Creative people are known to self-destruct. The pressure and attention and microscope…the need to live up to expectations that they create in their work and the persona they use to promote that work, prove to be too much.
In search of the illusive qualities of credibility and authenticity, the artist can venture down a dangerous path towards addiction, destroyed relationships, and run-ins with the law.
Hip Hop was born in the street as an antidote and escape from the trouble that surrounded its birthplace. However, once it went on record, connecting to the corporate money machine of the music industry, the altruistic visions would take a back seat to monetary concerns.
Thank goodness it did. If Hip Hop had stayed local like, say, Go-Go in DC, I may have never heard it. Some of the most influential art and social commentary of the final quarter of 20th century may have never been created. As much as I would like to think that the popularity of Hip Hop grew because of its artistic and cultural merit alone, I know better. Had labels not taken a chance on some early Hip Hop records…had Run-DMC not proven the flexibility and financial viability of the genre by collaborating with Aerosmith…had any number of ambitious street hustlers not redirected their energies towards music…Hip Hop may have gone down the path of disco and become the fad that so many thought it would be.
No matter how much money Hip Hop generates: billions upon billions of dollars when you figure in music, fashion, technology, publications/broadcasts that support it, and endorsements, it will always be married to streets.
While there are no real creative boundaries when it comes to the subject matter, imagery, and narrative of Hip Hop music, there are conventions that seem to tilt a large portion of the commercially promoted music towards stories of drug dealing, drug abuse, violence and misogyny. And that stuff sells. And it gets attention. Human beings are naturally fascinated by sex and violence and we are enamored with the idea of escaping our reality and vicariously living through a character who seems to be confident, fearless, powerful, and potent. The Hip Hop protagonist, often presented as the artist himself, represents all of these traits while he hustles, burns trees, pops bottles and pills, and generally balls out all over the track.
Hip Hop reached the level prominence it now has because it made a lot of people a lot of money (not always the people who deserved it…but that is another discussion). It made a lot of money because it managed to cross canyon between novelty and legitimate genre and the canyon between legitimate genre and mainstream cultural fixture.
The narrative of Hip Hop is controversial but in many cases it represents a close approximation of the reality that the MC has lived or witnessed close enough to give a nuanced account. It is abundantly clear to the serious listener when the stories don’t line up, and unlike any other genre’s fans, Hip Hop followers are quick to call you on the authenticity of your story. In theory a writer should have license to create whatever story that he wishes to create to get his point across. But so much of Hip Hop is rooted in the first person narrative that it is impossible to escape the assumption that there is or should be something autobiographical in the verse.
There in lies the trap. It has been proven that you can cover any topic you want in music. You can talk about your life, your personal struggle and experience and it will be received well if it is executed well. But…stay away from that street shit if aren’t acquainted with the street…tied to the street somehow. And for whatever reason…being acquainted with and tied to and constantly speaking about the streets seems to attract circumstances where you have to justify your thug.
If shit couldn’t get real then you would never hear about rap beef escalating into physical confrontation. It is extremely personal. People don’t simply like/dislike an artist or his music. They go as far as calling his character and credibility into question. More than any in other genre Hip Hop artist comment on each others work in a very direct way. They choose sides and are pitted against each other by fans. How much of it is real and how much of it is staged and calculated? That is not the point…the point is that it gets real for the listeners. And in the hype of the moment people get tested and wind up in trouble.
There are complex socio-economic reasons why the judicial system is populated by so many black and brown people which are beyond the scope of this article. But I have to wonder whether there is something twisted by what appears to be a cycle that Hip Hop seems to be perpetuating. All of the beefing and dissing makes interesting theater. Fans love confrontation and the fastest path to attention is by skillfully dissing someone who has attention. But it is a slippery slope that can lead to disaster…especially when the interest and attention generated by the confrontation starts attracting dollars. It can be played up and escalated to no end… until it gets so emotional and personal that someone needs to prove how tough they are. And then, here comes trouble.