Remember when Hip Hop was constantly redefining its boundaries? When MCs (Rakim, Nas, Eminem) were redefining what it meant to be ‘Great’? When producers (DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Timbaland, The Neptunes) were redefining the samples and sounds that are now the genres classics. When the Hip Hop video (The Fugees Ready or not, Busta Rhymes’ Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See) was redefining the conceptual limits of visual marketing? When the music mogul (Russell Simmons, Suge Knight, Puff Daddy) was running a record label that carried a plethora of genre bending, chart busting artists?
Hip Hop icons, or those who are considered candidates for such a title, used to be in abundance, yet that river has well and truly run dry. For a Hip Hop generation that thrives on social media and 24 hour multi channel music television, “superstars” are virtually queuing up to be made. Becoming a relative sensation on YouTube now means a record deal and/or commercial success and a level of material wealth cannot be too far behind. We are now at a point where marketing dictates the music rather than the other way round and the mediocrity graveyard is strewn with one hit wonders that didn’t quite make the grade. The market is at its most fickle and is only becoming even more so. Hip Hop is now an ‘industry’ that has no time for creating Icons.
So where does the current state of play leave luminaries such as the soon to be re-disbanded A Tribe Called Quest? Anyone who has heard the bare minimum required listening that constitutes their first three classics will not argue against the iconic status these guys collectively possess. Yet it seems that even Icons cannot catch a break. Kanye West once commented on working towards rebranding A Tribe Called Quest! But Since when does a collective as esteemed as these guys need to be ‘repackaged’ for anyone and who would be next? Biggie? 2Pac? Rakim? (…Oh wait Dr Dre tried that already!). Have the Hip Hop loving public become so far removed from what ‘it’ is all about that in order to make an audible dent this supposed rebranding is necessary?
Jay-Z has been subtly reinterpreting his image and amending the type of beats he selects for albums for the best part of 10 years. Whereas a group like The Roots keep on doing what they do best and turn out one superb album after another. In their case though, true commercial recognition initially seems to be something that they simply will not compromise for. Yet there they are, on a US chat show being utilised as nothing more than a backing band. Could that not be construed as an attempt to make themselves more accessible to a wider audience?
There are some icons that are treated a bit like how many families treat their elderly relatives. Left to pretty much fend for themselves until Christmas time (see: the award show season) when they are routinely wheeled out for turkey, Brussels sprouts and Christmas pudding (see: lifetime achievement awards) before being abruptly dropped back at home until next year (see: guest verse novelty wearing off).
There are some who say that it is up to the icons to stay relevant. That if they want the same recognition as yesteryear that they have to earn it and move with the times (Jay Z, LL Cool J). To that I say fair enough but previous compliments aside, not everybody is in Hova’s unique position in the industry. There are those that need doors to be unlocked so they can step through. Yet in order for that to happen all parties involved have to welcome them with open arms and at the moment that is simply not the case.
Taken individually each case has its pros and cons and there are obviously some who, regardless of their legacy, simply do not deserve to be held in high esteem due to their transgressions in other matters. Yet Don’t you think it’s a shame that some of our icons have to die before they get the recognition they deserve?