My Number One Policy is Quality / Never Sell My Soul is My Philosophy
Hip hop’s story began in the South Bronx as a form of artistic expression for African-American youths. Hip hop quickly became the black community’s means of expressing its displeasure with racism and oppression. For the youth, rap was a way to “fight the power” and make themselves heard. Although hip hop has changed tremendously over its forty-year history, the most significant elements—the ones that define a classic—remain the same. To meet the classic standard, an artist must be real, meaningful and irreplaceable. Classics paint a vivid picture of the world through their eyes; they throw so much emotion into their work that all people can, if they choose to listen, seek guidance and knowledge from them.
Whether it be praising a rapper’s authenticity or disputing it, authenticity, or “realness,” is arguably the most discussed topic in hip hop. In an art form focused on representing who you are and what you stand for, it is not surprising that so much significance is placed on genuineness. For the Gangster Disciples in Chicago, real is to fully live out the “ride or die” lifestyle, to follow in the gang culture of unending revenge with selfless courage in regards to your own life. In contrast, the biochemical engineer in the Silicon Valley, clocking fourteen-hour shifts in his laboratory, believes that real is utterly dedicating himself to his research. These variations in definition exemplify the fact that a person’s opinion on what defines real is a product of the world that that person lives in. Acquired knowledge and life experiences create one’s perception of what makes one real.
In hip hop culture, real applies to speaking the truth, but it more importantly applies to speaking the truth. In That’s The Joint!, Kembrew Mcleod expresses his disapproval with commercial artists who exploit hip hop with their use of catchy, repetitive phrases in order to make a “hit” (171). That being said, the realest emcee is not the one who drives a purple Rolls Royce, sports a thick gold and diamond encrusted chain, and repeats the same eight bar chorus about popping champagne bottles in the club sixteen times in his hit song. Not one bit. The realest emcee is the one with the highest respect, whose words hold the most weight. In “Classic (Nike Air Force Remix),” KRS-One points out that he wears no flashy jewels inasmuch as he “don’t need ‘em, he got [our] respect.” This quotation is not intended to condemn jewelry, for style is an important part of hip hop culture. On the contrary, it serves to epitomize that a rapper’s lyrics and personality, rather than what he wears, is what truly matters. The more you express your soul and what you believe in through your music, not what you imagine you are supposed to be or say, the realer you are.
Furthermore, KRS-One goes on to further separate himself from what he believes to be fake emcees, ones who focus on detrimental topics such as materialism and drugs, when he ends his “Classic (Nike Air Force Remix)” with the following bars:
Rappers spit rhymes that are mostly illegal
Emcees spit rhymes to uplift their people
Peace, Love, Unity, havin' fun
These are the lyrics of KRS-One.
Granted that “emcee” and “rapper” have become virtually interchangeable overtime, KRS presents a very accurate representation of what it means to be a classic emcee; you cannot just go on the microphone and rap about anything, KRS recognizes the powerful influence rap has over the younger generation and ergo works to be a positive role model and a catalyst for deeper thinking and social change.
Truth was never more prevalent in rap than during the prime of the “gangsta rap” era, from the mid-1980s to the early-1990s. “Gangsta rap” is between quotation marks here because the media has made this a very loose term, grouping virtually any rapper who speaks of street life as a gangsta rapper. In Hip Hop America, George Nelson defines gangsta rap as N.W.A., Eazy-E’s solo albums, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle (46). With their “celebration of gatts, hoes, gleeful nihilism, and crack as the center of the universe,” these albums typify what the majority of America, who did not understand this rap craze, feared in the music (Nelson 47). These artists meet the classic standard in that, if you can look past the debatable glorification of aspects of street life such as pimps and crack selling, you get an authentic and expressive depiction of what young black males were feeling at the time, specifically in South Central Los Angeles.
