Hip-Hop Elitism:
Why Soulja Boy is More Hip Hop Than You

By Adriel Luis

http://www. wiretapmag. org/arts/43585/
(This originally appeared on Chinaka Hodge¢s blog Thickwitness. )

A few months ago my group iLL-Literacy performed at the Trinity International Hip Hop Festival in Hartford, CT. Although many of the folks we met during the festival were really dope, down to earth people, there was also a frighteningly large presence of people that you’d expect to see at something called an “international hip hop festival.” You know, the knit caps, the worn-out hoodies, and the noses staunchly pointed upward at anything that doesn’t fit into the mold of hump-Atmosphere-on-the-leg real hip-hop. As a result, we found ourselves dodgingHiero vs. Pharcyde debates and roaming through venues that spun A Tribe Called Quest and EPMD songs all day long, just to retreat to our hotel room, crack open some forties and unapologetically pump Lil Wayne into the weezy hours of the morning.

However, it wasn’t until we sat down for our interview that people started looking at us like the ugly ducklings of the day. It was at this moment that we were asked the fateful question that must be asked at all such hip-hop events: “How do you feel about how mainstream rappers like Soulja Boy are tarnishing real hip-hop?” Our response might or might not have been something that could be chiseled down to “Soulja Boy is real hip-hop, son!” Whatever it was that we actually said, we left many a jaw gaped open and I’m sure that rappers from at least three countries have it somewhere in their heads to email us a diss track soon. Regardless, as someone who once regularly wore a headwrap and memorized The RootsThings Fall Apart, I’d like to state my case for all the Soulja Boys out there:


There’s something so incredibly perverse about 30-year-old white suburbans assuming the role of Hip-Hop Fairy, dashing their microphone-shaped wands at black youth and delineating that they’re not speaking from the voice of real hip-hop. Can one of you hip-hop purists please tell me, how many Sage Francis albums do you have to memorize before you get to reach “hip-hop enlightenment” and start seeing the real/fake hip-hop binary like Neo? As you stand outside your local divebar’s open mic nite and declare with angst that you’re going to “take things back to hip-hop’s foundation,” I’d like to point out that when the Get Fresh Crew first started cyphering in the Bronx, the last thing they were thinking about was your leprechaun ass. If hip-hop is dying, it’s more than likely that your 1993-jocking emo rap is only making its death more annoyingly painful.

Anyway, back to Soulja Boy. Yes, his rhyme scheme is basic. And yes, the implications of “Crank That” are pretty vulgar–as were the “I’m gonna rip off your epidermis and feed it to your mother” battle rhymes of underground legends like CanibusJedi Mind Tricks, and early Eminem. But just not liking someone or not thinking someone is skilled or constructive isn’t really a basis to decide that it’s not real. In fact, basing validity on skill is pretty elitist of you, and despite what you might claim on Track 3 on your demo, you did not bust out of your mom’s womb ripping mics. Like all other art forms, hip-hop should be allowed the freedom and versatility to include the good (Dilla, some would argue), the bad (Soulja Boy, some would argue), and the ugly (Jermaine Dupri, everyone agrees).

See, you agree.

Next, have you forgotten that Soulja Boy is probably younger than your grimy ass Walk This Way t-shirt? The guy is 17 and is probably doing more artistically at his age than you were, working at the mall serving Icees in the name of hip-hop. To judge the validity of any artist based on their first record, not to mention first single, ignores the growth and depth that are instrumental in the foundation of hall-of-famers like TupacOutKast, and Jay-Z. Now I’m definitely not saying that souljaboytellem. com (yes that’s the album name) is equivalent to Reasonable Doubt, but when it comes to “upliftment” one has to question if gaining momentum through a raunchy online video is really that much more detrimental to society than moving to Virginia to sell enough crack to start a record label. And lets not forget about Mr. Weezy FBaby b.k.a. Lil Wayne, who many continue to dismiss based on their perception of him as the teenaged King of Bling. Ten years later, while the purists have had their heads up the Grouch‘s ass all this time, Weezy has put New Orleans back on the music map, been featured on your favorite rapper’s latest album, and is blueballing the world with the most highly anticipated music album of the day. Lick on that lollipop, suckers.

