For the November 2 premiere of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s hip-hop documentary “The South Got Something to Say,” which is available for streaming the next day, I wanted to reflect on the genre born 50 years ago in the Bronx.
Read more: 50 Years of Atlanta hip-hop
Hip-hop and I are about the same age, and I feel as if I should love the music because we grew up together. But my relationship with hip-hop is complicated. My appreciation for rap has waxed and waned over the years, much like friendships can if you’re not attentive enough to them.
I’m from Chicago, and the music that I most connected to as a teenager was “house music,” the repetitive dance beats that emerged from the Windy City in the 1980s and found its way to New York, London, Paris and beyond.
I thought the two styles couldn’t be more different, both technically and emotionally.
Deep house was all about heavy bass and soulful vocals. Rap, at least the form it took in the mid-1980s, had turned away from its disco-infused roots and party themes to brash lyrics melded with a more minimalist sound.
From my perspective at the time, house music brought all kinds of people together. It was always a dance party waiting to happen. Meanwhile, I viewed hip-hop — with its burgeoning diss tracks and coastal feuds, and sprinkling of homophobia and misogyny — as a genre that was slowly pulling us apart.
Still, I knew intellectually that rap music was also giving us important new voices, empowering young people to speak about the world around them and challenging the status quo.
When I took up residence on the East Coast during the late ‘80s and ‘90s, I became reacquainted with rap through “conscious hip-hop.” Those were the years when I came to appreciate the artistry in hip-hop — the skill it took to rhyme and tell a story, and the poetry and word play behind those rhythms.
Hip-hop and I were getting along just fine until one summer, when I returned home for a visit and discovered that one of our beloved house music clubs had a new theme. Its name had changed to The Rap Trap. That did it. In protest, I put rap music on the back burner.
But, as hip-hop’s profile grew, and the genre evolved, certain artists would slide through the hard line I had drawn. Some songs were so innovative that they demanded attention and devotion. Some songs were so honest and deep in their commentary that they came to define a generation.
Just as Marvin Gaye implored boomers to ask “What’s going on?” Gen X was “Fighting the Power” with Public Enemy. Later, Kendrick Lamar told millennials they were gon’ be “Alright.”
Hip-hop and I have been on a journey. Sometimes, I feel like there are so many songs that I don’t like or don’t understand. But isn’t that the way it always is with music?
What’s clear is this: There’s no denying the impact that hip-hop has had on music and culture. And there’s no denying the impact Atlanta has had on hip-hop.
So, I asked myself if I’ve been fair to this influential genre’s latest incarnations, which felt like they were all about swag instead of content.
If I’m not willing to take a chance on listening, I can’t fault hip-hop. That’s on me.
I asked my teenage daughter to recommend a few popular songs. I read along with the lyrics while I listened to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
Initially, I was appalled. Then I stopped focusing solely on the words and thought about the themes: love, hate, life, death, joy, pain. Pretty much the same themes as in every other type of music … including my beloved Chicago House music.
Though none of the songs my daughter recommended held much appeal for me, I found some on my own that did.
Hip-hop that reflects an artist’s passion for and knowledge of the world and its people offers a point of connection for me now just as it did in the ‘90s.
I discovered I can always find my way back to that old friend, if I look deep enough and stay ready to listen.
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