LAPD officers immediately pegged black youths as a threat, a group of hoodlums up to no good. Needless to say, this stereotype garnered a feeling of contempt towards the police in the youths’ minds. In NWA’s controversial song “Fuck The Police,” Ice Cube describes a microcosm of this heated relationship: “Searching my car, looking for the product / Thinking every nigga is selling narcotics.” In Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Patricia Rose describes “Fuck The Police” as the story of a young man who, reasonably, “loses his temper over brutal police sweeps based on appearance, not actions, like the ones frequently performed by the LAPD” (129). Through songs like “Fuck The Police,” for millions of youths in this hard area, Ice Cube served as their voice, a way to tell their story of unjust treatment to the world as a whole. As mentioned earlier, classics allow the listener to see the world through their eyes—to empathize with their story, no matter how different their life situation may be.
“Political and social conditions must not, cannot, and will not circumscribe the vision of true artists” (Nelson 48). Hence, a Classic emcee pushes the boundaries and portrays life as accurately as they know how, both the positive and negative aspects alike. Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby”is a tale about a twelve year-old girl who lives in a ghetto, has a baby, and is left with the unthinkable task of dealing with the entire situation on her own. Listening to this song, you are taken on a journey through Brenda’s life and all the tribulations she faces, forcing her to grow up way too fast and face heartbreaking decisions that no one, especially a child, should encounter. Like Ice Cube, Tupac opens the eyes of millions of people who would never otherwise stop and think of the hardships of life in the ghetto. In The Real Hiphop: Battling for Knowledge, Power, and Respect in the LA Underground, Marcyliena Morgan often refers to hip hop as the “unauthorized biography” of the urban core, the side of society that often gets brushed aside by the majority of people in lieu of cheerier thoughts. Classic emcees have the ability to prevent this from happening, they utilize their vocal prowess to truly make a difference and stand up for those without a voice.
For classic emcees, hip hop is not just a tool to have fun and mess around, it is a way to release their innermost emotions and thoughts, the things they believe everyone must hear. To focus on the meaningful aspect of a classic emcee further, it would be effective to look at this subject on a more specific level, through Tupac Shakur. When listening to Tupac, he often sounds as though he frantically needs to release his opinions and feelings this instant, as if they are eating away at his very character. Tupac, who appropriately coined himself “the rose that grew from concrete,” was able to escape his neighborhood in California through the success of his musical career. However, where fame causes some people to forget where they came from and simply embrace their newfound luxuries, Tupac just viewed fame as a bigger audience for his message. In “Changes,” Tupac raps: “I ain't never did a crime I ain't have to do / But now I'm back with the facts giving it back to you.” He did not steal food for the thrill; he stole because he was hungry and had no other options. Through these lines, and moreover through his song-base as a whole, Tupac lets the struggling youth know that he was once just like them, but he rose out of that dark place of theft and violence. Tupac gives back to his community through his words of encouragement. He confirms that there is certainly a brighter day if you heed his warnings and avoid the temptations and dangers of the street life as best possible. In “Smile for Me Now,” Tupac speaks on the power of the word when he hearteningly says, “embrace my words, make the world change” (That’s the Joint!, 559). If their teachings are followed, classic have the ability to create positive, widespread changes, on both an individual and a community-wide level.
In “The World is Yours,” Nas proclaims that his musical focus is to “bust the problems of the world today.” As with all classic emcees, Nas did not become an emcee for the money or the fame; he did it for the audience—a medium to extend his knowledge. Talib Kweli once described hip hop as a “vehicle.” If hip hop is a vehicle, then its fuel is the classic emcees: the ones with the fervor and ability to shed light on, and consequently “bust,” the prevalent issues of modern society. Classics are irreplaceable, even immortal, in that they teach the younger generation of rappers through their music. Tupac looked up to Chuck D: Nas looked up to Tupac: Kendrick looked up to Nas. Given hip hop’s fuel will live forever through its lyrics, we have years of uplifting music that everyone can learn from, if they are willing to appreciate the ardor of the rapper and the significance of his or her message, to look forward to. Finally, Classics are forever etched in the memory of all hip hop fans, young and old, as the ones who mastered conscious rap; the ones who embolden you to stand up for what you believe in and transcend the obstacles put in front of you.
Forman, Murray, and Mark Anthony Neal, eds. That's the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.
George, Nelson. Hip Hop America. New York: Penguin, 2005
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Music/culture. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, ©1994.
Morgan, Marcyliena H. The Real Hiphop: Battling for Knowledge, Power, and Respect in the La Underground. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.