Many underground UK rappers suffer from a curious malady in which they think they are artists. I’m sure we aren’t the only genre to be fair. It’s the great plague of the art form and wider Hip Hop culture. Rap, whilst being the most prominent of Hip Hop’s elements, is also the most creatively devolved.
This is exacerbated by how little effort is required to actually take it up as a hobby. Aspiring rappers begin to view ‘likes’ as a fan base and ‘views’ as an audience. Disposable compilations of them rapping over other people’s instrumentals are submitted as bodies of work. Promotion and art become the same thing in their eyes and these rappers then demand to be given the same platform as genuine artists; many devoted to their creative process and often taking huge risks to retain integrity and quality. It’s a sad part of the delusory world that descends on the vulnerable ego, as it hunches over a dirty screen, in the corner of a poorly lit room, unaware of the reality of its increasing isolation.
The sense of urgency the internet can create for a struggling artist is appealing because movement on the screen emits a sense of progress and conquest.. In my drinking days, when my self esteem was at its lowest, my ego would take full advantage of my lack of self awareness and lead me manically through the endless corridors of fleeting endorsements, straw debates and instant validation. There is a reason Facebook only has a ‘like’ button. My personality traits are not uncommon in other artists – and people generally – which leaves me very vulnerable to the delusion and impulsivity social networks help to cultivate in the self-seeking mind.
Unlike Hip Hop’s other three elements: breaking, graffiti, and dee-jaying, all you need for rap, much like Facebook, is an opinion and a desire to share it. You can call yourself a rapper before you even have a craft. While this is raps most appealing factor for would-be enthusiasts; it opens the flood gates for dangerously high volumes of what I can only call: shite
Emcees see themselves as spokespeople for certain lanes of life. It may simply be their own experience they wish to communicate or they might have a socio-political edge to what they do. They very much buy into the image they create for themselves and if this image happens to be completely removed from reality, it doesn’t tend to stop them.
In my experience, they are often characterised by their rigid, binary value systems and lazy attitudes to work. This is the reality of their facade. I say this as one of the most prominent ones in Scotland. The painful truth is that we serve as a poor representation of wider Hip Hop, which is energetic, evolutionary and culturally dynamic. Ironic when you consider how important it is for a rappers to ‘represent’.
Underground emcees unconsciously adopt the corporate templates laid out for them and so now, the main aim is simply to reach as many people as possible, even if you haven’t even considered what your message actually is.
Sorry, I don’t know what got into me there. What the fuck am I thinking? I can see an angry mob of Scottish emcees hurtling toward my avatar to passionately denounce me, armed with emoticons and poor English. Who the hell am I to comment on Hip Hop in my own country? I’m just an underground rap artist. What does that have to do with culture? I need to leave the world to the poets and the painters and the playwrights and steadfastly refuse to grapple with anything that lies beyond my own selfish frame of reference.
Or maybe not.
A rapper can now create themselves online and build anticipation for their material without having created any artistic content. Indeed, they can come to view themselves as artists before they have even become engaged in an artistic process. They often view their own catharsis as proof of artistic merit and neglect to challenge themselves or their potential audience to think in a new way or discard a tired idea.
Adam Curtis discussed this idea in a recent interview in The NewStatesmen, where he elaborated on the concept of ‘static culture’. Our present culture is full of the sounds and visual iconography of the past. Artists dig up old ideas and re-assemble them. This is passed off as art, but really it’s something else. It’s constant nostalgia on a slow drip, feeding a growing zombie culture that only disagrees about how much they sold and not what they are actually selling. It’s a re-affirming feedback loop in which we all feel content and safe. Artists exchange vacuous platitudes in order to retain their standing in their local communities and nobody ever really criticises anyone, for fear of reprisals. In return for my not challenging you, you don’t challenge me either. This problem is rife in Scottish Hip Hop and the critical passivity is enforced by a pack mentality.
