Mos Def’s gold debut album, Black on Both Sides, is one of the trumpets signaling the return of conscious hip-hop music to prominence. As he headlines the second Lyricists Lounge Tour (along with Bahamadia and Slum Village) which hits St. Andrew’s Hall this Friday, he joins a group of artists respected either for their avant-garde creativity or their cerebral content. But to say their progressive styles are “returning” beckons questions about where it went in the first place.
Among music’s most engaging traits is its ability to mirror the times. A perusal of soundscapes from rock to rap will reveal the universal truth that the “grand groove” consistently offers a microcosmic view of the general mentality and sociopolitical landscape of each passing era.
Case in point: Hip hop’s most drastic turning point was arguably the transition from the “golden era” messages of Eric B. & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions and others to the abrasion of hardcore-gangsta imagery. A collection of artists including Schoolly D and N.W.A. ushered a new era in the musical culture only after America’s cultural makeup began to undergo its own shift under the Reagan administration.
A notion that may be more philosophy than fact is contained on N.W.A.’s seminal single, “Dope Man,” released in 1986. To wit: Two years earlier, the CIA allegedly played its role in the trafficking of crack cocaine through the streets of Los Angeles, making “Freeway” Ricky Ross the poster child of a dastardly movement that would decimate families across the country. Conceivably, it also fueled the angry content of N.W.A.’s music, and the apolitical rhetoric of the following generation.
Fourteen years later, hip hop is a shadow of its old self. The fun-loving, late-’80s-to-early-’90s consciousness that dominated the genre now takes a back seat to rampant materialism, misogyny and (too often) violence. And the music still reflects a society that many think has let down its moral guard. But if the N.W.A.-CIA theory holds any water, it must also lend credence to the idea that history repeats itself. Credit De La Soul’s perseverance across generations, or Lauryn Hill’s virtuous industry bum rush. Regardless, hip-hop’s native tongues have spoken. And the music has begun to make a U-turn for that old-school consciousness with a new-school twist.
Following her underground 1997 hit “Uknowhowedu,” Bahamadia delved further into the murky waters of creative freedom for her second set, the EP BB Queen. Like the work of her Goodvibe labelmates Slum Village, the project was released to critical appeal and respectable sales in various markets.
The rise of progressive music has been accepted on both sides of the hip-hop coin. Mos Def recently recorded “Oh No!” with Pharoahe Monche and (ahem) Nate Pound of Death Row-Dog Pound Gangsta fame, for the Lyricists Lounge 2 compilation. “It ain’t really high concept,” says Mos. “It’s just some straight-up-and-down hip hop. Two MCs spitting, Nate lacing the chorus like he usually do.”
As for the show, the Lyricists Lounge Tour comes from the legendary New York nightspot which for years has promoted hip-hop open mics frequented by some of the hottest names in rap music. Artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Thirston Howl III and Shabaam Sadeeq have staked their claim in the Lyricists Lounge’s hallowed hall. The tour is packaged with the Lyricists Lounge compilation album (two have been produced, also on Rawkus) and promotes what for years has been referred to as “underground” hip hop.
Underground artists are largely regarded in two fashions. Supporters consider them to be people who are free to celebrate the culture of hip hop in all its elements — breakdancing, MCing (rapping), DJing and graffiti writing. These people are free of industry molding and restructuring and are less concerned with profit than aesthetic. The other opinion is that the underground artist has an unrealistic view of where hip hop has gone and, in effect, becomes a hater.
The latter perception held some validity until the Roots won a Grammy, Hill won five and Common and Mos Def went gold; all before JayDee became regarded as a superproducer and before D’Angelo copped JayDee’s style to the tune of multiplatinum success. This string of successes led the charge of a neoprogressive wave of hip hop, a celebration of the old culture with new sensibilities. It also made it OK for hip hop to take chances again.
I’m sick of that fake thug, R&B, rap scenario/All day on the radio/Same scenes on the video/Monotonous material/You don’t hear me though/You’d rather have a Lexus or justice?/A dream or some substance?
dead prez may be the biggest chance hip hop has taken in years. M-1 and stic.man are easily the most extreme, nationalist group to come on the scene since Public Enemy. And while their debut sales have been moderate, the streets have received them as though they were late for their own surprise party. But they take it all in stride, because their mission has to do with much more than music.
“Change is the only thing we can count on,” says stic.man. “Right now, the mission is not to become oppressors, but to become free again, like we were before. We don’t want to oppress the police, we don’t want to oppress white people. We want to get rid of oppression. Being poor, you have to resort to a lot of ingenuity rather than a lot of technology, which is how we live, which is what hip hop is.”
dead prez, who are currently on the parallel Okayplayer tour (State Theatre, Oct. 22), were criticized about their aggressive, anti-oppressive stance prior to the release of their album. And with a disc (Let’s Get Free) that boasts rhymes about eating healthily, making love mentally and being disciplined, they clearly don’t see their audience as the ballers and playas used to popping collars and stuffing money in thongs.
The gritty nationalism of dead prez and Mos Def’s deft collaborations may mean more to the consumer than we think. They may symbolize common or equal ground, with room for everyone, artists who are progressive and artists who are pimps. It’s a hybrid that OutKast’s Big Boi and Andre, two different personalities bound by love of music, would love.
Imagine that. The b-word — balance — may actually become a reality in hip hop again.Khary Kimani Turner covers the hip-hop nation for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org