In October 1999, Yasiin Bey (going by the moniker Mos Def at the time) released his debut album, Black on Both Sides; it was a hip hop classic upon arrival. The first record on the album—an intro really—“Fear Not Of Man” is largely Mos talking, and then rapping, about hip hop and the culture surrounding it. Over a sample of Fela Kuti’s “Fear Not for Man,” Mos addresses a necessary question that hip hop culture (any culture, really) requires: What is going to happen to hip hop in the future? While his album contains 16 additional records that illustrate that hip hop will be alright (hence the classic title), Mos’ direct response to the question of the future of hip hop is both simple and complex. He says, and I’m paraphrasing here, that hip hop goes as the people go. Whatever is happening with the people determines what will happen with hip hop.
“Next time you ask yourself where hip hop is going, ask yourself ‘where am I going? How am I doing?’”
Simple, but complex.
It’s 2020, and America is culturally split. We recently had an election where the most people ever voted in an election to elect Joe Biden to be the 46th President of the United States of America. At the same time, the most people ever came out and also voted to re-elect President Donald Trump back into the White House. America, the people, are divided.
And as hip hop continues to be the most present and viable musical genre, the culture is itself at a crossroads.
Debates and discussions about what even constitutes hip hop rage on all social media platforms where debate exists. Gatekeepers, hoping to preserve a slice of what they believe to be the culture’s essence, love to exclude folks who I’m not even sure care to join in the first place.
A recent Verzuz—the musician “battle” series created by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz that’s become a corporate entity after originally being a way to battle boredom during 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic—pitted Atlanta rappers Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane and while it was by far the most-viewed Verzuz according to the numbers, splinter factions chided this particular pairing as not being hip hop. For many of us, these two are exactly what hip hop is all about, hustlers made good, doing it their way into successful and lucrative careers. Funny enough, though, I’m not sure either of them would consider themselves hip hop artists. Rappers? For sure. Hip hop, though? I don’t know.
In a culture that seems to have more room at the table than ever before, with more opportunities for success than ever before, what does hip hop even mean? Purists point to the Kendrick Lamars, J. Coles, Nases, Jay-Zs and, depending on the week, Kanyes of the world. Drake straddles the line between hip hopper of the old guard—his lyrical skills shouldn’t be questioned—and his insistence on the club banger; sure enough, Drake has broken records for chart bangers held by the likes of The Beatles and Michael Jackson, the kind of once-in-a-lifetime artists that managed to stay authentic and pop at the same time. Hip hop is lyricism; it’s beats, rhymes and life—substance.
What many forget to mention is that it is preferred in packaging that harkens back to a time and sound we respected.
Today’s new sound is synth-heavy. It is bass-heavy. It’s sing-songy. It’s melody-heavy. It’s what Bone Thugs-N-Harmony did in the mid-’90s, updated for the sound of the ‘00s, and heavy on the vibe culture. It’s Lil Baby and 21 Savage and Megan Thee Stallion—for what it’s worth, I could argue that she’s as much of a “throwback” artist as Cole or Kendrick—and a litany of young, hungry rappers and artists who make music, not just hip hop, though rap is the vehicle for delivery.
Hip hop, like all things, has evolved with the times and with the energy of the youth. As the barriers to entry have lowered, the means of production have changed, the sound has changed, the creativity has changed, the energy has changed…the people have changed. Remember what Mos Def said.
On “Juicy,” the first single from The Notorious B.I.G.’s (Biggie) 1994 debut album, Ready to Die, he rapped, “You never thought that hip hop would take it this far.” That statement is part of hip hop culture and coda at this point. Whenever some new innovation or access point to mainstream culture happens through hip hop, somebody utters that line.
And it’s true; in 1994, Biggie was largely talking about personal gains. He never thought that rapping would enable him to level up his entire life to multiple homes, cars, all manner of largesse and the ability to get out of the hood.
It’s a common refrain from rappers that make good, so to speak: “look at what I’ve done with words.” It is part of the ethos of the culture at this point. It’s taken folks from the block to runways in Milan and Paris to Fashion Week to sponsorships with every major corporation on the planet, including shoe brands like Nike and Reebok (fancy that, rappers with shoe deals) and allowed young, largely Black and brown people to earn a living off of what usually started with jotting down words in a notebook.
Hip hop has made it very, very far at this point. Hip hop has impacted every facet of life and I’m not sure that’s going to change. Black cool has been a thing for as long as Black art has existed. Hip hop is art. And hip hop is cool.
In the wake of the infamous police killings in 2020, mixed in with the global COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen hip hop at the forefront of it all. Artists have been in the streets protesting, making music, even being called upon by mayors and governors (Georgia has become ground zero in all facets of 2020 somehow, from flipping from red to blue in the presidential election to rappers T.I. and Killer Mike being called by the mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, to attempt to calm the protests happening in Atlanta and major American cities in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, specifically). Hip hop has always been political, but speaking truth to power is a different animal than being asked to stop pissed off people from exercising their rightful anger. Killer Mike’s 8-minute speech from the Mayor’s office is a testament to this complicated ask; Killer Mike was as pissed as the people in the street but was being asked to help restore order.
Hip hop is where the people are, and whatever the people are doing is what hip hop will be doing.
So where does hip hop go from here? What is the future of hip hop? Well, as I said, it’s simple and complicated. I agree with Mos Def. Wherever we are going as a people is where the culture will go. Nobody saw in 1973 or even 1993 hip hop being as omnipresent as it is in 2020. Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize for a body of work. A Pulitzer. Nobody could have seen that coming. By the end of 1999, hip hop had made major moguls out of a handful of individuals. In 2020, though, lots of people are eating well off of hip hop–from artists to brands.
Who knows what 2021 and beyond will bring. All we know for sure is that, as has been in the past, there will be artists who will transcend. Every year opens new possibilities for what hip hop can be. The culture is not perfect, obviously. It still wrestles with the problems that people wrestle with, for it is a culture built of the people.
So where is hip hop going? I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll tell you once I get there.
Or maybe you can tell me once you get there.
As long as the people are all going somewhere, hip hop will live forever.
Panama Jackson is co-founder and senior editor of Very Smart Brothas and a featured contributor to The Root. Watch him and hip hop photographers Mel D. Cole and Jonathan Mannion discuss hip hop’s past, present, and future for NMAAM’s Hip Hop Scholars 3-part video series, The Conversation.