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Hip-Hop Elitism: Why Soulja Boy is More Hip Hop Than You
(This originally appeared on Chinaka Hodge’s blog Thickwitness.)
A few months ago my group iLL-Literacy performed at the Trinity International Hip Hop Festival in Hartford, CT. Although many of the folks we met during the festival were really dope, down to earth people, there was also a frighteningly large presence of people that you'd expect to see at something called an "international hip hop festival." You know, the knit caps, the worn-out hoodies, and the noses staunchly pointed upward at anything that doesn't fit into the mold of hump-Atmosphere-on-the-leg real hip-hop. As a result, we found ourselves dodging Hiero vs. Pharcyde debates and roaming through venues that spun A Tribe Called Quest and EPMD songs all day long, just to retreat to our hotel room, crack open some forties and unapologetically pump Lil Wayne into the weezy hours of the morning.
However, it wasn't until we sat down for our interview that people started looking at us like the ugly ducklings of the day. It was at this moment that we were asked the fateful question that must be asked at all such hip-hop events: "How do you feel about how mainstream rappers like Soulja Boy are tarnishing real hip-hop?" Our response might or might not have been something that could be chiseled down to "Soulja Boy is real hip-hop, son!" Whatever it was that we actually said, we left many a jaw gaped open and I'm sure that rappers from at least three countries have it somewhere in their heads to email us a diss track soon. Regardless, as someone who once regularly wore a headwrap and memorized The Roots' Things Fall Apart, I'd like to state my case for all the Soulja Boys out there:
There's something so incredibly perverse about 30-year-old white suburbans assuming the role of Hip-Hop Fairy, dashing their microphone-shaped wands at black youth and delineating that they're not speaking from the voice of real hip-hop. Can one of you hip-hop purists please tell me, how many Sage Francis albums do you have to memorize before you get to reach "hip-hop enlightenment" and start seeing the real/fake hip-hop binary like Neo? As you stand outside your local divebar's open mic nite and declare with angst that you're going to "take things back to hip-hop's foundation," I'd like to point out that when the Get Fresh Crew first started cyphering in the Bronx, the last thing they were thinking about was your leprechaun ass. If hip-hop is dying, it's more than likely that your 1993-jocking emo rap is only making its death more annoyingly painful.
Anyway, back to Soulja Boy. Yes, his rhyme scheme is basic. And yes, the implications of "Crank That" are pretty vulgar--as were the "I'm gonna rip off your epidermis and feed it to your mother" battle rhymes of underground legends like Canibus, Jedi Mind Tricks, and early Eminem. But just not liking someone or not thinking someone is skilled or constructive isn't really a basis to decide that it's not real. In fact, basing validity on skill is pretty elitist of you, and despite what you might claim on Track 3 on your demo, you did not bust out of your mom's womb ripping mics. Like all other art forms, hip-hop should be allowed the freedom and versatility to include the good (Dilla, some would argue), the bad (Soulja Boy, some would argue), and the ugly (Jermaine Dupri, everyone agrees).
Next, have you forgotten that Soulja Boy is probably younger than your grimy ass Walk This Way t-shirt? The guy is 17 and is probably doing more artistically at his age than you were, working at the mall serving Icees in the name of hip-hop. To judge the validity of any artist based on their first record, not to mention first single, ignores the growth and depth that are instrumental in the foundation of hall-of-famers like Tupac, OutKast, and Jay-Z. Now I'm definitely not saying that souljaboytellem.com (yes that's the album name) is equivalent to Reasonable Doubt, but when it comes to "upliftment" one has to question if gaining momentum through a raunchy online video is really that much more detrimental to society than moving to Virginia to sell enough crack to start a record label. And lets not forget about Mr. Weezy F. Baby b.k.a. Lil Wayne, who many continue to dismiss based on their perception of him as the teenaged King of Bling. Ten years later, while the purists have had their heads up the Grouch's ass all this time, Weezy has put New Orleans back on the music map, been featured on your favorite rapper's latest album, and is blueballing the world with the most highly anticipated music album of the day. Lick on that lollipop, suckers.
