Why Hip-Hop Died

Personally, I just think rap music is the best thing out there, period. If you look at my deck in my car radio, you’re always going to find a hip-hop tape; that’s all I buy, that’s all I live, that’s all I listen to, that’s all I love. At the beginning of this decade, it was easy to see the masses agreeing with this statement from Eminem, as the sales charts definitely pointed to rap being, if not the best, at least the biggest thing out there.

Just six years after Em was moved a staggering 7.5 million units in less than 12 months, hip-hop has gone from one of the most powerful cultural forces in the country to a mere footnote of music. Sure, pop culture goes in waves, but the death of hip-hop came more like a heart attack than a debilitating disease.

Consider the numbers. In 2005, four of the top ten selling albums were hip-hop projects (50 Cent, Kanye West, Black Eyed Peas, The Game). Just a year later, only two rap albums appeared in Billboard’s 40 highest selling albums of 2006. In 2007, hip-hop album sales dropped by 33% again, even though heavy hitters like Jay-Z, Nas, Didddy, Ludacris, and Snoop Dog all released albums (only Jay-Z and Ludacris managed to move more than one million albums).

And it’s not just a numbers game. While individual hip-hop songs and ringtones may sell well with the tween demographic, it’s pretty clear that twentysomethings in particular have lost interest in the genre.  In an age when music fans are updated every day via twitter on the every move of their favorite artists, the credibility of modern hip hop artists is almost non-existent. There has been quite a bit of discussion about whether or not reigning rap king 50 Cent even writes his own songs (he probably doesn’t), and consumers are increasingly seeing rap songs as less about art and more centered around selling products (again, this is at least partially Fifty’s fault who’s currently schlepping grape flavored water on TV commercials).

Finally, both those inside and outside the Christian faith are just plain sick of the cursing, violence, negativity, and the degrading way that hip-hop artists objectify women. It seems that the only way that a song can make it in this Clear Channel dominated radio world is to lace a song with sex, sex, and more sex and artists are buying into this formula just to stay on the FM dial. (See the latest single from Gym Class Heroes, who traded in the authentic indie hip-hop sound and modeled themselves after, well, every other terrible radio hip-hop act that sounds somewhat like T-Pain).

At the end of the day, many music fans will say good riddance, and head to the local independent record store to try and get a buck or two out of the Tupac and Will Smith CDs left over from their jr. high days. But it’s worth noting that hip-hop, alongside jazz, is a completely original American creation.  As an agent of change, it’s probably opened the eyes of more white kids to the struggles of the urban poor than any single book, magazine article, or classroom lecture could ever hope to achieve. If you were born any time after 1980, then hip-hop has been a part of your culture, of your life experience, even if you’ve never considered yourself a fan.

If hip-hop is ever going to really matter again, its going to take some fresh thinking.

As a fan, my hopes lie with a handful of artists. The first is Manchild (of Mars Ill/Deepspace 5), a Christian MC whose fanbase lies more in the secular market than with the Family Christian Stores set. Earlier this year, Manchild launced www.manchildtheinsider.com, a take off of the Radiohead model of music distribution, which allows fans to subscribe to the site, and get 5 new songs every month for a $5 price tag.

The unlikely hero of this story is rap superstar Master P, who built his financial empire on No Limit Records, a label that churned out a stream of gansta images and sounds. Now P has undergone a change of heart, and plans to re-launch into the hip-hop world alongside his son Romeo with Take A Stand Records, a fresh outing dedicated to clean, positive music.

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Finally, big-name artists who still carry some artistic credibility like Jay-Z, Nas, Kanye West, and The Game have the opportunity to get back to the basics that made hip-hop great. Rap pioneer KRS-1 explains “The music is garbage. What has happened over the past few years is that we have traded art for money, simple and plain, and the public is not stupid.” If these rap leaders will get back to the basics, the clever sing along hooks (note, “sing along hooks” does not refer to can I buay youu a draaank), and the compelling storytelling. If they can leave the words “ho” and “gun” and worse) in the past and once again spin tales of life, struggles, and rising up, as the genre once did as the voice of the oppressed, then there may still be hope for hip-hop.

Personally, I’m putting my money on Kanye, whose creative brilliance has not yet reached its peak, and whose lines tend to be much more transparent and honest that what’s normally found in hip-hop. He seems poised to blow the doors off with his 4th LP (Paste Magazine, comparing West to Michael Jackson, commented “if this Graduation is Off the Wall, then West’s next album is Thriller“).

But even if all this happens, if hip hop cleans up, gets creative, becomes relatable again, and produces the best albums we’ve heard in years unclear as to whether or not this current generation will even take the time to listen.

Hip-hop may not be dead quite yet. But whether or not it can be saved remains to be see

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