The Root: Hip-Hop's Magical Year

Nicholas James
Contributor to The Root
Wednesday, August 6, 2008; 12:00 PM

"Twenty years ago, hip-hop music was in its Golden Age. Recently Rolling Stone listed the '15 Albums that Made Rap Explode.' All were works released in '88, and all laid the seeds for hip-hop's dominance of popular music years later... Not only did the rap music industry swell in '88, but the collective culture forced its way into the social, political, economic and popular ethos across American soil."

Two decades on, writer Nicholas James looks back on 1988, hip-hop's "magical year." He was online Wednesday, August 6 discussing his article for The Root and talk about how hip-hop has changed over the past 20 years.

Nicholas James is an educational consultant for Hip Hop Scholars, Inc. and teaches cultural studies at The Philadelphia School.

A transcript follows.

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Nicholas James: Hello. My name is Nicholas James, and it is very exciting to be here and to be heard discussing what is perhaps the most important year in Hip Hop culture. I hope my article honors such thinking. Not only does '88 signify the commencement of what many consider the "Golden Age" of rap music ('88 -'94...no doubt, open for debate), but it also represents the commencement of a personal appreciation for rap music - even at an early age. I look forward to your questions.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Nicholas, Great article. I was in 8th grade in September of '88 and remember hearing RUN DMC on the radio and playing Erik B and Rakim's "I got soul" on cassette tape to the ground. Now in my 30's, I still listen to hip hop (although I am kind of selective of the tracks on my iPod). Maybe I am too old but I tend to think they don't make hip hop like they used to. Your thoughts?

Nicholas James: Great question. Hip hop has gone through several phases and resurgences. I believe we are currently going through a significant resurgence of content based rap. For starters, the underground scene is blooming, but in the mainstream, we have artists like Lupe Fiasco, Nas, Common who have been selling records and winning awards, while giving people what they want to hear, and often what they are afraid to hear. That's what '88 was all about!

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Washington, D.C.: I appreciated the piece, having been there in 1988 to learn about all these things firsthand and to revel in hip- hop's "golden age." But what I want to ask is whether you think media consolidation has had a hand in shaping hip- hop between then and now.

It seems that a lot of the voices that made hip-hop vibrant 20 years ago were grounded in the efforts of independent labels (Profile, 4th and Broadway, for instance) or even in the entrepreneurial efforts of some rappers (think Too $hort selling tapes from his car). We really haven't seen much of that since, say, the mid- to late 1990s, when independent labels like No Limit still could have an impact.

Now, it seems the major labels have gotten behind hip- hop, because it sells. But that influx of cash has also, in my opinion, changed the focus away from creativity, put more emphasis on fads and gimmickry than on solid MCing and DJing, chilled if not killed most political or social commentary, and pretty much sapped the genre of the vitality many of us knew it once had.

Do you think the concentration of media ownership in the music industry has contributed to this, or are there other forces at work?

Thanks!

Nicholas James: You make a great point about the independent labels. You also have to remember that these labels were the only ones willing to put out rap records, on at best, modest budgets. As the records sold, the interest grew. What I find particularly interesting in today's Hip-Hop scene is the mixtape culture. Just about every popular emcee, from Lil Wayne to Nas, compliment their new albums with a mixtape, either for promotional purposes, or to say what they cannot say on their albums. If we are interested in hearing what the mainstream is not affording, we have outlets!

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Takoma Park, Md.: Public Enemy #1. I remember waiting for "It Takes a Nation of Millions ..." to drop in '88 and thinking that it was even better than we had hoped. Honestly, are there hip hop artists today who are at same level of creativity as PE, BDP, NWA, etc.?

Nicholas James: Good question. What is so particularly intriguing about '88 is that many of the artists you mention are still performing at high levels. PE still makes new records and draws crowds for concerts. KRS-One has been making music at a high level and just inked a deal with Duckdown Records. Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, of NWA fame, are still heavyweights in the game.

As far as artists who find influence in these legends, there is a clear connection between artists like Dead Prez and PE. KRS-One has worked with just about every current artist under the sun, from Talib Kweli to Fat Joe. I admit the subject matter has fluxiated in many cases, but the level of creativity still remains.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Great article! I have two questions for you...

1. What inspired you to write Hip-Hop's Magical Year? How has the Golden Age of hip hop influenced you?

2. Is hip hop dead? Nas said it, what do you think? Has hip hop become too commercial? How do you think the current generation of hip hop artists/culture will influence the future of hip hop?

Nicholas James: Two great questions! Firstly, my inspiration for writing the article came trying to define for myself what constituted the "Golden Age," not only for the music, but for the culture as a whole. Many argue that '88 represents the boom for rap music, but I argue there must have been other forces that influenced the music - politics, and so on. Also, I grew up with this music! I remember rap from '88 vividly. Yo! MTV Raps and Video Music Box were both factor, but perhaps the biggest factor, being a kid from Philly, was actually SEEING the success of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.

