One of the side effects of getting older is losing touch with popular culture. For me, this has happened slowly over time. I now rarely watch TV, visit the movies, read magazines, or obsess about music in the way I did in the days of my youth. In fact, I’ve developed a growing sense of indifference about mainstream culture. As a result some things pass me by altogether. I only recently discovered who Alexa Chung is, and – much to the shock of colleagues at work – I don’t care.
In many cases new passions have replaced old ones. I now watch Vimeo and YouTube more than television; movies are streamed via the web to my home; Twitter is my daily news feed, and my children have become the celebrities whose lives I passionately care about.
My relationship with Hip-Hop has also changed over the years too.
From Planet Rock to the death of Hip-Hop
I’ve been a fan of Hip-hop since I was 11 years old when I first heard Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, Planet Patrol and Mann Parrish. I believe Hip-Hop has changed the world and I subscribe to the view that without it, Obama would not have become the first Black President of the United States.
Hip-Hop is now truly global. From Finland to Fiji, South Africa to Slovakia, every country adds a different spin, creating cultural hybrids that are shared, downloaded and remixed on Spotify, iTunes and YouTube.
On the surface, Hip-hop appears to be alive and well. Artists such as Jay-Z and Kanye West maintain their status as global brands and there is no shortage of interest in newer artists, as demonstrated by the hype surrounding Mac Miller and Drake.
But when the rapper Nas declared in 2006 that Hip-hop was dead, he articulated a feeling shared by many that the genre was losing its way.
Pop or Hip?
There have always been two major forces pulling Hip-Hop in opposite directions.
One is the pull towards commercialization and Pop music. Many years ago rappers such as LL Cool J, Will Smith and perhaps most infamously, Vanilla Ice discovered the riches to be gained by providing a ‘Lite’ crossover version of rap music for the masses. This trend has continued unabated ever since.
Inevitably, other artists have pushed in the opposite direction, producing music that deliberately sets out to offend the sensibilities of the mainstream. From NWA to Eminem and more recently Tyler the Creator, these artists have set out to say the unthinkable and break every taboo.
Much to the horror of parents the world over, young people lapped this up with even greater fervor than the crossover rappers, creating global stars out of Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z.
This has caused problems for the Black middle classes too. Civil rights activists and liberal intellectuals abhor the misogynist and defamatory language that permeates rap music. The debate over the use of the word ‘Nigga’ is testament to this. It represents a fault line between those who proclaim it as a term of empowerment, and those who believe it reinforces all the wrong stereotypes.
Hip-Hop as Pop Art
I’ve got to admit that some of the latest iterations of Hip-Hop have left me wondering where I stand in relation to the genre. For example, I recently came across a music video by Lil B entitled ‘Ho Suck My D**k’. This left me feeling that I perhaps have outgrown Hip-Hop.
At first I struggled to believe that this wasn’t a spoof, as the track appeared to have even less musical integrity than Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’. But on reflection, I wonder whether this represents Hip-Hop’s next evolution to the status of Pop Art.
Drinking from the Fountain
In 1917 when Marcel Duchamp’s exhibit of a urinal sent shock waves around the art establishment, he began a movement that would sever the links between Art and artistry. In time this would give birth to Pop Art, which would elevate the banal and kitsch elements of culture, most often through the use of irony.
Artists such as Tracey Emin have been influenced by this tradition, while others such as Damien Hirst have followed in the footsteps of Andy Warhol and adopted a factory approach to artistic production that pumps out large volumes of work, some of which is of questionable quality.
It’s possible that Lil B is taking Hip-Hop in a similar direction. His vulgar and uncoordinated rapping style is apparently deliberate. He claims to be making a virtue of being ‘Based’ or worthless through his use of the term ‘Based God’, a concept he propagates to his growing number of fans through multiple social media channels, including Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube and over 155 MySpace pages.
He has also reportedly recorded over 1,500 tracks, a level of output that would impress even Damien Hirst. Controversially for a rapper, he titled his fifth album ‘I’m Gay’, for which he received death threats.
Lil B has been described as one of a growing number of weird-o emcees that are deconstructing Hip-Hop and creating new mutations. I should be pleased about this. After all, mutation and adaption are vital to life and evolution. But I can’t help wondering if Hip-Hop is eating itself because it is running out of new places to go. Or maybe I’m just getting too old for this…