Thanks to fans and foes


1997 was a hard

year to be a fan of hip-hop music. The West Coast-East Coast rivalry that had

dominated the scene for a few years ended with the assassinations

of the leaders of both sides: 2Pac and Biggie Smalls.

The legendary acts that had

ushered in a golden era of rap for the previous decade -- Public Enemy, Dr. Dre, A Tribe Called Quest -- were weary

after years of hard work only to find themselves suddenly described as old

school. The flow of world-changing hit records slowed to a trickle.

The popular music scene, in

general, shifted away from hip-hop and into formulated teen pop music, the

successors of which continue to irritate non-teenagers even now.

It was also the time when a lot

of people I knew, including myself, stopped paying attention to rap music for

the most part. The deaths of 2Pac and Biggie were monumental losses, even if

their words had turned their rhymes about guns and revenge into self-fulfilling

prophecies of their own murders.

Rap emerged out of the turmoil of ravaged inner city youth

of the 1980s, who were quite deliberately not invited to become a part of

Ronald Reagan's America. The prosperity that Reagan brought to America didn't

make it inside the city limits; it congregated in the mostly white suburbs.

But MTV brought that hard urban reality into suburban

neighborhoods and white kids, at least a lot of them, became big fans and spent

their money making millionaires out of rappers and launching millions of dreams

of rap stardom for kids both white and black.

The music helped build bridges of communication between

African-American youth and white suburban youth. Music fans of all stripes

appreciated the lyrical excellence of Public Enemy's Chuck D.

Even though Public Enemy had affiliations to Louis

Farrakhan's Nation of Islam

, or maybe because of it, white people were

always welcomed at their concerts and treated with respect and dignity by the

bow-tied, smiling but deadly serious Black Muslim bodyguards who served as


It wasn't as if rap music had magically fulfilled Martin

Luther King's dream and erased 400 years of history, but it was something. The

prosperity of President Bill


America was shared gladly with the residents of our cities during

the 1990s. The prospect of a better future seemed likely, maybe even probable.

The federal budget was balanced. People were getting jobs again.

It was about 1997 that things started to go wrong, not just

in hip-hop music, but in America. The Republicans wasted two years trying to

impeach Clinton and then spent another year planning to steal the next

presidential election. Clinton's good times gave way to a lost decade after

9/11, its aftermath (wars, lies, torture) and the global financial system

collapsing around us.

Rappers stopped talking about ships sailing cargo holds of

slaves and started talking about money, sex, drugs and other forms of

self-destruction. From what I can tell today, the love my generation had for

the unity rap, at its best, has almost disappeared among today's youth. It's

just another form of music.

To be sure, we are also a more integrated society today than

we were even 15 years ago. The influence of Mexican and Central American

culture has made our nation even more multihued than before. In other ways, all

our different cultures are more insular and closed than before.

Classic rap is just another form of nostalgia now. The

visions of its prophets went unfulfilled and music concerned itself with

dinosaur rock bands, pretty girls showing off their bodies and rappers going on

and on about violence and sex.

The tragedy of the lost opportunity of a more perfect

America that Clinton left us is that it has almost no chance of happening

again. Our budget will never again be balanced, our political system is even

more broken than it was and our citizens are scrambling just to stay afloat

financially and praying their cars don't break down or someone gets sick.

The most idealistic visions of the world the old rappers saw

culminated in the joyous night Barack


showed that, yes, he could work hard, play by the rules and get

elected president.

He still has a better chance than anyone else of leading the

country back to the greatness of its noblest visions. He's uniquely suited to

do it, but whether a polarized and angry America will let him ... well, that's

another story. It doesn't look good for him at the moment.

For those who aren't old enough to remember an era when

people were optimistic about their country and had good cause to feel that way,

I'm sorry. It has existed in every generation of America except this one. But

the rot we see now started in earnest the day in Las Vegas, 15 years ago, that

Tupac Shakur's heart stopped beating.


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