The Changing Face of Hip Hop: Are we moving away from gangster rap?

Drake is gay. At least that’s what he’s been accused of being, numerous times since he started making music. Accused of talking too much about his feelings, Drake epitomizes the change in hip-hop music, seemingly one that has taken us away from gangster rap.

“Then: Fat Joe, Biggie, Big Pun, Big Daddy Kane. Now: Lil Wayne, Lil Bow Wow, Tinie Tempah. When did it stop being cool to be big?” joked Christina, an avid hip-hop fan. As being tough and gangster is often associated with being big, this personifies the change.

A musical genre consisting of stylized rhythmic music that usually accompanies rapping; hip-hop originated within early 1970s block parties in New York City. A product of cross-cultural integration, rap is deeply rooted within ancient African culture and oral tradition. As a result, it originated in an effort to reveal the plight of the underclass.

To a certain extent, gangster rap has reflected US society. It is no coincidence that it is most common during the late 1990’s with the likes of Public Enemy and NWA. At a time where there was still severe racial dissatisfaction, gentrification and tension, these artists used the medium that was accessible to them, namely music, to express their anger.

As Sincere, a UK hip-hop artist put it, “hip-hop is a reflection of the streets,” arguing that the aforementioned aren’t really as much at play in society as they once were. “Its harder to be a gangster these days,” he went on to explain, citing increased police and technology as the main reasons behind this.

“Every niche has its day,” said Cynikal, another hip-hop artist, “and that day has come and gone.” This may help explain why over the years hip-hop, and rap, have become more eclectic, even borrowing from other genres such as soul, jazz and live instrumentations. Most recently, Kanye West championed the ‘soulful rap’ movement.

Hip-hop is also supremely bound up in its culture, one that used to (and sometimes still does) consist of baggy jeans, caps, expensive trainers and street slang. Artists the likes of Jay Z and Kanye West have however made it cool to dress well, with Kanye West in particular often suited up and present on the front row of designer fashion shows the world over.

This in turn reflects on how the youth and those who look up to him dress and feel. Perhaps it would not be too far fetched to cite Obama as an influence for black youth too. Perhaps it is harder to be angry about feeling excluded when the president of the United States is a black man who is immaculately dressed.

Not only have the aforementioned made it cool to dress well, it could also be argued that many of today’s idols are making it cool to be educated, with positivity often taking a front seat in much of todays music. This is exemplified in the way people find out about new music these days. Rather than artists selling their mix tapes on the streets, “out of da trunk,” blogging, hip-hop and music magazines, i.e. literary sources, have sprung up all over the Internet.

“The stereotype of rappers has diluted for the better,” said Cynikal. “We’re an integral part of society. Before we were treated a bit like pests, but now hip-hop rules the charts.” This may be both a cause and a consequence of the changing finished product.

Evolving away from a party art form and towards a recorded medium, hip-hop began to grow as a viable and profitable genre, so much so that both rappers and record companies could see the benefits of making it more accessible to a general, often white, audience. Research, in fact suggests that approximately 75% of the rap and hip-hop audience is nonblack.

Hip-hop has become so profitable, in fact, that many corporate giants the likes of Pepsi, subway and Hewlett-Packard have begun using rap music in their advertisements. Factors which undoubtedly affect how ‘gangster’ the music is. What mother would buy, or permit her children to buy a CD that she deemed to be a supremely bad influence?

DJ Whoo Kid recently stopped by Tim Westwood’s radio show to discuss exactly this. Arguing that hip-hop is “for the kids” he went on to explain that it’s all about dancing these days. “Dance music, snapping, and occasionally gangsterism.” “The gangsterisms [of today] are not defined as reality” he went on to say. “It’s like they’re in a movie, like Scarface… there’s no focus in hip-hop, but it’s cool. It’s fun for the kids, everybody’s happy.”

Having started off as a form of expression for the underclass, namely, black youth who felt disenfranchised, it could also be argued that today’s ‘underclass’ is not as easy to define. What with the social integration and cultural transitions taking place day to day, along with the rise of the ‘mixed race,’ the underclass could now be anyone, facing discrimination for anything and dealing with a variety of different problems.

This is exemplified in Drake and Kid Cudi’s music, to give just a couple of examples. Mourning the loss of love, the loss of oneself and exploring the search for a purpose in life, rappers such as the aforementioned are a lot more relatable to the mainstream, discussing issues that could be argued to be more current. And in an economic climate that is massively suffering, perhaps it makes sense that much of the subject matter these days refers to money. “Its all about money, fame and glamour” said Capri, a music blogger.

Everyone now listens to hip-hop, and everyone can make hip-hop. As a result these kinds of topics often ring true to both the artists and the audience. More so than guns, murder and drug dealing, a phenomenon which seems to have decreased exponentially.

So is hip-hop permanently moving away from its origins? The success of artists like Kanye West has proved that it is not necessary to be a gangster in order to sell records. Making room for artists such as Drake, Kid Cudi, B.O.B and Wale, who come from relatively comfortable backgrounds and rap about things which don’t include women, guns and all the illegal ways to make money, the shift would suggest that hip hop has moved away from what began it.

But that is not to say that there are no instances of gangster rap left, however. “Its still very much there” said Manny Norte, a well-known hip-hop DJ, “it’s just being delivered differently.” “Just because the mainstream have moved away from it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist anymore,” said Eduardo, an avid hip-hop fan, going on to cite Freddie Gibbs as an example of a current ‘gangster’ rapper. And with songs the likes of ‘National Anthem (Fuck the world) and ‘The Ghetto,’ he is arguably still producing gangster music. “Although he may never break out worldwide” he went on to add.

“Hip-hop is a reflection of the streets.” Therefore for as long as there are still ghetto estates, there will be gangster rap. It could be argued that once upon a time that was the only type of rap that was permitted, or expected, therefore until someone broke that boundary and made it okay to express other emotions, that was all music would receive from the hip-hop arena.

Therefore perhaps it is not that hip-hop has moved entirely away from gangster rap, just that, as explored above, a variety of different people from different backgrounds and expressing different issues are using rap as their medium. This, in turn, results in a more diverse expression to explode out of speakers. Added to this the focus on making money, and the pressure therefore to be accessible to the mainstream, it makes sense why rap may not be as limited to gangster rap as it once was. But that does not necessarily mean that there is no room for it any longer.


One thought on “The Changing Face of Hip Hop: Are we moving away from gangster rap?

  1. In my opinion, this new form hip-hop that talks money, fame, glamour, girls, cars, cribs, the good life is more dangerous than old school real gangster rap that talks of and represents the ‘struggle’ to make it or to live and survive. Why? Because it makes people chase that life dangerously and desperately, creates a dream that for 99.9% of listeners, is not possible, and hence – any other honest form of living and growing in society is not good enough, because you always have the likes of Drake telling you he’s 25 sitting on 25 mil or Chris Brown working too hard to ball on a budget.

    Rap lost it’s essence a long time ago. On the other hand, what makes me chuckle even more is when those rappers that have ‘made it’ still talk about the ‘hood’ in present-tense. That’s why you see smart rappers like 50Cent, who have clearly ran out of things to talk about – invest more time in his businesses or turn more to acting. He had a strategy from day. Which makes you question the real longevity of a rappers career before people start getting sick of a particular artist.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love Jay-Z (even though he made a habit of biting lyrics early on in his career) – the production value of Watch the Throne was amazing, but the lyrics are just SO DAMN ANNOYING! Enough already, heard it all before.

    Bottom line (again, in my opinion), when talking about rap being a product of society or society being a product of rap, it’s a quid pro quo status.

    Lovely article nonethless.

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