Nostalgia Holds Hip-Hop Back*

My friend Cameron Kunzelman wrote a piece on his hatred of nostalgia in the video game world. He basically argues that nostalgia for old games should be regarded with caution because it can be a vehicle for reproducing problematic tropes and precluding innovation. The example that resonated the most for me was Duke Nukem Forever, one of the most unnecessary sequels of all time.

I mention Cameron’s post because this kind of unquestioning yearning for the past is what I was getting at in my last post when I told commenters on hip-hop articles to stop invoking the 90’s. I’d like to expand that a little more.

To clarify, I don’t contest the claim the 90’s was an era of very groundbreaking and incredible music. I just contest the claim that that’s all that happened in the 90’s. Alongside Lauryn Hill receiving Grammys, Busta Rhymes having million dollar video budgets and P. Diddy dating J-Lo (Yes, that’s my synopsis of 90’s hip-hop), kids were growing up without parents, tough welfare reform was making it harder for people to receive [already limited] government assistance and the War on Drugs aka the War on people who were coerced into depending on drugs to make a living, was in full effect, among other things. 

I mention these few things as a reminder that 90’s hip-hop is underscored by an abundance of  pain and suffering. When that pain and suffering is ignored and the wish for the return of the 90’s comes true, we get Rick Ross, the lie that continues to grow bolder and bigger (literally). Brandon Soderberg sees Rick Ross’ persona as a misreading of the 90’s. I agree, but I think Ross’ persona is also a longing for the 90’s.

For instance, watch this video:

What stands out to me about the making of Ross’ video is that it was filmed in Calliope Projects in New Orleans, Louisiana. Those projects are noted for being the place where Master P, Silkkk the Shocker and C-Murder, hugely successful 90’s rappers, all grew up. Their success makes Calliope Projects highly symbolic.Ross was definitely tapping into the symbolism when he decided to film his video there. In fact, he makes this explicit toward the end of the video during his short monologue (starts at 7:34).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with symbolism. In fact, the residents of those projects mostly seem to have enjoyed being symbols and participating in the making of Ross’ video. That being said, I think the guy in the orange shirt toward the end of the video (he starts speaking at the 8:00 mark)  really puts things into perspective. It’s unclear whether he is responding to the video shoot or to something else (maybe the renovation of the Superdome?), but I think we can get at the heart of what he’s saying when he asks, “But what about me? What about the children?”

In essence, I think this guy is saying that it’s cool that Calliope Projects and its residents are seen as symbols of “the struggle” but what does that do for his struggle, the actual struggle? Rick Ross and his company may have given the residents of Calliope Projects a day they’ll never want to forget, but where will his crew be on the days that these residents need to forget to continue living?

By reproducing a site of struggle from the 90’s, Ross does nothing to address that struggle. This is the problem that Cameron sees in nostalgia-driven video games. Ross, like contemporary video game companies, has the resources to innovate, to reinvent, to recycle, but all he does is reproduce.

On second thought, that’s a weak comparison. Rather than comparing Ross and video game companies, we should compare video game companies and record labels. After all, even though Ross pens his own verses, at the end of the day Ross is essentially just the medium of nostalgia. Record labels, presumably responding to consumer demand, peddle Ross, so they’re more culpable; they’re the agents of nostalgia. If that’s the case, then I think we’ve arrived at the heart of Cameron’s argument: consumers.

There is a certain type of consumer who wants to reproduce the 90’s. Cameron calls this consumer a “petulant childadult.” This term isn’t directly applicable to fanatics of 90’s hip-hop because a lot of people became fans of it retroactively, but Cameron’s description of these consumers is spot-on. They collectively view the era that they are nostalgic for as a pinnacle. In other words, 90’s rap fanatics truly believe that 90’s rap is the greatest rap of all time. Accordingly, artists like Ross fashion themselves and are fashioned by record labels in ways that hark back to the 90’s in spite of the fact that the 90’s are irreproducible and probably shouldn’t be reproduced. By trying to reproduce the 90’s anyway, we get videos like this, a bizarre bid for street cred where “the street” is contrived from a street where people actually live. We don’t want this to happen again.

*Note: In the end, the role of nostalgia in contemporary hip-hop is probably impossible to grasp without a working knowledge and understanding of the power dynamics of the music industry. That being said, I tried.