Conscious hip hop rising in popularity

Since the beginning of 2004, it seems that hip hop is undergoing a bit of a change.

Socially conscious rap music, better known as “backpack” hip hop, seems to be currently overtaking a more materialistic brand of rap music that has dominated the hip-hop mainstream since 1996, better known as “bling-bling” hip hop.

This conscious, “backpack” brand of hip hop has been gathering not only surprisingly high and consistent sales, but more and more, an overall large influence and a possible changing of the tide in the hip hop industry itself.

“Backpack” emcee Kanye West, whose freshman effort, “College Dropout,” is now set to be one of the year’s best-selling records, already having sold over 2.5 million copies, seems to be at the forefront of this change of the hip-hop world.

“Kanye is definitely straddling both sides. But he’s definitely more conscious then not,” WANM Program Director Gregg Bishop said.

“Kanye was the first to bring it (conscious hip-hop) out. He looks like Jay-Z, but spoke consciously,” said Guerla Avilus, a freshman pharmacy student at FAMU from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Mos Def has been another major entry into the current rise of backpack hip hop, even as recently as the last few weeks. He recently moved close to 100,000 units of his recently released album, “The New Danger,” in its first week of release. This is a first-week, six-figure sales statistic that is usually reserved for bling-blingers like Lil’ Jon or Ludacris, and is considered big time in terms of typical conscious hip-hop record sales.

“There’s stuff about carnal matters that’s selling more than that,” said Avilus, a frequent attendee of Mt. Zion Calypso Café’s weekly “Black on Black Rhyme.”

Many in today’s hip-hop mainstream have also warmed up to Talib Kweli, a former MC in the hip-hop group Black Star, with the aforementioned Mos Def.

The sales of his newest release, “The Beautiful Struggle,” is already extremely close to gold album status, and Kweli has played solo club performances across the United States on his off-days from the “To The 5 Boroughs” tour with the Beastie Boys. One sold out show recently came to the Beta Bar here in Tallahassee.

“The Talib Kweli show was representative of what hip hop is and what it will become… A diverse population and a diverse culture. It just goes to show that hip hop will evolve the way the fans want it to. Anything with substance, people will embrace… And it’s the hip hop with substance that has lasted until today,” Bishop said.

Kanye West, Mos Def and Talib Kweli have become backpack hip hop’s triumvirate over the course of 2004. However, other conscious emcees like the Roots’ Black Thought, Common and Dead Prez, the latter two of whom have cited Tallahassee and FAMU as their homesteads in the past, also seem to be taking a refreshing precedent over previous “bling-bling” hip-hop mainstays.

Some of those “bling-bling” rappers seem to be on their way out of the music industry for good.

Jay-Z, Ja Rule, and Dr. Dre have released or are recording swan song records and announced their retirement from making music altogether.

Jay-Z’s 2003 release The Black Album was definitively claimed to be his last, even over and over by “Hova” himself.

Ja Rule has teased at his possible retirement from music for over two years now in order to do “a lot more movies” he said two years ago at a press conference for the BET Awards, and rumors are swirling whether his upcoming Nov. 9 release of R.U.L.E. will truly be his final record or not.

Dr. Dre, like Ja Rule, has barely been heard from since 2002, when he also announced an intention to make a final album, as well. Detox, which has been described by Dre as “a hip-hop musical,” according to MTV News, and is being co-produced by Scott Storch, has not even been given an inkling of a definite release date.

The slow but sure introduction of socially conscious hip hop is bringing about an unprecedented change not only for the culture of the black community, but for American culture as well.

“Conscious hip-hop is there, but it’s not really there,” said Polk county resident Larry Love, a senior African American Studies student.

“Everything has its time. I applaud it, but at the same time – black people don’t control their own music,” he said.

“We have our moments like (Nas’) ‘I Can’ or Jadakiss’ latest single ‘Why?’… But hip hop is not owned by its creators.”

Some say hip hop has lost its way. “Black on Black Rhyme” attendee Jamar Sargent, a 29-year-old FSU graduate from the school of criminology said, “They’ve lost the content – when it’s about the context.”

The lack of content, and the need for context is quite possibly the state of hip hop.

If the need for context was met; however, and the supposed lack of content suddenly runneth over, what would be the state of hip-hop then?

Bishop theorizes: “It’d be another era of hip hop.”

Contact Paul De Revere at