For decades now, rap has been the vehicle for driving a decidedly urban American Dream narrative – a Horatio Algers-esque tale of rags to riches. And, according to Jay-Z, you can be “right next to De Niro” and still be “hood forever.” But instead of the hood, what if you spent your life “down in Tribeca” or up on the West Side or out in Greenwich? What can you possibly rap about if you spend your summer in the Hamptons and not Harlem?
Your father may be an Academy Award-nominated actor (Chet Haze), or the founder of a billion-dollar fashion empire (Rich Hil), or quite possibly, your grandfather ushered in an era of rock music (Pablo Dylan); and, now, you want to be a rapper.
The humor of the situation abounds – amateur rappers comparing themselves in grandiose fashion to cultural heavyweights like Motown founder Berry Gordy or bona fide billionaires, such as Virgin’s Richard Branson. And, of course, the illustrative tales of a tumultuous Connecticut life. Jokes aside — it would be careless to presume that there’s some unspoken prerequisite to becoming a rapper today, as if the rap contagion floats only in the skies over Bedford-Stuyvesant or the South Side of Chicago.
I spent afternoons watching Aubrey Graham’s wheelchair-ridden Jimmy Brooks character zip across my screen on Degrassi well before drowning out to Drizzy. Drake’s snappy bars and hypnotic pseudo-rap crooning probably didn’t come from attending day school. And for that matter, Kanye’s cushy suburban Chicago upbringing is not considered the Petri dish of rap superstardom.
I’ll avoid a long-winded, pedantic spiel on race and wealth, but it’s not unreasonable to scrutinize when the offspring of white affluence adapt a genre of music previously appropriated by blacks as a means of civil protest.
Rap music rose as a form of self-authenticity during the disenfranchising era of Reaganomics. Many of the denizens of the ghettos of New York, L.A., Detroit and other cities, most of whom were minorities, many black, sought out ways to redefine themselves by appropriating cultural artifacts outside of the hegemonic reign of the mainstream. Along with art (e.g., street art, graffiti tagging), literature (e.g., spoken word), and other cultural forms of expression, music found utility in the disenfranchised streets of the 1980s and 1990s inner city.
However, in perfect Marxian fashion, the utilitarian foundation of rap music — a tool originally used to fight essentialized conceptions of black men and the inner city — fell victim to the opportunities of commoditized enjoyment in the mainstream. But, themes of authenticity in rap and hip-hop still abound. From the thug-life proclamation of 50 Cent and his nine bullet wounds to Kan-Jay’s ostentatious Watch-the-Throne dismantling of a $300,000 Maybach, status seems to still have a commanding effect on the hip-hop sphere.
Yet, as rap and hip-hop become more inclusive of not only different people, but different musical elements, sub-genres (see Dancing to a New Beat: Gender Performance and New Orleans Bounce) and more, the idea of who and what constitutes rap and hip-hop is becoming both more elastic and more obscure.
In a “quasi-post-racial” world marked by a recessive economy in which bulks more people can consider themselves oppressed by those pesky hegemonic forces, the founding markers of rap and hip-hop may be more relics than requisites. Nixing race and socioeconomics off our chart, we’re left with talent. And, unfortunately, these celeb progenies are under a very cruel illusion — they’re not particularly talented.
Doing little more than emulating their more-familiar rap contemporaries, these artists use their status to gain notoriety, working with artists like The Weeknd (Rich Hil) and Swizz Beatz (Chet Haze). Even the 15-year-old Pablo Dylan, whose verses on Patron shots and bitches are beyond unforgiving, is two steps away from a record deal.
The question remains: Do rich celeb offspring working to enter the hip-hop scene threaten the cultural integrity of rap from yesteryear? Or, should we, cultural mavens (toot your horn), even care about the bygone origins of rap and hip-hop?
(Photo courtesy of Rich Hil.)