Soundtrack: Makaveli “White Man’s World”
“1996 was I guess you can say a crucial year for Hip Hop culture. Basically, that’s when I think the apartheid movement started inside the culture where suddenly there were haves and have-nots. And I was starting to see the results of it because on my block you know kids would be like ‘yo, why do you still take a cab? You were just on BET a second ago; why you still taking a taxicab? How come you never wear jewelry? You’re a rap star; aren’t you supposed to have these things?’
So I wanted to do a video that pretty much showed that being an emcee and being an artist isn’t about being a personality but more or less a human being. Unfortunately the commentary had cut a little deep with some in the Hip Hop community that felt that we were taking pot shots at them. What I didn’t know was that we had taken a swipe at an actual Biggie video. I wasn’t aware that we had done something scene for scene, and of course I can see how you think we’re mocking him because this is exactly his video scene. So he wasn’t too happy about that.
The thing was though, we were always in Europe. Nobody in Hip Hop wanted to ever tour Europe, especially when they were successful in the States. So we had heard talk of ‘yeah I’m gonna see them; it’s on when I see them.’ At the time the Source Magazine had asked me to respond to Biggie’s statement of how he was upset. And he had championed us in a lot of books so this really came as a swipe from his point of view, as in like ‘wait a minute, I said they were one of my favorite groups ever. Why would they do this to me?’
So my manager and I, we wrote a manifesto about how we see the dangers of the seeds that is the apartheid movement — the fact that Hip Hop used to be an all-inclusive thing. When RUN-DMC sang about ‘My Adidas’, you could actually get a pair of Adidas and feel like you belonged in it. Now, suddenly, rappers are like ‘this is my mansion and my boat…you ain’t shit. I have something and you don’t, so I’m better than you.’ Hip Hop used to be inclusive.”
– Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson being interviewed on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman on August 14, 2013
When I heard Questlove say this it blew me away. It is no secret that I love Hip Hop music and culture. I view Hip Hop as a major tool in the eventual liberation of the people who created it, Blacks and Latinos. I consider Tupac Shakur to be the greatest representative of this Hip Hop spirit that our culture has ever produced.
I also love Biggie Smalls a/k/a/ The Notorious B.I.G. He is widely regarded as one of, if not the greatest, poet/lyricist of all Hip Hop time. It is almost blasphemous to be a Hip Hop head and not be a Biggie Smalls fan. However, many of us fans have not been able to see the forest for the trees, when it comes to understanding exactly what happened to our culture in the mid to late 90s.
Questlove is absolutely correct in saying that Hip Hop used to be inclusive. That is precisely what allowed Hip Hop to spread from the South Bronx to all of NYC to the whole United States and eventually the entire globe. There wasn’t a long list of membership requirements. If you were a deejay, an emcee, a graffiti artist, or a breakdancer, or you simply enjoyed watching these people, then you were Hip Hop. It was created by people who had to make something out of nothing. Turning regular turntables and vinyl records into a whole new instrument. Turning a 10 second drum solo in 70’s soul, funk, and rock and roll songs into 10 minute long dance grooves. Turning teenage wordsmiths and turntable technicians into local celebrities. Hip Hop was for the masses.
Tupac Shakur was the Anointed Son, born of this Holy Hip Hop Spirit, and chosen to live his life for us and ultimately give his life for us. He spoke for those who had no voice. He fought for those who had yet to find their courage. He identified the lowest members of society, the most Not of the have-nots, the Thugs, and he became their advocate.
With his Thug Life mantra (The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody) and his Thug Life Code, Pac had a plan to achieve freedom, justice, and equality for those who had been denied of these necessities. He sought to continue the revolutionary work of his predecessors (Mutulu Shakur, Assata Shakur, Geronimo Pratt, etc.) in a modern 90’s context. He made mistakes, as could be expected of any young man in his early twenties with a lot of money and too many yes-men around him. But he was clear about his ultimate goals. He died at 25 years old, far too soon to realize his full potential.
