Before hip-hop became the multi-billion dollar industry it is today, there was a group of young lyricists who were ahead of their time. Telling unfiltered truths about the struggles of blacks in the late 1960s and early 70s, they called themselves The Last Poets.
“When we did that first album, I had no idea it was going to catch on like it did,” Abiodun Oyewole told theGrio. “We were dealing directly with issues that concerned us.”
When Oyewole, one of the founding members of The Last Poets, listens to today’s hip-hop, he says the music has lost its political edge.
“It’s like hip-hop has taken the backseat to the industry and they’re playing with it like you play with Play-Doh or something,” Oyewole said. “You don’t hear anything that’s got any kinda of impact.”
From the raw sounds of spoken word on street corners, to block parties in the South Bronx, once hip-hop emerged in the late 1960s, it never looked back.
But it wasn’t until Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released The Message in 1982 when the harsh realities of poverty and broken neighborhoods were put front and center by hip-hop artists.
The 1980s saw the rise of many emcees and groups who made political protest and social consciousness an integral part of their music. None more than the brash and uncompromising Public Enemy, whose music was as much a movement as it was hip-hop.
“Public Enemy is forever linked to politics and hip-hop,” said Chuck Creekmur, founder of AllHipHop.com. “Songs like Fight the Power, which I think is the ultimate anthem for empowering the youth (and) By the time I get to Arizona — (about when) the MLK holiday which was being in dispute (in that state).”
“You think about the messages they were putting out, particularly at a time when the murder rates in African-American communities were probably at the highest they had ever been in history — at the time it was something that was absolutely needed,” said Fred Mwangaghunga, founder of the celebrity gossip site Mediatakeout.com.
“Flavor Flav — as much as a fool as he presents himself on the mic in Public Enemy — he was a wise fool,” said music writer and critic Toure. “He did 911 is a Joke, talking about the difficulty of getting emergency medical services in the community. That is a political song.”
At the time, other artists, like KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions rallied against black-on-black violence. And female emcees such as Queen Latifah and MC Lyte fought to empower young women.
“If you’re talking about political dialogue in rap, of course Queen Latifah’s UNITY is going to come up,” Creekmur said. “Even MC Lyte’s Georgie Porgie. That was a political statement about a young black man who goes onto die of cancer.”
Groups like N.W.A. rapped about the horrors of police brutality. Ice T and his heavy metal band Body Count released the single Cop Killer in 1992 — which the L.A. rapper was forced to pull after intense battles over censorship.
Later that year, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton criticized rapper Sister Souljah’s comments on the L.A. riots…setting off a storm of controversy and establishing a new political catchprhase.
In the late 80s and early 90s, hip-hop and its artists had plenty to say – and more people were listening than ever before.
“I grew up in New York City and in New York City in 1991, the same time they were talking about Fight the Power, there were 2,000 murders in the streets. Now there are 200 murders in New York City,” said Mwangaguhunga. “The political message was absolutely necessary in the 90s for young people, and while i think it would be very good to have it right now, it’s probably not as necessary.”
According to Kevin Powell, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in New York who says he grew up in hip-hop culture, the politically-charged messages of the 80s and 90s simply reflected the times.
WATCH SPIKE LEE DISCUSS MONEY CORRUPTING HIP-HOP:
“Most of the music, no matter what genre we’re talking about from jazz to hip-hop, is actually apolitical,” Powell said. “The music becomes political if there’s something political happening in the community.”
But in 2010, with rap music more popular than ever, where have the messages gone?
Powell says it’s largely the mass media and industry executives who promote just one side of the coin.
“You know, you would think that all young people of color do is dance in videos and swing from poles and play basketball,” Powell said. “That’s unacceptable. What the hip-hop industry has done is ultimately destroyed hip-hop the culture.”
But hip-hop pioneer and music mogul Russell Simmons says today’s hip-hop artists can still impact politics.
“I think the hip-hop community is a very progressive community that speaks to the next america and reminds them of what’s important,” Simmons said. “So that’s political.”
One rapper who isn’t shy about speaking out is Kanye West. In 2005, at a telethon to support victims of Katrina, he famously said: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
“Kanye’s message about ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ was very powerful — not perfectly delivered — but very eloquently and passionately delivered, and definitely something many black people felt,” said Toure.
No political leader has been celebrated on records nor attracted as much attention from hip-hop artists than President Barack Obama. Artists from Young Jeezy to Will.i.am to Common have created anthems for the first black man in the White House.
But some say the title “First Hip-Hop President” might be a stretch for Obama.
“Chuck D is the hip-hop president,” said Creekmur of AllHipHop.com. “I think if we had a president who was truly hip-hop, then I think a lot would be different.”
Jay-Z is playing on President Obama’s iPod, and the Jay-Z single Dirt off your Shoulder became a signature moment during the 2008 presidential campaign when he mimic the motion as a way of also brushing off his critics.
Some say Obama’s presence in the White House is an opportunity for hip-hop artists to reconnect with political messages.
“Here you have this idea that hip-hop is sort of drifting away from politics, and now that you have an African-American president of the United States, hip-hop has almost no choice but to address it,” said Mwangaguhunga. “It’s a great introduction or reintroduction of politics into hip-hop.”
Although the faces in power might be different today, Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets says that many of the issues he was talking about in 1970 are still on the table.
“Money is bad. Jobs are not in existence. Brothers is going to jail like it’s a corner store,” Oyewole said. “I mean things are not great.”
He says it will take a new generation of spoken word artists to politically motivate hip-hop.
“Protest music exists wherever there is oppression,” said Talib Kweli, a hip-hop artist who has been credited with incorporating activist lyrics into some of his music. “I’m an entertainer. My job is to sound good and make good music, and because I care about my community and because I’m a member of my community, I use the fact that I’m an entertainer to raise issues. That’s our job as citizens.”
With rappers like Drake speaking out recently against off shore oil drilling, and Talib Kweli releasing Papers Please in protest of the Arizona immigration law, political messages may become more widespread in the hip-hop music of 2010.