Lookin’ for Hip-Hop in all the Wrong Places

I’ve heard from quite a few people lamenting about the state of today’s hip-hop. Whether it be the lack of innovation and creativity, or the redundancy and general ignorance and foolishness of the lyrics and subject matter, or the oversimplification of the lyrics and instrumentals. You’d think from listening to these people that there’s no other alternative.

And yeah, if you think I’m talking about you, I probably am…but you’re not the only one I’ve heard this from.

What bugs me is that these people complain so much about the “ignorant stuff,” the Street/Trap/Drill rap, the club/party rap, the pop rap, the stuff that’s popular on the radio and in the mainstream, and yet they neglect to acknowledge that there are plenty of established, successful rappers who don’t fit into that vein.

These are the guys who say there’s no more pure lyricism in hip-hop, but have nothing to say when I mention rap legends Talib Kweli and Pharaohe Monch forming a new rap group with 9th Wonder. They complain so much about Iggy Azelia’s pop rap but ignore and underground queen like Jean Grae. They say there are no more real musicians in hip-hop but refuse to acknowledge The Roots, who are rap’s first – and still best – live band. And they talk about Lil’ Wayne and Boosie Badass and everything wrong with hip-hop without acknowledging J-Live (who just released a new album), Lupe Fiasco and everything that is right.

Mainstream audiences are what they are. We always insinuate that the record labels are pushing some agenda on music listeners and are trying to dictate what is trendy and popular. But I’ve actually worked with the young audiences that buy and request the majority of this stuff. I’ll play some so-called “real” hip-hop for them while we’re riding around – the type of stuff that I and my fellow hip-hop snobs love to listen to, and basically get no reaction from these kids and teens. But then I switch to an ig’nant club/street song like “My Hitta” or even Myley Cyrus’ “23” and the kids are instantly excited, dancing around and singing along with the ig’nant lyrics. These audiences (youth, women, dudes in the street) want something for them. They want rap music that’s catchy, that they can dance to, seduce the opposite sex to, or feel like the toughest/richest guy in the world to. And as long as these are the majority of the people who buy and request rap music, this will always be the case, for better or worse. Back in the late 1990s, Neo Soul was a big subgenre in R&B music. D’Angelo and Erykah Badu were breakthrough artists that created a demand for it, and the labels catered to that demand until audiences decided they wanted something else. You could argue that without the Neo Soul Movement, there would be no Alicia Keys, and Angie Stone and Raphael Saadiq would be strictly making songs for other people instead of putting out their own music.

And guess what? There will ALWAYS be kids who gravitate towards simplistic guys like Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em. There will ALWAYS be women who want to see “urrbody in the club getting’ tipsy” and do the latest ratchet dance. There will ALWAYS be dudes in the streets (or wannabes) who think the street stories of Jeezy or Meek Mill or Rick Ross match their lifestyles or their fantasies. That’s not going anywhere. So wishing those types of music will go away is a pipe dream.

But even with that, there is still a solution. If you don’t like the types of rap that permeates the mainstream, there are alternatives, and this is the thing that I want you all to recognize. Judging hip-hop strictly by what’s popular in mainstream audiences is like saying your local WalMart needs to be completely overhauled juts because the produce section has rotten sweet potatoes. If you really want quality hip-hop that doesn’t fit the mold of the street, club and pop rap, then all you have to do is look and dig a bit deeper. These guys are out there, but they may be a bit harder to find because major record labels don’t sign them. They are signed to smaller, indie labels like PRhyme, M.I.A. and J-Live are. They put out their own music like Ras Kass and Jean Grae do on Bandcamp.  They have better-paying dayjobs and put out albums only when they feel like it like Common, the Roots, Mos Def and Ludacris do. These are rappers with smaller but fiercely loyal followings like Mega Ran and Adam Warrock, who tour relentlessly and constantly keep their fans in the loop. These are veterans emcees like Masta Ace and Rah Digga who still find ways to stay relevant even as Hip-Hop changes and evolves. These are guys like Childish Gambino, Chance The Rapper and Run The Jewels, who have sidestepped the record label machine altogether and reinvented how music is consumed. Once you stop looking in the usual spots for the next big thing and really broaden your horizons, you will find that there are more than enough quality rap acts that are closer to what you want than the stuff that you’re complaining about now. And don’t forget, there are a handful of guys in the mainstream who put out quality, non-typical rap, too. The top MCs in the game now (Kendrick, Big Sean, Drake, J-Cole and Big KRITT) didn’t get to that status by putting out bad music.

My point is that the only reason you don’t see a quality alternative to the “Bad” rap is that you aren’t really looking for it. But it’s still out there, and there’s plenty of it. Ghostface Killa, Pharoahe Monch, and Black Thought are three of the most well-respected emcees in rap music, regardless of whether you acknowledge them or not. Techn9ne and Hopsin are two of the most creative and technically proficient rappers in the game, whether you acknowledge them or not. Lecrae leads a whole subgenre of Christian-themed rappers that fit all of your criteria, and they are successful whether you recognize that or not. Slaughterhouse will be rap’s number one group with or without an endorsement from either you or Eminem. And Run The Jewels II is still one of 2014’s most critically acclaimed rap albums, regardless of whether it was on your list.

Just like all of you, I wait for the day when mainstream audiences start demanding more thoughtful, intelligent and creative hip-hop: the labels won’t change until the people who give them money change what they want to listen to. But I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, I am going to find and enjoy (and in my case, write and record) the type of hip-hop that speaks to me. Let the lil’uns have their Soulja Boy, Meek Mill and Iggy: I’ve got something else altogether in my music player.