Tuesday, March 22, 2011

new mixtape in a week, plus thoughts on effective "conscious" hip hop


Back in 2008, I put out a mixtape called "Conscious is Not Enough," talking primarily about the 2008 elections and the importance of organizing; how while voting was/is important, it's not the only way-- or the most effective way-- to create change.  The mixtape was recorded in a day, and while it got a ton of downloads, some imperfections in it always bothered me.  Long story short, we're releasing an UPDATED, remixed, re-recorded version of that mixtape in a week.  It'll be available as a free download through Tru Ruts next week, and contains re-worked versions of old songs and some brand-new, never-before-heard tracks.  Follow me on Twitter for updates.  Cover design by Nickolas Davis.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a few thoughts on what I think makes effective "conscious" hip hop.

First of all, I love “conscious hip hop,” “political rap,” whatever you want to call it. Those labels are generally hated by the actual artists that they’re attached to, but I embrace them. We’re all put in boxes, whether we like it or not—I figure I may as well be put into a box that actually means something. I grew up on Goodie Mob, PE, dead prez, the Coup and similar artists, and I still don’t think that there’s anything more invigorating than a hot song with real substance behind it. As I’ve written before, substance is what separates good songs from great songs, and talented artists from impactful artists.

All of that being said, I understand where the criticisms of conscious hip hop come from. It’s very easy to do poorly. The best socially-conscious rap music is able to balance form and content—if you go too far one way or the other, the end result generally isn’t effective. It’s either super preachy, didactic rhetoric-spitting that isn’t fun to listen to, or sonically-engaging pseudo-intellectual bullshit that doesn’t really make any kind of meaningful statement. There’s a lot of both out there.

Beyond that, I think that we, as artists, sometimes don’t give our listeners much credit. Here’s a fun activity: take your favorite conscious rap song and boil it down to its thesis statement, its one-line take-away message. If you even can, the odds are good that that message is something like “the world is messed up,” or “struggle is hard,” or “people need to rise up,” or something similarly simple.

And to be clear: there’s nothing wrong with songs like that. The Roots do it. Our favorite local artists do it. Any rapper who has ever had a token political track on an otherwise standard album has done it. I’ve done it. And I’d rather have platitudes of positivity than more materialism or emo-rap or thug talk or abstract super-scientifical stuff. But the point is that those kinds of songs are missing an opportunity to push further, to really explore the potential in the relationship between culture and society. We often assume that three verses and a hook isn’t enough space to really push the envelope in terms of content—but it is. It just takes more thought.

And I’m definitely not saying that every one of my songs is a brilliant political manifesto meant to change how you live your daily life, or that every song should be. I’m just saying that as a listener, as a consumer of art, I really appreciate artists who reach further than the obvious. Look at Toki Wright breaking down 400 years of American history and how that history always influences the present. Look at Invincible exploring the impact of gentrification and displacement in Detroit. Look at Sage Francis criticizing the media for the way it covered 9/11 in a song released right after it happened. Look at Brother Ali and Common writing new songs that make amends for homophobic language they had used in the past.

So what do these songs have in common? What are the elements of effective political rap? A few ideas:

First, the best conscious hip hop songs go deeper than platitudes. We already know that “the world is messed up.” Now what? Can you shed some light on why that is? Or what we can do about it? Or tell a specific story that inspires us to get involved in making it better? Or attack a given issue from a new angle that changes how we think about it? It's not 1988 any more; can we move the conversation forward?

Related to that, context matters. What might be obvious information to some is world-shattering to others, and vice versa. We need to understand who our audience is, and write songs that challenge them rather than pander to them. It’s not revolutionary when your entire audience already agrees with it.

Next, I think that if an artist chooses to engage with political material, the song should have an identifiable point. Subtlety and impressionism are important tools for songwriters, but too much is dangerous when you’re really trying to say something. If I can easily misinterpret your song, or completely miss the point of your song, it’s not a good political song. It may still be an amazing song, but do not mistake subtlety for wisdom. I still believe that there are ways to push the envelope artistically without losing the political point that is being made.

There are exceptions—a lot of Public Enemy songs, for example—but those exceptions are often based in context. A song as simple as “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas can (and did) become a radical call-to-arms if the conditions in the community call for it.

Finally, and most importantly, I think that artists who address social and political issues can and should be involved in actual activist work. It’s much easier to forgive a less-than-great conscious hip hop song if I know that the artist is down with the on-the-ground movements that he or she is rapping about. And of course, it’s hard to be a professional artist and a committed community activist… hard, but not impossible. Ask I Self Devine.

And maybe none of this applies to most artists, since most artists never talk about anything important in their work anyway. But I think it’s worth exploring and thinking about, especially for those of us who do believe in the power that art has to influence hearts and minds.

The most seemingly damning criticism of conscious rap is that people shouldn't look to rappers as role models or educators or leaders because in the end, we're just rappers.  But I believe that everyone is a potential role model, educator or leader, rappers included.  As MCs, we simply have a higher platform to shout from.  That's a privilege.  That's an opportunity.  It seems foolish to waste it. 

Any other thoughts? Disagreements? Hateful ad hominem attacks? Let’s discuss.


Chris DeLine said...

"It’s not revolutionary when your entire audience already agrees with it."

Doug Stanhope has a line about how comedians who think they're "edgy" are often anything but when considering their audience. His example is Nick DiPaolo, who goes hard with his conservative Republican views despite working to largely liberal fans... think that's a pretty good way of looking at things: pandering does go a long way, but it only ends up resulting in soft conclusions.

Sorry for the aside--I agree with the final line... I think anyone can be a role model, just have to realize the potential of possibility.

CRHH said...

While I agree with you're assertion that artists must ask the difficult questions, I honestly think that you are drawing up too short - artists need to do more than just ask questions. They must demand answers.

Cole/Inky said...

Like it. It's hard to do right, but is worth the effort. I also believe in leading by example, getting out and working. Also, ditto ditto on people making up for things they've said in the past by being vocal about doing things the right way in the present. I think people CAN learn, people can change, and effect that change in others.

I loved your mix tape, I'm excited for the new version (but I think it's going to be hard pressed to compete with what An Unwelcome Guest did.) Also, zombies.

Heidi said...

This is super helpful thanks Guante!