I was raised on rap music. Being born black in the 1970s in a major American city, it was unavoidable. Where there was a turntable or cassette deck, we blasted rap music — and at maximum decibels. Rap spoke to us in a way we had never been spoken to before. It was the truth. It was the musical expression of our collective cultural experience and we loved it because it felt so authentic. I now realize that back then, when the needle dropped on the latest record from the Sugar Hill Gang or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, I was witnessing the birth of a new American art form. It pains me to say that when I watched Kanye West on “Saturday Night Live” this past weekend, I was witnessing the death of that art form as I knew it — murdered by the gloved hands of its favorite son screaming into a ridiculous lipstick-red microphone.
If you aren’t familiar with rap music, let me break down the elements for you: there’s the beat and the rhymes, that’s it. With the exception of live bands like The Roots, the beat is provided in one of two ways. Originally, it was by a highly-skilled DJ who would use two turntables and a mixer to repeat the best bits of a song over and over again like Jam Master Jay did with “Walk This Way.” A beat can also come from a producer who creates it in a studio with drum machines, samplers, keyboards, etc. The rhymes only come one way and that’s from the rapper. The best ones are lyrical artists with true rhyme skills and a message to deliver. When done right, the DJ/producer/rap artist combination can lead to classics comparable to the greats of any genre (like Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “T.R.O.Y.”) and when done wrong, you get the hot messes Kanye gave us last Saturday.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m feeling “Love Lockdown” and “Heartless” when they’re playing in my car or on my iPod. But the true test of the quality of a piece of music is when it is performed for an audience. A real rap artist never fails that test precisely because the elements of this art form are so simple. Kanye failed miserably because the elements of his performance have become so complicated. In his personal style, his use of video, his insistence on singing when he knows he can’t, and his reliance on the maddening Auto-Tune software and vocoder (the robot voice), he has embraced the avant-garde in so many areas that the music has almost become an afterthought. He can no longer walk on a stage, pick up a mic, and move a crowd (assuming he ever could) and that tells me that the biggest name in rap music has either forgotten or forsaken the art form that made him who he is — and would rather be a pop artist than a rap artist.
Kanye killed the music of my life and I’d like to thank him for it. Rap music has been dying for a long time and I’m glad he finally put it out of its misery. Because now that rap is dead I can do something I never thought I’d do and that’s warn parents about the dangers of exposing their kids to it. One of the drawbacks of rap’s popularity is that record companies have mastered the art of the catchy chorus or “hook” and too many of those hooks aren’t exactly good for children to hear. For example, I know of a teenage scion of a famous family who couldn’t stop singing the chorus of T-Pain’s “Buy You A Drank” while her mom was in rehab for alcohol. And it starts much younger than that. A friend’s 4-year-old can already recite the lyrics to Flo-rida’s “Low,” and I’m sure a song about gluteal gymnastics isn’t exactly the kind of thing her parents want her repeating around the schoolyard at Roosevelt Elementary.
Hip-hop as a culture will endure, but rap music as an art form is in need of a renaissance. Like me, millions of young people have grown up with rap as the soundtrack of their lives. Any true fan who doesn’t should own “By All Means Necessary” by BDP, “Paid In Full” by Eric B. & Rakim, “It Takes A Nation Of Millions …” by Public Enemy, “Stakes Is High” by De La Soul, “Do You Want More” by The Roots, and “The Low End Theory” by A Tribe Called Quest so they can get to know great rap music. Because when an art form becomes pop art, it loses its authenticity. In that case, the only thing you can do is return to the classics. Some of us have never left.
Kenny Mack is a writer, comedian, and social commentator living in Santa Monica who is shopping his book, “Word In Edgewise: The Collected Opinions of America’s Smartest Columnist” to forward-thinking publishers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org