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Master Class: When hip hop gets political & conscious

Da’Shan Smith

 // Nov 6, 2018

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


As droves of Americans set out to decide the balance of power by casting local ballots and Congressional ones, it's the perfect time to mention hip hop's influential contributions to political matters.

Welcome to REVOLT's Master Class on political and conscious hip hop.

"The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb or Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash or Englebert Humperdink."

This lesson starts with a poignant verse from Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," as it's the core embodiment of hip hop's most impactful sub-genre. Prior to that song's release in 1970, "The Star-Spangled Banner," and most alternative odes following the national anthem's sentiment, were hardly written from the perspective of the black community. Here, Scott-Heron lists some songwriters and musicians who have brought these tunes to American pop culture, none of them black. In this line, he also prophesies how a new influx of artists would eventually service subordinate and disenfranchised populations of the country fresher, more relatable content.



Sparked by the growth of the Black Panther Party, Scott-Heron's jazzy, call-to-arms proto-rap started a musical movement — one that would blend politically charged lyricism with the sounds and attitude of the yet-to-be named genre "hip hop." Fittingly enough, in 1968, one of hip hop's most soon-to-be sampled artists, James Brown, had released "Say It Loud - I'm Black And I'm Proud." The funk-earworm spearheaded a revolution of outright, pro-black rhetoric through popular song. Combining the forces, intents, and messages of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and "Say It Loud - I'm Black And I'm Proud," artists started monetizing off political-concept records, while simultaneously leveraging that mainstream reach to address civil rights issues.

Leading up to the release of Public Enemy's 1988 sophomore album, It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, hip hop constantly experienced acts of politicism on wax. The same year "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" premiered, a Harlem trio called The Last Poets peaked at No. 29 on the Billboard 200 albums charts with their self-titled LP, which housed songs entitled "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution" and "Wake Up, Niggers." The work related the roots of slavery to the hardships of New York City's concrete jungle.

In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five would translate "The Message" (of The Last Poets) in a hook, "It's like a jungle sometimes/ It makes me wonder how I keep from going under." Being only the seventh hip hop song to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, "The Message" went gold in less than two weeks due to its vividly conscious storytelling.



However, "The Message" isn't credited for starting conscious rap despite its mainstream break. In fact, the song had been a left turn for an artist whose name reflected material preoccupation. Rather, that honor is given to Brother D and the Collective Effort's "How We Gonna Make The Black Nation Rise" (1980). Underscored by a sample of Cheryl Lynn's "Got To Be Real," the Bronx emcee sets forth the rules of conscious rap: "Space out y'all to the disco rhyme/Movin' to the rhythm but you're wastin' time/Stop and think. Do you know what's real?/Well, let me educate you to the real deal."

The summer of 1987 saw this history manifested in the first single from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, "Rebel Without A Pause." Repurposing rock-n-roll through the scratches of DJ Terminator X, Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy set the tone for their more politically conscious second era. Their follow up single, "Bring the Noise" starts with "too black, too strong" before a jovial Flav promises "honey drippers" their brand of hip hop can be just as profitable.

At this time, hip hop not only ragged in a commercial war with skeptical executives, but also with government. With the advent of gangsta rap from the likes of Ice-T and Schoolly D, hip hop experienced more conscious lyricism, as those songs also documented community struggles. It was the harsher lens, explicit verses, and gritty subject matters that prompted legislative efforts to censor, and even arrest.



Though politicians used the profane content as their reasoning for trying to get hip hop music banned, the real issue at hand was how rappers and producers were actually exposing injustice. With songs like Public Enemy's "Don't Believe The Hype"— and the increasing popularity of N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton (which includes "Fuck tha Police")— politicians started to realize the demographic of potential voters who listened to rap might follow the actions being preached. That the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X was going to expand generations beyond their deaths, through album purchases and radio spins.

In 1989, while filming his blockbuster Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee requested Public Enemy record a theme song that tackled the film's central topic of racial tension. The song's producers, The Bomb Squad, practically made an all-encompassing musical collage for political hip hop, as the track contains a series of samples ranging from civil rights leaders to James Brown. "Fight The Power" also featured a music video of the group at a political rally, establishing a go-to narrative for the future video treatments of others. As a result, "Fight The Power" served as the global mainstream's interpretation of how rap could be used to deliver political messages.

The early 90s continued to see politically conscious records rise through mainstream through gangsta rap and underground hip hop. On the gangsta tip, a war against police brutality took the forefront. Breaking away from N.W.A., Ice Cube's debut 1990 AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted referred to cops as "pigs." In 1991, then-Vice President Dan Quayle blamed 2Pac's debut 2Pacalypse Now for the death of a Texas state trooper. The following year, Ice-T briefly left hip hop to front the metal band Body Count, producing the protest song "Cop Killer," much to the chagrin of authorities.



On the alternative and underground tip, lyricism was used as a means to deliberately uplift the human soul. The Roots and their frontman Black Thought evoked these words through Philly-styled jazz. A Tribe Called Quest, would access James Brown-tuned funk, jazz, and soul, with the Q-Tip rapping with an ease influenced by Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets. Even Queen Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." from 1993 condemned misogyny with the help of a saxophone rift, jumpstarting a new wave of feminism in hip hop.

