Adam Bradley is an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the author or editor of several books on African American literature and hip hop music and culture. He may be reached at his website, www.adamfbradley.com.
Hip Hop, Post Pop
Hip hop, both the beats and rhymes of rap music and the other elements that define the culture, is nearing its fortieth birthday. For a form so predicated upon youth and reinvention, the idea of entering middle age presents something of a paradox.
Can rap still be the music of youth when so many self-proclaimed hip hop heads are, well, so old? Can hip hop culture keep its revolutionary soul when some of the most visible developments in recent years have centered on fixing it in bedrock of American culture—with courses and scholarly archives at universities, an anthology of rap lyrics, bestselling books by prominent artists like Jay-Z and Common, and more hip hop discussions on NPR and PBS than on MTV and BET?
When hip hop was born in the mid-1970s, its originators were teenagers like DJ Kool Herc (b. 1955), Afrika Bambaataa (b. 1957), and Grandmaster Flash (b. 1958). It emerged from a fusion of the party scene, gang culture, the will to adorn, and the strength of street knowledge. Though some could see that hip hop had staying power, more saw it as a fad that would soon go the way of disco balls and bellbottom jeans. No one could have predicted that hip hop would soon become a global lingua franca of youth culture and a multi-billon dollar industry.
The story of hip hop's rise from the grassroots to the stratosphere is now a familiar one, well told in works like Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop and Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn's Yes Yes Y'all: The Experience Music Project Oral History Of Hip-Hop's First Decade. But an equally compelling story is evolving right before our eyes—namely, hip hop's return to earth.
Today, hip hop is no longer pop. That isn't to say that hip hop is no longer popular. Rather, it is to acknowledge that hip hop no longer dominates the pop charts and the discourse of youth culture in the way that it did only a decade ago. So what is hip hop, post pop? What does rap music sound like now that the volume's turned down? It's a question we've asked in the past of everything from jazz to blues to rock and roll. Will hip hop follow jazz, essentially becoming a museum piece? Will it follow rock, shifting shape to fit taste and circumstance? Or will it chart its own course in the culture, drawing from its history as a grassroots art form? The answer lies in a clear understanding of hip hop's past, its rise to pop prominence, and its present emergence as a post-pop form.
At the turn of the 21th century, hip hop dominated popular music. A glance at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts on an average week revealed rappers, and artists influenced by rap's beats and rhymes, dominating radio play. On November 23, 2002, for instance, eight of the top ten songs could be classified as hip hop or hip-hop influenced—from Eminem, Missy Elliott, Jennifer Lopez and Nelly, to LL Cool J, Cam'ron, Sean Paul, and Jay-Z.
In the early 2000s, four decades after its birth in the South Bronx, rap music (and the hip hop culture of which it is a part) had secured a place in the mainstream. Though critics had been predicting its demise since shortly after its birth, hip hop now seemed unstoppable. Rap music provided the soundtrack for Hollywood movies and Madison Avenue advertising jingles. It boomed from the speakers in sports arenas and in shopping malls. Everyone wanted a piece of hip hop's particular brand of cool—edgy and effortless, with just the right amount of swagger. Even suburban grandmothers were boasting about their "bling" and reacting to any perceived "dis." Hip hop was now pop.
But nothing can stay at the center of American popular culture for long. After its high point of 2002, when hip hop represented 13.8% of the total music market (second only to rock), it fell to 10.7% by 2008 (the latest year for which we have data). Rap's decline, though part of an overall decline in the music industry in the face of digital downloads and online piracy, nonetheless represented a disproportionate dip in popularity compared to genres like country, gospel, and even children's music.
Why was hip hop in a pop culture free fall? Some attributed it to self-inflicted wounds, others to a natural cycling of popular tastes. The backlash against hip hop, always present, was now seemingly ever-present. From heightened resistance to rap's instances of sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and violence, to knee-jerk fears of the young black males who were hip hop's dominant public face, hip hop offered an easy target for those wishing to bemoan the decline of American culture. By 2007, CNN aired a special in which they asked, in all seriousness, the following question: "Hip Hop: Art or Poison?"
With the exception of a handful of standout stars like Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Eminem, hip hop artists can no longer consistently command the popular imagination. In the place where Ja Rule and 50 Cent used to reside, one now finds Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus. Could it be that hip hop was the soundtrack of economic boom and country, the soundtrack of bust?
