play and album sales. The labels only throw money at what they can quantify as a solid investment. They aren’t looking at a rap artist the same way that a fan does (most often).

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For a Hip Hop head or fan, the things we value in an artist will be different. We know album sales can’t dictate the quality of an artist. So while album sales may elude to the kind of reach that an artist has in terms of getting their music exposed, it doesn’t speak to the quality or significance of what they have to offer. This is what defines an artist’s relevance.

The exception to this is an interesting fact that I came across but makes logical sense. When an artist releases a new album a good portion of albums sales they make is from their body of work. This is an easily confirmed notion. One can go to amazon and click on an album and it offers a list of other purchasers of that album and what they purchased. Many times there is a least one or two purchases of older albums from the artist. I, myself, have done this when I have seen an artist drop an album and I hear the buzz surrounding the album but am not familiar with the artist enough to decide whether I really like that album or that single or the actual artist. I usually go dig through a couple of albums from the artist and make my decision after considering more than just one album. So if an artist already has a body of work, album sales could be expressive of that artist having put in their work for a while and only just then beginning to get recognition for it, which happens often with a lot of quality artists. Even still those album sales would be reflecting the total sales and not just that of one album.

Relevance

I don’t believe relevance to be the sort of thing that can be defined or confined by time. I believe that relevance is exactly the opposite. It is about that which defies time. Just because a rapper isn’t selling madd albums at 2010-09-14_1000the current moment does not mean that the artist is no longer relevant. Take for instance Nas’ Illmatic, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 

Chambers, or A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders all of these albums are at least a decade old, yet no one can argue that they not have contributed so significantly to the greater canon of Rap music that they will always be discussed, listened to, studied, and appreciated.

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Consider artists such as Common, Talib Kweli, and The Roots. These artists have been around for quite some time and are respected by fans and peers but almost never receive the promotion or album sales as less talented artists. This is because there is no direct correlation between albums sales and mainstream popularity and relevance.

There are a number of rappers who can follow a trend or formula in music that may allow them to get airplay or sell albums but in terms of contributing to the body of work that will affect the culture and endure, there isno guarantee. Take for instance J. Cole’s Cole World. The entire album, while not terrible, is a hit and miss list of Cole’s attempt to create a radio hit. The about lacks a cohesive singular concept and instead dances around through watered down content and trendy production. However, Cole’s Born Sinner comes in wit the first track “Villuminati” which immediately sets the tone for the fact that what you are going to get is an introspective, passion driven produced, soul heavy, New York style rap album. Or take for instance BIG K.R.I.T. who has produced 4 acclaimed mixtapes and then produced an album that failed to deliver in the same way. It is because mixtapes give rappers more freedom and they are more creative and true to what it is they want to produce and what the fans love them for. All too often, this contradicts what “sells” in the mainstream.

It is the quintessential issue that every rapper is struggling with at this moment as the industry is changing and the game is evolving. What is being exposed is the fact that the power to decide is returning to the fans and Hip Hop heads — where it belongs.

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Power to the People

The problem is that we continue to allow people who have no connection with Hip Hop culture or Rap music. These individuals have for the past 2 decades have decided for us what artists get longevity and a successful career (which ofcourse means they are able to make more music) and which sounds and styles are popular. While they industry does this under the premise that the statistics and data they use to make these assumptions are revealing objective truths about Rap music, in truth, the data (as is always the case with statistics) is skewed. In this case the data is contaminated because of the limited avenues from which they draw this information. With the decline in album sales, the weakening influence of radio play, the growing popularity of free mixtapes the record labels no longer have the influx of data they have been using to determine who is popular (not that they ever really could) and they are having to admit they don’t know.

For a moment this will cause the labels to withdraw support of certain artists and probably become a little more tight handed with marketing and advertising budgets. But in the end the power to decide will return to the people. As the labels will have to rely on the popularity of mixtapes, the engagement of an artist on social media, and concert sales (which is a decent determinant as only a real fan or Hip Hop head cops a concert ticket for a couple hundred dollars).

