Roots drummer ponders if the genre's assimilation into the mainstream impeded its future.
Hip hop's mortality is up for debate in a new essay written by Questlove. The Legendary Roots Crew drummer penned a piece for Vulture titled, "When the People Cheer: How Hip Hop Failed Black America," the first in a series of six written works discussing hip hop's distant and recent past and "wondering about the possibility of a future."
The genre, he says, has "taken over black music." In doing so, the culture is now a meld of different genres and sub-genres, and as a result, black artists like Rihanna and Beyoncé have been absorbed into the hip hop box strictly based on their affiliations. "There aren’t many hip-hop performers at the top of the charts lately: You have perennial winners like Jay Z, Kanye West and Drake, along with newcomers like Kendrick Lamar, and that’s about it," he writes. "Among women, it’s a little bit more complicated, but only a little bit. The two biggest stars, Beyoncé and Rihanna, are considered pop (or is that pop-soul), but what does that mean anymore? In their case, it means that they’re offering a variation on hip-hop that’s reinforced by their associations with the genre’s biggest stars: Beyoncé with Jay Z, of course, and Rihanna with everyone from Drake to A$AP Rocky to Eminem."
The shift is a new chapter in hip hop's maturation over the years, one that could threaten it's livelihood, Quest claims. Although he paints a somewhat dismal depiction of the place hip hop has found itself in over the last four decades, the accuracy is palpable. The genre as a whole has grown so popular that it's lost some of that uniqueness, and rappers are suffering as a result.
"As it has become the field rather than the object, hip-hop has lost some of its pertinent sting," he notes. "And then there's the question of where hip-hop has arrived commercially, or how fast it's departing. The music industry in general is sliding, and hip-hop is sliding maybe faster than that. The largest earners earn large, but not at the rate they once did. And everyone beneath that upper level is fading fast."
In the midst of the sliding scale, black culture as a whole has now become defined by hip hop, even when the two may not be connected, he posits. "That's what it's become: an entire cultural movement, packed into one hyphenated adjective," he concludes. "These days, nearly anything fashioned or put forth by black people gets referred to as 'hip-hop,' even when the description is a poor or pointless fit."
As it continues to amalgamate (either willingly or by default) into the folds of popular culture, Questlove questions if hip hop is inadvertently contributing to its own demise, writing, "When hip-hop doesn’t occupy an interesting place on the pop-culture terrain, when it is much of the terrain and loses interest even in itself, then what?"
The Philly native raises some interesting points in the piece, and has a background in the literary side of art. He released the memoir, Mo Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove, and signed a deal for a follow-up earlier this year.
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(Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS)