Dope Music: Hip Hop & Drug Culture

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I recall being criticized for referring to Future as the “soul of Atlanta music”. Maybe I was premature in my assertion, but that same statement today would hardly raise an eyebrow. I can clearly remember my first time meeting Future at the Def Jam office in Atlanta, and not too long after, spending an evening in the back of Magic City for the Dirty Sprite listening party. Atlanta was buzzing; but I was still on the fence. Having seen so many independent artists come and go, there was a clear pattern of their buzz lasting only as long as their budgets. “Racks” was an undeniable record, but it was YC’s record. When “Tony Montana” dropped, it was inescapable. Even Drake jumped on the wave. While all of this pushed me further over the fence, I remember the exact moment I became a Future acolyte. It was in 2012, and I was in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby. In a club full of 800+ people, I watched as he performed for at least 40 minutes straight. At that moment I realized the depth of his still young catalog, and his prowess as an emcee and entertainer. Future was indeed his name sake:The Future.

The seed for this story was planted almost two years ago, the first time I heard “Move that Dope”. The Mike Will-produced banger immediately caught my ear. The beat slapped, the hook was infectious, and even Skateboard P, a featured artist on the record, spazzed out on the track. It was an instant hit in my eyes, but while my head was outwardly bobbing it was inwardly shaking at the hook: “YOUNG nigga, move that dope!”, repeated over and over (60 times in total).

Considering myself a socially conscious father of four, I often have difficulty reconciling my work and love of hip hop with my passion to change the world I leave for my children. As an 80’s baby, songs like “Move that Dope” appeal to me on an almost instinctive level. But as a man in 2016, I have to pitt the stereotypical images we often project against the present day issues, like the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. What does it say about the perception of Black men in America when “Move that Dope” makes #4 on Rolling Stones top 50 songs of 2014, above Kendrick Lamar’s “I” (#10) and Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” (#6)? 

We make excuses for the negative impact of rap music because it has given so many young black males a way out of the hood; but for every ONE that it gives an exit, it entraps thousands more. I know I’m about to tread onto some very unpopular grounds by saying this, but hip hop is Black culture. Does that mean it’s exclusively for Black people? No, but just as people from all ethnicities learn and practice Kung Fu, no one would ever argue the point that Kung Fu is not a part of Chinese culture. With this in mind, we must acknowledge that Hip Hop is one of the biggest platforms black people have. It is a way that popular thought and beliefs are disseminated throughout our own community, whether it’s fashion, dance, ethics or the notion that it’s ok to “eat the booty like groceries” (Thanks Kevin Gates!). But more than that, Hip Hop is also a publicity vehicle that conveys the black experience to a global audience.

When I hear a record like “Move that Dope” I know that it is doing two things… Programming a new generation of dopeboys, and portraying all young black males as thugs, which is reinforced by Pharrell’s feature. I mean, even the “Happy”, Despicable Me II, “Blurred Lines” singing, light skinned, The Voice hosting, quirky dressing, skateboard ninja is selling dope too! (Slaps forehead). 
Am I insinuating that street culture has no place in hip hop? No.  But, we must find balance in the images that we project to the world. An argument I often used to defend rap music was that we don’t place the same burden of responsibility on other types of artists. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger can be in a movie shooting up a police station (Terminator-style) and still go on to be elected governor of California (real life), but the lyrics of an independent rapper can be used against him in court to secure a 30-year conviction.

As clever as that argument is, it neglects the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t also go into TV and radio interviews claiming to really be a Cyborg from the future. In an attempt to justify the destructive messages oversaturating today’s rap music, this argument overlooks the fact that in comparable artforms, there is a clear delineation between the art and the artist.

