We’ve been told we can no longer use the phrase “real hip-hop”. Everyone gets to have a seat at the table that hip-hop built, I was told. Everybody eats, b. I’ve caught myself a number of times in discussions about rap trying to hold back from saying something isn’t what I consider to be “real hip-hop”, afraid of the dismissive reaction some folks may give me, immediately assuming I only want them listening to Immortal Technique or to erect a Dilla shrine in their apartment or something. “Real hip-hop” is a term that has become something people have made synonymous with the stereotypical backpack rapper or fan of backpack rap, comically dismissive of anything missing one very specific sound. But all stereotyping aside, there is such a thing as real hip-hop and we need to stop shaming hip-hop fans into being reluctant to point out what they feel is authentic and what’s not because we need to continue that dialogue in order to keep the culture alive.
Anybody with sense knows that the rap business and hip-hop are two very separate things. Over the years, as hip-hop became more lucrative and more in demand across the board, it’s branched out into sounds that are significantly different than where hip-hop originated. In many cases (acceptance of southern and west coast rap, gangsta rap, etc.), this was a good thing. In other cases, the change was a watering down of the music in order to appeal to others outside of hip-hop. As the music industry started facing hard times, the trick of the trade became pushing rap to people who wouldn’t normally pay for rap…or audiences more likely to pay for it and have the means to. This meant pandering, which in essence is often inauthentic, the opposite of real. Thus, it is necessary to acknowledge the real separate from the fake, the product separate from the art. And it’s even more important now than it ever was.
While I do believe that hip-hop should be allowed to grow in many different directions and of course know that it does not live solely on DJ Premier’s turntables, I also believe there are facets that live further away from the culture’s epicenter that should simply be looked at differently. There are forces using this culture to market goods and services that have little or nothing to do with hip-hop. There’s a big business behind making hip-hop more palatable to a broader market and because of that, you have labels not releasing material until it’s been properly watered down to sound less like rap music and more like mainstream pop and R&B. It’s simply less of a gamble. To be real, a lot of the people categorized as mainstream rappers are just pop stars in rapper costumes. I don’t think it’s fair to categorize music that’s obviously pop in the same category as music that is inherently hip-hop just because the artist fancies themselves a rapper and because words happen to be rapped on the song. If Chris Brown makes a song and a rapper raps on it, that doesn’t make it a rap song. In the same vein, if a rapper makes a song rhyming over an electro-pop track, I think that song should be classified differently than an authentic hip-hop song. If we don’t make that distinction, then hip-hop will continue to get swept under the rug when it comes to sales numbers and accolades in favor of songs that sound less and less like hip-hop and market to a larger audience.
I personally don’t give much thought to sales and accolades, but it is at times important to discuss them in terms of what the world at large thinks hip-hop is. If Macklemore is the face of hip-hop to you right now, then that’s unfortunate and you clearly have not done the knowledge, but we’re living in an era where the youth aren’t concerned as much about where things come from as they are with what it’s going to do for them at this second. There’s less thought about what’s going to still be a timeless listen in ten years and instead, kids are worried about what the hot thing to have is in the here and now.
In a nutshell, the call to action here is that we need to stop shying away from talking about the concept of “real hip-hop”. The key is not using “real hip-hop” to exclude but more to properly classify things. There’s no reason why a song like “Starships” should be considered hip-hop simply because Nicki Minaj started her career as a rapper. Branch out, by all means, whether you’re an artist or a fan wanting to hear something different, but don’t be afraid to call a spade a spade when it comes to genre. If you rap and want to dabble in pop and let the underlying characteristics of what makes a record hip-hop fall to the wayside, then embrace the shift in genre and go ahead and admit you made a pop record…or that you’re a pop fan. It’s okay, we promise.