Though a bit dramatized, a scene from HBO’s turn-of-the-millennium mob hit “The Sopranos” exemplifies how hip-hop artists and the industry were viewed at the time the culture hit the mainstream.
In the final season, Tony Soprano is recovering from a nearly fatal bullet wound at the hospital when he overhears a conversation between a music agent and a hip-hop artist named Deluxe, also recovering from a shooting.
“Frankly the shooting couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s helping considerably with the street cred, and you know we’ve had a problem with that since you had a job all those years,” said Deluxe’s agent as Tony grimaced in apparent disgust. Later Deluxe’s protege, played by Naughty by Nature’s Treach, goes as far as to pay wiseguy Bobby Bacala to shoot him in the “fleshy part of the thigh” so he could he become the new “No. 1 nigga.”
As hip-hop was starting to make its way into middle-class America and taking over the charts, the dominant picture rappers painted reinforced the gangster persona. Label executives began scouring street corners for the next hardcore gangster rapper to deliver the harsh realities of poverty and desperation to a shocked Billy and Jane in Any Town, USA.
And it worked.
Hip-hop went from what many considered an urban novelty act to being broadcast for a diverse worldwide audience. A wide spectrum tuned in to the latest street tales from rappers like 2Pac and Biggie, who themselves suffered the ultimate price for living “the life.” Their murders, however, helped take some of the glamour away from the gangster life, and hip-hop started to come out of its shell.
Artists matured and their middle-class audience started practicing the art of hip-hop themselves. Young rap crews like up-and-coming Odd Future have made their way into the industry on skateboards. Kanye West became arguably hip-hop’s biggest act by pushing the music to its boundaries with largely introspective lyrics and without any real so-called “street cred.” Much to 50 Cent’s dismay, it didn’t shatter Rick Ross’ career when 50 revealed the proud and boasting rapper was once a correctional officer. Drake, nominee for Best New Artist at the 2011 Grammys and one-time Canadian soap opera star, summed up his perspective by divulging that he is “far from hood/but I understand the streets” in Ross’ “Aston Martin Music.” Emerging artists no longer hide behind a street, gangster persona.
Breakdancing championships are held all over the world in all kinds of venues and neighborhoods, upper class among them. Scratching and mixing have gone from an apartment building in the South Bronx to a worldwide phenomenon and an endless influence on the club scene. Graffiti, once a scorned outreach reserved for the urban and indigent, is now a legitimate art form shown in elegant and expansive exhibits across the globe.
As the industry’s members and fans expand and mature, the culture went along for the ride. We at the National Museum of Hip-Hop are happy to have a front row seat. –Kareem Shaker
The Elements of a Hip-Hop Classic – av entertenment
Hip-hop has been defined by classic albums since its inception. Magazines such as The Source started rating classic albums with their signature “five mic” designation, but they were few and far in-between. Since then, hip-hop fans have put it upon themselves to discuss and dissect what constitutes a classic hip-hop album.
Early on, the makeup of a classic hip-hop album featured themes of social status, including the difficulty of growing up in urban America. Ice Cubes Amerikkka’s Most Wanted along with The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die and Nas’ Illmatic are generally named classic albums. They are all the same antagonist but with three different stories.
Most recently Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has been in the classic album discussion. But …Twisted Fantasy’s themes don’t run concurrent with what has been traditionally considered a classic.
Kanye’s Fantasy boasted themes of grandiose lifestyles. To make up for depth, Kanye allows the audience to uncover his insecurities. That introspective spirit is necessary for a listener to connect with an album and for it to gain such classic respectability.
Other than introspection, a classic hip-hop album usually features synchronous lyrics and melodic music. In albums like Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, the music plays just as big a role (maybe bigger) than the actual theme. The sound of an album becomes ingrained in the audience’s hearts. The album becomes a memory, an idea and a representation of a time.
Though the beats may be dope and the lyricist introspective, hearing what sounds like the same song over and over dulls the listening experience. The fact is nearly every topic and ideology has been covered. A classic album sets itself apart from the rest by taking what may be overplayed and turning it into something unique. Many would argue albums like Dr. Dre’s 2001 and Reakwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx are perfect examples of taking a tired idea and turning it into gold.
Both releases were unexpected triumphs. Dr. Dre and Reakwon are known to be extremely talented and were already stars by the time those respective albums were released, but like Kanye West and Nas their classics had the entire hip-hop culture drop their jaws in awe.
Themes of social status, introspection, melody and originality can all be considered elements of a classic hip-hop album. But perhaps the most important element is the listener. Some may consider one album a classic and some may not. People’s opinions are regional, generational, depend on how the listener was brought up, their social status, etc.
No matter how introspective the lyrics are, how dope the beats rock and how original the emcee, an album will never be considered a classic unless it pulls the listener in. A classic album tells a story, paints a picture and gets heads nodding all at once. Thankfully for hip-hop fans, there should be many to come. -Andrew Girgis
What are your hip-hop classics? Post your five favorite albums on the NMoH Facebook page.