Only in hip hop do we criticize the “actor” for not living the role. No film critic has ever questioned a Schwarzenegger performance because his on screen character didn’t exactly mirror his real life persona, but this is the logic we apply to rap music. Whether Rick Ross was ever employed as a CO should have no bearing on his ability to create great records. Whether an artist sold dope, is really from the hood, or has ever shot someone shouldn’t impact the perceived quality of their music. Conversely, we allow wack ass artists to get a pass on horrible song structure, juvenile rhyme patterns and a complete lack of stage presence, because they’re “keeping it real”. Somewhere along the line Dope Music got replaced by DOPE Music.

Before you rush out a Youtube conspiracy video about private prisons and the rap industry, let me paint a simpler less nefarious picture for you. The music industry has always been an expensive endeavor. In its formative years the barrier to entry was on the production side. The cost of creating a demo (Beats, Studio Time, Mixing, Mastering, etc) priced many aspiring artist out of the market. With no personal capital or access to bank financing, many aspiring artists turned to their hustling friends who had it. From the beginning, dopeboys were the patrons of hip hop and just like any benefactor they left their fingerprints on the canvas.

As the genre matured and major labels saw the potential for profit, corporate money began to flow into hip hop. Rap music started to become commercialized in an attempt to make it palatable to a broader audience. Rebelling against this perceived whitewashing of the music, underground rap became increasingly countercultural. To avoid selling out to corporate interest, hip hop sold out to the streets.

Though gangsta rap rose to the forefront, the tales of crack sales and general braggadocio were complemented by an album full of records that gave a more complex and realistic view of street life. These included songs about family, the struggle, loss of loved ones, catching cases and day to day trials that all urban youths could relate to. While Master P may have been the man to perfect the formula, his success and general detachment from the ARTFORM  led to a surge of hustle-preneurs looking to recreate the “No Limit” magic. A record label soon became every dope boy’s retirement plan.

This infusion of artists with “money to blow” coupled with declining production cost created the perfect storm. There was simply too much music. Everyone had a single, album or mixtape. This totally redefined the structure of the music industry. The barrier to entry was pushed from simply producing product to getting that product heard. This promoted the role of gatekeepers such as Program Directors, DJs. As major label budgets dominated radio, the best alternatives for an independent was to attack the clubs where once again, money set the precedent. When a local trapper hits the club 50 deep and slides the DJ a couple hundred dollars to play his record… it isn’t long before this accepted practice becomes an EXPECTED practice. Suddenly every DJ became a record promoter. Some played any BS that came with a check… Others stood on principle and only spun records they felt were good. But even standing on principle you have to wonder, how many GREAT records were lost to GOOD records with budgets. How many records like “Bitch Bad” (Lupe Fiasco) were displaced by records like “Bad Bitch” (Lil Webbie). 

With declining profit margins and a surplus of talent, Major labels adopted the practice of betting on projects rather than investing in artists. Signing solely based on buzz, even the major label releases became increasingly street, as those were generally the records with enough money behind them to generate a buzz. 

This has gone on longer than I intended, but I believe pointing out a problem without also offering a solution is just complaining. Too many people complain about the quality of hip hop. Too many people buy into conspiracies about private prisons and rap music. Too many people point fingers for the problems they created. Over the past year I’ve increasingly asked myself, “What is culture?” It’s like every blogger, curator, gatekeeper and journalist throws the word around. But what culture are they referring to? What culture are they protecting? What culture are they promoting? Is it black culture or street culture? Is it hip hop culture or is it drug culture? Though the lines have gotten considerably more blurred over the years, whose responsibility it is remains clear. It is up to us as journalists, DJs, bloggers, curators and gatekeepers to not just expose music, talent and ideas to the masses for capital gain, but for cultural gain as well. The ideas and content that we co-sign today dictate the ideas and content that we will get handed tomorrow. Collectively what we post, spin and promote set a precedent. Don’t just post for views… Post for value. Don’t just spin records that bring you a check… Spin records that will bring some change. You can’t promote songs about “popping X” today and wonder why everyone is taking molly tomorrow. Simply put, “It’s a slippery slope, my nigga.” #DOPE

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Kelby Cannick

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