So Vibe slouched toward further irrelevance among black people by putting together a Best Rapper Alive contest where fans could vote on a series of head-to-head “battles” and end up with a consensus of the Best Rapper Alive.
Yea, and Eminem won.
Hell to the naw!
My problem with any national conversation about black culture starts with two phenomena surrounding the nation’s relationship to black culture:
- White people’s “love” of black culture is usually fetishistic and rooted in racist assumptions about black people and black culture, thereby contributing to a marketplace rife with one-dimensional (if occasionally brilliant) distillations of the original form. In this case, clearly corporate hip-hop bears little resemblance to actual hip-hop.
- Every generation of black people, by and large, only really know and love the black culture of their generation and their generation only, thereby making it easy for white appropriation of our culture to become the dominant face of blackness. In this case, young people can argue for Lil Wayne as a great emcee because, relatively speaking, he’s (arguably) the best of what they know and they literally don’t know that much.
This is important here because any conversations about hip-hop in the mainstream runs into the problem that most listeners of hip-hop listen to only corporate artists and usually just the most recent ones. Americans, by and large, aren’t big with the history; music listeners (for any genre, but particularly black music) are worse.
(To be fair, my generation wasn’t really that much better. We had reverence for the pioneers but we weren’t any better than this new generation is with their stunning lack of knowledge of, say, the Native Tongues.)
This is a black problem: The downside of innovation is that we forget the last thing we created, and sometimes dismiss it outright.
So, that Rakim doesn’t appear on this list of rappers says more about Vibe‘s feeling that people just wouldn’t recognize him than it does about Rakim. Had Rakim been on the list and not ended up the winner (or even in the last round), it would immediately have killed the contest’s credibility with heads.
That said, by omitting him (and KRS-One, Kool Moe Dee, Queen Latifah, Big Daddy Kane, Bahamadia..I could go on) heads know that this ain’t about hip-hop at all, so much as corporate hip-hop as a distinct offshoot.
The problem as I’ve written about in other pieces is that by marginalizing actual hip-hop, corporate hip-hop and writing and thinking around it become the dominant face of hip-hop. It’s important to draw a line between hip-hop and corporate hip-hop. They are very different things.
The other, less understood piece is that because of white appropriation one of the crucial aspects of hip-hop has been lost: the internal quality control.
One of the great aspects of hip-hop that contributed to its creative evolution was this sense that you wanted to be better than the other guy, you worked hard at the craft in order to be better than the other guy, and you had to deliver or be, for all intents and purposes, cast out.
This is no longer the case.
Nowadays, one’s sense of greatness comes from how many records you sell. And since white folks (usually middle-class white teens) buy records, hip-hop has been completely gutted over the last 15 years as rappers shoot for the middle instead of the black.
And black folks have bought into this notion that one is above reproach or criticism if they sell a bunch of records, which runs counter to everything that hip-hop is. And so you have the rise of wack artists like Puffy and others who get by by calling their detractors and critics “haters”, thereby destroying the quality control that defined hip-hop for two generations. That black folks haven’t resisted this shift says a lot about the power of money and status.
This is why, in addition to the flagrant omissions, dubious additions on this list immediately kill the credibility of the contest.
Souljah Boy? Rich Boy? Lil Mama? Bow Wow?
All this said, Eminem is definitely a terrific rapper. I’d put him in my Top 20. I will even admit to sorta liking that he beat out Jay-Z, the laziest of the most gifted rappers in the game.
But come on…Rakim, Rick and KRS ain’t even dead yet.
The irony is that given all I’ve said a white rapper came out on top.
I don’t make it up folks, I just call it as I see it.
*Embiggen was coined by Carletta and any use of said phrase costs about 35 cents each use.