Reality Rap: The Evolution of Jay-Z's Revolution
On Jay-Z’s birthday, Jay Jonah Jacko takes a look at how Hov being for the people has evolved from simple raps to more progressive actions.
I’m a ‘70s baby, so yeah, I am old as f**k, but I was born into the creation of the artform known as hip-hop. No way was I old enough to attend a Kool Herc street jam, but I vividly remember the burnt out buildings and heroin addicts leaning mid-step on the Harlem sidewalks of my youth. I thought they were street performers until the day my mother yolked me up by the arm and said, “Leave those dope fiends alone, boy!”
This was the reality of inner-city life in the 1970s that led a young man from Jamaica to put together the American equivalent of a “sound system,” providing the foundation and inspiration for rap’s early pioneers. On the mic, MC’s would boast about their skills, about their neighborhoods, about the gear they wore, about the cars they didn’t quite own… yet. And they rapped about their aspirations. The rappers and the verses of my adolescence that was present in the ‘80s fit firmly in the reality format. Criminal Minded, Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, and even De La Soul spoke of their own unique reality—the Daisy Age.
On the West Coast, Ice-T then N.W.A. upped the reality quotient sufficiently in its depiction of street life, entangling drugs, dealers and the dangerous LAPD in hardcore beats and rhymes. The Black Nationalist Movement was even represented by the underrated Brand Nubian debut, All for One. At the turn of the century, the rap world was actually a diverse landscape that could encompass the varied black experience in America.
Then came the 1990s.
Maybe it was Michael Douglas’ all-too-real portrayal of Gordon Gekko, a figurative Wall Street glutton who prophesied “greed is good,” or the pavement-to-penthouse story about a Cuban immigrant gone ham that would dominate rapper’s imaginations for two-plus-decades in Scarface—but something was lost in translation. Maybe it was “time to get n****s back for what they did to the Cold Crush,” as Jay-Z professed in “H-to-the-Izzo”. Whatever the reason and however it may have come across, it seemed that everyone got the memo—it was time to get paid, and even if you really weren’t getting paid, you better at least look like it. There were other movements afoot that would add fuel to the fire, a new format at radio was created to play kindler, gentler rap records. These would read less realistic and more aspirational. Talking about having money was cool, but talking about how you got that money wasn’t. Radio programmers got hip to rap’s “coded” language in songs and having an R&B singer on a hook could take you from having a decent song to having a national hit.
I know this because I was there.
Tinkering and re-jigging artists’ raw thoughts and emotions into a sellable three-minute-and-30 second ad to coax you to spend $17.99 on an album was my M.O. Many built a sturdy career in this era with this strategy, while a few built whole empires. Most notably, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, who, along with his Hitmen team of producers became the poster child for this strategy, blazing remixes for everyone from MC Lyte to Method Man and everyone in-between. He would go on to build Bad Boy Records, literally in the image of the remix. Give them the reality of life on the record and then remix their aspirations, leaving no stone unturned, was the goal accomplished by Puff and co. throughout the ‘90s. Whether you were a fan of Bad Boy or not, history tells no lies, and Puff would go on to “remix” a certain spirit’s brand that had been lagging in sales for years, turn his “brand ambassador” appointment into an ownership stake and ride it into the hip-hop billionaires club.
But, truthfully, that’s all a story for another time… We’re here to talk about another empire built out of the 90’s raw aspirational brand of hip-hop: the empire of Jay-Z.