The Evolution of Hip-Hop Messages

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Hip-hop has changed.  McShan talked about how it started back in the day in his 1987 cut, “The Bridge” when he said, “Hip hop was set out in the dark.  They used to do it out in the park.”  Hip hop origins were exactly that – a bunch of guys rapping on their block in New York (West Bronx, Queensbridge, etc. – the exact location has been the subject of much debate back in the 80s.  There are more than enough dis songs out there to prove it!).  They would get the attention of people in the area and soon one rapper would call out an other rapper to battle.  They battled in the park on the benches and just freestyled.  That’s what rap was.  Freestyling.  Rhyming.  Spitting (but they didn’t call it them yet).  And getting props.

In the 70s, rap was about, well, nothing really.  Listen to the lyrics on the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight and you’ll see what I mean.  “Have you ever went over a friend’s house to eat and the food just ain’t no good?  The macaroni’s soggy, the peas are mushed, and the chicken tastes like wood.”  Really?  Yes!  Everyone had been in a situation like that and rapped that part of the song like it was testimony.  Or Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks”, with his ‘ you win some, you lose some’ message.  These songs were casual, cavalier, and about life’s ups and downs without negativity or judgment.

The 80s changed things.

People stated talking about their skills and how awesome they were.  Pumping themselves up was like a mantra for 80s music.  As battling became mor prevalent, so did the notion of promoting yourself and denigrating the other person.  Seven the tracks that were played on the radio followed a similar vibe.  Think of L.L. Cool J.’s “I’m Bad”, Boogie Down Productions’ “The Bridge is Over”, and almost anything that Big Daddy Kane made.  Sometimes the entire cut was about how good the rapper thought they were.  There would be battle songs released where beefs would play out over the airwaves.  Roxanne Shante and the Real Roxanne’s back and forth was nothing more than a personal pump up for both of them with a little bit of a dis to some random guys dispersed here and there.

Some artists used their platform to discuss political topics and urge enlightenment.  KRS-1 interspersed denigrating lyrics to other crews in with uplifting, Afro-centric messages.  Queen Latifah, dressed in African inspired garb often gave an inspiring message.  Other acts, most notably Public Enemy, infused social activism with music, speaking about the frustrations of the African American community and putting it on vinyl for the world to hear.  Almost everyone can recite a lyric from one of P.E.’s songs.  “Now, I dialed 911 a long time ago…”

Public Enemy in 1987

Public Enemy in 1987. Left to right: Professor Griff, Chuck D, Terminator X and Flavor Flav.
Photo Credit: David Corio/Redferns

When the 90s came the message changed.  The tone of ‘I’m great and you’re not’ persisted but the attacks got rougher, the language became overt, and people were getting outright mad on their records.  Talking about going out on a date with a woman was replaced by what positions she’d be thrown into over the course of the night.  Having mic skills was related to having equal skills selling drugs or handling problems with someone who had to be dealt with.  Not all of the songs were like this – there were some shining lights like, Tupak’s “Dear Mama”, but the 890s started the trend of gangstar rap and gave us tunes from AMG and NWA that I can’t even take lyrics from as an example.  Still, some were smooth with their game.  Biggie’s “Big Poppa” was testament to that, “… conversate for a few, cuz in a few, we gon’ do what we came to do, and that right, boo? (true)”.