Adam Mansbach 2008

Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing 


Lamenting the demise of hip hop is almost as old as hip hop itself – and certainly as old as  the 1979  release of the Sugarhill Gang's 'Rapper's Delight,' which introduced the world beyond the Holland Tunnel not just to rap, but to the debates about authenticity endemic to the culture.  Not only were the Gang three nobodies from the distant planet of New Jersey, but Big Bank Hank's verses were penned by and borrowed from Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers.  Hank didn't even bother to change the part where Caz spelled out his name.

Today, veteran hip hoppers may not agree on when the Golden Era was, exactly, but everybody knows it's in the rearview mirror.  Whether you wax nostalgic for the park-jams of the seventies, the politically-conscious late-eighties, when Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions were speaking fiery truth to power, or the creative renaissance of the early-nineties, when more pound-for-pound classic material dropped than it ever would again, chances are you're weary and disappointed now, even if you do think L'il Wayne is nice with his.  Perhaps it's no surprise that most still-listening hip hoppers of a certain age are checking primarily for artists who, like us, have weathered the materialistic, misogynistic storm: MF Doom, Pharoah Monch, Ghostface Killah.  Either that or we're rooting through our closets and pulling out shoeboxes full of Stretch and Bob tapes, hoping them shits still play. 

I was at the gym recently, reading Vibe's cover story on Islam and Hip Hop, when I had a minor revelation.  Perhaps months of frustration at the asinine coverage of the presidential race – from nationally-televised debates over lapel pins to the furor over Rev. Wright and the corresponding lack of furor over McCain's nutbag homey, Rev. James Hagee, about whom Frank Rich has a great piece in today's New York Times – had me pre-vexed about the media's power to shape reality.  But it hit me: this is the same cover story The Source did in 1991, when they'd just barely gotten started, and they did it a hundred times better. 

Yup. Remember? Big Daddy Kane, Lakim Shabazz, Poor Righteous Teachers, King Sun, Wise and Daddy-O from Stetsasonic and others, in a lengthy roundtable moderated by Harry Allen – who set the whole thing off by asking if it was presumptuous of a white-owned magazine to be hosting an Islamic Hip Hop Summit.  Seventeen years later, a magazine with far greater resources had devoted less space, less imagination, less everything to the topic, and barely gotten below the surface. 

I went home and unpacked some boxes.  Soon copies of Ego Trip, On The Go, Stress, 4080, Elementary, Rapsheet, One Nut, Life Sucks Die, Rappages and International Graffiti Times covered my floor.  I've been re-reading them all week.  They may lack some of the polish and most of the advertising of today's publications, but they made up for it in flavor, passion, and wit. Every one of the above-named publications was independent, dedicated, a labor of love.  Every one of them is gone now, and so are the kinds of fierce, uneven, unpredictable, argument-starting, culture-critical voices they used to wield.  The corporatization of hip hop goes beyond the music industry; it has narrowed the frame of media coverage, too.   Not only did the indie publications shape the culture instead of reacting to it, they kept the high-post glossies and everybody else honest as well. 

Granted, a lot of other things have happened since these magazines folded in the mid-to-late nineties.  There were a handful of university classes on hip hop then; every school has one now.  We've gone from a handful of credible books to a small library's worth.  Analysis of hip hop happens in packed auditoriums and on national television today, as well as this murky place called the worldwide web.  The best of it carries on the spirit of these magazines, and owes them a debt.  And the vast majority would benefit from going back and checking out what cats had to say when they were writing as a way to prevent the culture they loved from sliding into cartoonish irrelevance.   But as the hip hop press goes, so goes the hip hop nation.

Remember when we used to call it that?


Adam Mansbach, author of the novels Angry Black White Boy and The End of the Jews and former editor of Elementary Hip Hop Journal, is the recipient of a 2008-2009 Future Aesthetics Artist Grant from the Ford Foundation.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing