Almost every new rapper claims to be the hottest in the game these days. But has hip hop really been getting better and better since it’s conception on the East Coast in the 1970s? And another question: can we ever really know which decade was ‘best’?
Well, the short answer is; no. The long answer is; kind of…
Picture this: it’s the 70s, we’re in the Bronx, New York. We’re wearing oversized jeans and sports jerseys and Richard Nixon is in the White House. Here is where hip hop, as we understand it, began. Here, it is as the most pure, organic form of the genre. This is the music of block parties; it’s the soundtrack to the streets of the Bronx. It’s celebration music.
Hip hop is and always was a kind of social commentary. In the abstract sense (scratching on records symbolising a remixed version of narrative) and in the specifically defined explicit sense: lyrics narrating life in Black America. But as means for production, demand and distribution have increased, perhaps the way in which hip hop documents socio-political concerns has improved.
However, before we continue this discussion, let’s be clear: hip hop isn’t just a genre, it’s a movement, it’s a lifestyle. It’s a state of mind. So, we aren’t just talking about rappers and producers here, we should be talking about graffiti, DJing and break dancing too. But those are topics for another day.
How can we begin to judge which decade was best for hip hop?
One way is to look at the heavy hitters; the 90s had Biggie, Tupac, Jay Z, Nas, not to mention Wu-Tang, Beastie Boys, NWA. The 80s had Sugar Hill Gang, Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest. To top it all off we have the fantastic Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash and LL Cool J.
All this being said, it’s impossible to deny that without DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa laying down the very foundations for the genre in the 70s, we wouldn’t have Snoop Dogg, or even Puff Daddy today.
Then come the 00s and 10s: Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Talib Kwali, Cardi B, J. Cole. All artists who are as credible, as essential, as talented as the pioneering MCs and rappers.
What makes hip hop good? Is it the cultural commentary? The beat? The production value? The lyricism? If it’s cultural commentary, then how can you judge one socio-economic situation against another? If it’s production value then is it fair to hold a record recorded on tape against one mixed on a 40-inch mac with auto tune?
In short, it’s futile to try to assert that one decade of hip hop is more valuable than another. I know there are a lot of pretentious people out in the world who won’t acknowledge hip hop after the millennium and to be honest, I’m not here to change anyone’s mind: if you don’t think modern hip hop music is valuable then you’re missing out.
Leah is Culture Editor @ No Majesty. Leah is a literature graduate from Bristol, likes include: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, My So Called Life, Goodfellas, and Ally McBeal.