As hip hop became a larger platform, those whose lyrics discussed issues plaguing America were taken in a more serious and influential light, critically. Still, labels were also trying to figure out how to market these records in a commercial soundscape that valued materialism more. 2Pac managed through his "Thug Life" persona to keep these messages afloat, while also appealing to the commercial market. After his death, 2Pac's 1998 signature track "Changes" — with the help of a Bruce Hornsby piano loop and chorus — exemplified how pop music was ready to fully embrace political and conscious hip hop as one of its facets.

Over the course of time, we start to witness various regions not only grab audiences attentions for their moment, but also contribute to the political conversations. The city that best understood the sounds of jazz paired with hip hop and political messages happened to be Chicago. With the debut of Common in 1992, the Midwest hub of America broke onto the rap scene. Although the start of his career wasn't politically heavy, Common is now one of the most vocal celebrities when it comes to civil rights. His roster includes a futuristic anthem called "Blak Majik" and the Academy Award winning "Glory" with John Legend.



Chicago's other notably star -- but now for opposing reasons to the majority of hip hop -- Kanye West started his solo career on a very political tip. Whether that was saying "George Bush doesn't care about black people" during a live telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, sampling Scott-Heron's "Comment #1" in "Who Will Survive In America," or commentating on capitalism's effect on racial harmony in "New Slaves." It's through Kanye's extensive soulful, chipmunk sampling and his Nina Simone-tendencies that the ideologies of the 80s political sentiment lives on. Another famous Chicagoan, Lupe Fiasco also discusses the effects of capitalism heavily, even addressing these issues on his latest album Drogas Wave.

In 2004, hip hop culture became the main influencers of elections thanks to Diddy's "Vote or Die!" campaign. We'd witness rap artists repurposing the American flag for the sake of fashion, such as JAY-Z wearing grayscaled version or Juelz Santana's reimagined bandana and coat for Dipset. These moments not only captured a wave of newly reenergized American pride, but visibly showed a mission to take back. By the 2008 election of Former President Barack Obama, the community felt the pressures of a busted economy from George Bush's presidency, but hope for a black president. Jeezy's The Recession tackled these topics, forecasting early "My President As Black."With Obama in office, artists who engaged in rap received a comforting recognition from a leader who looked like the people and was outright about listening to hip hop. In a 2015 interview with People Magazine, Obama said his favorite song of that year was "How Much a Dollar Cost" from Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. On that album — which features a song called "Hood Politics" and the Black Lives Matter anthem "Alright"— Lamar is heavily conscious about the state of America and the black man's psyche. To Pimp A Butterfly contains a jazz-centric musical base and many spoken word sections that recall the days of The Last Poets. The album cover of black men imitating the behaviors of the ghetto, in front of the White House, recalls that of The Geto Boys' Da Good da Bad da Ugly.



The election of Donald Trump and the current state of affairs have activated even more political involvement. For a period after his surprise victory in 2016, up until the release of JAY-Z's 4:44 in summer 2017, the industry engaged in many "woke recordings" (see Katy Perry's entire Witness era). From YG and Nipsey Hussle's "Fuck Donald Trump" to T.I.'s album Us or Else: A Letter To The System, hip hop denounced the current administration, unafraid of possible rejection from audiences.

Kendrick Lamar capitalized off the story arc from To Pimp A Butterfly to provide 2017's DAMN., an album that samples Fox News anchors criticizing his views against police brutality. That song, "DNA," as well as "HUMBLE" created mainstream firestorms, as the songs fit perfectly into the popular trap-raving sound of today and contained equally striking visuals. A year later, DAMN. would win the Pulitzer Prize for music, becoming the first hip hop album to do so. In selecting DAMN. as the winner, the committee notes how the album is "a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.

"Following that lead, JAY-Z offered one of his first conceptually conscious albums, as he embraced the tonality of his manhood on 4:44. A staunch Obama advocate, JAY-Z's further polished brand started conversations with "The Story of O.J." On the opposite end, West has bounced back and forth with his idolization for President 45. And though he's contributed to some of today's political records — including his and T.I.'s own "Ye vs. The People" and Nas' "Not For Radio"— his actions continue to puzzle. In the wings, Chance The Rapper -- who is also known for his Chicago consciousness -- has also co-signed and musically collaborated on some of West's ranging ideology.



Hip hop's role in politics will not be fizzling out any time soon. In fact, it's growing larger by the days — especially as these 2018 midterm elections finalize and we head towards the 2020 Presidential showdown. This lesson started with the words of Gil Scott-Heron mentioning the new theme song being created by black artists. It'd be the appropriate time to mention that "The Message" appears alongside "God Bless America" and Aretha Franklin's "Respect" in the National Recording Registry inaugural class. The archival database of the U.S. Library of Congress — which also includes N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton — honors recordings that are "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant" For American culture.


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