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
The legendary acts that had
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
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 Clinton's
Clinton'sAmerica 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 Obama
Obamashowed that, yes, he could work hard, play by the rules and get
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.