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From gangsta rap to the voice of youth, hip hop has undoubtedly evolved in the past 30 years. Desi K. Robinson examines hip hop from it's not-so-humble beginnings in the Bronx to it's current place on the global stage as a voice of social change and political revolution.

Many genres of music have evolved. The twang and fiddle of country music has been jolted into the new millennium with pop influences and pyrotechnic stage shows; reggae has moved from the cool runnings of easy listening to dancehall grind ‘em ups and Christian music has now found itself in new age alternative performance venues and Top 40 rap hits. But has the inherent message of these genres changed?  Sure, women are more empowered in country music and things have evolved from Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” a song that says love him no matter what, to the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl,” a song about a plan to kill and dispose of an abusive husband, but the drawl and ubiquitous pining for love and easy living still remains true to the genre.  Christian music may have received a mainstream charge from artists like Creed, Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams and Kanye West, but it’s still all faith-based music that reflects a transparent message of worship. But what of hip hop music? The genre that emerged from basement parties in the Sedgwick Avenue apartment building of The Bronx, in New York City some 30 years ago, has ripened to a social, cultural and corporate phenomenon.  Much of the era’s music was not only a platform to boast of one’s lyrical skills, but also an area to squash beef between feuding urbanites through dance and artwork as well as a rhythmic laundry list of a community’s struggles and shortcomings. 

By the mid 80s, the art, dance, culture, language, fashion and swagger of hip hop began to pervade areas of the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Asia. As hip hop began to be embraced and developed outside of the U.S., hip hop was experiencing its own evolution within the States.  As tensions swelled in America’s cities, hip hop’s subject matter often times reflected the increasing ravages of urban poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, crime, street violence, and gang rivalries. The late 80s saw the emergence of East and West coast rivalries through gangsta rap. After the popularity of artists like the Los Angeles-based group N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) and albums like Dr. Dre's The Chronic in 1992, gangsta rap became the most commercially lucrative sub-genre of hip-hop. The subject matter inherent in gangsta rap caused a great deal of controversy and criticism from both right wing and left wing commentators, and religious leaders, with accusations of spreading homophobia, violence, profanity, promiscuity, misogyny, racism, and materialism. Gangsta rappers often defend themselves by claiming that they are describing the reality of inner-city life, and that they are only adopting a character, like an actor playing a role, that may not necessarily reflect a life that they promote.  Gone were the party anthems that promoted dance battles.  Gangsta rap ushered in a raw perspective on what was happening on America’s streets.   Spike Lee, in his satirical film Bamboozled, criticized the genre and compared it to black minstrel shows and blackface performances, in which performers – both black and white – were made up to look African American and acted in a stereotypically uncultured and ignorant manner for the entertainment of white audiences. Since then, former gangsta rap artists like Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Snoop Dog have promoted peace on the streets and have moved toward a more pop-friendly mainstream sound.

Just as rock, pop and soul experienced an evolution, hip hop continued to reflect the changing lives and audiences it spoke to through the 90s. While hip hop still talks of the griminess of the streets, those lyrics are countered by a manifesto of ‘the good life.’ For many of today’s rappers, gone are the days of public housing and public assistance.  They now pop (and bath in) Cristal champagne, wear iced out jewelry, drive fully-loaded sports utility vehicles, and spend evenings with multiple double-jointed Victoria Secret models that might have never given them the time of day prior to their riches. While hip hop music now appeals to a broader demographic, media critics argue that socially and politically conscious hip hop has long been disregarded by mainstream America in favor of more commercialized gangsta rap and bling bling culture.

Many artists who attempt to reflect what they believe to be the original elements of the culture are now considered to be alternative/underground hip hop artists.  Artists and groups like Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Dilated Peoples, Dead Prez, Blackalicious, and Jurassic 5 are working to champion the original elements of hip hop like lyrical excellence and try to emphasize messages of unity and activism instead of violence, material wealth, and misogyny.

