People love to pretend like there are these huge divisions between different artists and subgenres of various art forms, but closer examination almost always reveals that it is the fans of these artists and subgenres that are creating these divisions, not the artists themselves. The artists do sometimes make certain moves to perpetuate these divisions, but at the end of the day there is usually an acquiescence to an “alright, we’re all artists here, we’re not that different” mentality.
Common might be the #1 dude on the list of dudes perpetuating division between big camps in hip-hop. One of his most famous and beloved songs (by his fans) is “I Used To Love H.E.R.“, where “H.E.R.” stands for “Hearing Every Rhyme“. It’s an allegory of his feelings about the history of the hip-hop scene told as a love story with a fictional woman. In the beginning she “had so much soul”, she wasn’t “about the money”, she had nothing to do with all the stuff that people who listen to “conscious rap” think shouldn’t be talked about. Then later when she started hangin’ with the “boys in the hood”, Common tolerates it for a while, admitting that she is getting “more well-rounded” and still has faith in her future. Eventually, when she starts only talking about selling drugs and being violent, Common seems to give up on her as a lost cause. This was back in 1994, and while a lot has changed about rap music, a lot has stayed painfully the same. Common is still one of the main rappers cited by those who’d like to see all MCs rapping about uplifting the downtrodden and fighting the power, and this derision and disappointment with rappers who have violent lyrics or shallow content is as pervasive today as ever in many circles.
Common – I Used To Love H.E.R.
I think the fact that Common chose this metaphor for telling the history of hip-hop is very telling about his and many of his fans’ mentality about what rap is. To them, hip-hop is this abstract notion, a Platonic ideal, a single concept that must be preserved and and controlled. The main issue I take with this perception, besides the fact that it completely ignores the fact that hip-hop was not originally conceived of in this way at all, is that rap actually is just a vehicle for a huge spectrum of people to express themselves and tell their stories about the situations they’ve experienced. Hip-hop as an object does not exist, there are only the people who make hip-hop, and each person that makes it gets to redefine what it is with every song. If your experience compels you to rap about social and political issues, then you can still do that. If your experience compels you to rap about murder and crime, then you can do that too. If your experience tells you to rap about sex and money, then that’s also an option. If your experience tells you to rap about everyday life and the struggles of day to day humanity, knock yourself out. The fact that someone else is rapping about different things than you does not prevent you from rapping about what you want to rap about. When “gangsta rap” came on the scene, “socially conscious” rap did not cease to exist (I use quotation marks because both of these terms are absurdly simplistic and unfair to all genres of rap). There are still new artists in that subgenre, and there always will be as long as rap exists.
It seems, however, that Common has perhaps loosened his uptight viewpoints on what legitimate rap can be. In a recent interview, Common said this about meeting Waka Flocka, who is arguably the best possible example of everything a die-hard evangelistic Common fan hates about rap.
I love that he came out and said what he felt ’cause, I mean, who are we to judge what that meant? We ain’t the gatekeepers of hip-hop. We love the music. We love the culture. But, I mean, that’s his experience and that’s what he felt. And it’s somethin’ about him that … he got a soul to him that’s like, that I feel I see why people respond to his music.
He also makes a point very much like the point I tried to make back in this post, interestingly.
That’s what real is, when you talk about real. You want the truth, people to come out and just speak they mind. The things that, you know, some people are embarrassed to say, they say. I respect those guys and artists and women the most, the people that just speak they mind.
I’d really love for every fan of what they would arrogantly call “real hip-hop” to read those quotes and really take in what Common is implying here. Gone is the perception of hip-hop as a pristine, immaculate, abstract concept that can be sullied by anything not conforming to its rigid guidelines. In its place is a much more human and humane understanding that we’re all just people in this world going through different shit. We’re all different, we all have different places we come from, and we’ve all got something to say. Hip-hop is just one way to say things. And as I’ve argued before, one of the most important roles of any artist is to say those things that most people are too afraid to say out loud, so that when people think those forbidden thoughts, they can at least know there’s somebody else that feels that way too. It would be nice if that idea was just common sense.