Knowledge Darts Vol. 3: Will The Present Political Climate Make Mainstream Rap More Socially Conscious?

A deep dive into the history of socially conscious rap

Photo: TeamRock

Donald Trump has only been in office for less than a month but he’s already wreaked havoc across the board through signing a gang of ridiculous executive orders. Even mainstream rap writers that never focused on politics until recently have become vocal on social issues. That being the case, doesn’t it make sense that mainstream rap would stop focusing on turning up and eventually become more socially conscious to reflect the current climate in America? If you think this is what we’re headed for, I’m sorry to inform you that’s not very likely.

Let me first break it down for you all…

If we go back to the early 1960’s and the dawn of the counterculture, you can trace a direct line between the baby boomers coming of age, the increasing importance of the LP format in music and the rise of folk/protest music. The organic rise of mainstream music converged with the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War movement/Hippies, Women’s Liberation movement and the rise of the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Yippies & Weathermen/Weather Underground.

This era opened with Sam Cooke making A Change Is Gonna Come back in 1964 after becoming perturbed that Bob Dylan was making songs about things he rightly should’ve been doing. It was his experiences of being discriminated against and brutalized in America because of the color of his skin, not Dylan’s. Thus he felt it was his place to make these songs to uplift his people. Sam Cooke was very unspoken on behalf of his people during this early period. Unfortunately, he died under suspicious circumstances and “A Change Is Gonna Come” was released posthumously more than a week after his death as a B side to “Shake”.

This entire stretch from 1964-1969 is where everything changed forever within music, youth culture and society as a whole. Music couldn’t be separated from politics as the social climate bled into all mainstream art whether it was intentional or not. If you tried to straddle the fence you’d receive side eyes and scrutiny for not speaking up. The tumultuous era that contained the early to mid 60’s until the early to mid 70’s made it so singers, songwriters, composers and musicians alike could make art addressing social issues that would be widely accepted by mainstream audiences. The rise of the so-called Blaxploitation era in film beginning in 1971 allowed for black artists to further assert themselves making socially relevant music through movie soundtracks such as “Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadaaassss Song”, “Shaft”, “Superfly, “Trouble Man” and several others. It was during this stretch some artists had to even fight their own labels in order to have the creative freedom make music that addressed the current social climate such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye at Motown, resulting in the seminal LP’s “What’s Going On” and “Where I’m Coming From”.

“Rap became the top selling and most popular genre of mainstream music between 1997 and 1998, even surpassing country.”

A similar phenomenon occurred beginning in the early to mid 80’s until the early 90’s as rap grew in popularity and that genre was loaded with emcees and groups who made what we now consider conscious music that spoke truth to power and addressed relevant social issues of the time while being palatable to a wide mainstream audience. If you’ve ever watched the documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 it covered the years that the wave of conscious emcees who came to prominence between 1986 to 1991 would’ve had their formative years, shaping their philosophies and political beliefs. If we’re headed for another dark period under the Trump administration you’d expect history to repeat itself unless you factor in that conscious rap wasn’t even popular in mainstream rap during George W. Bush’s two terms in office between 2001 and 2009. If socially aware mainstream music naturally returns in every previous era in recent history then why didn’t it happen at that particular time? Let’s all go back 25 years to find out what happened.

 “the increasing popularity of Body Count’s “Cop Killer” song resulted in an immediate backlash from conservative groups.”

It all began in April 1992 when the four officers who were caught on tape brutalizing Rodney King weren’t found guilty of assaulting him in court resulting in the Los Angeles uprisings. One of the byproducts of the uprising were rappers who often spoke out about police brutality, white supremacy and racism in America appearing on mainstream venues to say that this is irrefutable evidence that the experiences and situations they’ve been making music about their entire careers was indeed true. Seeing these rap artists get widespread validation and the subsequent gang truce in Los Angeles led to a veritable deluge of songs about these issues being released in the Spring and Summer of 1992. Ice T’s thrash metal side project Body Count had been performing a song called Cop Killer live since 1991 but recorded and released it as a single in Summer 1992. Additionally, Oakland rapper Paris had an album about to drop called Bush Killa and Boston Rap group Almighty RSO made an anti police brutality song called One In Tha Chamba on Tommy Boy Records. However, the increasing popularity of Body Count’s “Cop Killer” song resulted in an immediate backlash from conservative groups.

“Cop Killer” was immediately denounced by Tipper Gore of the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center), then President George Bush and his Vice President Dan Quayle. Next, different law enforcement agencies came forth and called for the song to be pulled both from the radio and store shelves. One of those law enforcement agencies was the Dallas Police Association. They went directly to their wider body, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations Of Texas (CLEAT) to organize a boycott of Time Warner until the negative press they received made the LA City Council fearful enough to formally request Time Warner pull “Cop Killer” off store shelves for fear of violence or retaliation against police (nevermind the fact that if police kill citizens they face no penalties whatsover) in June 1992.

This boycott spread throughout Republican, Conservative and Christian circles until it amassed enough of a following to force Warner Bros to not only pull Body Count’s “Cop Killer” single from shelves but to ultimately to jettison every single “conscious” or “socially aware” artist making music that would further draw the ire of these same interests on any labels, subsidiary labels or even imprints owned or operated by Time Warner.