So when it comes to understanding what real hip-hop encompasses, it’s inescapable to consider the foundation of it being about turning nothing into something. In the way that cats in the late 70s took their parents’ records, wrote rhymes over them, and turned that concept into a worldwide phenomenon. Or in the way that NWA understood that the media virtually ignored life in the ghetto, and used rap to bring their point of view into popular consciousness. And yes, even in the way that a 17-year-old from Mississippi posted a YouTube video one day, gained enough momentum to independently release a record, and ended up topping the Billboard charts and getting a Grammy nomination. Ultimately, Soulja Boy did exactly what you’ve been trying to do in your mom’s basement since you were 14. Don’t get your cargo shorts in a bunch just because you’ve been competing at Scribble Jam for the past three years and still don’t have any Myspace friends.

Many of the hip-hop purists who would call Soulja Boy a “mainstream clown” would agree that Slug is a real emcee.

Speaking of foundation, the state of hip-hop is best demonstrated by what urban youth of color find relevant, not what backpackers from Walnut Creek are nodding their beanie hats to. For better or worse, Soulja Boy is globally appearing on kids’ iPods more frequently than, say, Brother Ali. Regardless of what you think of Soulja Boy’s message, it speaks to the youth that hip-hop has sought to speak to since it was first born. If the youth are in a position where the songs that they can relate to depict “supersoaking hos,” there’s a much larger issue at hand than just the song or the artist that composed it. If you feel like Soulja Boy isn’t real hip-hop because of his graphic and negative songs, find a way to educate the kid or at least the kids that are bumping his shit. But plugging your ears and saying “Well that’s not real hip-hop”…that would be like living in a neighborhood and seeing some kids from down the block stealing an old lady’s purse and being like “Oh that’s not very positive…those must not be real neighbors.” Simply pushing it all outside of your consciousness, deeming it irrelevant, or disowning it from your utopian and fluffy concept of reality won’t solve anything. Instead, it will continue to alienate the voices and preferences of oppressed youth, and toss hip-hop into the cesspool of musical genres that have become dominated by flannel-wearing goose hunters from Providence.

Real vs. Fake Hip-Hop?

We have found ourselves in a Twilight Zone of a situation in which hip-hop–a music form whose history has been paved with the struggle of being validated as “real music”–is now experiencing a micro version of its own peril, in the form of the internal strife over which part of itself can be validated as “real hip-hop.” Hip-hop is deeply rooted in opposing the elitism that barred it from shelves in record stores, stages in music halls, and definitely the uppity approval of music intellectuals. In fact, in this whole scheme of things, it seems that the only thing that is truly, defiantly not hip-hop, is to claim to have the phantom certification to say what is and isn’t.

We can only wait and see what happens with Soulja BoyHurricane ChrisShawty-Lo, and all the other rappers du jour. Maybe like most others, they’ll fade away after the first couple of singles. Or maybe they’re reinvent themselves like the gun-toting diamond-studded pre-Food & Liquor Lupe Fiasco did. Regardless, it’s evident that whether or not you like these rappers there something to be said about the fact that a large portion of our youth gravitate towards them as the the spokespeople of their generation.

So the next time you hear music from someone, particularly a young person of color who is obviously rapping, and who has obviously captured the attention of urban youth–and still somehow find in yourself the audacity to preside over why it is or isn’t hip-hop, as yourself: “Am I exhibiting the elitist attitude that has been the primary plague of hip-hop culture and its participants for all these decades?” The answer is most likely: “Yahh, trick, yahh!”

Adriel Luis is a Bay Area native and a lover of all things weird. In 2002 he founded iLL-Literacy, a four-person spoken word collective that has since toured worldwide and received high acclaim in the spoken word, music, and theater scenes alike. In 2005 the video for his poem “Slip of the Tongue” received an EMMY Award and was featured in over 75 film festivals throughout the world. His new music project, Pretty Buoyant Society, is set to debut in the summer of 2008. He also blogs at Adrizzle.

View this story online at: http://www. wiretapmag. org/arts/43585/

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  1. […] Hip-Hop Elitism: Why Soulja Boy is More Hip Hop Than You By Adriel Luis http://www. wiretapmag. org/arts/43585/ (This originally appeared on Chinaka Hodge¢s blog Thickwitness. ) A few months ago my group iLL-Literacy performed at the Trinity International Hip Hop Festival in Hartford, CT. Although many of the folks we met during the festival were really dope, down to earth people, there was also a frighteningly large presence of people that you'd … Read More […]

  2. Knowbody says:

    Most of us who detract from Soulja Boy are not judging the validity of his form of Hip Hop, just the quality which is annoyingly limited. LL was 17 when he made Radio, Kriss Kross were 13 and made hotter music. Ice Cube was also 17 when he made B is a B and Dopeman. Soulja Boy is just plain mediocre.

