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.
On a ground level, artists now have greater control of their own destinies. By 2006, music labels were already losing their once firm grip on the industry, thanks to the rise of the internet the adverse effects of illegal downloading. With the growth of the web and home studios, artists no longer require the resources of a label to share their music with the world. Give an artist Fruity Loops plus accounts on SoundCloud and Twitter, and he or she has the barest of essentials needed to kickstart a career. In the absence of labels, rappers now are resigning to stay independent, opting to go with distribution deals to release their products instead of long-term contracts. In doing so, they retain control of their careers and, more importantly, their masters and create long-term options to earn.
Business aside, the actual music has started to regain meaning since HHID‘s initial release, aided by the changing climate in our country as much as changes within the industry. The rise in social activism coupled with highly publicized cases of police brutality have reignited rap’s push to be more vocal with artists ranging from Jeezy and YG to Chance The Rapper and Killer Mike to use their platforms as artists to raise awareness of society’s ills that directly affect the urban community. Rappers are embracing their roles as community leaders, shifting to the frontlines of protests in the streets, aligning with political parties and utilizing resources outside of music to speak on behalf of their audience. In 2006, Pusha T was still pushing powder in his rhymes but, in this year’s Presidential election, he worked hand-in-hand with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign in efforts to bring minorities to the polls. Bernie Sanders embraced Killer Mike’s larger than life personality and fiery wisdom to form an unlikely, but well liked combo.
Of course, even Nastradamus could not have predicted the election of our nation’s first black President in 2008, which helped generate a shift in focus as well. President Obama has been an outspoken supporter of rap and embraces artists, involving them with initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper, whose stated goal was to “address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.” He, like the other aforementioned politicians, understand artists carry with them a high level of influence and can sway many with their words, with or without a beat backing them. They find ways to deliver messages to and raise awareness of issues in the urban community in ways lawmakers cannot.
Earlier this year, Nas said rap was in a “better” place than it was a decade prior. “[Hip-Hop Is Dead] gave birth to Kendrick and J. Cole. Drake and a few other great, great artists,” he said. He even admitted, “They inspire me.” Granted, we’re still in the middle of a lean and pills epidemic in the music at the moment but many of those artists now are shaking off their drug-induced haze and, while they do, many others are forging ahead creatively and constructively making music that’s helping to lead the community in a bright direction. One that’s full of opportunity and light, the very opposite of death.