by Anthony Lozano
Music has long been a force of social change. During the Vietnam War Era, songs such as “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield incited people to protest and move against the status quo of their time (Fo). The style of music may have changed, but the idea of a message moving through music never did. The birth of hip-hop brought with it new ways to speak out against the oppression that had existed, especially within poor ghetto communities. Hip-hop helped promote the idea of the “Thug Life” along with the idea of a gangsta. Though music did not create these personas, it did help spread them to the rest of the world. Robin Kelley explains, “a good deal of gangsta rap is… a window into, and critique of, the criminalization of black youth” (Keeley 118). Hip-hop music allows not only the artist, but also the consumer to incite change in their world. Artists such as Afrika Bambaataa, Tupac Shakur, and Nas helped guide hip-hop from the ghettos into the minds of millions, where it could create the most change.
Many credit Afrika Bambaataa, or simply Bam, as one of the grandfathers of hip-hop. Bam grew up in low-income housing in the Bronx area. Seven teenagers formed the gang the Savage Seven, which would later be renamed the “Black Spades” (Hager 15). Bam quickly became a leader in this gang, in which, “he commanded the respect of his peers with intelligence, a sharp tongue, and a bold vision of what his black and Hispanic brothers and sisters could accomplish of they worked toward a common cause” (Fernando 15). In an interview, Bambaataa spoke about the positive influences the Black Spades created: “The Black Spades was also helping out in the community, raising money for sickle-cell anemia and gettin’ people to register to vote” (Hager 17).
Bambaataa soon realized that he had the ability to create real social change if only the power. When police officers killed his closest friend in a gang war, Bam realized it was time to leave the Black Spades and turn toward changing his community without violence. With this, he formed the Universal Zulu Nation (UZN) (Bluher 78). The UZN was a group of rap artists and followers that formed under one common thread; they all wanted to increase social and political awareness in anyone who cared to listen. The UZN not only followed a moral code, but also did so while forming strong religious ties. In order to include all, it accepted both the Bible and Quran as holy doctrine. Even though it accepted an Abrahamic god, it did not necessarily accept Jesus as the son of God. Instead, it splintered and formed strong ties with the Nation of Islam, a fact that can still be seen in the UZN’s doctrine today (Lewis 53). With a strong foundation and Bam’s charisma, he was soon able to bring other emerging hip-hop artists into the UZN under the “Native Tongues collective,” a group which originally consisted of “De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, and the Jungle Brothers” (Hess 73).
With the progress of hip-hop, the focus of the music changed. Instead of simply laying down beats for people to dance to, hip-hop was being used to tell a narrative. Slick Rick took advantage of this and emerged as “hip-hop’s greatest lyricist and storyteller” (Gibbons). In 1988, Slick Rick showed his strength on the song “La Di Da Di” along with Doug E. Fresh performing as a human beat box. Slick Rick had the ability to tell an entire story without ever breaking the beat. His next single “Children’s Story” proved just that (Wehmeyer-Shaw). In “Children’s Story,” Slick Rick tells a story of a child who followed his friend’s lead down the wrong path only to have an altercation with the police. He was trying to show the youth how much influence they had on their peers. Even though he tried to “put a higher significance in values other than ruthless ambition and personal wealth”, few listened to his message (DiGiandomenico 42).
Hip-hop evolved as artists stopped using their life stories, but instead created personas based upon their experiences. These personas were deeply powerful. They allowed the artist to tell stories that they did not necessarily have to have experience personally. 2Pac was one such persona created by Tupac Shakur:
“2Pac’s lyrics tell stories that Tupac Shakur did not live out. Yet those stories are built from personal experiences of the performer; 2Pac’s fictional stories were so tied to Tupac Shakur’s life that the lyrics often seemed to precede, or even predict, events in his life, including his own murder” (Hess 69).
Even though Tupac did not necessarily do everything 2Pac talked about, it didn’t mean that he had an easy life. Tupac Shakur was born into a torn home. His mother was a member of “Panther 21”, a group accused of attempting to blow up department stores in New York. His stepfather was a member of the FBI’s “Most Wanted List” and left the family to attempt to evade capture. Tupac followed his parent’s example and was soon involved in his own altercations with the police (Quinn 175).
Tupac released his first album, 2Pacalypse Now, with relatively little success. He rapped about what he saw everyday in the poorest areas of East Bay, California. His songs talked about everything from selling drugs, fighting cops, and told the story of a woman “Brenda” deserting her baby in a dumpster (Smith 298). This album helped form his gangsta image and make a name for himself. Ironically, the biggest push towards this “Thug Life” persona came after Vice President Dan Quayle ostracized him. A Texas teen murdered a state trooper and claimed that 2Pacalypse Now had encouraged him to do so. The then Vice President “proclaimed that Tupac had ‘no place in our society’” and requested that all of his albums be removed from public sale. Instead, sales skyrocketed with this new found publicity (Quinn 176).
Tupac was influential because he seemed to live out what his alter ego 2Pac rapped about. At this time, other rappers created personas, but rarely experienced half of what their raps claimed. Instead, Tupac seemed to parallel 2Pac’s lifestyle with his own. Me against the World, his third album, was released shortly after “he had been robbed and shot”, a time when “Tupac was incarcerated [and] serving time for sexual assault” (Quinn 177). This helped verify himself as a gangsta, which in turn helped promote his album and push Me against the World to “No. 1 on Billboard’s pop and R&B charts” (Smith 303).
Tupac died in the same blaze of glory in which he lived his life. On September 6, 1996, he was shot in Las Vegas while riding in a car with Suge Knight, his manager. This was at the time that “Tupac’s badman-gangsta aura was at its peak” (Quinn 178). At the same time of his murder, he has just completed his final album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. Instead of restricting sale, Suge Knight decided to release it two months after Tupac’s death. His final album finally brought 2Pac and Tupac into one person.
