by Cecil Beatty-Yasutake

Busta Rhymes knows something. His latest album is called Extinction Level Event and he ain't talking about no asteroid falling down and wiping out the city. The face of rap music is about to change and Busta is preparing for the new world. Rap's battle cry of "Keep it real!" has worn thin, betraying its source with the continued monotony of the "uncompromisingly" gritty urban street fairy tales which it has become puffed up with. Time magazine featured Lauryn Hill on its cover along with the story of the "Hip-Hop Nation" and, not to talk down about Ms. Hill's accomplishments this past year (Five Grammy Awards for that girl!), but hip-hop (which Time makes synonymous with rap and there's your first problem) has gone mainstream. Time statistic: 70% of rap music is purchased by white folk. Has the transition from the grit of the urban streets to the silk sheets of the penthouse suites taken the bite out of rap music? Has this transition to "mainstream acceptance" dulled that razor edge and diluted the importance of its message?

I've had this ticking in the back of my head for months now. Couldn't figure it out. There aren't any clocks with second hands at my house. Nothing but digital timekeepers here. So where's this damn tick-tock coming from? Watching MTV one night, I caught the latest from R. Kelly and Nas, "Did You Ever Think." Halfway through the chorus, I know what this clock ticking is all about.

[ busta rhymes - extinction ]

"Did you ever think that you would be this rich? Did you ever think that you would have these hits? Did you ever think that you would be the Don? Have a crib with a fifty acre lawn?"

I've been hearing the last minutes of rap music, boys and girls. The millennium ain't the only thing that's about over. Here's the problem: you got two self-proclaimed ballers (more on that later) swaggering back and forth across the screen in bright red designer suits, flapping about in a car lot filled with equally red luxury cars. You got your Rolls-Royce. You got your Mercedes-Benz. You got your Ferrari. You got your shopping spree. You got your bottles of Mot and your gold Rolex watches. You got two B-boys that have forgotten their origins.

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy they've got cash. I'm happy that they can flaunt. Don't mean I got to buy the album. Don't mean I got to listen to the music. And it certainly don't mean that I can even begin to relate to the "trauma" of those lyrics. Did I ever think? Sure, every time I buy a lottery ticket. But that's as close as I get.

So much for lyrical relevance.

This ridiculous posturing and these pointless lyrics left me stupefied. I couldn't move from my chair. I wanted the remote. I was ready for anything playing on the WB network. But I couldn't escape the video and, as it played through, I began to wonder if I wasn't seeing the beginning of the end. Seeing rap music in this form--this mindless, unimaginative, capitalistic nightmare on celluloid--shook me to my hip-hop core. Apparently "revolutionary" is out, replaced by a give-me-a-piece-of-the-action mentality that requires knowing a couple of guys in the suit business and someone who can rent you a few fancy cars for a few hours. The we-want-a-piece-too crowd has mistaken fan acceptance of the hustler styling of the late Notorious B.I.G. as a green light for greed, for all and any latecomers to follow suit, and they've done so in droves.

[ r. kelly ]

Psst! Here's a secret: Biggie Smalls knew what he was talking about. He was unique, a true rags-to-riches kid off the tough streets of Brooklyn. He left home early, found that selling crack was one way to get food on the table, and didn't want that to be the end of him. Got his hands on a Man's business card and found a way to get his voice heard. The Man was Puff Daddy and he gave Biggie an outlet for his storytelling skill. A gifted poet, Biggie's account of life on the streets mesmerized and captivated audiences worldwide. The fact that he started with nothing and worked his way to the top lent credence to his voice in big time hustler-styled songs like "Mo' Money Mo' Problems" and "I Love the Dough." He wasn't just bragging about the money, he was talking about the effect of having the money.

Rap didn't start out as a form of expression based on the pursuit of cold cash. Rap was a combination of street poetry--predominantly stories about inner city life--and beats, all woven together in a number of forms. There was socially conscious rap from the likes of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five that talked about the stresses of growing up in the poor neighborhoods and the ills bred there. There were party cuts which turned away from the hard life, songs like "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang which were more easily sucked up by the mainstream (and eventually by your grandmother!). Battle rap sold thousands of records as they chronicled the verbal jabs and sparring of rappers, making legends of MCs like Melle Mel, KRS-One, and LL Cool J. Then 2 Live Crew introduced Florida to the wonders of the sexually explicit rap and censorship issues ran rampant. Gangsta rap, fueled out of the inner city issues in California, paved the way for the eventual tragedies which would overcome the genre.

