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The Holders of Hip Hop

Perhaps the three most important figures in mainstream Hip Hop.  Is Hip Hop in good hands?
Perhaps the three most important figures in mainstream Hip Hop. Is Hip Hop in good hands?

The Grammy Awards ceremony is always an exciting show. If for no other reason, the performances are a valuable indication of what’s hot at the moment. Music is one of those fleeting art forms- a complex symbiosis of voice and instrumentation weaved for often the briefest of aural pleasure. The American music industry is even more evanescent with artists appearing, disappearing, and reappearing with astounding regularity. This year’s new faces like Daft Punk and Lorde made quite the splash, walking away with wins in major categories including Record of the Year and Song of the Year, respectively. Newcomer Macklemore and Ryan Lewis made a virtual sweep in all major rap categories, including Best Rap Performance, Best Rap Song, and even Best New Artist shutting out formidable competitor Kendrick Lamar. This has spurred much political and artistic discussion about hip hop, particularly the rap component, the implications of honoring and revering a white rapper, and what this means for the trajectory of the genre.

Hip Hop started in the Bronx with disc jockeys manipulating the percussive line on popular soul and funk music. The method was introduced largely by Jamaican immigrants. The forms of expression that evolved, however, particularly MCing and rapping are uniquely American and typically unique to the African American experience. In the late 1980s, hip hop took on a deeply political form- bringing light to a way of life to which many Americans were oblivious. Hip Hop during this period voiced the reality of an underclass, a forgotten race of people dealing with drugs, sex, and getting by. It came to signify a form of prideful rebellion, a counter-cultural form of expression. Soon after, colorful African-American pioneers like MC Hammer, Queen Latifah, Will Smith, and DJ Jazzy Jeff brought hip hop flavor to the mainstream. MC Hammer released the megahit U Can’t Touch This in 1990, which went diamond, and is one of hip hop’s best-selling albums of all time. White artists have also come to dominate the genre as well- particularly acts like the Beastie Boys and Eminem.

Hip Hop is a storied and complex genre of music and many question Macklemore’s validity as member of that sacred musical space. Hip Hop has precious political and social significance to its purists and the idea of a white rapper dominating in the field is upsetting. Hip Hop is the very specific result of shared ideology among black youth who wanted to voice their unique experience in a unique way.

Despite the history and lasting influence on pop music, Hip Hop has always been controversial for its misogyny, violent themes, and homophobia. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis seem to make an interesting departure from this tone. Much like the Beastie Boys, they seem to take a fun, more carefree, and more inclusive approach to the music- connecting to a broader audience seamlessly crossing over to pop charts, particularly with songs like Thrift Shop and Can’t Hold Us. And with songs like Same Love, their music has very relevant sociopolitical messaging. What’s more impressive is that their music took flight with no promotion or label affiliation. They relied solely on word of mouth and social media and this approach got them farther than they probably ever imagined.

Considering content, promotion method, and sheer courageous confidence, rewarding Macklemore and Ryan Lewis makes sense. They personify the very grassroots principle upon which Hip Hop was founded. Their Grammy win in this category is just as valid and deserved as anyone else’s.

Bottom line- listen to what you like and to what speaks to you. It's not that deep. The Grammy is, after all, just a “gold sippy cup.”

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