The Rise and Fall of Afrocentric Rap as the Predominant Movement Within Hip-Hop

Posted by Billyjam, February 4, 2011 08:07am | Post a Comment
I miss and often think about Afrocentric rap and wonder why it didn't last longer as the prevalent form of popular rap. I also often wonder why it got overshadowed and forever overtaken by gangsta rap as the most popular and predominant form of hip-hop music. So this Black History Month's Amoeblog is dedicated to the memory of Afrocentric rap as a once powerful movement within hip-hop; a salute to its greatness and a brief examination of its rise and fall as the one-time leading sub-genre of hip-hop.

Afrocentric rap, which can also be tagged as conscious rap, socially conscious rap, political rap, Black nationalist rap, militant rap, revolution rap, etc., was at its peak and was most widely consumed & embraced by the masses during the golden age of hip-hop in the late 80's to early 90's. However, Afrocentric rap, which can be described as a lyrical form that proudly celebrates the accomplishments of the Black community, past & present, in addition to voicing complaints, concerns, and/or social observations of the African American community from a firsthand perspective, has always been part and parcel of hip-hop.

Early popular examples would include 1982's "The Message" single on Sugar Hill by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five feat. Melle Mel & Duke Bootee, while current day examples include the soon-to-drop 2011 album track "Clap" by Brooklyn emcee Saigon off his Feb 15th release The Greatest Story Never Told (Suburban Noize). Afrocentric rap has been with us from day one and will never go away. However, it may never return to the popularity of its heyday, a time when it was common to see rap videos on TV espousing politically charged, pro Black imagery and messages.

Afrocentric rap, as a distinct movement within hip-hop, occurred mainly from the late 80's to early 90's -- essentially within the broader, musically & lyrically diverse "golden age" of hip-hop which, depending on whom you ask, ran from around '87 or '88 up to '92 or '93. Lyrically, use of the traditional Muslim greeting "as-salaam alaikum" (peace to you) was commonplace in the music -- something that, in a pre 9/11 America, didn't raise too many eyebrows. In addition to pro Black lyrics, the use of politically charged samples (EG Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., The Last Poets, or even James Brown) was also commonplace. Visually, the colors of the Pan African flag -- red, black, and green -- were synonymous with popular Afrocentric rap. Album cover art, artists' clothing, song lyrics, and song/album titles weaved in these colors. In promoting De La Soul, Tommy Boy Records' promotion department made leather African medallions as promo items. They also styled Queen Latifah's promotion around Afrocentric imagery.

Other artists that conjured the essence of Afrocentric rap in its peak included, to name but a few, Public Enemy, BDP/KRS-One, X-Clan, Sister Souljah, Jungle Brothers, and Paris. But Afrocentric/conscious rap came in many shapes and forms and, just as in real life, most artists have more than one side to them. Schoolly D, NWA, Ice Cube, Ice T, Toddy Tee, The Geto Boys, and Cypress Hill are all artists who, as well as being hardcore/gangsta, also embodied elements of conscious Afrocentric rap. Too $hort, while written off as player/pimp styled rapper quick to drop the "B" word, also delivered a powerful Afrocentric anthem in his 1990 single "The Ghetto." The track is his emotionally charged, heartfelt, sad, and soulful blues-rooted rap tale of the struggles of "trying to the ghetto." Additonally, 2Pac, who, granted, came to fame after the Afrocentric movement as a trend had passed, was also a complex artist offering both blatantly sexist & gangsta messages and strong, militant Afrocentric perspectives.

Many cite the mid December 1992 release of Dr Dre's phenomenally successful & influential album The Chronic (Death Row/Interscope) as the end of the Afrocentric rap era and the ushering in of the gangsta rap era. Before this, gangsta, while certainly in existence and popular with many, was not the leading genre. Hence, many blame Dr Dre and gangsta rap in general for killing off Afrocentric rap. But that really wasn't the full story. 

There is one common thread between Afrocentric rap and gangsta rap -- they are both simply trends within the rap industry and therefore equally influenced by the allure of money. Many so-called conscious Afrocentric rappers back in its heyday were just fronting, jumping on the band-wagon to make a quick buck; just like the current legions of Dr. Drewannabe hardcore, studio gangsta rappers that think a gang sign and some swagger makes them hard, there were similarly many superficial faux conscious rappers who donned the red, black, & green colors and insincerely quoted/sampled Martin and Malcolm -- all in their paper chase (money hunt). These trend followers only helped in the demise of the genre. 

In my opinion, Afrocentric rap as a predominant force in mainstream hip-hop faded out and died for two key reasons. First, because the marketplace for the music -- dominated by the major labels' A&R's who decided who got signed and, effectively through their moneyed influence, who got played on the radio -- totally evaporated. The labels simply stopped signing Afrocentric artists. Artists learned quickly that if you wanted to keep making militant Black or Afrocentric hip-hop you had to fund it yourself and take your chances on getting airplay. Bay Area rapper Paris is one of the exceptions to the rule; an artist who has stuck to his guns from day one and never wavered in telling it like it is, no matter how unpopular that might have been. In fact, his anti Bush (senior) rhetoric is what got him kicked off of the Warner distributed Tommy Boy label -- albeit with a handsome severance fee to help him fund his new-found freedom.

The other, perhaps more profound, reason for the death of Afrocentric hip-hop as a force within the genre was because for all the protesting and complaining it presented, no matter how valid, at the end of the day it offered no tangible solutions. As the ever pragmatic Boots Riley of The Coup (who arrived after the Afrocentric trend had peaked) so clearly said in his Black History Month Amoeblog interview two years ago, the reason it died was because the music was not attached to a real movement to back up the well-meaning messages of its artists. "You could wear the African medallion and go home and there is no food in the refrigerator and you are struggling to pay the rent. And then you consciously or unconsciously start looking at that music as fantasy, whereas someone making a record about how you can sell a rock (crack cocaine) and make $10, that's connected to a real movement."

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Black History Month 2011 (10), Black History Month (134)