In the beginning, hiphop was a thriving democracy of personalities, issues, sounds, and styles. There were rappers who were on the hippie tip (De La Soul), the trad B-boy tip (Main Source), the hardcore tip (Schoolly D), the feminist tip (Queen Latifah), the Afrocentric tip (X-Clan), the eccentric tip (Kwamé the Boy Genius), the Islamic tip (Poor Righteous Teachers), the cosmic tip (Jungle Brothers), the black power tip (Public Enemy), the terrorist tip (Paris), the gangster tip (NWA), and even the whimsy tip (Sir Mix-A-Lot).
This list is by no means exhaustive. Between 1980 and 1996, hiphop represented the mad variety of the culture that it emerged from. And there was even the sense that to make it big as a rapper or producer you had to introduce something completely new, some area of black life that had not been explored, a mode that was either unknown or neglected or was completely invented from scratch, as was the case with Slick Rick—part street, part British royalty, part pornographer, part Shakespearean moralist.
Around the mid-'90s however, this democracy went into sharp decline and was eventually replaced by the dictatorship of the gangster mode. Latifah was replaced by Lil' Kim, Chuck D by Jay-Z, Slick Rick by Snoop Dogg, Guru by DMX, and so on. The first rappers in this order had different agendas and presentations; the second were all saying much the same thing.
This loss of diversity also meant the end of politics in hiphop, which went completely underground in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Brooklyn. This decline and transformation was noted recently by none other than Too Short, a rapper who today is mostly known for his contributions to crunk or the Dirty South, but who began his career in the 1980s by releasing both X-rated albums and conscious rap albums alternately. In fact, he entered the hiphop mainstream in 1988 not with smut and mack-style rhymes but with a masterpiece of hiphop existentialism: "Life Is... Too Short."
In an interview with HipHopDX, Too Short stated that around the middle of the 1990s, there was a concerted effort (he even calls it a conspiracy) by the record industry to end hiphop's "balance" (between positive rap and negative rap—or what I describe as its democracy) and to just focus on the negative shit. "The executive running the company [was] advising me to put out an entire album of just cursing and sex," Too Short said. "You couldn't get [the positive] Too Short tracks on the radio in the early days. But now I'm saying 'Shake That Monkey'—that song is literally saying shake your vagina—and it gets played on the radio."
True, "Life Is... Too Short" may not have been on the radio in the early days, but its gorgeous black-and-white video was regularly featured on Yo! MTV Raps. But his point is this: Around the mid-'90s, there was real pressure from above for rappers to stick with "sex and violence." By the start of the 2000s, the transition was complete. Hiphop became mono-vocal and apolitical.
Hiphop, which Chuck D once described as the "CNN of the ghetto," had almost nothing to say about the 2008 financial crash or the home foreclosure crisis that began in black neighborhoods in Rustbelt cities. When Occupy Wall Street erupted in 2011, Jay-Z, one of the few rappers to enjoy the monetary benefits of hiphop's de-democratization, at first tried to make a profit from the movement by selling T-shirts that essentially diluted its message with the declaration "Occupy All Streets." Later, he dismissed Occupy Wall Street as incoherent and cold to what he thought made America great: the entrepreneurial spirit. Black Lives Matter, too, completely caught hiphop by surprise. The days of rapping "Fuck the police" had long been forgotten, and the rapper on the controversial Rodney King–era track "Cop Killer," Ice-T, was now playing a cop on NBC's long-running Law & Order: SVU.
There was, however, one passionate hiphop response to the death of Michael Brown (an unarmed black teen shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014—this event triggered the Black Lives Matter movement), and that was Killer Mike's. This Atlanta-based rapper entered the mainstream in 2003 by way of collaborations with Outkast. But he soon disappeared, and the world was just about to completely forget about him when he reappeared in a spectacular fashion with one of the veterans of indie hiphop, El-P, as Run the Jewels. They released a self-titled record in 2013. The following year, Killer Mike was on YouTube talking honestly about police brutality. The next year, he appeared on YouTube again, but this time as a major supporter of a presidential candidate who needed some black credibility: Bernie Sanders.
Killer Mike stated clearly and passionately that the issues at the center of Sanders's platform were of the greatest importance to the lives of ordinary black Americans: prison reform, universal health care, ending the war on drugs, and funding public education. For the most part, leaders of the Democratic Party focus on issues that concern the middle class (this includes Barack Obama), but Sanders's issues directly address the poor. And the poverty rate for black Americans is 26 percent, meaning one in four black Americans shares an income of $22,000 or below with three other people. Sorry, but no politician other than Sanders has anything substantial to offer this group. Killer Mike realized this. And soon after expressing his position on the race, other rappers began to follow him out of hiphop's political graveyard.
"You know, before I knew that Killer Mike was involved with Bernie, I liked what I was hearing about him," the veteran NYC rapper Nas said to the Daily Beast in an interview posted on March 5. "I liked the people that were supporting him. And Killer Mike, once I saw that he was with him..." Nas wasn't alone. There also was Lil B, Bun B, Scarface, Rae Sremmurd, and T.I.
Some of these rappers are young, some old, some very famous, others almost famous, and some were educated in a hiphop world that had no Queen Latifah demanding respect and not to be called a bitch. They made records at a time when the industry rewarded sex, misogyny, and violence above all. But it is remarkable that all of these rappers are taking a very public and clear position in the current presidential race. Indeed, because of the growing Sanders/Killer Mike crew, Hillary Clinton had to get a hiphop posse of her own to stay relevant: Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, and Snoop Dogg. Whoever winds up winning the Democratic nomination, the campaign has marked the return of the CNN vision Chuck D had in mind back in the day.
Who would've guessed that the political rejuvenation of hiphop would be a 74-year-old, Jewish, white politician who wears ugly suits? Because of his people-focused platform, hiphop finally has something to say about the state of things—the economy, income inequality, the racists who follow Donald Trump, voting rights, and more. Obama might be the first black president, but he is one who Jay-Z loves and understands. Sanders has not won Jay-Z's support.