Letters from FreakLoud: R.I.P. Underground Hip-Hop 1992-2004

Underground hip-hop is a big, dead dragon.

It’s a huge, dark green corpse with a fat, scaly corn-colored belly.

Everything that lives must die. The sad part is that there’s no dragon-control wagon to call and haul the carcass away. There’s no dragon forensic unit to inspect the crime scene.

It just sits in the middle of the street, dead and awkward.

…and it smells like Nag Champa and Egyptian musk.

The few of us who still chased the damned thing are gonna have to find something else to do with our lives.

I for one, must not write and record so many rap songs that only make me happy. Especially since most people don’t care if I’m happy or not. I can’t argue with that, though. Up until last week I could give a damn if they were happy either.

Could you believe that I actually wanted them to stop doing what made them happy and to learn to enjoy what I enjoy?

I wanted them to deny the mindless escape that they found in their favorite artists because I couldn’t experience the same feeling.

I wanted them to dig my dinosaur music… immediately. That’s the kind of irony you can take a nap on.

All of us daydreamers found ways to hide our developmental alienation by huddling with each other and agreeing on things. We found ways to forget about our sheltered upbringings and our lack of social skills by getting together and vilifying social skills.

Have you ever noticed that the people who fight hardest to keep rap from changing are thirty-year-old black men that grew up and went to school with white people?

Our suburban upbringings left us on the outskirts of the black American experience so we used any rap musician that sounded slightly intelligent as a role model. Q-tip, Posdnous, Black Thought, Aceyalone, Guru, and CL Smooth were our pantheon. Imagine our confusion when each of them found a way to fall short of our lofty expectations at some point. Confusion grew into intense pain and anger when they attempted to tell us that we were clinging to the soggy boards of a ship doomed to drown.

Each of them noticed far before we could that there was no decent way to make a living by catering to the 30 or 40 thousand of us that held fast to our own definitions of musical truth. We never realized how pretentious it was for us to call everything else a lie.

None of us can say that we didn’t see it coming. We felt our chapter ending but we held candles at night and prayed for the pendulum of public opinion to swing back toward us. Every “Ms. Fat Booty” or “Come Close” was hailed as the beginning of the return of the “true” school. Some of us convinced ourselves that consciousness was “in” because a few commercial rappers took shots at Bush in their failed attempts at top 40 airplay. Those rappers learned quickly that the quickest way to piss people off is to make them think when they’re on their fourth Blue Motherf*cker and they gotta drive home.

We all got angry when BET refused to play Little Brother’s video. They said that it was “too intelligent” for their audience. While I may not agree with their assumptions of their audience’s intelligence, they were dead on point with the notion that their audience is disinterested in clips of that sort. I know that if I were watching an all-nerd rock video program, I’d be pretty heated if the show’s programmers randomly interjected the newest Wolfmother clip. Don’t give me Marshall stacks if I want accordions.

And for god’s sake don’t give me big words and figurative language if I want to get crunk.

I believe my bubble was first burst back in ’98. I was in the dorm room of a friend, we were bumping Black Star’s newly released record over his Aiwa shelf system. About two minutes into “Twice Inna Lifetime” one of the guys in the room moaned and said:

“Damn, all these metaphors is hurtin’ my head!”

He was in the minority at the time, now what he wears is considered hip-hop and what I wear is considered odd. This juxtaposition was made possible by mainstream artists who realized some time ago that while the opinions of the purists were loud, they held no credence with anyone other than themselves.

Many formerly “underground” artists realized this, too. All the ones who were said to have “fallen off” after 1998. Nope. They jumped. They saw that their leftover fan-base from 1994 had moved on to the next trend and that the remaining purists had slid over to Napster. All of these artists decided to make music that would touch everyone. The only problem was that they could only get marketed and distributed through the channels of the “underground”, meaning that the new fans who they wished to touch would never hear these works.

This perceived lack of quality by us purists made it even easier to download music with a clear conscience, not knowing that our funds were the only reason that many of these artists were able to hold on to record deals. Without our dough, the record labels were not willing to gamble with anything other than what was already ruling the charts. Any of these artists that wished to keep a deal were forced into emulating whatever was “hot”.

New artists that were determined to connect with these old fans were drafted onto labels like Rhymesayers, Def Jux, Stones Throw and what have you. All of these entities were built by artists that had gained some sort of following at the tail end of the “golden age”. If you look very closely, most of them have had a difficult time making new stars. I blame the incredible shrinking market.

The only way forward for new artists that wish to do anything other than floss and kill is to create a local market for themselves. The flaw that many alternative hip-hop acts have had is that they make music with German fans in mind before they consider the people that live in their apartment building. I can say first hand that the reason that no one is making any national noise in Los Angeles is because no one is attempting to make fans out of the millions of hip-hop listeners that live here. Only local movements will matter from now on. No one was paying any mainstream attention to the Bay Area before their local scene got so huge that artists began to sell hundreds of thousands of albums out of the trunk of their car. This philosophy goes all the way back to Too Short in the late eighties, but it was lost when rap became international big business.

Upon exposure to corporate America, “underground” hip hop would face its first doses of the radiation that would leave it rotting in the street years later. Hip-hop, fortunately is alive and well, but the underground that we embraced is deader than Dick Cheney should be. And while it will never again be like we remember it, it will walk again (maybe quicker than Jesus!) but not until we can remind the people around us of the vibe that’s missing from the radio. It won’t be worth their time and money until it can move them in some way. Don’t be mad at them because they don’t like it.

Dig deeper and remind them that we’re all the same.