Reclaiming Narrative and Rediscovering the Past of Hip Hop

The Anthology (A Tribe Called Quest album)

The Anthology (A Tribe Called Quest album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Much has been said about the deterioration and demise of Hip Hop. It may be that the only way to rejuvenate the genre is the same way that rock is being rejuvenated, by remembering and re-discovering its past. It may be necessary for Hip Hop to look back before it can go forward; we might have to re-visit what Hip Hop once did, as both a musical and visual art form, in order realize what it is capable of in the future — and how to break out of its present slump of hyper-materialism and commercialism.

As you read this, you should click on the links to the songs and videos that I mention so that you can experience these performances for yourself.

Hip Hop has never represented a single and uniform lifestyle. Old school Hip Hop (I’m thinking, now, about the period from the 1980s through the mid 90s) included a description of daily life and disillusion, such as Grandmaster Flash; Afrocentric “consciousness-raising” rap, such as KRS-One and Public Enemy; Blatant Commercialism, such as Kriss Kross and MC Hammer; Gangsta rap, such as NWA and Too Short; and a Black Hippy vibe, such as De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and PM Dawn.

Even Hip Hop that reflected alienation and disillusion, such as Grandmaster Flash’s “New York” and “The Message,” had a redemptive quality. Unlike much of today’s Hip Hop, early rap described the life of the outlaw, but didn’t romanticize it. In the song below, the outlaw life does not turn out well for the central character.

After cataloguing the dehumanization and false promises of urban life Grandmaster Flash closed with, “God is frowning on you, but he’s smiling too, because only God knows what you’ve been through.” Again and again the essential message has a spiritual quality to it, which is reflected in some of the other clips below. That message is that, despite the absurdity of contemporary life, you are never really alone in an uncaring universe.

The message that there is meaning to life, despite the chaos and absurdity, is also a recurring theme in the compositions of the Goodie Mob. The Goodie Mob mixed a discussion of social, political and economic marginalization with the message that a person becomes a fully actualized human being through creativity and spirituality. This is particularly evident in songs such as Inshallah, I Refuse Limitation, and Still Standing.

Although many people would place the Gheto Boys in the category of “gangsta rap,” their song, “My Mind’s Playing Tricks on Me” was the opposite of NWA’s gangsta romanticism and sensationalism. The Gheto Boys’ song showed the sheer hell and paranoia of the life of the drug dealer. The song was full of gritty detail. The group didn’t stand on a pedestal and say, “Don’t do this.” They didn’t have to. The descriptiveness of the song allowed listeners to draw their own conclusions. [The Clip Below is the Clean Version]

There are many ways to think about Hip Hop: one can see Hip Hop as further marginalizing Black youth from the social mainstream, or one can see Hip Hop as being a way of mainstreaming African American culture, spreading beyond previous boundaries.

One can see Hip Hop, as Paul Scott has written, as cultural commodification and romanticizing the gangsta lifestyle — thereby destroying culture; or one can see Hip Hop, as Darryl Pinckney does, as empowering black students to preserve their identity as they climb the ladder to success.

One can see Hip Hop as being an instrument for consciousness-raising and education, or one can think of Hip Hop as being a fashionable diversion and an escape from reality.

One can see Hip Hop as being an “oppositional stance,” in rebellion against the mainstream of American society, or one can see Hip Hop as being the very epitome of American marketing and consumer culture.

One can think about how Hip Hop has changed American popular culture and one can think about how American popular culture has changed Hip Hop.

I would also have to say that my reflections on Hip Hop have helped me to understand myself a bit more. I had a fairly broad range of artists that I enjoyed, back in the day, but my taste was eclectic. I liked Kwame because of the imagination of his videos such as “You Gotz 2 Get Down.”

I enjoyed the narrative quality of Slick Rick‘s “A Children’s Story

A Tribe Called Quest’s “El Segudo” also used the narrative method creatively:

Most of all, I gravitated to artists such as Tribe Called Quest because they altered my sense of reality. The music and videos I enjoyed most were fun, light-hearted and imaginative.

Ten years ago, Wyclef Jean explored the narrative form and played with reality in “Gone Till November.” This clip draws on universal themes such as death, loss, separation and making a name for oneself.

Recurring themes Two recurring themes should be fairly obvious: confrontation, or at least tension, with the police and prevailing influence of drugs, either sold or consumed, by the central character. One might also notice that most of these clips were made by artists who professed Islam (Kwame, Tribe Called Quest) or were recent immigrants from the Caribbean (Slick Rick, Wyclef, and Grandmaster Flash). Once again, I think this reflects the diversity within the African American community.

A recurring image that I cannot account for is the comedic use of midgets in the videos (Gheto Boys, Slick Rick, and a Tribe Called Quest).

See also: Hip Hop is Not as Simple as You Think and How to Listen to Hip Hop


Which Hip Hoppers would you see today as fitting into the different categories of “gangsta,” consciousness-raising, everyday life, and blatant commercialism?

What might Hip Hoppers discover if they revisted the past of the genre, before it became a corporate and heavily commodified industry?

Which women, or artists who are not African American, do you believe have made the greatest impact on Hip Hop culture? In what ways have they made their contribution?

Also of Interest: The Irony of Hip Hop; Has Hip Hop Lost Its Way?; and Rejecting Blackness to Embrace Hip Hop?

Related Books of Interest: The Hip Hop Debate: Hip Hop and the Cultural MainstreamBlack Racial Identity and Schooling

C. Matthew Hawkins

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