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You don’t say!

A chat with three locals who chronicle hip-hop culture

Damon Hodge

Picking participants in a hip-hop roundtable is much like picking the greatest emcee of all time. Ridicule, second-guessing and attacks on your street credibility are virtually assured. You picked him? The Weekly took a different approach for its first hip-hop roundtable, inviting local chroniclers of the culture—a magazine publisher, a website owner and an author—to step out from behind their pens (or keyboards) and chime in on the state of hip-hop. Though they’re part of the culture, we figured their status as (somewhat) detached observers would make for lively conversation. It did. Below are excerpts from their conversation. Click here to watch a video of the roundtable.

Give me your opinions on the state of hip-hop and the scene in Las Vegas. Is the local scene still immature?

Brandon Greene: Hip-hop in general is at a crossroads. A lot of innovation is happening in terms of marketing the music, developing the music. I might not necessarily like the styles that are super popular now, especially with the ringtone style of music, but I can’t knock these young cats out there getting money and marketing themselves. In terms of Las Vegas, the scene is very immature, not from a marketing or talent perspective, but from a networking perspective. In the South, people like T.I. and David Banner were working with each other long before we ever heard of them.

DeMarcus Webb: Hip-hop is changing with the times. It’s become more digital, more single-driven. It’s washing down the quality of the music, because artists are more concerned with making that big hit single instead of making a cohesive album. With the digital age, it’s a lot easier for an underground or independent artist to get music out to people. Locally, there’s a lot of people doing their own thing. I don’t see a lot of collaborations. Everyone’s sticking with their crew. The radio stations … there’s really no coverage. If you come from out of town and listen to a Vegas radio station, you can’t name the top five hottest artists. You go to Phoenix or LA, and they play their local artists.

Derrick Thompson: My concern is about the conscious pulse that doesn’t exist. The music does not contain enough positive, political, Afro-centric messages. If there was a true message in the music, that would cause a revival that would tie together all hip-hop artists. What I love about hip-hop are the beats.

Derrick, do you think it’s unfair, as you do in your book, to liken hip-hop to the flu and to call it a counter-culture?

DT: I’ve coined the period of hip-hop in the last two decades as the Dark Age. The themes have been death, destruction, glamorizing guns, violence, drugs and clubbing, and all these things that are the antithesis of a healthy culture. Hip-hop has become a viral infection.

Brandon and DeMarcus, do you agree?

DW: It has its bad parts like any other music form or culture. The good is overshadowed by the bad. Artists like Common and Lupe Fiasco almost go unheard. We’re in this ringtone, singles age where if you’re not snapping your fingers or stomping your feet in the club, it doesn’t get heard. There are a lot emcees that do good work in the community. Good news is not news anymore to a lot of people. You have to search to find a good emcee and a good album.

BG: I’m an artist first, writer second. I don’t even like listening to a bunch of conscious music, because that’s not realistic of the environment I came from and the environment that I see everyday. I like to listen to some gangsta music. I also like to listen to things that make me think. If everything was conscious, that would be as bad as everything being about the club, everything being about the guns. I like balance.

Playing devil’s advocate—isn’t there some truth to Derrick’s laments that hip-hop, in some ways, has negatively affected American culture?

BG: A lot of things have negatively affected American culture, and those things came before the music. The dope came before the dope pushers, and the dope pushers came before the people [rappers] who were talking about pushing dope. I taught last year. I don’t think it was the music that was causing these kids to act in a certain way. I think it was the lack of a parental environment. Socioeconomic issues play a big part in that.

I read headlines sometimes that say a person who committed a crime was influenced by Tupac. Do you buy into that?

DW: I don’t take what Tupac says, or Nas says or Soulja Boy says and try to do that in my everyday life. There’s a big separation between reality and entertainment. A lot of these rappers that rap about these things are not really doing it in real life. It’s really up to the individual and what they take out of the music.

Hip-hop has rescued tons of people. People who would might be otherwise robbing and stealing are now in the studios putting out music. They’re making money, feeding their kids, paying bills and doing constructive things. Is it sort of myopic to say hip-hop is the flu when it’s feeding many people’s families?