I for one am excited about what is happening in Hip Hop music right now. It will happen slowly and there will be a few bumps along the way. But the evolutionary imperative of Hip Hop returning to those who love it is inevitable.

I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,

An Angry Black Man

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After much discussion and some controversy surrounding Kendrick Lamar’s feature verse on Big Sean’s Control, it appears a battle is in the making.

Originally old skool Hip Hop heads felt Kendrick’s name dropping on his verse was both lyrically ethical and much needed. Rappers like 50 Cent and KRS-One expressed this thought. This comes from the nostalgia about the good ole days of Hip Hop when competition was commonplace. However, most people that responded, including myself, felt that there would be no personal offenses arising from the moment and that at most rappers would take to the studio and come back lyrically.

Taking it Personal

The first to take personal offense to the verse was Papoose. His issue was that he felt Kendrick had gone too far by calling himself “The King of New York.” Being that Kendrick is from Compton, Papoose felt it was disrespectful for an outsider to claim rule over a place he’s not even from. Papoose did express his response lyrically but also took any media moment offered to express how disrespectful he felt Kendrick was.

Now it appears that Drake has taken issue with Kendrick’s verse. At first Drake had been relatively quiet focusing on releasing his latest project, but on an interview with Angie Martinez of Hot 97 Drake responded and it was apparent he was in his feelings about Kendrick’s name dropping.

Drake feels that it is unnecessary and that Kendrick is trying to make a moment for himself by coming at everyone. He thinks that ultimately a Kendrick will ostracize himself from his peers through this behavior.

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Kendrick Strikes Again

A leak from the BET Awards recording shows Kendrick openly dissing who many speculate to be either Drake or Papoose.

Kendrick spits the lines:

Nothing’s been the same since they dropped Control/

And tucked a sensitive rapper back in his pajama clothes/

Ha ha joke’s on you/

I’m bulletproof/

While it is apparent that Kendrick is still taking shots and challenging his peers to a battle, Drake doesn’t seem like the likely opponent. Drake has feigned indifference to Kendrick’s antics and despite Drake’s passion for battle rap, it doesn’t seem likely that Drake will meet Kendrick in battle. If anyone, it seems like Papoose would be a willing opponent, but with his lack of visibility and current work, that wouldn’t be a media worthy battle. Kendrick is relentless and isn’t going to be satisfied until one of the dudes he called out steps up. Who is that gonna be, though? And what’s going to come of this sensitivity that is saturating Hip Hop and turning our rappers emo? To the rappers he called out I say, get out your feelings and battle if you feeling some kind of way. And if you not feeling some kind of way, just hold on, I think Kendrick is gonna help you with that.

I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,

An Angry Black Man

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The History

Battle Rap has always existed as a sub-category of Rap. Battle Rap, taking it’s form from the Black cultural game of playing the dozens, is focused on dissing your opponent. The raps can be written and memorized or they can Come of the top of the head. They can be done over music or they can be done without it. The key ingredient is the diss.

One of the first well-known rap battles happened in the ’80’s between Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee Starski.

Every battle rapper has their own style. Some may be more comical, some are more aggressive, some or more performance style (including facial expressions and gestures). They key to winning a battle rap is for the audience to be more overwhelmed by one rappers performance over their opponents.

Confusion and Clarity

Battle rap is sometimes confused with freestyling. The concept of freestyling has changed over the years but has still remains something wholly different from battle rapping.

In the book, “How to Rap,” Big Daddy Kane and Myka 9 discuss the original meaning of freestyle. Big Daddy Kane stated that:

“In the ’80s when we said we wrote a freestyle rap, that meant that it was a rhyme that you wrote that was free of style… it’s basically a rhyme just bragging about yourself.”

Myka 9 added:

“Back in the day freestyle was bust[ing] a rhyme about any random thing, and it was a written rhyme or something memorized.”

In his book, “There’s A God On The Mic,” Kool Moe Dee wrote:

“There are two types of freestyle. There’s an old-school freestyle that’s basically rhymes that you’ve written that may not have anything to do with any subject or that goes all over the place. Then there’s freestyle where you come off the top of the head.”

