Ill vs. Real
The other day I was honored to sit in a think tank of gifted young men and minds. Present was myself and one of the founders of Kick The Concrete, Corey Paul. The discussion was about some of the ills that plague the black communities. One of the members listed rap music as being one of the causes. Corey and myself had similar views disagreeing with this interjection. Personally I believe rhythm and poetry was a gift to young black men. Now I’m not naïve to all the negativity concerning the artform. But my first introduction to rap music was one of enlightenment. To me, rap, which would later become one of the cornerstones of the hip hop culture, was a source of news. It was a way for a young artist, who was not necessarily considered a singer, to express what they saw and encountered during the course of their everyday lives. Most of these artists were from areas in cities and towns that are classified as being underprivileged, or poor. There is no ill in that, I thought. However, I am aware if an artist is giftedly influential, and has chosen to glorify the crime, drug abuse, and violence they witness, it can have a luring effect. Glorification of the street ills could, and has, influenced impressionable minds that there is some kind of reward for being a part of the unfortunate world Corey and I grew up in. So here’s the debate. Is hip hop guilty of showcasing what is ill? Or what is real?
Hip hop music was here long before the internet. This means without reading the newspaper, or other written articles, the only way to discover how men and women from the East or West Coast dealt with the ills of their neighborhood was to listen to a hip hop artist put it in a song. Being from Houston, Texas (the third coast), I found it interesting and refreshing to hear the similarities and differences found in N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton album. Or to hear Eric B. and Rakim's Paid in Full gave me a taste of how New York MCs view and overcame their surroundings. I admit my mind was impressionable back then. However, my introduction to these artists and many, many more who came before them did not influence me to be a part of their world. I did not take their description of their neighborhood, which I am sure was accurate, as invitation to join an ill and poisonous society.
Now I confess I am not the standard for the ghetto kid’s mind. I probably do not represent the average unprivileged kid from the hood. But I am one of them. I do realize the more gifted a hip hop artist is, the more he or she is able to paint a vivid image through words of what they witnessed, or even created through fables. But I wouldn’t put the entire responsibility on how their messages are received on them, the creators. People are paid to be good at what they do. This breeds competition, which in turns breeds more creativity. Society as a whole is responsible for what it accepts. So if ill content is supported first through budgets to produce, then through consumption, the blame for plaguing a community is a shared one. One which the lead blame should fall on those who profit first from it. Often we attack problems from the bottom up, when they should be attacked from the top first. This approach would ultimately dry out the bottom. For instance, if no one was profiting from cigarettes, then there would be no one willing to supply them. And as a result, there would be no cigarette butts found on the street corners. Rappers continue to make negative oriented music because they profit from it. But they are being paid by someone who is profiting from it first. So there is your root cause, greed. There was a time when rap was positive. There was a time when MCs avoided using curse words because they wanted to be heard, lest known for glorifying crime, drug selling, and abuse. The question I would ask is, “What happened to the people willing to produce and promote these kinds of artists?” They come from the same hoods, projects, and ghettoes of the ones we are accusing of plaguing the communities.
The truth is the ills are what’s real in the hood. But there are also many, many virtues. Artists should take responsibility in properly projecting them both. Yet, the same way the rappers need to step up to the mic, so should the profiteers and media. Truth and realness should be rewarded, and that which is broken should get attention. Until these things are properly acted upon, don’t blame it on the music.
Delbert R. Harris, known to the hip hop world as “RAS” aka “Lil Raskull,” is one of the pioneers for the Houston hip hop scene. He got his start in the early '90s and has sold in the hundreds of thousands of records. RAS recently has ventured out into other business endeavors, but he still stays current on hip hop culture and politics.