DT: Just like how Merck and Pfizer and the big pharma companies make money off people having the flu, hip-hop has become a source to make money. Hip-hop has taken all of the low-down and negative realities in life and made those things popular. Master P, in some Senate hearings that he had with David Banner in late ’07, admitted that he was angry for all the years he produced the majority of his music. He’d seen family and friends killed. But he also said that he made a mistake, although he made millions from that. Now he’s looking to right the wrongs and produce positive music. Chamillionaire heard white youth rapping to his songs, and the minute he heard white youth say “nigga,” his consciousness played a role.

If these rappers are making money and not hurting anyone—it’s not their job to raise your kid—should we care whether they put out good music?

DT: We should care. KRS-One has a song called “Hip-Hop Lives.” He defines hip as meaning to know; hop means movement. What he’s saying is that hip-hop should be intelligent movement.

DW: The labels have as much say as to the content of what a lot of mainstream artists are putting out as the artists themselves. You see it all the time, with Method Man or Ghostface or different artists with Def Jam or different labels saying the product that is on the shelves is not what I authorized to be out. You hear a pop song with Ne-Yo and with Ghostface on it, and you ask yourself, if you listened to Wu-Tang for awhile, was this what Ghostface wanted on the album? If the labels want more conscious rap or [care] about what America is hearing, why aren’t they pushing these artists?

Do you think ringtone rap is dummifying the music?

BG: Let that artist do what he does. If the masses don’t want it, they’re not going to get it, and that artist is going to disappear. I don’t like Soulja Boy, but you see people at Giants Stadium and basketball games doing the Soulja Boy Tell ’Em [dance]. Let that young dude get money. Would I do that? No, but I’m not Soulja Boy. In terms of Master P, after I get millions and millions of dollars, maybe I’ll feel sorry, too.

Who do hip-hop artists owe allegiance to—themselves, the art or the streets? Is it more important to keep it real, even if it means peddling negative stereotypes, than to make music that has a positive impact?

DT: First and foremost, hip-hop artists should give their allegiance to their creator. Hip-hop has come to a creative standstill. How can hip-hop reinvent itself? How can it appeal to the various artists that make up the hip-hop nation?

BG: As an artist, I’m going to say something that people from my community may or may not like, that my mama may or may not like. In anything I do, I’m going to keep it real with me. Music is how I found myself. Everybody else is going to like me being real or not.

Derrick talked about the Golden Age [hip-hop’s first 10 years] and Dark Age. What of the notion that hip-hop is maturing? You’ve got groups like the Hip Hop Congress and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network focused on marshalling the culture into a potent civic force and trying to address social issues. Is it past the Dark Age?

BG: I don’t agree that it’s in the dark ages, and I don’t necessarily know if it’s maturing. You listen to David Banner do a song about being in the club and you forget that he did more for the people after Hurricane Katrina than FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency]. I’m part of the Hip Hop Congress, chapter head of the Las Vegas Hip Hop Congress. There are artists who do civic action, and it has nothing to do with their art.

Is it important to get involved in a lot of things that rappers are talking about, for them to go to City Council meetings and address issues?

DW: That’s up to the individual—whatever agenda they feel they want to speak or champion. I think that hip-hop is maturing. One guy said that in 10 to 15 years, there will a president that actually listened to Ice Cube or Nas or Scarface. That’s going to happen. The artists and fans and the people who are part of hip-hop are maturing, they’re getting older.

Is that a good thing, hip-hop folks being more politically active?

DT: It’s a great thing. It’s a beautiful thing because it involves influence. In my book, I cross out the “ce” and put “za.” Influenza is something none of us would want. It has gone from a positive spin to a negative spin.

Boston has a Hip Hop Roundtable. Its purpose is “to infuse and support hip-hop culture in meaningful and positive ways.” Why don’t we have something like this?

BG: Steve Wynn said that rap has no place on the Strip. The Strip runs Vegas. Maybe when Jay-Z finally hangs up his hat, he’ll have a show like Toni Braxton. Other than that, they’re not interested. We’ve seen that when the whole thing with Tragic happened [Tragic, né Amir Crump, fatally shot police officer Henry Prendes in February 2006 during a domestic-violence call]. They were trying to ban hip-hop from the clubs, from UNLV. I could no longer get shows. Just recently, I tried to do a show at Jillian’s for some of the artists of the Hip Hop Congress, and Jillian’s told me they aren’t interested in doing hip-hop concerts.

The thing about Steve Wynn’s comments is that if you go into his Tryst nightclub, they’re playing hip-hop.