Many people think that freestyling has to come off the top of the head. According to rap OGs that’s not necessarily true. Rappers can compete with freestyles; however, that competition still isn’t the same as battle rap. The distinction between freestyling and battle rap is that freestyle doesn’t have a particular subject focus while the subject of a battle rap is the flaws and weaknesses of the rappers opponent versus the greatness of the rapper that is spitting.

Battle Rap

Battle rap is still an underground culture in and of itself in Rap and Hip Hop. Although a number of rappers who have achieved mainstream success started in battle rap such as DMX, Jay-Z, and Eminem.

Hip Hop Dx has posted an Introduction to Battle Rap. Smack/URL’s Beasley, who has been a part of the battle rap scene for years describes battle rap,

“There’s elbows. There’s knees. There’s no rules. In the beginning, it’s going to take time for them to get in tune. A lot of stuff is coded. There’s a whole soap opera that’s attached to Battle Rap. There’s blogs that artists put out prior to a battle, where they say certain things about an individual, or they’ll say certain things about another individual or a battle they had prior. So, if you don’t follow the culture, things can appear to be coded, and you won’t understand certain segments of the rhyme. You need to be clear about that.

You have to understand when they’re aggressive and in each other’s face, they’re not gonna fight. It’s just a way of getting their point across, and it’s the nature of the sport. Both guys understand it, and they know what they’re getting into prior to the battle.

Also, when you’re judging a battle, it’s not just bars. It’s also performing. Everyone has a personal way of judging a battle. Some can be jokes. Some judge it off punchlines and lyrics. Some judge on a combination of performance, timing, comedy and so many aspects and angles that make up the modern battle leagues.”

Most battle raps are pre-written and include a performance element where rappers may wear costumes or bring props to enhance their performance. There are leagues of battle rappers who compete against each other that have created an unground world within Rap and Hip Hop culture.

Not every good rapper is skilled at freestyling or battle rapping and vice versa. However, there is room for all the styles of rapping and they should be celebrated. None of these styles are new, they are just extensions of Hip Hop history. It is imperative that Hip Hop heads know the history and appreciate the diversity of the culture. That is the only way we can own it for the future.

I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,

An Angry Black Man

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Kendrick Lamar’s feature verse on Big Sean’s “Control” is standard Hip Hop.
The Story

Kendrick Lamar recorded a feature verse on Big Sean’s song “Control” and the media incited a conversation regarding the verse. In his verse he declares himself the “king if New York” and threatens to lyrically murder many of the prominent young rappers of his generation. The verse incited the media and the industry.

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Competition

Kendrick is not the first young rapper to approach the game with the notion of getting at established artists; however, his verse is fire and it garnered the kind of attention many young MC hopes to gain.

The problem is that the concerns the media brought up in regards to his verse. In interviews Kendrick was asked about whether he worried about backlash from the rappers he challenged. There was this frenzy in the media coverage of his verse that would make one think Kendrick had declared war on all of Hip Hop. I think most Hip Hop heads shook their head at the spectacle.

Competition is a part of Hip Hop culture. It is not unusual for a rapper to challenge his peers and assert himself as the best in the game. The problem is that the mainstream media’s ignorance of this has made more of the verse than is really necessary. Kendrick pretty much adds a disclaimer to his challenge when he says:

I heard the barbershops be in the greatest debate of all time/ Bout who’s the best MC? Kendrick, Jay-Z p, and Nas/ Eminem, Andre 3000 and the feet if y’all/ New niggas just new niggas don’t get involved

In these lines Kendrick is stating who he thinks could have the power to weigh in on what he’s going to say next. Of course, he would say the names of the gods of rap Jay-Z and Nas. He and his peers are just “new niggas” and he says the rest shouldn’t get involved because what he’s doing is challenging his peers. He goes on to say:

Jermaine Cole, Big Krit, Wale, Pusha T, Meek Mills, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean (who’s track it is), Jay Electron’, Tyler, Mac Miller/ I got love for you all but I’m tryin to murder you niggas

These lines offer a peaceful challenge to the confidence of his skills. So Kendrick isn’t actually attacking his peers with force; it’s a respectful call to arms for them to meet him in battle.

