In light of MC Ren's claims that rappers need to be aware of their past to qualify as "artists", we take a look at the validity of that statement and see if it holds weight in today's industry.
First penned by George Santayana and bastardised by many others over the years, there’s many walks of life that the phrase “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” For a man who was born in 1863, this ideology has held up under a lot of scrutiny over the 20th & 21st century. Seamlessly applied to diplomacy, sports and the plight of every celebrity that has fallen into the same learned behaviour as those that self-destructed before them, it’s a simple truism that holds weight in almost all walks of life.
Aspiring artists and hip-hop heads alike can ensure that they don’t fall foul of their proposed duty by investing in his “This Day in Rap & Hip-Hop History” day-to-day calendar, devised by none other than Public Enemy’s iconic mouthpiece Chuck D. It comes with no shortage of top-tier endorsements, continuously updated since its original publication in 2017, and it's led Kendrick Lamar to stress its importance and echo the sentiments of Santayana in his own eloquent way. For K-Dot, he sees this body of work as the perfect avenue for those who aspire to “understand our culture. To learn knowledge itself. Truth about the art form of poetry in motion. The struggle of our community through rhyme and rhythm.”
MC Ren at Coachella 2016 - Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Heart-warming in sentiment as this may be, a recent comment from a hip-hop legend has presented an open forum for debate on whether the artform’s illustrious past holds any real bearing on its radically different present. Lauded as a member of the “The World’s Most Dangerous Group,” MC Ren and N.W.A tore through the mid 80’s hip-hop landscape like a cyclone and irrevocably changed the game with their uncompromising depiction of inner-city strife in Compton. While the honor of inaugural gangsta rap song is normally awarded to Philly’s Schooly D, it was N.W.A and their counter-culture anthems that truly revolutionized hip-hop by taking it into unforeseen heights and even the penetrative glare of the F.B.I.
For a man that helped to elevate hip-hop from party-oriented music to gritty social commentary, it seems jarring to see that he’s now such a stickler for the importance of paying homage to the past. Offered to the world without context via Twitter, the iconic “Ruthless Villain” made his feelings clear by stating: “I don’t know how you can call yourself a hip hop artist and not study the history of Hip Hop.”
Since N.W.A’s record-selling heyday, Ren and the group’s unsterile rise to prominence has been charted in books, documentaries and in F. Gary Grey’s major motion picture Straight Outta Compton. So, with this in mind, why does Ren’s recent comment ring with the embittered displacement that you’d expect of a rapper that reached far greater heights than he did? Could it be a response to the lack of commotion that resulted from the arrival of “King Villain,” his 2019 single that consciously took its cues from modern commercialized hip-hop? Or is it simply a case of an older rapper taking umbrage with the direction that the culture he’s dedicated his adult life to is heading in? Whatever the motivation, what Ren and any other MC that puts forth a similar line of argument should bear in mind is just how much the genre has grown on generation by generation basis.
Officially perched atop the music industry mountain for a second year running, even the hip-hop artists of the late noughties never experienced the level of unshakable cultural and commercial power that today’s rappers wield. What’s more, the experience of hip-hop culture now transcends the length of a record and now has its footholds in everything from social media traffic to the snobbishly elitist world of high-end fashion. As late as 2007, hip-hop artists such as David Banner and Master P were appearing in front of congress to debate on whether the genre’s lyrics and video aesthetics were contributing to societal issues. Three years prior, Dipset’s leader Cam’ron and Dame Dash were ushered onto the Bill O’Reilly show for an attempted hatchet job of an interview that spawned one of the greatest memes of our time.
Jay-Z performing at Something in the Water 2019 - Craig Barritt/Getty Images
Now that we’re in a world that there’s a college course dedicated to Jay-Z and Oxford university felt it necessary to answer whether Kanye or Shakespeare was more relevant, it raises genuine questions over what today’s artists can extract from a time when hip-hop wasn’t such a cornerstone of pop culture and was marginalized out on the fringes.
If you look at the Billboard chart right now, 20 tracks out of the top 50 are bona-fide hip-hop with countless others such as Khalid and Billie Eilish borrowing heavily from its sonic templates. Topped by a collaboration between Lil Nas X and country veteran Billy Ray Cyrus, only 5 of the hip-hop artists on the charts-- Drake, J. Cole, DJ Khaled, Daddy Yankee and Meek Mill-- had released a sliver of music before 2010. If you examine the chart from the same week 10 years ago, there are 13 hip-hop contributions- two of which being The Black-Eyed Peas at the height of their pop powers during The E.N.D era-- and no rappers that occupied space on both. Then If we go back 20 years ago, there was only 6 and that’s counting T.L.C’s “No Scrubs.”
With all of this in mind, it’s hard to argue that the rappers of today aren’t just competing in a separate playing field from their hip-hop forefathers but have uprooted to an entirely different level of high-stakes competition. But while the chaotic history of “The Bridge Wars” or Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 classic Wild Style may no longer have much wisdom to impart today’s MCs, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any lessons or examples to be heeded from the past.
For today’s burgeoning artists or chart-straddling rappers, there’s a lot that can be learnt through cautionary tales. Whether it’s the contract disputes of Lil Wayne & Salt & Pepa or the exploitative deals that young and naïve artists such as Tyga, Soulja Boy and Lil Uzi Vert have all grown to rue signing, these run-ins with less than well-intentioned record companies are something that any buzzworthy rapper worth their salt should pay attention to. On the other side of legality, the tax issues of DMX, Ja Rule, Jermaine Dupri and even The Doggfather himself Snoop should be studied as an informal lesson on keeping on top of your finances.
On the other side of the coin, there’s plenty of positive role models that should be rightfully put on a pedestal as testaments to diversifying the portfolio. Formed of equal parts rappers-turned-actors such as Will Smith, Common and Queen Latifah or business magnates and entrepreneurs in the vein of Diddy, Dr. Dre or Master P, artist’s in hip-hop’s past can provide the future generation with plenty of checklists for long-lasting success.
Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at the Hollywood Walk of Fame 2018 - Kevin Winter/Getty Images
For the embodiment of this, we need look no further than hip-hop’s first billionaire Jay-Z. From dope-dealing to shrewd boardroom tactics, Hov is the ultimate rags-to-riches story for rappers to adhere to. Now that he’s sitting comfortably on the genre’s fiscal mountain, he even uses his bars to dish out lessons on monetary literacy such as on “The Story Of OJ.” Aiming to give his community and his fellow artists “a million dollars’ worth of game for $9.99,” it’s encouraging to see artists such as Chance The Rapper, Lil Yachty, 21 Savage & Tory Lanez are all investing in media companies, cryptocurrency, Esports teams and more, rather than simply being “on the ‘gram holding money to your ear.”
Ever since its inception Hip-Hop has been in a constant state of renovation and redesign. From the days of block parties to Las Vegas residencies, the throttle has always been down and aiming towards innovation rather than peering at any golden age that’s in the rear view. So, while rock and roll is in a state of stagnation and is declared dead in thinkpieces on a weekly basis, hip-hop continues to flourish by refusing to tread water.
Let’s get one thing straight, MC Ren, N.W.A and anyone else that paved the way are owed their due respect. That said, hip-hop’s constant desire to override the temptation to rely on a glittering past is what made it such a dominant force from the ground-up and will continue to as artists’ keep pushing the boundaries. There’s nothing wrong with paying homage-- think A$AP Rocky & A$AP Ferg’s “Pups” or Max B and French’s “Don’t Push Me” over the past couple of weeks-- but you need to keep it moving in order to remain top of the industry heap.