BG: There’s no place for the culture. There’s a place for the music, but they don’t really want people like me in there.

DT: How did all that come about? The culture of hip-hop has spread in such a way [that] it’s not considered positive. The reason why Boston is doing: 80 percent of rap music is purchased by Caucasian teenagers.

Would our mayor support something like this?

BG: They say Oscar’s crazy, so Oscar might support that.

DT: It’s possible.

BG: I have never been down with [the idea that] we should follow what the elders of hip-hop laid down for us. What happened is that hip-hop as a culture became a commodity, it got too big and corporations got involved. We don’t have the power over it that we should have, that’s we can’t necessarily get something like that.

[Brandon and DeMarcus], talk about the challenges about being a local chronicler of hip-hop. One of the things I’ve heard is that out-of-town artists give you more respect than local artists do.

DW: I agree and disagree. There’s really not a mainstream voice. It’s very independent. A lot of radio stations and media aren’t supporting local hip-hop.

Do [artists] view your work as a legitimate avenue to get their music or their story out?

DW: If they don’t feel that your publication is going to take them to the next level or get them to a broader audience, they’ll make that conscious decision.

BG: I disagree. I’ve done a lot of things. I had an online radio station, Strictly Vegas Radio, and I was only doing it to play local hip-hop. Cats wouldn’t holla back at me. I was playing independent artists from all over. I had listeners in 31 countries. With my publication, I get at people constantly. With Vegas artists, the problem is that everybody is too arrogant. They think they’ve already made it, so they have no interest in supporting things from the ground level, which is why we will never make it. I’ve talked to Buckshot, Sean P, Rick Ross. How many local artists did I talk to for my publication besides the one I’m already in contact with? None. They’re too arrogant to talk to us, but everybody else is too arrogant to talk to them.

When it comes to CD reviews, do you soft-pedal your criticism?

DW: I tell it like it is. I’m a fan of music, but if I don’t like it, I don’t like it. It’s a hard pill for a lot of artists to swallow. You can’t have just that local mentality that I’m just going to hang around my homeboys because they say I’m tight. You see that a lot in Vegas. Maybe if you want to say something critical, they want to fight or say your publication ain’t about anything.

BG: I haven’t reviewed many local artists. If I was to review them, I’d tell it like it is. I wasn’t interested in rating the artist. It was free promotion [for them].

The Tupac and Biggie situation—the media got flack for fomenting the rivalry. Does hip-hop journalism get a bad rap when tempers flare? Would you publish incendiary comments? Don’t you have an obligation to?

DW: Hip-hop journalism and the media that blew up this east-west [beef] are two separate things. Kevin Powell and a lot of other journalists do chronicle hip-hop. That part that has glorified the negativity of it does give a bad rap to a lot of hip-hop journalists. I’m not big about promoting beef. I ask [artists], is there a place you don’t want me to go with the interview or a question you don’t want me to ask? A lot of the negativity that you see on CNN or Bill O’Reilly shouldn’t be thrown together with Vibe or Source.

BG: There’s a difference between reporting on it and promoting it. When Papoose supposedly hit Fat Joe in his mouth—do you have a responsibility to report that? Yes. If your article starts off, “Oooh, Fat Joe got hit in the mouth.” That’s different than reporting on the altercation.

Derrick, what is your solution for getting us out of the Dark Age?

DT: We need to learn how we can change the language of the music.

You told me one of your sons has been negatively influenced by hip-hop?

DT: His favorite artist is 50 Cent. To me, 50 Cent represents gangsterism. I asked [my son], what do you really know about 50 Cent other than some of his songs? He was like a bobble-head reciting lyrics. I’m trying to get him to think about another side of it, to learn about the man and how he came from being a drug dealer. All he knew about 50 Cent was a side that was shallow. Tupac was taken out in this very city, and we must analyze how that has contributed to the perception of hip-hop. That has a ripple effect in the hearts and minds of people.

BG: That’s a conspiracy; you can’t kill anybody in traffic on fight night in Vegas.

Do you think the powers that be in this Valley use the Tupac situation to keep local rappers and gangsta rappers off the Strip?

BG: Absolutely not. The gang unit was going upside my head before Tupac got shot. The radio stations had no interest in us, the program directors had no interest in us, casinos had no interest in us. I don’t think it exacerbated anything. They didn’t want us then and don’t want us now.

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