In hip-hop, there’s a constant debate over the merits of the music and community that creates and supports it. This is not about the naysayers who hate hip-hop or more notable, people who create and love the music. It’s almost subliminal racism at its best, but that’s another topic, perhaps another time. I speak of within hip-hop’s own circle, and the circles within the ripple effect and distant echoes. I’ll get to the point at the end of the first paragraph, which happens now.
The RZA used a Richard Pryor sample when he created Ol’ Dirty Bastard‘s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” which said “what the fuck, you can’t even sing? “You have to sing to get some pussy” Pryor was referring to entertainers and how some try to sing but can’t. Yet entertainers know that in order to get a lot of attention from the ladies, you have to appeal to women not only for sexual attraction, but because women are a great target audience because they will use their money to buy and buy frequently. In fact, I had read an article a few years ago on how Best Buy chose to make changes in their store when it came to gadgets because they realized women loved gadgets, a perception that shifted from nerdy/geek men loving electronic toys to women buying them just as much, if not more. In other words, Best Buy chose to sing to get that “commerce vagina”. Sexist, perhaps, but also true.
Up until 1995, there was always an unfair perception that rap music and the soul/R&B world should not mix. If you were a rapper, you rapped. If you were a singer, you would sing songs. There was no official law of course, but by the time the mid-80’s came around, the sing songy ways of rap music from the late 70’s to early 80’s, much of which was influenced by soul, funk, and disco, became a thing of the past and thus created the first “old school” era of hip-hop. Run-DMC shed the fat and created its own set of hip-hop essentials, and it was all about a new attitude.
If you were a rapper and you did sing, it always seemed to be done as a side/snide joke. Yet a lot of people always had a foot in its own past. Think of Kangol Kid‘s second part of his verse in UTFO‘s “Ya Cold Wanna Be With Me”. He initially speaks of being dope and def, but the moment he steps up to a fine lady, he sings.
In other words, Kangol was singing to get… his.
When the singing was done as a joke, everyone understood the joke: rappers just don’t sing because they are not singers. Case in point: Erick Sermon in EPMD‘s “So Whatcha Sayin'” (click to the 3:36 mark for the reference in question):
To me, 1990 was a year of uncertainty because some questioned whether or not this great music, a million dollar industry at the time, would become a fad. No one knew what was “next” so people just kept on creating. Some artists didn’t make it past 1991, while a new group of artists would push throughout the decade and stand out on their own. There was a lady from New Jersey whose rap name meant “delicate and sensitive”, and she proudly proclaimed she was the queen. Dana Owens became Queen Latifah, and at the same time she was proving herself as an MC not to mess with, her first single had her singing the hook. “Wrath Of My Madness” was Latifah rapping and singing, but no one was complaining. Is it because she was a lady, and singing was simply an accepted “feminine touch” and if so, did that suggest that men who did sing were “soft”? Very much. Latifah continued singing in tracks like “Inside Out”, “Come Into My House”, and a remix of “Latifah’s Law” found on the Come Into My House 12″ single. When she released her second album, the rapping/singing combination continued, even two tracks that were vocals only. As she moved into acting, she found herself singing and rapping the theme of the Living Single theme. Even though Kid of Kid ‘N Play and CL Smooth also touched on a few vocals here and there, it didn’t seem as if that was the accepted norm. You either joked around or allowed “real” singers to do the job.
By the time March of 1995 came around, hip-hop was blessed in Wu-ness,or what I call the Wu-Tang Clan phenomenon. At this point, the buzz for Wu’s first album had died down a bit, but people were paying attention to the Gravediggaz and Method Man‘s first album, with awareness that other members would drop solo albums too. Ol’ Dirty Bastard was the loon of the group and no one knew what to expect from him in terms of a solo project. When he said he had no father to his style, he was basically saying that he was the bastard of hip-hop, and that his approach to his music would be fatherless. Yet on his album he was doing songs that sounded like Michael Jackson or The Whispers. Hell, the intro to the album had him doing a Blowfly rendition of Roberta Flack‘s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. Appropriately, The RZA included that Richard Pryor sample that directly told ODB that he could not sing, but in order to get some, he would have to sing. Sing he did. If ODB was serious, it’s obvious he could carry a note, but he was the eternal fool. Yet by reviving that sample on how you have to sing to get the pussy, it’s almost as if it sent out unspoken signals to the hip-hop community: you may not sing or sing well, but in order to be noticed, you may have to pull something off “for the ladies”.
It seemed as hip-hop’s popularity was at an all time high in the mid-90’s, it struggled with how popular it was becoming. People wanted to create a mythological East vs. West battle while at the same time, artists from the mid-west and South were carving a niche for themselves, all while artists from other countries were saying “hey, we are worthy of being heard too”. For a short time, people in the U.S. were paying attention to rappers from Canada and while that was a short-lived trend in the mainstream, it allowed people to realize that as the music was being pushed as something corporate, the underground is easily just as viable and reliable. At the same time, more rappers started to incorporate more singing into their works. Hip-hop barely suffered ridicule from people who said the music lacked soul, and yet it was using samples that dipped deeply into the soul, funk, and jazz records for samples and inspiration. The music had long stopped being about just two turntables and a microphone, hip-hop’s equivalent of rock’s “three chords and the truth”, it was bigger than the recording studio EPMD found themselves in on the cover of Strictly Business. It was record collections abandoned and forgotten, as producers were not afraid to show their love of the music as rappers found it possible to be cool over music that still sounded cool. As Stetsasonic once said in “Talkin’ All That Jazz”, “rap brings back old R&B/and if we would not, people could’ve forgot”. People were forgetting, or at least if radio was any indication.
In time, it almost seemed every hip-hop song that became a hit had to have a vocalized hook. But then things changed when the rapper themselves would provide said hooks on a regular basis. Outkast were definitely monarchs of that.
For awhile, if you were from Atlanta, it means you were never afraid to show your love of soul music. In fact, look at Goodie Mob‘s debut video. Whoever dreamed that Cee-Lo would have the kind of attention he has 16 years down the line? People were quick to single him out as exceptional.
A few years before this, people wanted Lauryn Hill tor release solo albums and just leave The Fugees altogether, and yet she remained strong by being L-Boogie:
Moving elsewhere, even a track like Juvenile‘s “Huh” had a chorus which helped make the song memorable when his unintelligible lyrics were not:
Even Eminem, a rapper that people used to fear because he was white and ruthless, can now be found on TV everyday with his music in the background due to him switching to an accessible sing-song style. In other words, he’s not afraid… to sing to get some. In the words of the Fugees, it seemed everyone wanted to have the vocab, and no one was afraid to admit that yes, it’s okay to sing if you were a hip-hop artist. That’s now the norm, and yet what the norm has indirectly done is blur the line between what is hip-hop and what is R&B. There’s a lot of music that’s clearly R&B but called hip-hop but isn’t. There’s a lot of music that’s hip-hop but sounds nothing like R&B… but then again, it does, doesn’t it?
Hip-hop has always been musically diverse through the music producers and DJ’s sampled, but rappers have wanted to take that spotlight and credit too. You just don’t want to be the next KRS-One, Rakim, or Big Daddy Kane, you want the prestige Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green have. Audiences struggle with what’s appropriate and what isn’t, because that simple music that used to be about beats, rhyme & life has become much more than that. Maybe it has always been much more, or is it too much? Hip-hop has always been argued as being a music for the youth, yet it’s going through a midlife crisis as it tries to maintain death threats and fears of getting old. Hip-hop doesn’t want to be seen as being music for your mother, even though hip-hop’s initial mainstream audiences included grandma knowing the lines to “It’s Nasty” and popping to “Scorpio”. Grandma knew how to “get some” because she was (and perhaps still is) the target of someone wanting that some. The Lion King retold us about the “Circle Of Life”, and hip-hop is its own vicious circle spinning around like a Tasmanian devil, but it’s one that continues to bring people from each generation in order to get some of its own sumthin sumthin.