Hip-hop and I grew up together. Has capitalism, commercialism ruined rap?

Hip-hop recently celebrated its 50th birthday, providing a perfect opportunity to decide if we as a collective currently recognize the global genre as a friend or a foe. As I engaged in various commemorative celebrations, I reflected on when the Grammys and other awards and programs refused to acknowledge rap music as a legitimate art form. Reminiscing on the nostalgic moments of hip-hop has reinforced my personal connection to the culture.

Unfortunately, for many of us, the love affair with hip-hop is over and has been for some time. In an interview with Darryl McDaniels of the groundbreaking group Run DMC, he highlighted to me the lack of responsibility in today’s hip-hop and attorney Qiana Barton agrees, “Loving hip-hop has become one of the more challenging relationships in my life … It’s hard sometimes when the thing you love doesn’t love you back.”

Hip-hop & I

Hip-hop and, specifically, rap music, and I are about the same age. This global culture, which includes emceeing, DJ’ing, breakdancing and graffiti, was created by innovative Black and Latino youth living in abject poverty in the Boogie Down Bronx. They created cultural expression against oppression. Hip-hop helped these groundbreaking adolescents channel their energy into a vibrant sub-culture that would eventually change fashion, linguistics, marketing, media and nearly every art form.

During the early days of hip-hop, I was a pre-teen in nearby New Jersey and I was entirely immersed in the cultural phenomenon. I once owned the 12-inch version of “Rapper’s Delight” and fully understand the importance of the groundbreaking song, “The Message,” and the ending of the low budget music video where the Furious Five, unjustifiably, all get shoved in one police car. I can still remember exactly where I was when I first heard the beatbox instrumental for “La-Di-Da-Di” and the deep sadness I felt the summer of 1987 when I was told DJ Scott La Rock was murdered — the first of many prominent hip-hop deaths.

The Sugarhill Gang, 1979.  From left, Guy O'Brien, Hank Jackson and Michael Wright. Their record, a first-time effort called

In the early ’90s, shortly after the short-lived pop success of M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice, hip-hop was thrust into the mainstream and, due to corporate interests, “gangster rap” became the primary mainstream genre; and to this day, hip-hop has never been the same. From the partially media-driven East Coast/West Coast beef, to the commercialization and celebration of criminality, the essence of the hip-hop culture has been tainted, erased and exploited. Music outlets went from not playing rap music at all to now widely promoting a very narrow version of what hip-hop truly is.

As I grew older, I became mindful of the misogynistic and violent themes that were once the soundtrack to my college years. In the early 2000s, my post-graduation entry into the workforce and overall maturity pulled me away from full immersion in hip-hop music and, more than 20 years later, the mainstream focus on destructive behaviors continues.

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Hip-hop today

Today, the most public elements of hip-hop culture are so-called reality TV shows, viral dances, pandemic-produced Verzuz battles and the countless murders of prominent emcees. In the backdrop of several hip-hop figures being murdered are chart-topping artists continuing to celebrate violence, crime and misogyny. Your nephew’s favorite rappers, and maybe yours too, are promoting behavior that will serve as the soundtrack and score to filling up private prisons, while these gun-toting artists send their kids to private schools. In retrospect, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts and Delores Tucker were justified in protesting the lack of censorship of certain rap records in the early ’90s and predicted the dismal anti-intellectual culture we have now.

Freedom of speech is critical but at what cost? John Yao, Asian-American activist highlights the dangers of the corporatized art form.

“Today, capitalism has ruined rap music, and subsequently, the lens of many young people who consume this commercialized ‘junk food’ trying to pass itself off as hip hop,” Yao said.

Is hip-hop dead?

When the iconic southern emcees Andre 3000 and Big Boi proclaimed that hip-hop was dead, followed by the Queensbridge legend Nas, I immediately agreed. Others do not. Boston based Haitian educator Francois Fils-Aime is forever grateful to the art-form. “For over 40 years hip hop has shaped my ideology and my approach towards life through the various artist’s styles and experiences.”

Ryan Jones, former editor-in-chief of Slam Magazine shared, “Growing up a Gen-Z suburban white male, hip-hop has not only provided the soundtrack to some of the best memories and experiences of my life, and been instrumental in expanding my understanding of the racial and cultural issues that impact so much of American life.”

Dr. Yosayra Eusebio, Dominicana College administrator, claims that during her young years hip-hop was her greatest teacher. “The powerful narratives have always resonated with me and I will always love hip-hop.”

Hip-hop lives

So, as we salute the first half-century of another black art form, let’s start to:

  1. “Shut ’em Down” — Challenge music outlets to stop promoting poisoning themes to our children.
  2. “Teach the truth to the young Black youth” — Discuss hip-hop with the youth to allow for a deeper connection and a more balanced perspective.
  3. “Me, Myself and I” — Support original artists who are using their platform for the betterment of the people.

I am forever grateful to how hip-hop helped forge my identity. When I was “3 Feet High and Rising,” it taught me, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back.” When my peers were “Criminal Minded” I knew they were headed for “Self-Destruction.” I learned it was cool to be an “Outkast” and the importance of “Jimmy Hats.” The lessons were endless. The classic movie, “Brown Sugar” highlighted the question, “When did you fall in love with hip-hop?”

My answer is, in the immortal words of the Blastmaster KRS-One, “I Am Hip-Hop,” I love hip-hop and the art form will continue to grow if we love it back.

Dr. Daniel Jean is an educator and author. He works as assistant provost for special programs at Montclair State Univeristy.

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