Some time after Jay-Z wore a Che Guevara T-shirt for him MTV disconnected gig in 2001, the ‘urban’ clothing store in my local shopping center – the place where I bought all my Enyce, Sean John, Ecko and Marithé + François Girbaud – started wearing them. Not long after, they had a pair of Malcolm Xt-shirts. Then there were the Black Panther Party parties. There was no brand name behind it, just screen-printed shirts with radical icons on the front. They might cost $20. Soon these personalized billboards made up about 90 percent of the T-shirts in my wardrobe.
Everyone in my high school wore them too, but I took them off as fad fighters. I didn’t believe they had self-knowledge. Their third eye was not open. They couldn’t possibly beat it. They didn’t even listen to Dead Prez.
If you (God help me) are “awake” now, you were “conscious” then. Part of being aware meant choosing to listen to “conscious rap”, as opposed to “mainstream” or “gangsta” or “bling bling” rap. Conscious rap formed the “real” one, while everything else was a renunciation of the artist’s responsibility – towards hip-hop and black people in general.
At the turn of the century, listening to conscious rap gave you an identity, one that contrasted with the materialistic and selfish culture that my generation was constantly accused of perpetuating. It meant something to us, to me, beyond ideas of ‘self-knowledge’. Embracing awareness meant defining yourself as different, or explaining why you never belonged: Surely all the ills of a teen’s life had everything to do with the fact that I’d rather listen to Mos Def and learn about the hypocrisy of America’s war on drugs, and nothing to do with my own social awkwardness. It wasn’t the fact that I couldn’t dance (and therefore no girls would dance with me) that caused my disdain for Lil Jon – it was because I was operating at a higher level of consciousness that saw “going crunk” as a distraction from the political project of black liberation.
But that joyless devotion to being “conscious” was never accompanied by any sharp political analysis or in-depth historical reading — it usually involved believing in conspiracy theories about alleged slave owner Willie Lynch and wearing a red, black, and green wristband. I was ‘conscious’ in terrifying quotes, while unaware of the world I was supposed to change.
I now think of conscious rap for two reasons: the return of Black Star and Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, mr. Morale & The Big Steppers† Black Star’s Mos Def and Talib Kweli helped define conscious rap as a subgenre in the late ’90s, and Kendrick is one of the most successful heirs to that legacy. As much as those rappers intended for an earlier version of me, the tension is now gone. Maybe that has more to do with my own personal growth than theirs, but there’s the fact that I to have grown, while the conscious rappers who had a certain amount of influence on me have stood still.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s 1982 classic “The Message” was the first major conscious rap record, in that it marked a significant departure from hip-hop’s partying roots, choosing to describe the destruction and despair that wrought in the ghettos. the early Reagan era. It spawned a number of imitators such as Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That” and “Hard Times” as well as the Furious Five’s own “New York, New York.” You could include Kurtis Blow’s “If I Ruled the World” in there as a more optimistic take on this theme: “If I ruled the world, were king on the throne / I would make peace in any culture, build the homeless a home. ”