    • Davey D says:

      LL and Kriss kross didnt make their own beats.. adults damn near twice their age did this.. They were also signed to major labels that were in a position to set standards that they deemed profitable.. SB made his own shyt at 15.. went on the internet and blew up forcing crumbling record companies to come to him and get a piece of his pie.Thats the difference

      • vizion says:

        I agree that he did do something like take advantage of what is new in tech and with that got his deal, but the issue in hip hop is the dumbing down of the culture itself. Going from its creation from the DJ in front to the MC, the party lyrics to its maturing to political, socio-ecomonical and spiritual issues (golden age) to the gangsta-dumbing lyrics of today is in its self a third world state being created. I like hip hop from Rakim to Pharcyde to Outkast and UGK. At least when they were on the scene, they had something to say and said it intelligently and trendy. What we are listening to now is bad lyrics and no maturity.

        A young dude here in the “A” told me that he was told that in the industry, they don’t want strong conscious music. They want more uneducated, crime-ridden ignorant music. The article on Plies “why you hate” was a breath of fresh air due to he is stepping out to make a song on issues instead of the usual candy-coated paint job cars, big but girls, my trap, jewelry and bling raps. We need more of that.

        I gave this era of rap a try and I see that either we show them how to think outside the box and defy the establishment the way Melly Mel did in “the message”, start their own labels and read to grow their lyrical and knowledge base. If not, they will continue to inspire kids to look, talk, and act ignorant and foolish. Where I am from in Atlanta, kids are dropping out of school and doing crime and not working. They say that the rap of today is inspiring them to do so and this is everywhere I go in the south.

        The hip hop I grew up on and us all did, inspired us to read and look up our history, to “fight the power” to go to school and to grow and find the best in ourselves and each other. This is a push backwards.

      • Davey D says:

        Exactly what Hip Hop did u grow up on? The Golden Age had some conscious emcees, but it also had NWA, 2Live Crew, and a host of other groups who caused controversy with their lyrics..
        Again, I hear where ur coming from, but remember we also had labels who sought out artists with quality and then presented them to the world.. today cats at labels look for what’s selling and then they resell it..
        we always had dumbing down.. today its being reflected as it was 30yrs earlier with disco, with this new style of rap via souljah Boy

  3. Justin F. Miles says:

    Hiphop is not music. It is not a thing. You can’t go buy Hiphop or even make Hiphop. Hiphop does not absolutely exist anywhere. It is the source from which we create and ultimate fruition of our creation by those of us who choose to engage in the skillfull means i.e. the four elements, in order to represent any level of consciousness available to all human beings.

    Developmental psychologists agree that there is a spectrum of consciousness which represents our full range of choices; from misidentifying with our human potential and live as confused human beings…all the way to being fully actualized human beings. There are a range of ways to exist in between those choices. Hiphop is no different.

    The point that seems to be missed with this discussion is that Soulja Boy IS Hiphop, he can’t help but be because Hiphop encompasses every level of consciousness available to humans and therefore Hiphoppers. However he exists at the lower levels of consciousness i.e. archaic, egoistic, and fails at what it truly means to be an actualized person/emcee.

    When someone says Soulja Boy, or anyone for that matter is wack what is truly being said is that, that individual has yet to identify with his/her larger potential. In Hiphop we have many examples of artists who have traveled through many levels of consciousness (archaic, magical, mythical, rational, psychic, subtle, causal and non-dual), literally growing before our eyes over the years to the point where we can see this persons identification with themselves, their communities and the world deepen. They do this all the while staying true to themselves. Common is a great example, as is Ice Cube and Pharoahe Monche.

    The issue that people have is that artists that choose to stay at lower levels of consciousness either project themselves or are projected by others to exist at higher levels of consciousness, when they in fact do not. Perinneal Philosopher Ken Wilber calls this the pre/trans fallacy. Pre-rational behavior gets elevated to trans-rational levels and vice versa, what is considered next level, transcendent Hiphop gets reduced to lower levels of consciousness (both the elevationist and reductionist perspectives develop due to confused views about not just Hiphop development but human development as a whole). It’s fine to be an egoist, just dont confuse that as being the best, because we do know that humans are capable of transcending the ego. We have many examples in and outside of our culture.

