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October 7, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Started From the Middle

As a 12-year-old, Jay-Z shot his addict brother in the shoulder for stealing his jewellery. Today, as a 43-year-old, he is closer to being a billionaire than he is to being broke. The period that came in between is, in all likelihood, documented to some degree on your iPod. Jay has now mentioned Forbes no fewer than seven times—still a few short of how many times Forbes has mentioned him. He is the archetype of the started-from-the-bottom ethos and, unwittingly, the architect of hip-hop’s problem with privilege.

A few weeks ago, hip-hop celebrated its 40th anniversary, the marker of origin being a party held in New York’s South Bronx neighbourhood in 1973. A recent New York Times retrospective on the South Bronx described the 1970s environs as “crumbling, desolate and dangerous”—it is these roots which hip-hop, by and large, still clings to desperately. Hip-hop unashamedly remains the voice of the projects, the impoverished minorities, the story of the streets. The genre’s celebration of accumulation and excess exists as the counterpoint to this: the “mama, we made it” victory laps and luxury-label roll calls could not exist if there was nothing to contextualise such tropes.

The result of this is a genre norm which has led artists to obsess over contextualising their own success, despite their background. Tupac attended Baltimore School for the Arts. Kanye West was on scholarship to Chicago’s American Academy of Art and had highly educated, middle-class parents. Drake was a successful child star (the wheelchair kid on Degrassi, in case you haven’t read any of the YouTube comments on Drake videos) with family members in the music industry—his uncle Larry Graham played in Sly and the Family Stone, is credited with inventing the slap-bass technique, and has made the Billboard Top 10. These artists certainly didn’t have it as tough as others in the genre, but you’d be forgiven for thinking so. In the search for authenticity, any element of privilege is actively hidden from the listener. The result is a genre where everyone seems to shun their roots in an attempt to come through as much adversity as possible in order that their rhymes be ‘real’.

Embellishment is not an inherently bad thing, but if you’re putting out a song called ‘Started From The Bottom’ you damn-well better be even slightly familiar with The Bottom. In fabricating and/or embellishing a back story, two things are undermined. For one, it trivialises the real struggles of people who do have a hard go at life. Secondly, it undermines the hard work that all successful hip-hop artists have to put in to be successful. When did it become not enough to slave at your craft and create art? Who decided that you not only had to dunk the ball, but that you had to lower the floor after you did it so people could see just how high you jumped?

“Identity is a prison you can never escape,” Jay-Z says in Decoded, a part-memoir part-lyric book released in 2010. For all the identity politics in hip-hop, this is more or less true. (Rick Ross has failed to escape his past as a college-educated prison guard, and remains trapped in his own lies as he sticks to his adopted persona: an international drug lord.) “But,” Jay continues, “the way to redeem your past is not to run from it, but to try to understand it, and use it as a foundation to grow.” There is nothing wrong with the bank-statement braggadocio of hip-hop. But, rappers should take pride in their art regardless of their backgrounds: appreciate the ends, regardless of the means.


Chris McIntyre has been described as “Who?” and “Can you speak up? You’re mumbling.” He’s a third-year Statistics and Geography student with a passion for neither of those things. You know when rappers put their arms out like Jesus in their music videos? Basically the opposite of that.  

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