After the debut of Illmatic (Nasir Jones), the bar was raised for the quality of hip hop music. High expectations for the art form became even more of a reality after the loss of hip hop’s genius producer James Yancey (Jay Dee aka J Dilla). With the release of Hip Hop is Dead (Nasir Jones) in 2006, the same year of J Dilla’s passing, Nas was the first to proclaim the culture had been lost. Some agreed with the artist and many denounced the thought of his statement, but regardless of opinions it did spark a question in my mind. Who is hip hop’s elite? This is a question I give serious consideration because many rappers and producers lack the passion of the legends of yesteryears. Today I see artists more concerned with the business aspect of the music over the art. Is the chart topping rapper of the day a businessman or dope mc? Possibly both? I am not sure but I feel the culture is somewhat passion deficient.
I remember the day I went to the record store to get Illmatic. Cutting school was rare so I made the exception for this album’s release date. Rock n’ Soul off 34th St. and 7th Ave in Manhattan was my regular record store back then. As I made my way to the record section of the store I saw Primo, DJ Premier, picking up a copy of Illmatic. This seemed real odd to me because he produced tracks on the album and could have easily gone down to Columbia Records and gotten promos. After giving my props I asked the question, “Why are you buying the record when you can get it for free?” Primo’s answer was simple, “I just wanna support”. That moment changed my perspective for life. Premier is a true hip hop supporter and one of the greatest producers to ever do it. Supporting the artist meant preserving the quality of the music. When Donuts (J Dilla) came out I was again changed for life. No mc’s just raw production and quality, I had to support.
So who makes up hip hop’s elite today? Would Primo go to the record store to pick up that new Wheezy 12 inch? How about the Lupe Fiasco album? Maybe the newest Nas release? Only Primo knows! As for my crates, I saved space for Lupe Fiasco. Post Illmatic and the J Dilla era I have focused more on the beat makers and producers in hip hop. True school mc’s keep hip hop fresh and new, but more than ever people are listening for the beats. The music in the background has always been relevant. It is the voice of hip hop that has been muted for the moment. Beats and production are now in the forefront while mc’s/rappers embark on reinventing the vocal aspect of the music. Nas made it hard for a lot of rappers to follow but not impossible. J-Live, John Robinson, Elzhi, Gift of Gab, Talib Kweli and Lupe Fiasco are a few artist redefining the art to make it viable again. Dilla made it hard for producers to shine but it didn’t stop MF Doom, Madlib, Ta’raach, Black Milk, Kev Brown or 9th Wonder. Good beats and rhymes are out there and these are just a few artist included in my group of hip hop’s elite.
Find hunger and passion and you too will find hip hop’s elite. Nas is from New York and Dilla is from Detroit. Both cities have artist who are pushing the culture forward but other locations are holding down hip hop as well, namely California, Maryland and North Carolina. If you love good music you might want to check the underground. Yes I miss the 95 essence of hip hop. I also miss the 88 era of hip hop. The point I’d like to drive home is embrace the future. Elite mc’s, rappers, beat makers and producers are alive! Wake up and let hip hop shine its light.