    All artists deserve time to develop or to just do like many if not most conventional artists and ak the same album over and over and over, living the same confused, addicted, emotionally and behaviorally mismanaged lives. That’s fine. But lets not elevate them to levels where they don’t exist. Nor should we reduce transcendent Hiphop, those in our culture who have transcended (or at least try to) egocentrism and nationalism and have learned to embrace the whole as have many of the worlds spiritual adherents. These artists often get reduced to lower levels and taken as egocentric. Lets not get it twisted either; the underground artists are very confused people. Much of what is underground is self serving narcissism. It gets respected because of their attempts to be different in lyrical ability, track selection, authenticity etc. however much of it exists at the same levels of consciousness of mainstream emcees.

    Hiphop will only be truly understood when viewed from an integral perspective. You can’t talk about anything as a whole until you have stepped back and looked at its ENTIRE developmental structure. I respect Davey D but this site is mainly good for and visited by those who have reached a nationalistic or “we” level of consciousness which is a great accomplishment but is incomplete in terms of human development. We have to look at the egocentric, ethnocentric and worldcentric levels of consciousness, all at the same time to talk about Hiphop as a whole. Looking at it in fragments is what drove the whole “Hiphop is Dead” movement; a respectable attempt to get people to look at what egocentric music/culture are doing to the overall culture, but which did more harm than good. Hiphop can’t die, it was not born. Those that manifest their deep understanding and relationship with themselves, others and the world (Hiphop) have been doing so since we started calling the use of the four elements Hiphop. Hiphop in its relative existence can never die. If we say it’s dead its only from a lack of paying attention to the vanguard. Hiphop has transcended the radio and video. Those are poor forums for even displaying what Hiphop is doing these days. If we say its dead, its only because we stopped paying attention to Hiphop at its most developed or because we never knew how Hiphop can ultimately manifest.

    Soulja Boy is wack not because he is an egoist, he is wack because he is not a good egoist. Hiphop supports egocentric artists. As mentioned by Davey D, 2 Live Crew, NWA (NWA was actually more ethnocentric than people give them credit for)etc. the problem is is that they actually put effort into exploring that side of themselves where Soulja Boy seems to be ridng on the coattails of the, ” I can say and do anything and because people will buy my album, therefore I must be the best.” BS no doubt. Soulja Boy will eventually become Soulja Man and then he will be faced with new choices about who and how to be. He will undoubtedly (continue to) encounter pain and suffering due to his association with people, places and things that are “gangsta” which will make him challenge his current value structure. At that point he will either practice new behaviors (leading to a shift in consciousness) or stay where he is and suffer from his own pathos. Either way is the path of the artist.

    Integral Hiphop will save this culture from fighting amongst itself, protect it from the 70% of listeners who see it as little more than cultural voyerism and show tried and true adherents how we can use the skillfull means of the four elements to discover and actualize deeper levels of understanding of ourselves, others and reality. Until then we will squirm around in this cesspool of confusion about undeground/mainstream.

    J-Who? Worldwise the Sun of Hiphop
    Hiphop Alive LLC
    (301) 821-1932

  4. Erin says:

    There are some really ugly undertones in this article. I see a distinct bitterness from this writer exhibited in their only naming mostly white rappers as the underground standard-bearers. “the state of hip-hop is best demonstrated by what urban youth of color find relevant, not what backpackers from Walnut Creek are nodding their beanie hats to” Really? So then, Soulja Boy is hiphop & Atmosphere is not? That’s a pretty hypocritical statement in the context of the overall point of this article, no?

    Yes, our children listen to Soulja Boy & it is tragic. I guarantee where they’re growing up is no worse than where I grew up & I listened to Run DMC, Public Enemy, BDP…because that is what they played on the radio & tv. Mass media doesn’t play anything thought-provoking, creative or remotely intelligent anymore. These children are marketed to with dumbed-down music from a very early age. I also think it’s no coincidence that in urban youth’s preferred musical genre, only the songs with the most self-destructive messages are the ones getting big marketing dollars. This should make the writer of this article angry, not defensive of the industry’s puppets.

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