Rap is currently experiencing a boom in success on the charts, sales and award shows. Drake has a stronghold on streaming services, J. Cole’s new album is halfway to platinum after a week of availability and Kendrick Lamar’s still rap’s reigning champ at the Grammys. With everything being right in rap right now, things weren’t always so well, and it was the changing climate in music that compelled Nas to name his eighth LP Hip-Hop Is Dead, originally released 10 years ago today in 2006.
The fact of the matter is, when Nas first uttered the phrase, its implied meaning was completely different than what it morphed into over time. “Hip-hop is dead because we as artists no longer have the power.” Nasir originally said in an interview with Tim Westwood in May 2016, “Could you imagine what 50 Cent could be doing, Nas, Jay, Eminem, if we were the Jimmy Iovines? Could you imagine the power we’d have? I think that’s where we’re headed.” In subsequent interviews leading up to the album’s release, the meaning behind the title began to shift and change as Nas responded differently at various junctures. But the underlying theme of ownership was still there.
“When I say ‘hip-hop is dead,’ basically America is dead. There is no political voice. Music is dead…Our way of thinking is dead, our commerce is dead. Everything in this society has been done. What I mean by ‘hip-hop is dead’ is we’re at a vulnerable state…I think hip-hop could help rebuild America, once hip-hoppers own hip-hop.”
Between May and December 2006, the question of who killed rap creating a lot of finger-pointing with a lot of the blame being laid on the South, Atlanta more specifically, for what was viewed as a declining level of artistry. At the time, T.I. and Jeezy were leading the city’s dominance over rap with their dopeboy dreams while artists like D4L, Dem Franchize Boys, Lil Jon and a host of others began to flood the airwaves with the sounds of snap and crunk music. Lyricism, long the true measurement of an MC, began to be replaced by catchy hooks and even catchier accompanying dances.
But measured against Nas’ original statements, hip-hop is definitely more alive than ever. While he, Jay and 50 may not be the rap gods they once were, they’re all in positions of power. The aforementioned J. Cole album? It was released under Jay’s Roc Nation, and Hov is a power player in the streaming music world, just like Iovine, courtesy of Tidal. 50’s music career may be at a standstill, but he’s an executive producer and actor with the hit TV show Power. In 2014, Nas co-founded Mass Appeal Records and helped raise over $1 million to help re-launch Mass Appeal magazine. The label has put out works by Run The Jewels, Dave East, the late J Dilla, DJ Shadow and more. Mass Appeal’s made a mark in the landscape by finding a way to deliver quality hip-hop to a welcoming audience that doesn’t rely on radio for new music.