Thursday, 22 November 2012

Why I Care About Hip Hop

I decided I wanted to be a rapper in 1994. I was sitting in a prison cell in Upstate New York and made the decision that upon my release I would try my hand at it as a career. Not because I thought I was the best rapper at the time; but because I knew this was one thing where you could make a living and it didn't require any qualifications. You didn't have to be educated. You didn't have to have a background check or be screened for your criminal history. Having a criminal history is not a good thing to have when applying for a job so I said 'Hey, why not' let's go for it. While crafting my first few songs, I noticed everything that I was writing about were the exact same things that had gotten me in the ugly harsh realities I was facing in my life. It was my life, so I had every right to speak on it but I noticed I was glorifying something that wasn't so glorious. I remember talking to a fellow inmate and close friend and he said to me, "Have you ever thought about rapping about something that might be beneficial to a young mind as well and entertaining?" I didn't quite understand at the moment but he started to give me books and the more I read, the more of what I was reading would come out in my raps. I remember making the decision that if I ever got a chance to obtain a record deal, I would always make songs that would be beneficial to the growth and development of a young person. What I didn't understand is this would be a decision that would severely stunt my growth as an artist in many ways.

My earliest memories of hip hop, I think of a time when everything I heard in a rap song, I could look out my window and actually visualize the lyrics so clearly. Whether it was Melle Mell rapping about 'broken glass everywhere' in his song "The Message" or hearing emcees rhyming about the graffiti stricken trains and buildings that filled the streets of New York City. Hip hop was a reflection of the impoverished neighborhoods we were being raised in and we loved it. We didn't realize it at the time, but we actually needed it. The music was clearly a reflection of where we were being raised. It was Our CNN or Huffington Post. We would go across town to have break dance and MC battles against other crews who rapped and danced. While being across town or even sometimes in other boroughs, we would find out who were the top people in their neighborhoods. The commonality we had was hip hop it brought us all together. It was the beginning of a culture that would influence America like no other before it.

I got a major record deal and signed to Atlantic Records, home of many great legendary artists like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and many others. My first single, "Pain In My Life" with rising star Trey Songz. The song detailed a young promiscuous teen who was intrigued by the things that are praised in popular hip hop songs and eventually sleeps with the wrong player and contracts H.I.V. With black women being the #1 leader or new cases of H.I.V. and AIDS, I felt the need to showcase this in my music. My decision to lead with this song was met with resistance from my record label. I was encouraged by them to make more songs that were sex infused and exploitive. When I refused, my project shelved for six years and eventually released from the label. I made the decision that I would continue to make music independently and not only would I NOT switch over to rapping about things I believed to be detrimental to our youth; but I would go even harder at speaking about things to combat it.

Listening to today's music, I hear a variety of songs with the content that sounds like an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Songs with titles like "Money To Blow," Rich Forever etc, you wouldn't begin to fathom that we're in some of the worse economic times. Songs that speak of buying Bugatti's and Bentley's like they were Honda's and Mazda's. If I'm correct, a Bugatti retails at over a million dollars and a new Bentley cost roughly around $300,000. I know there is a group of artists who have reached the level where they can obtain this caliber of vehicles but it seems this has become the norm in hip hop music. In 1996, Nas rapped on his hit record If I Ruled The World, "If I ruled the world and everything in it, sky's the limit, I'd push a Q45 infint... An Infiniti Q45 retailed at about 45k at the time and that was major for even the biggest rapper in the game at the time.

I wonder when and how did the art form stop reflecting the realities of the place where it was born? It's become the opposite of what is taking place in its birthplace. We are in some of the worst economic times in modern history but you wouldn't believe this if you listened to a rap song. There is a disconnect with hip hop and the community where it was started, but it has become somewhat of a detriment. The imagery in popular hip hop is either extremely sexual or extremely violent. These artists have become vessels for corporate America to exploit to sell commerce. Whether it's Mercedes Benzes or the latest flavored Vodka. Hip hop culture has become a big advertising tool and nothing more. When you see the sales of Timbaland rise and fall depending on the popularity it yields in rap songs is proof. When you see the sales of Vodka go through the roof because its hip hop's drink of choice is proof. When you see multiple artists who have taken the moniker after clothing designers, clothing brands, car brands etc is proof. The language we created to combat oppression and to tell the stories of our trials and tribulations of being young black descendants of ex-slaves; is now being used to sell sex, cars, drugs and other things that have and still plague the same community in which it was born. Who caused the disconnect?

My new album came out on November 6, which was Election Day 2012. The title of my new album is The Greatest Story Never Told 2: Bread And Circuses. The album is filled with songs like "Brownsville Girl" that details the senseless killing amongst young black people in inner cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. I penned songs like "Best Thing That I Found" featuring gospel rapper LeCrae that attempts to encourage people to keep faith in GOD when times seem to get rough and life seems hopeless. "Game Changer" featuring Marsha Ambrosious details my situation and my struggles in the music industry for trying to make what I call 'think rap.' These and a lot of the other songs are just an example of the power of music when its done right. You can be entertaining and still have a powerful message in music as Marvin Gaye once proved. As Bob Marley and Peter Tosh did. As Tupac did before he was assassinated. I sacrificed potential millions of dollars as well as endorsements to make music I thought could save lives. I was very cognizant of sex and violence being what sells in hip hop. I continue to stand firm in my beliefs today. I would rather touch the lives of 100 people in positive way and make less money, than lead 1,000,000 people down the wrong path for monetary gain. This music is shaping the minds of our children and whoever controls the mind of our children, controls our future. If America wants our future to be in good hands, we have to do better as a generation leading the way. Bread and Circuses... Let's take back our future.

Told by Saigon.

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