14 April 2008

Original Hip Hop: Outdated?

Rap music is, by it's very nature, a politically expressive art form. It was heavily influenced by negro spirituals and work songs of American slaves to reflect the contemporary movement of inner city youth. Now, two hip-hop artists, The Roots and Rhymefest, are set to release respectively their most political albums to date, tying in themes of the streets with those of a universal context. The Roots' Rising Down is an aggressive and frustrated record, highlighting the injustices of the judicial system and the sad state of hip hop today, which lacks inspired movement and a unified culture. Similarly, Kanye West-protégé Rhymefest is putting the final touches on El Che, a Che Guevera-inspired album about sacrifice and struggle. In terms of rap and hip hop culture, these are two of the most heavily anticipated albums of the year, but why aren't these previously mainstream acts getting any mainstream attention? One possibility is the emergence of ringtone rap, that is, rap music which is single and not album-driven, using simplified beats and annoyingly catchy choruses. The terminology was coined when it was realized that many of these effort-free songs were being bought and downloaded as cell phone ringtones (which in today's market can generate a lot of revenue for an artist). With two amazing, concept-driven albums on their way I wonder if there is room in this heavily saturated marketplace for this return-to-the-fundamentals type music or if the quick, money-making, bastardization of a vibrant culture is here to stay. This week, I posed this question to the blogosphere (which I have included below), commenting on a post by Cyrus of the blog "A Jogging Session With Cyrus", questioning if hip hop is really dead, and also Nah Right, a Complex Magazine blog which included a video of Rhymefest talking about the ideas and values behind his new album.

"Hip Hop Is Dead" (quite literally pictured at left)

Great post! I can see how much hip hop really means to you, literally pumping through your veins like the blood in your body. There needs to be more people like you, who will forever go down with the ship, even if it's sinking. You mention that you do not think hip hop is dead, but regretfully fading away. I don't know if you are aware, but The Roots and Rhymefest have new albums coming out in the next few months, and I, for one, consider them real hip hop. The new albums are gritty, intense, and tell stories about inner-city struggle, which is what I believe real hip hop is about. Do you consider this new music real or just another delineation from the golden era of the culture? It is true that no one today sounds like Run DMC or KRS-One, but even though the tone and the rhyme patterns have changed, I think some elements stay the same, don't you agree? Soulja Boy and Mims and all of those other ringtone rappers don't seem to appreciate the history of the culture they are representing, and maybe if they did they would not continue making soulless songs on Casio keyboards in their bedrooms. The problem with hip hop today is that, for many acts, there is true artistry missing, and without art there is no music-period. I have to disagree with you, though, when you say hip hop is dying or fading away, I just think it is misplaced and it is up to us to find it. It just takes some extensive looking, and everyone in the culture and the community must work together to reassert its dominance in the mainstream media. The worst part about the current trend is that we, the listeners, are doing nothing to stop this change. The only way hip hop will stay pure is if we work together to keep it alive. The essence of this music is the community, and if we work on that, the rest of the pieces will fall into place.

"Video: Rhymefest on his Album, El Che"

Rhymefest has a lot to say and I’m glad he’s saying it. This video is an inventive and effective way to not only get the word out about his new album, but inspire change in the hip hop community. ‘Fest says in the video, ” People criticize me…but what are YOU doing?” I was just thinking about how everybody is saying “hip hop is dead”, but no one is doing anything about it. Rhymefest offers a unique perspective and a gravitating personality which will make people stop and listen. I do somewhat agree, though, with the commenter “Jersey Spic” because it is true rappers have now abused the name of Che Guevara (pictured right) for a few years now. I wonder if many rappers even know who he is and the full extent of what he did in Argentina. I think Rhymefest is different, though, because not only was he named after the revolutionary, but he does not seem as one who takes on topics and issues lightly, especially concerning the amount of change he wishes to inspire. Do you think he is abusing the Che Guevara image and legacy like so many others, or do you think he is really genuine in his admiration and acknowledgment? I also wonder if you have any idea what he meant when he said “Hip hop is separated in two right now, I want to do something different”? In my best guess, the two subdivisions he is referring to are “conscious” hip hop (i.e. those with a message like Kanye West, Common, or Mos Def) and “party rap” like Mims, Soulja Boy, and Jibbs. So is he saying he does not want to be a part of conscious hip hop and carve another unique path, or does he want to stay on that “real” hip hop side? I am not exactly sure and I hope by the time his album drops he will have the answers. I would have liked to hear a few words from you, the author, on the video as well, but maybe simply posting the video was response enough. Rhymefest really is one of the most underrated lyricists of our generation, and even if he is never remembered for his music, I hope that is remembered for his contributions to the hip hop culture and the state of society at large.