All of the artists I previously mentioned and many more were either dropped or moved to another label entirely to avoid any further boycotts or legal action since it was a Republican White House at the time. Also, these same people feared nationwide uprisings like the ones that erupted throughout America during the late 60’s that ultimately led to the Kerner Commission whose findings were released back in March 1968. As the years passed, the groups that were making conscious and socially aware music (i.e. Public Enemy, X-Clan, Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers, Paris, The Coup, etc.) progressively got less and less popular and commercially viable entering the beginning of what was the Second Golden Era Of Rap (1992-96). This period coincided with the election of Bill Clinton, America’s first Democratic President since Jimmy Carter in 1993. Things began to relax more and more under the Clinton Administration. Halfway through Bill Clinton’s first term as President we entered the mid 90’s and the economy began thriving once again. This economic boom and growing optimism would also affect Rap in many ways we’d yet to understand.

“now it was the default music of a generation. It no longer had its same edge due to all of the corporate involvement, widespread acceptance and hyper visibility.”

First introduced to the Senate back in March 1995, The Telecommunications Act Of 1996 went into effect on February 8th of that same year. What it allowed for was the deregulation of broadcasting and communications companies and the limit of properties they could own. In short? It allowed for large companies to buy up all the independent and small market radio stations and television stations they wanted then put them all under the same umbrella. They could even purchase multiple stations in the same market which was not allowed before. If you’re wondering what effect that had on rap, it also set up a climate in which parent corporations could merge with or buy out other smaller record labels as well, setting up a sort of consolidated “Unigram” system. In a few years time, a bunch of record labels that once offered variety and options to rap consumers were swallowed up and assimilated into larger companies. Same thing happened to radio.

Whereas before media conglomerates like Emmis Communications (formerly Emmis Broadcasting) had to face restrictions on how many affiliate stations that could purchase overall and how many they could own in the same market, the Telecom Act now allowed them free rein to buy up as many stations as they could afford. When these companies bought up more stations, they put them all under the same banner, gave them uniform radio formats and similar playlists regardless of region or market. By the same token, Viacom purchased BET so they now owned MTV, MTV2, VH1 and BET. They held sway over all the video networks and soon focused on original programming over videos as they brought in more ad revenue due to accurate ratings tracking for television shows versus blocks of videos. As both radio and music industry had become completely controlled by corporate interests, the second golden era of rap came to a close. The jiggy era officially began the first week of January 1997 with the release of Puff Daddy featuring Mase’s hit single Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down .

Rap became the top selling and most popular genre of mainstream music between 1997 and 1998, even surpassing country. During this same time period, the music industry became more and more about sales numbers, charts positions, spins per day, material possessions and the amount of money an artist got per feature than the actual craft itself. Executives and CEO’s of record labels became as big as the rappers on their own rosters. The focus shifted to Bentleys, Cristal, clothing labels, endorsement deals and minutiae rather than the music itself. Casual rap fan conversations stopped being about beats and lyricism and the craft itself and switched to being about how much a video costs or platinum jewelry. This shift in focus was reflected in not only the content of the music but print rap journalism itself.

The only rap acts that could be considered “conscious” or anything resembling it still signed to a major label during this period were Brand Nubian and Dead Prez. Brand Nubian were signed to Arista and released their final album on a major label “Foundation” on September 29th, 1998. Dead Prez were actually discovered by Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian and signed with Loud. They released the singles Police State in 1998 and Hip Hop in 1999 but their debut album “Let’s Get Free” didn’t drop until February 2000. It was the only mainstream rap album of its kind to be released that entire calendar year.

If you were coming of age during the late 90’s you were pretty much disconnected from the concept of socially or politically aware rap music on a mainstream level unlike previous generations of rap fans who had grown up with it. Whereas rap was rebel music that got relegated to the back of the record store and was treated like a fad even after being in existence as a recorded genre of music for more than a decade, now it was the default music of a generation. It no longer had its same edge due to all of the corporate involvement, widespread acceptance and hyper visibility. If you wanted to hear conscious rap like the old days? You had to rely on indie/underground rap that didn’t have a machine behind it to push it out to the masses.

After 9/11 happened, the climate in America had changed completely under yet another Republican president. Difference being that now corporate involvement was so entrenched in every single aspect of the music industry there was little chance of any artist making consistent politically charged music that was critical of the regime following a terrorist attack on American soil. If you factor in the signing of The Patriot Act in October 2001 and the fallout from saying anything critical about the United States in the era of Guantanamo Bay and The War On Terror, it would make the Time Warner controversy of 1992 seem like a walk in the park in comparison. That was pretty much the final nail in the coffin for any shot at a return to socially conscious music entering widespread popularity in mainstream music circles. However, during this period Immortal Technique released his debut project “Revolutionary Vol. 1” independently on his own label, Viper Records. The next year Dead Prez returned with the independent release “Turn Off The Radio: The Mixtape Vol. 1”.

The overly corporate media environment and the lack of physical sales for music meant artists have to come up with different ways to make revenue, especially in the age of digital sales & streaming. One way artists do that is to align themselves with brands or seek out sponsorships in order to ensure multiple modes of income. What typically ends up happening is the radio sounds like a gang of sound alike three and a half minute jingles for a bunch of different products or brands. Outside of the occasional single released during election years like Jadakiss’ “Why” or Eminem’s “Mosh” there was very little follow up afterwards. Modern mainstream rappers usually have no interest in political issues or aren’t informed or skilled enough to effectively make music in that style or fashion anymore so there you have it. Although YG made the anthem Fuck Donald Trump just before the election, his next single was the extremely apolitical Why You Always Hatin’”. To further hammer my point home, his latest song is a collaboration with Mariah Carey. There you go. The full 25 year history of mainstream rap‘s gradual spinal extraction via corporate interests, the removal of people who would’ve looked to sign acts that spoke on pressing matters in their music and general cowardice due to not wanting to mess up the money as rap was at its most profitable and popular. If want to hear some quality protest music you better start listening to indie rap, kids.

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