Regarding whether or not Hip Hop is dead, I believe Nas' point was that what "was" no longer "is." That is a complex framework. His argument was for the acceptance of change, as well as the prospect of resurrection in Hip Hop music and culture.

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Suitland, Md.:...20 yrs from now u can start this cause we'll be the old school artist. And even at that time, I'll say rhyme a brand new style, ruthless and wild. Running around spending money and havin' fun 'cause I'm still number 1 - KRS1

As hip-hop has exploded in age/content/maturity/reach is it fair to say that it has become the scapegoat du jour for society's ills as its impact can be felt across so many spectrums? And if your answer is yes, then what responsibility do hip-hop's parents have for how their child has developed?

Please note when I say "hip-hop's" parents I'm not referring to Kool Herc or the founders of the genre, I'm talking about the children of the civil rights generation ('50-'60s); our parents and their businesses.

My premise is that hip-hop today is the way it is because of the lack of parental oversight/guidance/nurturing/etc. which led us right into the manipulative arms of Madison Ave. (capitalism's cultural pimp and drug dealer).

Nicholas James: I think linkages exist between the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and the Hip Hop Movement. They are all Black cultural extensions and should be treated as such. "Hip Hop parents," as you have eloquently termed them, must embrace the similarities and the differences and act as educators, rather than denouncers.

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D.C.: Nicholas,

From the Golden Period of Hip Hop... what do you consider to be the 3 best albums? I would say probably Nas' 'Illmatic,' Wu Tang's '36 Chambers' and maybe Dre's 'Chronic'. I'm not that old so I can't really remember anything from before like '93. But I remember EPMD's 'Strictly Business' being good and also 'Paid in Full' (Eric B. and Rakim).

Nicholas James: This is a tough question, but off the top of my head, I would say Wu-Tang's "Enter the 36 Chambers," Ice Cube's "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted," and PE's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back." I would put those in the top 5 in terms of best, but probably not my favorites.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: What is it like to teach your students about hip-hop in the late 80's? Do they view it as history and how engaged are they in the dialogue about it? Just curious.

Also, do you feel like the fact that 1988 was an election year (and the end of the Reagan era - finally!) had to do with a serious upsurge in the political nature of the hip-hop scene.

And finally, congratulations on a wonderful article and on all your success. I am so proud that Philadelphia is producing so many wonderful hip-hop and urban scholars.

Nicholas James: Great question! There is an interesting rub when it comes to teaching about Hip Hop culture. Teaching from the late '80s perspective is difficult, but I find that locating the similarities, musically and culturally, gathers engagement. Of course '88 is a fun year to discuss, not only because the music became so broad, but also because of all the social factors that influenced the music - much like social factors are influencing the music of 2008 (think Barack Obama).

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Ft. Washington, Md.:'88 was definitely the beginning of the best era of hip hop. I remember driving all over D.C. with my brother and his newly minted driver's license in our dad's new Honda Accord listening to PE, Rakim, EPMD and others. What's interesting to me is there were groups out at that time that couldn't exist today, like Whodini. I can barely listen to hip hop today. There is little diversity in sound and style. What happened?

Nicholas James: Let me begin by saying, I love Whodini! Recently, they were honored by VH1 for their sonic contributions, and rightly so. I believe that the evolution of the emcee was in play at the time. Thanks to Rakim, who single handedly changed the way rappers rapped, emcees had to expand both style and story. Unfortunately, those who could not/would not adapt were left behind. I would also argue there is more diversity today than we acknowledge.

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Nicholas James: I would like to take an opportunity to talk about a project honoring '88. I am working on an academic mixtape that discusses the impact of the rap from '88, which includes social forces and lyrical analysis. It is still under construction, but the "work" is under way!

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New York City: Hi, white guy here. I liked your article, but I thought your statement on "Yo!MTV Raps" was over-the top:

Many critics rightly consider "Yo!" the most revolutionary cultural moment in television history.

I don't know the exact numbers off-hand, but I know MTV, despite its successes and innovations, was never highly rated in absolute numbers (remember, cable's household penetration wasn't really that high). In fact, as far as cultural variety shows, I wouldn't be surprised if "Soul Train" wasn't almost as successful as "Yo!".

Nicholas James: You could be correct, and I thank you for your perspective. My argument, however, is that Hip Hop is perhaps the biggest social movement in the last 30-40 years. I cannot imagine Hip Hop not being used in ad campaigns, business plans, etc. "Yo!" played a big part in the rise of Hip Hop as a promotional tool because outside viewers could finally "see" what had been so insular for so long. Considering how important Hip Hop is to American culture today, "Yo!" laid the groundwork.

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Chicago, IL : Hello Mr. James,

Where do you see Hip-Hop going in the next 5 years? Do you think it ever will get back to the point where we listen to lyrics rather then just dance to a beat?

