Todays Rap Is Soft Not Socially Relevant     

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3/16/2004 11:42:25 AM
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Todays Rap Is Soft Not Socially Relevant
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ow ironic that on the seventh anniversary of rapper Notorious B.I.G.'s death, we learn that police are conducting their own little COINTELPRO on hip-hop artists who increasingly live and party in Miami and Miami Beach, supposedly to prevent the kinds of turf battles that killed Biggie and fellow rap icon Tupac Shakur.

Biggie and Tupac fueded for over a year on wax, via the media and through surrogates, and died six months apart in September, 1996 (Tupac) and March 9, 1997 (Biggie). They were arguably the best rap artists ever (with all due respect to Run DMC), and the epitome of what hip-hop used to be: utterly original, ironic and real. Their beef was about lyrics, respect and the sometimes violent trajectory of African-American manhood.

Fast forward to today, when in the guise of preventing a repeat of their fates, police are cracking down on a hip-hop industry that has become nothing if not corporate, predictable, and safe. Cops claim that the artists might be gang members. You're kidding, right? Most of these guys live in the Hamptons. Do we really believe party MC's like Chingy and Nelly are gonna shoot it out poolside at the Delano?

Hold onto your nightsticks, officers. The worst that will likely happen when rappers and their crews come to town will be loud parties, Bentleys over the speed limit, big dry-cleaning bills to get the Grey Goose off a brotha's Roberto Cavalli, and possibly some lost or stolen bling.

Unfortunately for those of us who love it, hip-hop has become, in a word, boring. The music that was so innovative in the '80s and '90s has become as derivative as Big and 'Pac were original, and as phony as Justin Timberlake.

Even the so-called battles, between 50 Cent and Ja Rule, or between Eminem and -- is it still Moby, or has Marshall moved on? -- seem calculated more for record sales than mix-tape supremacy. The best battle in the last five years, between Nas and Jay Z, was the exception in an industry that otherwise has become, as Jay Z himself recently said, ''corny'' and not just soft, but ``softtttttt.''

Worse, hip-hop seems to have ceded the political ground seized by groups like Public Enemy, as well as the cultural criticism and complex storytelling of acts like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. If the Miami P.D. wants to save the artists from themselves, they should work with the FCC and fine rappers 25 cents-per-legal download every time they use the ''N'' word, call a woman a ''ho'' or lavish excessive praise on a fashion designer.

Roaming the sidelines

Facing arguably the most important election in my lifetime, it's disappointing to see hip-hop on the sidelines. Where are the lyrics about the social and political realities facing America -- and not just black America, since rap has now officially left the 'hood and entered the 'burbs? Who's rapping about the young people fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and now deployed to Haiti, while the rest of us fuss over our iPods and Playstations? Anybody care to address the ravages of divorce, illegitimacy and incarceration in the black community? Who is our modern-day Tupac? Surely it's not over-worshipped Eminem, who spends most of his time talking about his mama.

To his credit, rap's godfather, Russell Simmons, is doing his part to keep the music politically relevant. His and Ben Chavis' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network is recruiting rappers to help register young voters. Chuck D will soon have his own talk show on the liberal Air America radio network. And there are still innovative artists in the game: Outkast, The Nappy Roots, Nas, Jay Z (who's retiring), Redman, Method Man and others. But they are becoming rare.

Hip-hop shouldn't be all about cash, cars, sex and jewelry. It's better than that. As for the police: let MTV watch what rappers do in their spare time. I'm more concerned about what they do on the job.

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