[ biggie smalls - r.i.p. ]

And somewhere along the way, rap music began to celebrate a capitalistic mentality, an "I've got more toys than you" mindset. This cash money rap has become so predominant that it almost needs it own genre, its own section in Tower Records to make it easy for those who want to hear the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Rappers. Make ballin' a permanent sub-genre of rap music. Hang a big-ass picture from the Baller soundtrack over that section, dress up a guy like Slick Rick, throw up a cash register, loop Puff Daddy's "It's All About the Benjamins" over the sound system, and start separating the flock from their cash.

And very noisily miss the whole point.

History lesson: 1991. Hair metal dies a sudden death. Why? A little record called Nevermind that didn't stay little. Last few years of the 1980s is the heyday of the hair metal band--the Poisons, the Wingers, the Ratts, the Def Leppards. And then, suddenly, one day halfway through their latest world tour, they find the stadiums empty, the girls gone, and the riders not fulfilled. Most of them had no clue and sputtered a few years more before (thankfully) disappearing. What happened? They started to parody themselves. You got videos like Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" that is essentially them whining about the hard life of being a rock star. No one pitied them. Their audience looked around and found some real angst coming out of the Pacific Northwest and deserted in a stampeding rush to get to the mosh pit at Seattle's Mercer Arena.

Rap is about to suffer the same lesson only this time it isn't three guys from a garage in Aberdeen. It's Kid Rock. It's Limp Bizkit. It's Korn. It's a metal/rap hybrid that is sounding harder, angrier, and more real than anything being heard out of California or New York. Regardless of ethnic or cultural backgrounds, the audiences want to hear something that moves them, that they can connect to and relate to. Most of them feel the bite of the $17.98 sticker price at Tower for a week or two following their purchase. They've got no idea what it is to whine about having too much money. They can't connect to Jermaine Dupri and Jay-Z crossing four lanes of traffic with the top down, tossing money to the wind. They can connect to "Bawitdaba." Go figure.

[ big ballers ]

MC Hammer got a lot of shit from the East Coast for three reasons primarily: (1) He danced. (2) He sold a lot of records. (3) He wasn't the sharpest lyricist. None of which seemed to bother him since he was there to make 'em dance. Entertainment was his sole purpose and he went about entertaining the folk and made some change doing it. This was a bad thing because, at that time, he was seen as making rap a side show. Rap was busy being real and it didn't want poseurs cluttering up the scene, confusing the grit and decay with flashy pants and big bootied dancers. Run DMC spent their whole career doing it all themselves--two guys, two mics, and a DJ. No flash 'cause that wasn't the point. The rap was the point, the words were the point. N.W.A. made careers out of telling us how bad it was, how tough it was, and no one really came close after them. Public Enemy stood up and said, "We're black, we're pissed, and we're not going to go away."

As for the East Coast half a decade later? On the block: Puff Daddy's newest "song," "PE 2000." Let's look at the three sins again: (1) Dancing. (2) Selling records. (3) Not so strong lyrics. ("Ain't nobody makin' no rhymes like these" notwithstanding.) Hmmm. Can anyone say "full circle?"

Some of the artists have heard the ticking too. They're making changes before the changes are made on them. Jay-Z is supposed to be moving back along the socially conscious track. Mase--Puff Daddy's newest and brightest--has already bailed from the scene, citing a desire to cozy up with religion as his change of heart. LL Cool J still turns out the great album, but he's gone subtle and is busy building himself a nest egg with a Hollywood career. "Did You Think" has already disappeared from MTV's and BET's rotations.

[ nirvana - the real deal, kids! ]

But for every forward thinking artist there's six who haven't figured it out yet. They'll be the ones with the albums that will release themselves right into the dollar bins in a year or two. They'll be the ones who will look propped up and stiff as they go through the same dance steps in their videos that you've seen your kid brother doing when he's parodying you to his friends. They'll be the ones trying to sell you gold Rolexes and platinum necklaces at street lights in the new millennium. They're the ones who haven't figured out that if it is all about the Benjamins, then Bill Gates is the biggest baller of them all. Buying a Rolex is not power. Throwing a stack of twenties out a car window is not power. Being able to terrorize the lawyers of the city of Seattle over a speeding ticket is. Even if he did pay it.

Rap is dead. That fetid stink you smell isn't the latest designer fragrance. That ugly plop isn't the sound of a stack of hundreds falling out of a money counter. It's just a bloated corpse we aren't quite done kicking around the block yet. When Vanilla Ice starts knocking Eminem, saying that he [Ice] has done more for rap music than any white kid from Detroit, you know it is time to dig a hole and bury the body.

"Come on baby, light my fire
Everything you drop is so tired
Music is supposed to inspire."
-Lauryn Hill "Superstar"

[ lauryn hill ]

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