I feel there's a lot left unsaid for the sake of a quick million, which is leaving true fans disappointed. Any thoughts?

Where's the next Gil Scott Heron?

Nicholas James: Thank you for your question. I believe the next 5 years are very important for Hip Hop and ironically, Chicago is prime real estate to extend the resurgence. Artists like Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Common, and Kids in the Hall seem to speak to what Hip Hop will look like in 5 years. The difficulty in defining such a concept is that Hip Hop music, in my opinion, is so diverse, giving it a direction seems impossible. But I believe there are artists willing to be the new brand of trailblazers.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Seems like Philly's all over this chat today. What do you make of the divergent voices that have come out of hip-hop's influence? I'm thinking of acts such as N-E-R-D and Sa Ra. Is it fair to say that their middling success is endemic of the idea that even as "revolutionary" and "adaptive" that hip-hop has become over the years, that the genre still hasn't accepted "non-standard" sounds?

Nicholas James: Good question. It truly depends on who the listeners are. Within the Hip Hop audience, there is a place for N.E.R.D. and Sa-Ra, just as there is a place for an artist like Chris Brown. Essentially, hip hop has branches and must be viewed in such a way!

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Loved your article Nic and appreciate your taking the time to expand on it here.

Do you agree with KRS-One when he draws a line between Emcees and Rappers - Emcees looking to rap positively so as to inspire their listeners whereas rappers are usually just looking to exploit the game and make a few dollars? Is this the major attitude of artists within the genre as well? I think about Talib Kweli as a true emcee and am still amazed he hasn't gained more of a following - why do you think this is?

Nicholas James: To be honest, I'm still not convinced there is a big difference between an "emcee" and a "rapper." If what defines the difference between the two is dependent on how well an artist "turns a buck," we are in trouble. I like to think that a good artist is capable of being both an emcee and a rapper, and for me, Talib Kweli fits comfortably in that space.

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Washington, D.C.: Not including Missy Elliot, however, there seem to be a downsizing of female hip-hop artists.

Your thoughts...

Nicholas James: The market for female artists is in a tough place. We are in need of a more diverse market where female Hip Hop artists are concerned.

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D.C.: What happened to the audience to make it so accepting of ring-tone rap/Soulja Boy stuff?

Nicholas James: This has always been a difficult question to answer. But the mainstream audience suffers from what most of America suffers from - an extremely short attention span. Though I have to admit, there is room for this brand of music under the Hip Hop umbrella, I am not a fan.

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Philadelphia, Pa. : I'm concerned about your #1 pick.

It seems to me that Demme's contribution (Yo! MTV Raps) to Hip Hop was not magical at all. Demme had his eye on the dollar signs, not on artistry when he produced MTV Raps. After all, this was a white guy from Long Island who came into the entertainment industry because of the success of his family. He had no historical connection with the black urban culture at all. This is all relevant because of what MTV Raps stands for: the proliferation of Hip Hop, with the profits ending up in the hands of the "suits".

MTV Raps brought Hip Hop to a wide audience, but at what expense? The essence of the Hip Hop culture - the expression of urban struggle and plight - was effectively commercialized and mass marketed, and later transformed. As a previous poster touched on, Hip Hop has changed from political commentary to talk about money, cash, and hoes. Where is the magic in that?

Nicholas James: Thanks for your concern! This list was not put together in any particular order of importance, though the establishment of a television platform for rap music and Hip Hop culture must receive high praise!

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Politics and hip-hop: I am sure a lot of people have already asked this, but what do you make of the controversy over Ludacris and his Obama song? Do you think it will hurt Obama? Do you think Obama is going to be able to benefit from certain aspects of association with hip-hip culture and artists while still distancing himself from less "friendly" aspects of hip-hop?

Nicholas James: I believe that, though well intentioned and sincere, Ludacris has to be more responsible, given the context, and conscious of who is listening. At the same time, I don't believe it will hinder anything regarding Obama's campaign. Obama should continue to view and embrace Hip Hop as he already has - with a critical eye.

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North Philly: Who's the artist(s) that people should be watching for now? A lot of these conversations seem to always devolve into the limited bubble of names (Kanye, Jay-Z, Nas, etc).

Who's next you've come across that maybe we're not onto yet?

Nicholas James: I appreciate this question and I will give the folks two artists to keep a look out for: Brooklyn emcee Joell Ortiz and Chicago based crew The Cool Kids. In many respects, one can find the diverse influences of '88 in both talents.

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New York: Isn't censorship also at play here, as opposed to the artists being cautious/selling out in terms of political/economic messages? I hear amazingly good hip-hop and rap on YouTube, guys who seemingly never get a chance.

Nicholas James: Censorship is certainly at play, but one cannot neglect the point that what's "heard" is what sells! Right or wrong, that's the way the game goes.

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Nicholas James: Everyone, thanks for your time. It has been a pleasure discussing such significant issues for Hip Hop. I hope the discussion continues...

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