So when it comes to understanding what real hip-hop encompasses, it's inescapable to consider the foundation of it being about turning nothing into something. In the way that cats in the late 70s took their parents' records, wrote rhymes over them, and turned that concept into a worldwide phenomenon. Or in the way that NWA understood that the media virtually ignored life in the ghetto, and used rap to bring their point of view into popular consciousness. And yes, even in the way that a 17-year-old from Mississippi posted a YouTube video one day, gained enough momentum to independently release a record, and ended up topping the Billboard charts and getting a Grammy nomination. Ultimately, Soulja Boy did exactly what you've been trying to do in your mom's basement since you were 14. Don't get your cargo shorts in a bunch just because you've been competing at Scribble Jam for the past three years and still don't have any Myspace friends.
Speaking of foundation, the state of hip-hop is best demonstrated by what urban youth of color find relevant, not what backpackers from Walnut Creek are nodding their beanie hats to. For better or worse, Soulja Boy is globally appearing on kids' iPods more frequently than, say, Brother Ali. Regardless of what you think of Soulja Boy's message, it speaks to the youth that hip-hop has sought to speak to since it was first born. If the youth are in a position where the songs that they can relate to depict "supersoaking hos," there's a much larger issue at hand than just the song or the artist that composed it. If you feel like Soulja Boy isn't real hip-hop because of his graphic and negative songs, find a way to educate the kid or at least the kids that are bumping his shit. But plugging your ears and saying "Well that's not real hip-hop"...that would be like living in a neighborhood and seeing some kids from down the block stealing an old lady's purse and being like "Oh that's not very positive...those must not be real neighbors." Simply pushing it all outside of your consciousness, deeming it irrelevant, or disowning it from your utopian and fluffy concept of reality won't solve anything. Instead, it will continue to alienate the voices and preferences of oppressed youth, and toss hip-hop into the cesspool of musical genres that have become dominated by flannel-wearing goose hunters from Providence.
We have found ourselves in a Twilight Zone of a situation in which hip-hop--a music form whose history has been paved with the struggle of being validated as "real music"--is now experiencing a micro version of its own peril, in the form of the internal strife over which part of itself can be validated as "real hip-hop." Hip-hop is deeply rooted in opposing the elitism that barred it from shelves in record stores, stages in music halls, and definitely the uppity approval of music intellectuals. In fact, in this whole scheme of things, it seems that the only thing that is truly, defiantly not hip-hop, is to claim to have the phantom certification to say what is and isn't.
We can only wait and see what happens with Soulja Boy, Hurricane Chris, Shawty-Lo, and all the other rappers du jour. Maybe like most others, they'll fade away after the first couple of singles. Or maybe they're reinvent themselves like the gun-toting diamond-studded pre-Food & Liquor Lupe Fiasco did. Regardless, it's evident that whether or not you like these rappers there something to be said about the fact that a large portion of our youth gravitate towards them as the the spokespeople of their generation.
So the next time you hear music from someone, particularly a young person of color who is obviously rapping, and who has obviously captured the attention of urban youth--and still somehow find in yourself the audacity to preside over why it is or isn't hip-hop, as yourself: "Am I exhibiting the elitist attitude that has been the primary plague of hip-hop culture and its participants for all these decades?" The answer is most likely: "Yahh, trick, yahh!"
Adriel Luis is a Bay Area native and a lover of all things weird. In 2002 he founded iLL-Literacy, a four-person spoken word collective that has since toured worldwide and received high acclaim in the spoken word, music, and theater scenes alike. In 2005 the video for his poem "Slip of the Tongue" received an EMMY Award and was featured in over 75 film festivals throughout the world. His new music project, Pretty Buoyant Society, is set to debut in the summer of 2008. He also blogs at Adrizzle.