Now what you hear is not a test, I'm rappin to the beat
On January 5, 1980, New Jersey businesswoman and highly respected rhythm and Blues artist Sylvia Robinson and three young men from Englewood, New Jersey — Big Bank Hank, Master Gee and Wonder Mike — changed American culture forever when their hit track "Rapper's Delight" became the first rap song to ever hit the Billboards' Top 40 list. Robinson managed and led the three young African-American males on a musical voyage that took the preexisting sounds and culture of predominately black clubs in the South Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn to the formalities of the mainstream music industry as they rapped over Chic's Disco classic "Good Times." The single would eventually go diamond (selling over 5 million copies) and can be heard every and anywhere. From Tony Hawk videogames to scenes of "The Wedding Planner" you'd be hard pressed to find a soul that doesn't know the opening lines of "Rapper's Delight."
Thirty-three years later, the number one rap track today is by a 29-year-old white male from Seattle, Washington called Macklemore. The opening lines to his song "Thrift Shop" go something like this:
Walk into the club like ‘what up? I got a big cock!’
Nah, I’m just pumped, I bought some shit from the thrift shop
When you look at January 5's number one rap track from 1980 and today, there are a-million-and-one different directions you can take the discussion. But after spending four years of college as the president of the University of Rochester's hip hop club and virtually writing the same editorial over and over again, I have grown tired of being the in-house hip-hop apologist. This time, I'll just ask for your help.
When Rapper's delight came out, rap was something that was purely for live performances at clubs and DJ booths. Everything about the new genre oozed raw and spontaneous emotions. In a sense, the less you preempted your lyrics, the more natural and powerful your message could be felt. And when I say message that does not necessarily means that it had to be so intellectually critical that it bought tears to Eldridge Cleaver's eyes; instead, I'm referring to the instant emotions and images it bought to the ethos of a wide range of people. What was most amazing about hip-hop was how vast the topics could be amongst a group of people who may very well be referring to the same situation or setting. While the Sugar Hill Gang pleaded with us to get our feet moving in the City clubs, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five pleaded with us not to push them onto the City subway tracks in "The Message" when they said "Don't push me, 'cause I'm close to the edge. I'm trying, not to lose my head." As I've always preached, the rap industry mirrors journalism in that the same story can be reported in completely contrasting ways depending on the anchor.
Thirty-three years later, we have N-words in Paris and a cold ass H-word. Has the message changed? Well, there was never a "message," but only a series of events that needed to be reported by however the anchor best saw fit. Has the language changed? Well, read a news story from 1980 and one from 2012 and you might notice a bit of a difference in everyone's language. But what really concerns me, and the reason why I've opted to ask for your help, is the most important element of hip hop: change.
Clearly, the Sugar Hill Gang changed the game and was able to reach "the black, to the white, the red, and the brown, the purple and yellow;" The NWA was able to make a splash and push back at the LAPD and other powers that be; Eminem was even able to change the game by touching all the angry emotions that we never knew we had and making us able to laugh it off in the next track. But what sort of spontaneous emotions do we get from today's top rap track? Or, for that matter, what sort of emotions do we expect (though it wouldn't be spontaneous in that case)? To his credit, Maklemore's tracks are typically socially conscious. However, that's exactly why those other tracks about hot topics such as supporting same-sex marriages hardly even crack the Billboards top lists.
Still, I sit here wondering how can we get back to music that changes things? What I'm referring to goes well beyond the lyric; it's the significance and power of the track existing in-and-of-itself. That, my friend, is what truly changed about hip-hop.