Hip-Hop’s Evolution: Forsaking Political and Social Awareness for Material Gain

Natalie Meade


Hip-hop culture never fully recovered from the shocking death of  Eric Wright, better known as Easy E, N.W.A. member who succumbed to H.I.V. on March 26, 1995. 


The assassination of Tupac Amaru Shakur on September 13, 1996 also stunned the  hip-hop community. Arguably, he was the voice of inner-city youth spreading the message and reality of the Thug Life during the ‘90s.


The state of affairs in the majority of inner-city communities was bleak when hip-hop reached its peak. Gang rivalries, drug wars, and poverty caused crime rates to skyrocket. N.W.A and 2Pac used music as an avenue to speak out about desolate conditions.


During the 1990s, there was unrelenting controversy surrounding the content of “Gangster Rap.” A thorough content analysis titled “Gangsta Misogyny” conducted by Edward G. Armstrong of Murray University revealed that “22 percent of gangster rap music songs contained violent and misogynist lyrics”. Gangster rap is a genre that reflects the violent environment of inner-city youth; many attribute the violence to the War on Drugs which began in 1982, backed by President Ronald Reagan.


N.W.A.’s. album “Straight Outta Compton” and 2pac’s debut LP, “2PACAlypse Now” both attracted negative attention to the circumstances in the inner cities, and received flack for their content. Explicit lyrics were banned from many mainstream U.S. radio stations and concert venues. Their lyrics expressed the sentiment and reality for many   African-American men in the inner city. In their hit singles, “**** the Police” and “Straight Outta Compton”, N.W.A. was transparent when publicizing the prejudice and neglect minority communities in Los Angeles faced.


In 1991, the members of the infamous rap group parted ways, but the extensive news coverage of the war in the streets, including video coverage of tanks rolling through the streets and gunfire, did not falter.


2PAC did not relent either; he remained a figurehead for gangster rap until his assassination. Though many thought that gangster rap glorified the conflict, in truth, artists solely wanted the injustice to be rectified. 2PAC addresses these issues directly in his song “Soulja’s Story.”


If N.W.A. did not dissolve, and 2Pac hadn’t died, their voices would likely continue to represent and encourage Generation Y.


The  hip-hop visionaries  who passed away during the 1990s were an inspiration for emcees today, but why does the mainstream music of today largely disregard the ongoing issues?



If one can look past the explicit nature of the music during the ‘90s, it is evident that it was politically charged. The overt lyrics were meant to draw attention to the conditions that most inner-city Blacks could not escape, but it seems as though most artists today are afraid to sacrifice a dollar for the sake of kinship.


Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, was up and coming in the early 2000s.  NWA member Dr. Dre discovered the new emcee, giving him the spark he needed in the industry. Eminem’s cut-throat lyrics and flow combined to make him a prominent figure in hip-hop. Finally breaching the colorline of the genre, now all members (and ethnicities) of Generation Y had a rap artist with whom they could relate. Suddenly,  hip-hop was not only for people in inner cities,  but available to the masses.


In 2003, Eminem and Dr. Dre unveiled their own masterpiece, Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent.  He was the catalyst to one major change. 50 Cent  appeared  as a real-life  Superman after being shot 9 times and living to rap about it. His smash hit “In Da Club” rose to the top of the charts .   “Get Rich or Die Trying” was filled with 50’s struggle from Jamaica Queens, but also set the stage for rapping about lavish jewelry, cars, women, and material gain.


Originally, the purpose of  hip-hop was about bringing awareness to the tragedy and shortcomings in Black communities around the country.  Today, however, opulence and material gain are the focus.


Generation Y and technology matured together, rapidly, during the first decade of the new millennium. The advances allowed artists to put music on the Internet for their fans.  Artists are now releasing significantly more music; but with quantity, quality is often sacrificed.


Common, one of the most pure, poetic, and conscious emcees today, released his most recent LP “The Dreamer/The Believer”. Common’s  musical style has not transformed since his first LP “Resurrection,” released in 1994.   He breaches the mold of a mainstream rapper.  Common does not  often release mix-tapes  or sacrifice quality. The “Maya Angelou” of emcees was also rewarded a trip to the White House in May 2011 –an evening that was devoted to poetry. In an article titled, “Conscious Hip Hop Makes a Comeback , New York Times critic, Jon Caramanica, writes that Common’s performance was “met with conservative outrage” and “the episode was a reminder that rap –the idea alone –can still rattle nerves well into its middle age.”


Lupe Fiasco is another artist who consistently challenges American ideologies. His debut album “Food & Liquor,” released in September 2006 received three  Grammy nominations for his atypical style. All of Fiasco’s music challenges the listener to revaluate the bureaucracy.  In an interview with Complex Magazine, Fiasco discusses why he is averted to his most recent album L.A.S.E.R.S.:


“I know the process that went behind it. I know the sneaky business deal that went down behind this song, or the artist or singer or songwriter who wrote this hook and didn’t want to give me this song in the first place. So when I have that kind of knowledge behind it, I’m just kind of neutral to it like, ‘Another day, another dollar.’”

The tracks he raps about have more electronic overtones, but his larger message is still implicit. Still, to understand the message, his fans are required to think.


On the flip side, Kanye West is an example of an artist who, while  considered a musical genius, has lost himself as his profits have risen.  Kanye’s music had the potential to be a catalyst for change and motivation. Yet his music gradually began to lose its luster. 


It’s safe to say that his music no longer inspires conscious  hip-hop fanatics. Many question his loyalty to the community to which he once belonged. In his article, Times critic Caramanica adds that “[Mr. West] belongs to a category of celebrity for whom equality and progress are important subjects, but are measured in terms that might rattle agitpoppers –financial to be sure, but also in range of influence and cultural pervasiveness.” In this regard, Kanye West’s grandiosity in celebration of his personal successes can be misconstrued as neglect for his roots.


One of the most explicit rappers in history, DMX commented on the disparity in hip-hp.“Y’all been eatin’ long enough now, stop bein’ greedy. Just keep it real potna, give it to the needy”.According to DMX, it is time to give hip-hop back to the 99 Percent. 


Today, most critics claim that hip-hop has become a lucrative commodity, bought and sold at a high rate. In an article titled “Time to Occupy Hip-Hop”, TRUTH Minista Paul Scott contests who should control  hip-hop culture. “People are fed up with the current state of  hip-hop and are ready to take it back from the 1 percent that are controlling the direction and culture.”


An editorial by Public Enemy’s Chuck D states that the “mimic of the VIACOM-sanctioned video has run tired, because it shows off, does NOT inspire, and says NOTHING.”


N.W.A. and 2Pac’s politically charged music is filled with messages that spread awareness and aim to spark a revolution.  2Pac was the inspiration for Tunisian rapper El General, whose song “Rais Lebeld” sparked a national revolution. El General was arrested on January 6, 2011 for protesting “…rampant corruption and the lack of civil liberties.” However since the arrest, he “released songs that have encouraged uprisings around the Middle East”. 


Somehow, with the promise of revolution and change gone, the true essence of  hip-hop has been lost. It is now up to the  likes of  Lupe Fiasco, Common, and NAS and future artists to resurrect  hip-hop’s purpose. 


Photos: Top Streetwear (Flickr, Creative Commons); Corey-Adam Crowley (Flickr, Creative Commons).


not popular
Bottom Slider: 
Out Slider