I feel a lot of art, generally, is wee bit too cosy. Too much emphasis on technical prowess and presentation. Real art should come with a hint of menace. Alan Moore describes art as ”an explosive substance”. I think we’re too caught up in being accepted and liked by our fellow artists that we have subtly assumed a lesser role for ourselves in society. A quasi-establishmentarianism, that has no real implication other than the satisfaction of our own indulgence. Much like the third sector, we’re half in bed with the government we are supposed to check and balance. A very safe, comfortable relationship is growing between artists, their audiences and government sponsored funding bodies. I’m not crying foul, but we need to be on guard about the implications of this for art in future. How much trouble can one make as an artist, when one is funded by Creative Scotland?
In Hip Hop, it has become very cool to be politically apathetic. It’s now an acceptable political position to take no political position. Abstaining from politics is a personal choice and I’m not here to tell individual people what to do. The real problem lies in the notion that rappers can gain plaudits among other rappers, for not only behaving passively and apathetically, but more worryingly, for offering glib excuses for doing so.
Some rappers will actually sit there, with a joint in their hand and tell you with a straight face that it’s the fluoride in the water that makes them docile.
Look at the inherent absurdity we choose not to acknowledge:
We confuse wordplay with the incessant rhyming of mono-syllables, void of any artistic merit or imaginative flair. We proclaim ‘fuck the police’ with no concept of anarchy and its implications for society. We accuse one another of stealing our styles but don’t bat an eyelid when it comes to generously helping ourselves to to the work of blues and jazz musicians for uncleared samples. We decry corporations for turning our culture into a commodity while we spend what little we have on over priced, branded clothing that exploits women and children in third world countries. And most annoyingly of all, we canonise murderers, woman beaters and drug dealers, while proclaiming moral superiority over teenage pop musicians, who don’t even have a criminal record.
If there is an Illuminati, then we are exactly the kind of artists they want. Reactionary, self-centred, uneducated loud mouths who favour the comfort of a small venue half filled with other emcees than the potential exposure to reality that might occur if we dared carry our message to the wider public. We think we have evolved from the violence and misogyny of American Hip Hop, when in truth we speak in a language of ignorance specific to us.
The monolithic political conspiracy we cite as an excuse for completely disengaging with our citizenry will be laughing, saying to itself: ”Finally these idiots got the picture after we put a few in John Lennon. Now all they do is talk to each other online and we can satisfy their aspirations by selling them hats and ironic t shirts. They used to demand freedom, now they want Obey jewellery.” Movement neutralised. Hip Hop: Dead.
We have actually demoted ourselves from architects of change in society and assumed the role of aggrieved, uninformed social commentators who blame politicians for everything that’s wrong with the world. Can’t we see the link between the poor quality of our democracy and our own apathy? In medieval times, we would have been stoned to death for boring the zest out of people, while real artists burned at the stake.
The terrifying truth is, we call ourselves artists, but many of us have forgotten what the role of an artist is. We see our rapping as a rebellion against an oppressive society, yet we are completely blind to the notion that we may well rap the way we do, precisely because our critical faculties have been nullified. We like to generalise people as sheep, yet we remain baffled by our deep sense of discomfort and alienation in life. The problem lies with us, not the idiotic masses. Indeed, we may very well be the idiotic mass to which we so often refer.
Not everyone has to be politically minded, but so many rappers seem to lack any sense of their inherent power. A magicians power, to transform the world around them. We have been reduced to willing volunteers in the extinguishing of their own flames, unaware we stand alone in a dark wood, with nothing but a corporate image as a map for living.
This year is the most important year of our lives. We have a chance to influence an historical event. Too many of us are just sitting around waiting for people we don’t trust to give us answers. It’s time for Scottish Hip Hop to stand up and be counted. Let us just be honest about how things have been in our community and move on.
The infrastructure is in place. The platform you crave is there. Never before have the public been so desperate for people to offer their opinions or insights on a subject. So go and be an artist.
It may be important to say at this point that ‘rapper’ works well as a metaphor for any creative person.
The stage is set. All you have to do, is come to it with a message. A message about something more than rap music.
The future of our country hangs in the balance.