Biggie had a different take on things. He wasn’t instilled with the sense of responsibility for others that Tupac learned from his parents and caregivers. Biggie was the pioneer of a different direction for Hip Hop. As the spokesman for a young Sean “Puffy/Diddy” Combs, before Diddy discovered the joys of using ghost writers, Big taught us how to be aspirational. He described it as going “from ashy to classy.” When Big’s debut album Ready to Die was released in September 1994, he was still speaking of his desire to wear “black Timbs and black hoodies,” as he had growing up in Brooklyn. But by the time the song One More Chance was remixed and released as a single in May 1995, the video featured Biggie wearing a Coogi sweater and Versace shades, which became his image for the rest of his short life. Again, this change in direction was prompted by Big’s label boss and creative director, Diddy.
Diddy had a vision for where he wanted his Bad Boy Records company and his overall brand to go and Biggie was the ambassador that Diddy molded to represent his vision. The Versace shades, the speedboat in the Florida Keys, the Cristal champagne, all represented Diddy and Biggie’s declaration to “the mainstream” that they intended to be on the same playing field as those for whom these material trappings were nothing new. And the formula worked. Biggie and Bad Boy found immense commercial success and financial rewards, signaling “the next big thing” for music executives who do nothing but copy trends.
Biggie’s counterpart in ushering in the Hip Hop apartheid movement was Jay-Z. When Jay-Z’s debut album Reasonable Doubt was released in June 1996, it marked an official departure from the former inclusive days of Hip Hop. While E-40 sang the praises of Carlos Rossi and UGK assured us that Dom Perignon was supposed to bubble, Jay-Z proclaimed that if you “like Dom, maybe this Cristal will change your life”, and the gauntlet was thrown. Not to mention the fact that Jay-Z told his hypothetical detractors “What? Nigga you broke. What the fuck you gon’ tell me?” Mobb Deep said that no matter how much loot they got they were staying in the projects. But Jay-Z preferred the presidential suite as his residential for the weekend. As Biggie would say, things done changed.
To be fair, while Big and Jay were popularizing Versace and Cristal, Tupac had a real life friendship with the house of Versace and was the only rapper to ever model their clothes on the runway, in Milan, in 1996. But in that same year, Pac made statements in his songs like “Currency means nothing if you still ain’t free.” His desire to move on up never came at the expense of his desire to bring the whole ghetto along with him.
So how has this Hip Hop apartheid movement played out since Pac and Big were murdered and Diddy and Hov went on to reach more than halfway toward billionaire status? That’s a really big question that could take volumes of books to answer but this is where I choose to focus. In 1989, the people at the highest levels of power in the United States took notice of the huge potential of Hip Hop to foment change among the common people. They had spent decades and centuries perfecting their social engineering devices and herding the masses of the people like sheep. They recognized that Hip Hop had the power to change all of that.
With the 1988 emergence of Public Enemy, N.W.A., and others, there was suddenly a tool that could be used to speak directly to the masses and get them to move, and the Powers That Be had no control over it. That, of course, was an unacceptable situation. So those Powers made moves to buy up the independent vehicles that were driving the Hip Hop culture and industry, as well as making moves to silence those voices in Hip Hop that were most influential and critical of the power structure. I don’t have time here to prove that claim, but you can Google it if you want. The emergence of the Hip Hop apartheid movement was the knockout blow for what was the great potential for Hip Hop to cause Complete Constructive Change in the United States. There is now a clear separation between the icons of the culture and the common people. No matter how catchy Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” and “Tom Ford” are, the masses of the people just can’t relate to Jeff Koons and the Louvre. We have been priced out of what is considered cool in Hip Hop now. And the head can’t move without a body. So the movement that Hip Hop used to represent is now paralyzed and on life support. There is still a slight chance of survival/revival, but chances grow slimmer with each passing new release Tuesday. Nas declared that Hip Hop is dead in 2006. The culture needs a Messiah who can breathe in new Life After Death. What new projects are coming out this Tuesday?