As hip hop reigns as a global phenomenon, it is increasingly the language of youth.  Much of the Third World has adopted it as a means of resistance and expression. Recent documentaries like East of Havana have chronicled the use of rap and hip hop as a voice of oppressed peoples. In Cuba, hip hop was initially viewed with suspicion, not just by the government, but by many in the community as well. With raperos emulating U.S. rappers’ aggressive swagger and lyrics, hip hop was seen as just another American cultural invasion, bringing with it the violence and problems of the streets. Gradually, it became more accepted as raperos began to express their own reality and make use of traditional Cuban culture and even Fidel Castro has embraced rap as a suitable revolutionary art form. The change in both attitude towards hip hop and the move towards home grown expression was in part facilitated by the involvement of Nehanda Abiodun, a U.S. Black Liberation Army activist in political exile in Cuba. Upset with what she saw as blind imitation of commercial US rap culture with its depiction of thug life, violence, and misogyny, Abiodun began working with the Malcom X Grassroots Movement in the U.S. to bring progressive American hip hop artists to Cuba. “I don’t want to see Cuba go down the drain with consumerism and our hip-hop  community bought out by major labels, like it has in the U.S.,’ says Pablo Herrera, producer/DJ/keyboardist/ poet and primary force in Cuba’s rap scene. Herrera is working to promote Cuban rap acts like Obsession, solo artist Iraq Saenz, Grandes Ligas, Justicia, and female rap trio Instincto. Herrera says: “I want Cuba to be an important world voice for hip-hop, in the same way that Cuba now represents for progressive leftists, those who want a righteous, socially conscious, swarm life with real human development.”

For all its ins and outs, rap remains as a thread that ties the voice of youth throughout the world. “I want others to accept myself as a street guy who lives his own life, who has his own opinion and wants it to be expressed,” said Russian rapper Detsl.  “The more real I'll be in my songs the more problems of my generation I can express from the screen, the more honest I'll be for myself and for those who are listening to me.” Australia’s rap scene has been progressively distinguishing itself through its continual quest for identity in post-colonial and post-war Australia. The country boasts several documentaries like the controversial Skip Hop and The Mistry of Hip Hop, which explore the cultural movement and popularity of hip hop in Australia with its emerging scene of artists upholding the four pillars of hip hop’s roots of break dancing, DJ'ing, rapping and graffiti.

Rap’s international impact is celebrated in Africa and the Caribbean, where local acts have adapted hip hop's bravado to fit their daily realities. In the Caribbean, rap has infiltrated timba to calypso, even spawning a new style called "rapso" in Trinidad. Latin Caribbean has especially embraced the music, with rap en Espanol vying for the attention of thumping reggaeton (Spanish dancehall reggae) on the boxes and in the cars of youth in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

In Africa, significant rap scenes have emerged in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, in styles influenced by reggae and rumba of previous generations. Artists of Africa rap of the struggles in the tongue of local languages and the next great African rap icon could emerge from anywhere between Cape Town and Cairo.

Early '90s pioneers such as Senegalese immigrant MC Solaar and multi-ethnic Marseilles crew IAM, put France on the map as one of the first countries outside the U.S. to develop a home grown rap scene. With its grim suburban housing projects and volatile post-colonial ethnic mix, France’s urban neighborhoods spoke to hip hop’s original cry of social inequities. Other pioneers from Europe include the U.K’s. Money Love, Stereo MCs and Roots Manuva, but the scene quickly evolved according to its own rhythms, producing off shoots of micro-genres, from jungle to grime.

According to the U.S. Department of State, hip hop is “now the center of a mega music and fashion industry around the world that crosses social barriers and cuts across racial lines.” National Geographic recognizes hip hop as "the world's favorite youth culture" in which "just about every country on the planet seems to have developed its own local rap scene.”

Fab 5 Freddy, hip hop pioneer and host of Yo! MTV Raps in the 1980s, said hip hop is successful because the music is "infectious" and because it allows people to express themselves in a positive, dynamic and consciousness-raising way. “Hip-hop is for everybody with an open ear.” 

Hip hop and rap, as a language and genre, is fluid and evolutionary.  It moves from a purveyor of social message, to portrait of ghetto fabulous life to optimistic ramblings of a hopeful poet. As we continue to preserve and protect its roots and origin, we must continue to respect it, not as one entity that defines all who participate in it, but as a genre that has many movements, cultures, layers, and pages of history.

1st August 2007
The Evolution of Hip Hop
By Desi K. Robinson