 

 

I like what Skillz had to say and I, like him, am loving what’s happening. This is vintage Hip Hop. There’s no diss here. Kendrick is basically saying ‘I’m confident of my skills and I am trying to be the best out there and since these rappers are also on my level of up and coming, prove you’re better than me.

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The Point

The fact is that we have gotten away from and forgot some of the basic tenants of Hip Hop — competition being one of them. If anyone thinks or suggests that Kendrick’s Control verse will bring back beef between rappers or that it in some way was him dissing his peers, they don’t know Hip Hop. While Kendrick’s verse has sparked conversation and inspired lyrical responses, it is just par for the course in the culture of Hip Hop. So while I relish the lyrical responses being made, there’s nothing extraordinary happening here. It’s just Hip Hop alive and well.

I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,

An Angry Black Man

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J.Cole, The Prince of Hip Hop, takes an evolutionary leap with his sophomore album Born Sinner.

The Story

I have been following J.Cole since his The Warm Up mixtape. I must admit that although I was definitely feeling it, I wasn’t sure the kid was going to actually deliver. At best I thought he would end up like so many underground greats who kill on their mix tapes but sink on their albums. It’s a common pitfall for many rappers.

J.Cole avoids this pitfall on Born Sinner . The album is meant to display J. Cole’s embracing the duality and contradictions of who is as an artist and a person during the process of his evolution.

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“[The album is about] going through hell trying to make it to heaven; going through depression trying to make it to happiness” – J. Cole

The Album

Born Sinner takes a familiar theme of the saint versus the sinner and rebirth. A number of rappers have used this theme: Nas’ God’s Son, Tupac/Makaveli’s The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, and Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come. J. Cole uses this theme to explore the paradox of good and evil from a personal perspective on the track “Crooked Smile” featuring TLC. The song deals with issues of body image and society’s standards of beauty. He uses his own decision to not fix his teeth to offer a personal introspection into the idea beauty and self-worth. A number of other tracks on the album show his thoughts on the music industry and the pressure to produce a marketable product for record labels/radio and the desire to create street credible music for the fans and lovers of Hip Hop music. That’s the surface of the album. Beneath that is another layer of thought that he offers.

J. Cole also openly illustrates his own artistic evolution. Part of that evolution is the conflicting motivations of making money and making art but also the struggle to be relevant to both the Hip Hop community and to the great rap artists who have preceded him. In this notion J. Cole fashions himself as a prince rising to the throne. The concept is an allusion to that of “The Prince” by Machiavelli. Machiavelli (whose philosophy was used by Tupac in his own reinvention as Makaveli) was a historian, politician, and philosopher who wrote the book “The Prince” to offer his philosophy on rulers, the right to rule, and how to best rule.

This allusion resonates with J. Cole’s new found place as a vetted rap star. In “The Prince,” Machiavelli states that princes come to power either by their inheritance of power or by virtue of their own talents. Those that inherit their place are challenged to maintain the established order and adapt it to the current time; while princes that have obtained their new position have to do so by earning their place through the respect of the people. It is uncertain which of these J. Cole envisions himself to be, but either would fit.

The album pays homage to many rap greats that have gone before J. Cole. He shouts everyone from Mos Def and Talib Kweli to P. Diddy’s and 50 Cent. Most specifically he bows before Biggie, Tupac, Jay-Z, and Nas (the gods of rap). The first song on the album, “Villuminati” sample’s Biggie’s “Juicy“and the title references Jay-Z’s alleged connections to the illuminati as well as Tupac’s album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. J. Cole comes on the track spitting,

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“Sometimes I brag like Hov
Sometimes I’m real like Pac
Sometimes I focus on the flow to show the skills I got
Sometimes I focus on the dough
Think about these bills I got”

Cole even dedicated an entire song (“Let Nas Down“) to his goal of making Nas proud. The song was birthed from a harsh critique that Nas had given J. Cole regarding his radio hit “Work Out.” While the song had been accomplishment for J. Cole after a series of self described uninspired tracks and because he had discovered the formula for appealing to the radio producers, the song lacked the original edge and insight of his previous work. For that Nas stated to producer No I.D., “Yo, why the fuck that nigga make that shit? He don’t know he the one” J. Cole took the critique personally but instead of beefing with the rap god, he went harder at merging the radio appeal with the raw creativity that he’d put into his mixtapes. In this view J. Cole can be seen as inheriting the mantle from Jay-Z and Nas who both publicly and lyrically endorse him.

