It’s so unfortunate to see this narrative of rap’s history still being pushed by prominent leaders.
Minister Farrakhan responds to questions from Big Meech, Young Buck, & B.G.
I find it interesting, first of all, that Minister Farrakhan spends the most time talking about rap history while responding to the only question that didn’t come from a rapper; he must have just been really eager to bring up these arguments against the kind of rap he doesn’t like.
Every time I think that maybe this “the first rappers were the conscious rappers” fantasy is finally being discarded at least by those who should know better, I see something like this. This analysis of hip hop history would have been slightly more excusable in the late 90s (which is apparently when Minister Farrakhan stopped paying attention to rap, judging by the way he drops 2Pac and Biggie references like current events), although no less untrue. These kinds of beliefs were very prevalent in that time period, back when the subgenre “Gangsta Rap” was the dominant voice on the rap airwaves and rap beefs were reaching some admittedly unsettling levels of intensity. But drawing that bright line between “conscious” rappers and “gangsta” rappers was as fallacious then as it is now. You don’t need to go any deeper than track 2 on Biggie or 2Pac‘s debut albums to hear how blurry that line is in reality.
But this imaginary line drawing is only one part of the problem with his view. To frame hip-hop as a movement that was initiated for the sole purpose of exacting large scale social change, and was only populated by artists who spoke explicitly and directly about these social changes, does a great disservice to music history and black culture. Hip-hop is, at its foundation, party music. That doesn’t mean that that’s all it has to be, but we have to be real about these kinds of facts because the basis for these arguments Minister Farrakhan brings up lies in the misconception that rap that doesn’t have to do with fixing societal problems is some kind of betrayal to the foundation of this music. The origin stories that frame rap in this way have no factual basis. Hip-hop started when DJs (one interesting Jamaican born DJ in particular) started figuring out ways to prolong (loop) certain sections of popular dance songs to allow more time for the dancers at the parties they were DJing to do their choreographed or unchoreographed dance routines, heightening the energy of the party and making people want to dance longer, harder, and with more creativity. Then these DJs started incorporating some spoken/chanted/sung vocal routines into their DJ sets as well which served the same purpose that their beat juggling did — to increase the energy of the party and make people want to dance longer, harder, and with more creativity. Everything that has happened in rap since then has grown from one or both of these traditions, neither of which has anything to do with preaching a message of social equality to the black youth of America. The early MCs of this era didn’t find choice loops of Afrocentric slogans or pump the party up with “THE WAR ON DRUGS IS DISPROPORTIONATELY HURTING OUR COMMUNITIES!” chants, it was funk breaks and party-vibe couplets combined in a way to make people have a good time on the dance floor. It is true that the first raps weren’t about homicide and drug dealing, but they also weren’t about uplifting the black race to its deserved equal position. Both of these movements grew out of these innocent dance party roots.
It would of course be foolish and shortsighted to claim that there were no parts of early hip-hop culture that had socially conscious elements. Many of the early hip-hop groups were founded on the kinds of principles that Minister Farrakhan and other critics of modern rap culture champion. But the point wasn’t to always be preaching these ideas in every song, the idea was that engaging in these creative activities kept the kids involved in hip-hop off the streets and out of trouble. Hip-hop was a vehicle to embrace creativity as a force into your life to develop your mind in ways that would dissuade you from getting caught up in the endless pitfalls that a life in poverty inevitably puts in front of you. That doesn’t mean that everything you say while engaged in this creative endeavor has to be about racial equality and social justice, it just means that choosing to engage in creative endeavors in your life will have positive effects on your outlook and decisions. It’s the Inner Jihad, not the Outer. The real cultural change comes from the act of making hip-hop, not listening to it. If, while engaged in this creative pursuit, you find that what you have to express naturally has elements of social consciousness, then by all means you should express those feelings and ideas as fully and masterfully as you can. I am by no means opposed to speaking about social and cultural issues in rap, it’s a very understandable, natural, and moving subject; but so are many other subjects. Not every person that engages in this activity is going to have these positive, uplifting ideas on their mind foremost, nor should we expect them to. This idea that artists should be incessantly socially conscious in every creative decision they make is not applied to any other genre of music other than rap. Social problems exist in every race and stratum of society, but we don’t smash rock, country, jazz, techno, reggae, or any other genre albums in the street because they’re not consistently speaking about the “real issues” that “matter” to “the community”. For some reason we demand this rigorous moral attitude from our hip-hop artists, but from no one else.
Don’t let anybody tell you the kind of stuff Minister Farrakhan is trying to tell you about rap, it isn’t true. Of course a lot of rap music has problematic subject matter. What do we expect from an art movement? Are we really going to discard it because it frightens our delicate sensibilities? Resist these oversimplified and blatantly fictional arguments, they won’t lead you to any great understanding or appreciation.