Rap artists themselves could sense the change. In late 2006, the rap veteran Nas released an album entitled Hip Hop is Dead with its eponymous single. "Hip hop just died this morning," the chorus intones, "and she's dead, she's dead." Nas' lyrics, however, were less eulogy than exhortation—he was using the most dramatic language available to call for rap's rebirth. No one could deny, though, that Nas' words had the ring of truth. Hip hop, at least as it had taken shape in the early 2000s, was indeed dead or dying. But something was rising up to take its place.
The years that have marked hip hop's decline as popular music have seen its ascendency as a creative art form. The homogenization of radio playlists from the major media conglomerates are more than balanced by the heterogeneity of music available in the digital realm on everything from YouTube to Bandcamp. The range of ideas and the way they take shape in language have also seen an infusion of innovation. The tyranny of bling, the monotony of theme one saw in commercial hip hop is also facing challenges from emerging artists who have gained an audience outside the traditional corporate record structures. Upstarts like Kendrick Lamar and even now-mainstream rappers like Drake leveraged studio-quality mixtape releases to build a fan base before selling a single album. To paraphrase KRS-One, maybe it's a good thing when rappers have day jobs; they might just have more things to rhyme about.
This rap renaissance has, surprisingly, been driven—consciously or not—by a return to the roots of the culture. Two developments help illustrate the point: rap's expansion into the academic realm and its growing internationalism.
Hip Hop Academics
Hip hop and the academy seemed like unnatural bedfellows at first. After all, hip hop was largely founded in resistance to authority and convention. But a combination of student demand for courses on hip hop coupled with the proliferation of people who had grown up with hip hop entering the professoriate, the field of hip hop studies began to coalesce. Among the pioneering works were Tricia Rose's Black Noise (1994) and Michael Eric Dyson's Between God and Gangsta Rap (1997).
By the 2000s, a robust body of scholarship was now available, considering the historic, economic, sociological, literary, theological, and philosophical implications of rap music and hip hop culture. From oral histories to anthologies, from university archives to searchable databases, a knowledge base and a network now existed for those interested in pursuing rap's so-called "fifth element," what Afrika Bambaataa termed "doin the knowledge"—an element of the culture that he set alongside MC-ing, DJ-ing, b-boying, and graf-writing. Hip hop has now secured its place in the culture, even as it continues to shift shape.
Hip Hop Internationalism
From its birth, hip hop had its sight set on the world at large. DJ Kool Herc, whom many consider the godfather of rap, had emigrated to the South Bronx from Jamaica when he was an adolescent, bringing with him the rhythms and styles of his native culture. Afrika Bambaataa had travelled to Europe as a young man through a program offered by his high school. As the musical tastemaker of the early hip hop years, he made sure that hip hop listened globally even as it created locally.
Today, hip hop is a global phenomenon. Part of this has to do with the particular fusion of culture and commerce. Part of it has to do with vernacular process by which cultural forms take root in new soil and sprout forms that are at once familiar and unfamiliar. Hip hop has emerged as a global lingua franca of youth culture. It captures at once the rebellious spirit common to all cultures, but also offers a creative space for individual expression. It should come as no surprise, then, that rap emerged as the soundtrack to the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen collectively known as the Arab Spring.
Hip hop may now be post pop. It may never achieve the level of commercial success and mainstream cultural saturation that it enjoyed in the first years of the new millennium. But that may, in fact, may be a good thing for those of us who look to hip hop as a source of innovation and inspiration. In the space where its mass popularity used to be, artists and fans are fashioning a new cultural utopia, inclusive and experimental. Hip hop today now exists with and against its popular appeal. Like all great and lasting art forms, it is dilating to account for the needs and desires of the present. Hip hop is dead. Long live hip hop.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Ahearn, Charlie and Fricke, Jim. Yes Yes Y'all: The Experience Music Project Oral History Of Hip-hop's First Decade. (New York: Da Capo Press), 2002.
Bradley, Adam. Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. (New York: Basic Civitas), 2009. Chang, Jeff. Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation. (New York: Picador), 2005.
Dyson, Michael Eric. Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture. (London: Oxford University Press), 1997.
Fernandes, Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. (Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books), 2011.
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press), 1994.