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The History of Hip-Hop Emcees

    Most hip hop heads would agree that rap music in its heyday was an incredibly diverse genre that had room for hippies, hustlers, militants, gangsters, teachers, romantics, intellectuals, party animals, poets and more.

    From the ‘80s to the mid-’90s in particular, rap boasted a wide range of styles, images, messages and sounds. Think about some of the most influential acts pre-2000 and how different from one another they all were — from emcees like Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, Rakim, KRS-One, Jay Z and Nas to groups like Public Enemy, N.W.A, De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, Outkast and Mobb Deep to female standouts like MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Lauryn Hill, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Missy Elliott and too many more to name. Artists and groups had unique, well-defined brands that made them instantly recognizable and impossible to imitate.

    But once corporations realized that rap was not a passing fad but a growing phenomenon they could milk for profit, control of the content shifted from black artists who expressed themselves as they saw fit to white executives who paid black artists to express whatever benefited white executives.

    As Kool Moe Doe brilliantly notes in the video below, corporations put their money behind specific sub-genres of rap to the exclusion of all others; it just so happens that these sub-genres undermined black self-empowerment and reinforced centuries-old negative stereotypes about black people.

    So as corporations gained control of rap music — assisted greatly by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — the genre’s diversity steadily disappeared from the mainstream until commercial rap became little more than a barrage of negative black stereotypes set to a beat.

    Turn on any urban radio station today and you already know what you’re going to hear: Songs about fat asses, bad bitches and strip clubs, odes to violence, guns, money, cars, jewelry and more money, all featuring a stunning over-reliance on the n-word. It’s a far cry from the variety, creativity and wisdom that pervaded the genre 20 years ago, and it’s a total abandonment of the original principles of hip hop culture: peace, love, unity, and having fun.

    Save for the select few who have managed to break free from corporate chains, mainstream rappers spread the same self-destructive messages and rap about the same five topics in every song. The content of most commercial rap calls to mind a quote from General George S. Patton: “If everybody’s thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” It’s no surprise that when artists like Kendrick Lamar come along they’re hailed as rap messiahs, simply because they’re talented individuals who can think for themselves.

    Negative black stereotypes are an American tradition

    Obviously these stereotypes about black people are not new. In fact, they’re as American as apple pie and as old as America itself. With slave labor as the economic foundation upon which this country was built, negative ideas about black people were created and widely circulated to “justify” the brutal, inhumane and psychopathic behavior of racist whites within the system of slavery.

    These stereotypes were promoted a variety of ways, from minstrel shows — in which whites donned blackface and depicted blacks as lazy, stupid and shiftless for entertainment — to visual propaganda often depicting blacks as watermelon-loving simpletons or predatory beasts.




    Let’s not forget lynching postcards, in which the brutal murder of blacks was broadly announced and celebrated as a joyous occasion like, say, the birth of a child. All of these efforts served to dehumanize black people and “rationalize” the many crimes committed against them.

    Now that society’s racial dynamics have transformed on the surface, blatantly racist propaganda like this won’t fly.

    Likewise, a 50-year-old white guy telling black people to degrade their women, murder their own kind, lead a criminal lifestyle that’s likely to land them in prison, sell drugs to promote the chemical enslavement of their people, squander their income and commit slow-motion suicide through a variety of dysfunctional behaviors — all while ignoring the many problems facing their community — would be attacked, reviled and run out of town.

    But when the same 50-year-old white guy pays a black rapper to promote said self-destructive messages, it results in record sales, sold-out tours and magazine covers.


    But it is happening, and the stereotypes spread through rap music serve two very clear purposes:

    1. To convince those inside our community that this is who we should be.
    2. To convince those outside our community that this is who we are.

    Mainstream rap is disturbingly effective on both fronts. As a “friendly” form of brainwashing, rap and its repetitive negative messaging over repetitive, catchy beats has the power to influence a broad range of ideas and behaviors, from women getting ass shots to an unarmed black person being killed every 28 hours because their very existence is perceived as a threat.

    So while the ignorance, negativity and foolishness that rules mainstream rap may have a predominantly black face, it’s important to recognize who is behind the scenes orchestrating said ignorance, negativity and foolishness — and why.

    Rappers left to their own devices created incredible art that touched on every aspect of the human experience. Rappers controlled by white executives create anti-black propaganda masked as entertainment. The watermelon imagery has been replaced by jewelry, money, cars and half-naked women, but the message is the same: blacks are simple-minded, ignorant, intellectually bankrupt buffoons at the mercy of their physical appetites.

    “Cui bono?” is a Latin phrase that means “To whose benefit?” It’s a question we should be asking about mainstream rap music. Who benefits from the negative, cartoonish portrayal of black men as dim-witted thugs and black women as voluptuous sex objects whose only value lies in the pleasure they can give men? Hint: It’s not black people.


    Lauren Carter is a writer and editor based in the Boston area. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and check out her blog at