06 April 2008

The British Are Coming: The Rise of The Female UK Invasion

The British Invasion of the 1960s was an important musical movement, giving America such great and timeless bands as The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Rolling Stones. That revolution was amazing for the American music scene, but only one female act successfully emerged from that time period--Dusty Springfield. Now, we are on the cusp of another UK explosion, which is less documented, but arguably even more important than the first. Last week, Leona Lewis was the first British woman to have a Number One single on the US Billboard Charts in over twenty years, making history and officially ushering in a new era of British hit makers in the United States. The achievement is laudable not only because they are successfully breaking into an extremely difficult (and fickle) American market, but also because many of these success stories are women of color. It may just seem like music is a short-term form of entertainment or something just to pass the time, but our culture is so saturated with the medium that, subconsciously, change must emerge, and with this diverse group of women currently making a name for themselves, the gender and racial barriers are slowly starting to disappear.

Senegalese rapper Myriam summed it up perfectly when she said, "You are a woman before you are an artist." Women have had to struggle in this industry to obtain a voice since the very beginning. With men controlling a vast majority of the business, it was difficult for women to get a word in edge-wise about their sound, look, or depiction in the media. "Images of women in music are still very chauvinistic." says Joyce Cobb, a music professor. "There is this emphasis on sexism and women have bought that idea. Women tend to feed into the fantasies of men, becoming nothing but sexual objects." For example, an artist like Christina Aguilera, who has an undeniable voice, is forced to skim down to her bare necessities to sell albums. She is not a unique example either-Britney Spears, Fergie, Mariah Carey and countless others have all used sex in some way to sell their music. In the past, it was always about sex and image first with female musicians and talent trailing at distant second, but over the years that archaic system has slowly begun to change, and women are now starting to be seen as strong, intelligent, and meaningful forces within the industry.

Amy Winehouse (pictured right) began leading the pack last year with the breakthrough album, Back To Black. Her voice was reminiscent of the 1950s girl groups, mixed with contemporary beats and rhythms that produced a fresh take on an old, successful standard. Undoubtedly the raven-haired singer's music brought fame and success, but her attitude and unique style made her a star. Winehouse's lyrics were very blunt, straight-forward, and sparked with a candor not often seen in women's music. To make it in the music industry she could not simply be soft and feminine, but strong and audacious like the boys. One music executive describes this take charge trend, stating, "In the '90s, we got into this whole 'lad' thing where men were going to be men again," he says, "but the girls got into that as well, and you sort of had the 'ladette.' The younger girls coming through have sort of emerged out of that kind of fearless, mouthy, post-Oasis, post-lad culture." Winehouse knew she had to physically take charge of her career, or someone else was going to do it for her.

The only thing working against Winehouse, though, is her very public battle with drug abuse. While I am not defending her actions, I do feel as though she has received harsher criticism on the matter than most men would. Equally-outspoken British chanteuse Lily Allen vented her frustrations, stating that "I don't think the press like young women doing well, or having fun. I mean, James Blunt goes out and gets on it and no one cares. We do that and it's all over the papers. It's sad. Those people who write for those gossip magazines, they're not even writers. They can't even punctuate." It is completely unfair, but one cannot forget that a double standard, in this industry and in society, still exists for women. If Winehouse wants to continue her success then she must realize that she is, right now, a very empowering singer. She is the leader of a new generation of British women, and to continue breaking down the cultural barriers between the US and the UK she must lead by example, keeping the focus on what is important- the music.

Winehouse received a lot of criticism for garnering success by performing typically black music, but regardless of the fact, it was talent mixed with her unique sense of style that made her famous, which is something all women (and honestly men as well) need in this fledgling industry right now. America is arguably the toughest critic in the world, holding up a strictly high standard for new acts, and if nothing special or different is being brought to the table then an artist will not even make it through the front door. In addition to Amy Winehouse, a new crop of singers from the UK are women of color. Leona Lewis, Estelle, Corinne Bailey Ray, and others have all achieved individual success in the American market with their music that transcends racial and musical boundaries. The fact that Leona Lewis (pictured left), a Londoner with humble beginnings who gained success on a British reality show, could have the most played record in the United States is astounding. Although extremely beautiful, this is one of only a few times where a singer's looks have taken a backseat to her talent, which is a testament to her and the close management of her image. While Winehouse opened the door for other Brits, and made a lot of positive strides, others also equally learn from her mistakes.

The fact of the matter is, the talent speaks for itself, and maybe the United States is finally beginning to open up and expand its cultural, color, and gender boundaries, recognizing that a good song is universal. American musical legends like Elvis and Johnny Cash achieved success by interpreting the music of other cultures, but very rarely has any sort of world music (i.e. music from other countries outside of the United States) been incorporated successfully into American music or penetrated the US market. The success of these singers lies in their ability to knock down these social limitations and unify them at the same time. Some may call the Female British Invasion a fad, but no one can deny that it is a step toward progress and tolerance, and I for one, take pride in this constantly changing and racially melding landscape.
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