A Tribe Called Quest's comeback album reminds us how wholesome it once wasby Alex Dean / February 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
“We Got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service” by A Tribe Called Quest
Hip-hop has won the 21st century. No other cultural form has been as influential on pop music, fashion, youth culture. It has even penetrated politics. When Barack Obama was president, he regularly invited rapper and producer Jay-Z to the White House. Donald Trump has even got in on the act, hosting singer Kanye West at the (suitably bling) Trump Tower. Fortunes have been made and millions of records been sold. The music that dominates today’s streaming sites is the direct descendant of hip-hop—which is now equally popular among white and black listeners.
Despite its success, though, many people think of rap music—the most successful element of hip-hop culture—as misogynistic, materialistic and violent. A musical form driven by furious energy and creative vigour has been overshadowed by its content, which often seems to conform to the worst stereotypes of aggressive masculinity.
It’s not hard to see where rappers have got their bad-boy image. One of the most popular albums of the noughties was Get Rich or Die Tryin’ by 50 Cent, which described—even celebrated—his life as a crack dealer on the streets of New York. (At my school there was a rumour—since confirmed—that 50 Cent’s speech was slurred because he had a bullet lodged in his tongue). And then there’s Eminem, the white rapper adopted by hip-hop godfather Dr Dre. The best-selling rapper of the 2000s, Eminem set out to define himself—or at least a character very similar to him—as a violent maniac. “Kim” is more hate song than love song, in which the rapper imagines killing his ex-wife in the woods. (He was also accused of hijacking black culture for his own ends, much as Elvis Presley stole from Little Richard and other black artists.)
But rap music hasn’t always been so violent. Long before songs about “bitches” and “bling” conquered the world, rappers were exploring politics and parties—the whole range of human experience. As unlikely as it might seem, until fairly recently rap was pretty wholesome. So what changed?