In his final album, Tupac had renamed himself Makaveli after reading wrings from the great thinker Machiavelli. We see Tupac hanging on a cross with seven gunshot wounds, an image that would prove eerie after his death (Smith 304). Tupac used this album to try to create an intellectual change in its listeners. From his play on the words “Illuminati” and his clear allusion to religious numerology, it was arguably Tupac’s deepest album. Songs such as “Hail Mary” allowed the listener to see inside the mind of someone deeply troubled by the pain experienced in the ghetto.
“Rest me please Father,
I'm a ghost in these killin’ fields,
Hail Mary catch me if I go,
Let's go deep inside the solitary mind of a mad man” (Shakur, Hail Mary)
Though Tupac incited many incidents of violence and laid the deep foundations for the gangsta, he was also a thinker”. Even when many older black people ignored most of the gangsta rap of his time, Tupac spoke to them. He spoke of the hardships of being a single black mother in songs such as “Dear Mama” (Quinn 178)
“I finally understand for a woman it ain’t easy tryna raise a man
You always was committed
A poor single mother on welfare
Tell me how ya did it” (Shakur, Dear Mama)
Even beyond simply acknowledging the poverty experienced by some, Tupac tried to investigate “instabilities in the signification of charged words and images”. Tupac’s tattoos developed new meanings; phrases such as “‘Thug Life’ became ‘The Hate U gave Little Infants – Fuck Everybody’; ’50 Niggaz’ meant ‘Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished’” (Quinn 178). He provoked people to stand against everything they knew, “he called blacks and whites alike on their complicity in a despicable system” (Smith 305). He never tried to be something he wasn’t. Instead, he simply tried to show others the life he already knew well.
A rival artist, Nasir “Nasty Nas” Jones, helped fill the gap that Tupac left with his death. Nas was an East Coast rapper through and through. He lived in the Queensbridge Housing Projects even after he signed a deal with Columbia Records. Even though he dropped out of high school before his sophomore year, he still had a lyrical power envied by many. His debut album, Illmatic, was ignored by many and only sold 200,000 copies in its first year. When it was time for him to release his second album It was Written, he decided to hire a new production team to try and hit the same niche Bad Boy Records had.
Nas’ second album had finally gained the fame he desired. Though it was primarily because of his catchy hooks and great beats, he did not soften his lyrics in order to appease the masses. One of the singles from this album “Street Dreams”, a remix of “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics, proved just that (Bry 334). Even with a radio friendly chorus, the verses were far from it,
“The street raised me up, givin’ a fuck
I thought Jordan's and a gold chain was livin’ it up
I knew the dopes, the pushers, the addicts everybody
Cut out of class, just to smoke blunts and drink naughty” (Nas)
They spoke of a teenager growing up in the ghetto just trying to survive. Many people dream of fortune and fame, but perhaps none as much as those who were forced to live in a world surrounded by drugs and violence. (Bry 334)
Nas continued to enjoy success with six more albums all going achieving platinum status, and some even double platinum. It wasn’t until his eighth album, Hip Hop is Dead that he reemerged in the public’s spotlight. Rappers such as Ludacris claimed that Nas didn’t understand that hip hop was still thriving in the south (Hess 1). Nas later clarified what he meant in an interview with MTV: “When I say hip-hop is dead, basically America is dead. There is no political voice. Music is dead” (Reid, MTV News Exclusive: Nas Previews Hip-Hop Is Dead ... The N). Nas believes that hip-hop was in its most pure form when it was still traveling around the New York streets. He wants to go back to a “pure, unadulterated form of hip hop that sought to promote hope and celebrate life rather than make money”. To some hip-hop is still alive in the hearts of those who rap just for the sake of rapping; those who make music simply because they love to, and not for the money. Even if Nas was wrong in his statement that hip-hop is dead, he still made people think; exactly what he was trying to do in the first place (Hess 2).
The controversy surrounding Nas’ eighth album was simply a ripple in the pond compared to the wave of controversy that would come with the release of his most recent album, Untitled. Nas originally had titled this album “Nigger” a title that caused a huge amount of uproar. Some such as Reverend Jesse Jackson felt that this title was unacceptable and demanded that Nas change it. Instead, he simply tried to explain his reasoning:
"I wanna make the word easy on mutha----as' ears," he explained. "You see how white boys ain't mad at 'cracker' 'cause it don't have the same [sting] as 'nigger'? I want 'nigger' to have less meaning [than] 'cracker.'…"We're taking power [away] from the word" (Reid, Nas Explains Controversial Album Title)
In the end, he decided it was best to change the title to Untitled. Even though the album title changed, the songs did not. Songs such as “N.I.G.G.E.R (The Slave and the Master)” tell about how Black-Americans are being oppressed the failure of their own black leaders. Instead, they only turn have “Martin, JFK, and Jesus” to turn to (Rosen). Turning away from talking about the word “nigger” for a moment, the last song on the album “Black President” looks towards the future. With a hook sampled from “Changes” by Tupac, Nas speaks about Barrack Obama and his hope for the then Presidential Candidate.
“Y'know these colored folks and Negroes
Hate to see one of their own succeeding
America, surprise us
And let a black man guide us…
I think Obama provides hope and challenges minds
Of all races and colors to erase the hate” (Nas, Black President).
Hip-hop has progressed through the ages to become what it is today, good or bad. Early hip-hop focused on the music and the passion from the artists. As time went on, the gangsta image emerged along with the hard rap lyrics and deeper messages condemning the state of the ghettos around the United States.
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