A few months ago the world of music chased its own tail again, this time with everyone making a top ten or top five list of the best or most important hip hop artists and albums of the last twenty one years. The catch was that this had to be the list of must-hear, culture-shifting artists and bodies of music for a recently resurrected, non zombie Tupac Shakur or Notorious BIG. While the premise of the questions alone shows that we all need rather belatedly get with the program and understand that Pac isn’t hiding out in Mexico and suddenly at risk of losing access to hip hop because Donald Trump’s border wall might also sever access to file sharing sites, it was interesting to see what did make its way onto the lists. A lot of Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Dr. Dre, Eminem etc was evident. Pretty much as expected.
‘Millennials’ (fancy name for the ungrateful bastards who don’t understand that smart phones once belonged exclusively either to science fiction or your young imagination while pressing the buttons on your dad’s VCR remote control and holding it to your ear, pretending to talk to whoever the dude you saw do it in the movies was talking to) are bound to make more of these lists than the slightly older farts in the room, thanks to a combination of social media network presence, pop culture adherence and not yet understanding what life changing and entirely unrelated phrases like marriage, divorce, alimony, depression and mid life crises (the order is of course,entirely random) mean. But let’s be clear – there isn’t a list of ten, fifteen or even fifty of the ‘most influential’ emcees and albums of the last twenty one years, simply because that list would have to be extensively expanded. An example would be Kanye West’s debut; The College Dropout. When you wade through to the other end of the river of production samples from Lauryn Hill (which had to be replaced with Syleena Johnson for the album version of ‘All Falls Down’) through Marvin Gaye, The Humbard Family, Curtis Mayfield, The Notorious B.I.G, and because this is Kanye we’re talking about – to himself as well, you come head to head with the influences of those names, and folks like Talib Kweli and Mos Def, (ahem, I mean; Yasiin Bey) Common and Jay Z who sharpened young Kanye’s interest in hip hop to a fine point. The same applies to South Africa’s AKA, the UK’s Skepta or Nigeria’s Lil’ Kesh who are as much a product of their own skill as they are the ground breaking work done by Mischief, Swatta Kamp and Proverb, Dizzee Rascal, Kano and Lethal Bizzle, and Da Trybe, Naeto C or MI respectively. Nothing is born in a void, and to assume you can arrive at the present via a straight line is to miss the entire point of the experience of travel itself, which is kind of the point of music – taking the listener’s imagination and emotions on a journey through the mind of the artist.
If Tupac were to walk through the doors of this bistro right now, I think some of the more surprising things he’d learn would be that;
1 Biggie didn’t outlive him much, and in retrospect, the whole of macho hip hop would have gladly held hands and unashamedly sung Kumbaya rather than see things play out as they did.
2 That his ballet school buddy, Jada Pickett married the nerdy guy with the chubby uncle from Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air and they drive fans crazy for reasons people who have lives don’t get.
3 That Jay-Z lived out his prophecy of transitioning from selling drugs to legally selling music.
4 That Nas looks the same as he did 21 years ago, and people still won’t ask him about immortality.
5 That a wild blonde kid from Detroit taught rappers more about barely contained rage, drug addiction and the middle finger as a form of expression than anyone not targeted by racism thought was possible.
6 That Dr. Dre became the first billionaire in hip hop, and it didn’t have much to do with him selling rap records.
7 That America finally got a brilliant black president, and when he was done, they voted for the candidate who stood against everything he’d stood for.
8 That even though the LGBT movement is out of the collective closet, there still isn’t an openly gay rapper with a number one album.
9 That his mom and family really overdid it with the number of albums he supposedly released posthumously. Somewhere between saying Eminem’s name (even though the chances that they ever worked together before Pac’s death were slim verging on anorexic) and his 300th single with all new verses, the gig was up.
10 That while the world waited breathlessly for a response to “Hit Em Up”, in the end it was Sickle Cell, not the bullets from a lyrical or real firearm that took Prodigy’s life four days after what would have been Pac’s 45th birthday.
In the end, the ancient chess moral which was recently re-portrayed in the movie Logan was correct; come the game’s end, king and pawn indifferently go into the same box. So if the music and art that attempt to show us the parts of the picture we couldn’t possibly see in a single lifetime are nothing but snapshots that we attribute value to on the basis of metrics that will in themselves mean nothing in five months and another trend, what’s the fuss?
Real Life: ‘Dre.