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“So you ain’t let Nas down…
It’s just part of the game, becoming a rap king, my nigga
You ain’t let Nas down…
How that sound? Here the crown, pass it to you like nothin, nigga
You ain’t let Nas down” -Nas, “Let Nas Down (remix)

The Point

J. Cole is setting the bar for the next generation of rappers. What he accomplishes on Born Sinner is the evolution of the rap game. The power to create stars is shifting back to the fans and the freedom and demand to produce is back in the hands of the artists. J. Cole is also setting a precedence for learning from his rap forefathers and receiving their blessings instead of simply challenging them for the throne. In the days to come rappers will have to redevelop the concept of making albums and a rap career and that concept will have to take into consideration more than just radio play and album sales (a thought I explored in a previous post The Mixtape Evolution). For the time being J. Cole is #winning. He is proving that he is The Prince of Hip Hop, heir to the throne of rap and, apparently, the gods are on his side.

I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,

An Angry Black Man

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Mixtapes / Street Albums / EPs / LPs
Just to get the technical language down, let’s clarify the difference between the various musical offerings an artist can present. A mixtape in it’s truest form is a compilation created by a DJ. The DJ takes certain rap songs a places their creative spin on them by blending them with other songs or changing the beat. A street album (often called a mixtape) is a rapper’s body of work that is released without major involvement from the record label. The term street album has been created to more accurately describe rapper’s mixtapes because many of them are high quality original offerings that rappers work hard to create. An EP is an album that has standard LP quality material but is too short to be considered an LP. An LP is your standard album usually with 10 or more songs.
The History

Mixtapes were once only products expected from DJ’s. DJ’s would put out mixtapes to allow themselves to come to the forefront and be appreciated for their unique talents. This practice has been around since the days of Kool Herc; however, in the late 80’s/early 90’s mixtapes became a musical mixing and blending a of different songs. By the end of the 90’s DJ’s grew away from mixing and blending and began hosting. DJ’s like DJ Clue and Whoo Kidwould assemble the material and played hype man for the rappers whose unreleased tracks and/or freestyles were on the tape. This shifted the focus of the mixtape from the DJ to the rappers.

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When I put out my first mixtape, 50 Cent is the Future, it was the first tape where an artist did the entire tape in song format. It’s been 10 years since this happened for the first time. Before, a mixtape was performing with guys like Ron G, DJ Clue, Kid Capri, these different guys that you would have to go see and put 16 bars or 32 bars on an intro maybe, but not in song format. – 50 Cent

By early 2000’s rappers began side-stepping the DJ’s to create their own mixtapes. 50 Centis one of the first and most successful rappers to do this. In 2002 he dropped his first official mixtape, 50 Cent Is The Future. His innovation changed the way mixtapes would be used in the years to come.

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“For mixtapes you ain’t really gotta worry about having hit records, you can have 40 bar verses if you want. But for an album it has to be a little more structured.” – Big Sean

The Meaning

All too often rappers have great mixtapes/street albums — which are used as marketing tools to keep buzz going about an artist or to satiate their fans between albums — but their retail albums don’t live up to the popularity or quality of their mixtapes/street albums. I think the major problem is that the spaces are different and require different skills that not all rappers possess.

