Nothing wrong with a little hip-hop nostalgia

Boston Globe, July 25, 2007

Summer is the season of nostalgia and reunion tours, and hip-hop is no exception to this pop music rule. Though hip-hop finds the bulk of its audience in the under-30 crowd, the genre has now been around for longer than many of its listeners have been alive; there’s no shortage of history to tap into and influential acts to revive. Not only that, but considering that most hip-hop stars broke out while barely out of their teens, not even the pioneers are over the hill: Hip-hop may be in a state of flux and self-questioning – of which more in a moment – but it’s nowhere near fossilized.

In recent years, a festival called Rock the Bells, started in 2003 by a Southern California rap aficionado named Chang Weisberg, has asserted itself as the premier hip-hop summer tour, its increasingly lavish lineup assembling old-guard heavies with new underground favorites and, as the event has gone national, regional stars in some of the host cities. This year’s edition kicks off tomorrow at the Tweeter Center, with Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan – the two 1990s acts that anchor the national tour – topping the bill. The fullest lineup gathers at tour stops in New York and California. Listeners there will be able to catch such 1980s legends as Public Enemy, Rakim, and EPMD.

The festival’s name alone makes a strong claim to hip-hop lineage. “Rock the Bells” was a hit from the 1985 debut album “Radio” by LL Cool J, one of the few MCs of that era to have survived commercially to this day, in part through savvy diversification into crossover pop and R&B, as well as an acting career. He doesn’t appear on this tour, but the title he coined conveys well what many longtime hip-hop heads will be looking for in these shows – the special energy made up of bluster and funkiness that turned hip-hop from a New York local fashion to the richest language of youth expression and social comment in the Reagan era nationwide.

Plainly, a lot has changed since then. Hip-hop today is going through a transition that many critics, including even some of the performers, consider a possibly terminal decline. Mixing sarcasm and provocation, Nas – a prolific and talented MC, but one who never quite equaled the brilliance of his 1994 debut “Illmatic” – titled his latest album “Hip Hop Is Dead.”

Record sales partly corroborate the doomsaying. According to Nielsen SoundScan, hip-hop sales dropped 33 percent last year, twice the overall rate of decline in the crisis-struck record industry. Heavy metal now outsells rap.

A certain creative stagnation has set in as well. Themes of misogyny and materialism are now standard within hip-hop. Perhaps more worrisome is that refreshing new Southern styles, such as Atlanta’s crunk or Houston’s chopped-and-screwed, have run out of steam almost as quickly as they appeared on the national stage.

Taking a longer view, it’s normal for an artistic form to ebb and flow. Arguably, the period four or five years ago, just before the rise of the Southern styles, was even more sterile than that of today. And general statements about hip-hop 30 years into its history are of limited use: They are akin to making reductive claims about rock in the mid-1980s, the equivalent time in its development, as if sub-genres like new wave, hardcore, and soft-rock could be considered a whole and not distinct artistic traditions in their own right.

But hip-hop has always been considered by a separate standard, partly as a result of its own claims – such as when Chuck D, the leader of Public Enemy, called rap the CNN of black America. Whenever the state of hip-hop is discussed, underlying questions about African-American culture are never far away. And both supporters and critics of hip-hop have a habit of searching current hits for symptoms of social pathologies affecting young black men.

In fact, a whole range of social issues are now all too easily recast as being hip-hop’s problem to solve. The Don Imus incident in April, when the shock jock was fired for making derogatory remarks about Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team, is a glaring example. The controversy was quickly framed as an example of hip-hop’s corrosive influence – including by black cultural gatekeepers like the Rev. Al Sharpton – even though there was no direct connection between the incident and the music.

The problem is that so long as hip-hop’s creative energies are flagging, it will get redefined by these debates – fairly or not. Hip-hop’s renewal is in the hands of artists and audiences, and marquee tours like Rock the Bells give ammunition to both optimistic and pessimistic views of the genre’s prospects.

In addition to the headliners, tomorrow’s show features Cypress Hill, an early-1990s act whose lyrical emphasis on marijuana quickly turned into self-caricature; David Banner, a Mississippi rapper with a Jekyll-and-Hyde combination of lyricism and vulgarity, who never quite seemed to achieve his potential; and Talib Kweli, the brainy MC whose best work remains the 1998 album with Mos Def under the name Black Star.

On the other hand, as nostalgia shows go, Rock the Bells offers as solid a lineup as you’ll find in pop music this summer, and by featuring artists who have been somewhat out of the limelight, the festival can be seen as an act of reinvestment in hip-hop by its true believers. And the inclusion, in New York and California, of the (temporarily) reunited militant rock band Rage Against the Machine confirms that it isn’t just hip-hop, but pop culture in general, that is finding more political and social punch in the past than in today’s musical offerings. It may feel like nostalgia to some listeners, but to others Rock the Bells is nothing less than consciousness raising.