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“A mixtape can’t be the songs that don’t make your album, or songs that aren’t good enough to make your album make your mixtape — unless you’re that good. There aren’t that many people that are that good. I’m not that good. That mixtape [So Far Gone] is me working my hardest. It wasn’t ‘Oh, here are the songs I’m gonna give away to you ’cause I have better songs coming.’ A mixtape has become an album. -Drake

Mixtapes/street albums are born from the underground. Their expected to edgier, grittier, and the focus is more on raw talent, flow, and content. Mixtapes/street albums only have to appease the streets. LPs are about creating a product with mainstream appeal that can be appropriate for a variety of settings. These albums have to make a return on investment in order to be profitable to the record labels that have thrown money behind the project. At this point the focus is marketability, packaging, and profit. The labels could care less about flow or talent. They are looking to sell a product.

So it really shouldn’t be surprising to find that a rapper that is killing the streets with their mixtape will put out an album that doesn’t measure up to to that mixtape you were addicted to. This isn’t actually a reflection of the rapper’s talent although it will dictate their success and whether they will be able to afford to stick around and keep making music. That’s the business. But I think the great artists will learn that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. They can give the same quality, creativity, grit, and edge that they do in their mixtapes oh their retail albums.

The Point

It’s not an easy task for a rapper to be able to deliver the same exact product on a mixtape in a retail album; however, their retail success is what will define their career. The challenge for most artists, then, how to maintain their artistic integrity while building a successful career. That will be no easy task. It shouldn’t be. The next step in the evolution of the mixtape will be the reconciliation of the raw creativity of the mixtape and the marketable structure of the retail album. That will change the game for good.

I’m not sayin’; I’m just sayin’,

An Angry Black Man

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In this blog series, I endeavor to document the evolution of Hip Hop and discuss what those changes signify about American culture and Black culture. Hip Hop music is (and always has been) so much more than just music. Let’s talk about

In a previous post in this series, The Struggle Ain’t New, I explored how the commercialization of Hip Hop music has lost it’s greatest power: the voice. In this post I want to explain why the voice of Hip Hop is so important.
The Foundation

At that time, Black people were not so far removed from their forefathers and mothers who were denied and discouraged from learning to read. And the direct descendants of those illiterate former slaves were pushed to read and read well. They were encouraged to become educated and take advantage of those previously coveted freedoms. Therefore, being literate was important and literacy was respected.

The more literate that Black became throughout the 50’s and 60’s, the more they discovered that there was power in language and that through use of language they could change the world. This is why Black leaders began to give speeches through Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

It was words that united the people, incited the people, informed the people, and inspired the people. Non one can deny the power of words during that era. Who has not gotten chills listening to Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Who did not feel the passion of Malcolm X’s speech that coined the phrase “by any means necessary.” Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, Jesse Jackson, James Baldwin, Nelson Mandela and so many others utilized the power of language to change the world. This is the foundation and legacy of the power that Hip Hop inherited.
The Background

Hip Hop was born in the South Bronx during the time of White Flight, The Son of Sam, and The Bronx Burning. The youth of the families who could leave The Bronx, were enduring a world of crime, drugs, and poverty. It seemed that U.S. could care less about the world it created for these young people to grow up in. As Hip Hop perfected the merging of music and language, the youth began to tell theirs stories.

The voice they created was so strong and passionate; so unflinching and unyielding, that the world had to sit up and take notice. It was the voice of Hip Hop that brought its notoriety and subsequently, it’s fame.
The Voice

There is a saying that goes, “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” In America, if a person cannot articulate their needs, it’s not likely that anyone is going to recognize or fulfill those needs. It is imperative that a person to give voice to their situation. It will deepen their understanding of their situation, it will help them navigate the feelings associated with their situation, and it will force the world to see and deal with them and their situation. We are in a graceless era in America and compassion is not freely given. If it’s consideration one needs, one will have to speak up to get it.

This is how Black people liberated themselves from slavery and legal oppression. it is how Black people forced the world to see its own inhumanity and change. Hip Hop gave voice to a generation of overlooked youth who were struggling to maintain their humanity in the face of the most dehumanizing poverty and neglect.

It is our obligation as the Hip Hop generation to let no one silence our voice, to support those artists that stand at the forefront and tell our stories. The day we grow quiet and cease to tell our story, America will cease to acknowledge our pain.

I’m not sayin’; I’m just sayin’,

An Angry Black Man