So, if you’ve been following this little mini-symposium (and, let’s be honest, who HASN’T been following?), by now you’ve read Chris, Sam, Glyph, and my own take on hip hop. Individually these represent how each of the four of us have experienced the genre (with some glimpses into the broader culture that surrounds it) and, as a whole, hopefully give a sense of it. They are far from comprehensive but, we did what we could. With all of that under our belts, we move on to a bigger task: the construction of Mount Rapmore. Mount Rapmore is a monument to the genre, displaying the faces of four contributors. First, let’s lay some ground rules:
1.) Four “faces” and four “faces” only.
2.) A single “face” can include a group if the bulk of their work came as a collaborative OR if they are primarily known as members of a group. So, you can use one “face” for Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, or the Wu-Tang Clan, but Dre and Snoop have to go up separately despite their frequent work together.
3.) Use whatever criteria you’d like in selecting your four, but operate under the assumption that you might one day be using the monument to explain hip hop to an alien from outer space (the Bob Ryan approach). 4.) There are no wrong answers. But, most likely, all of you will be wrong.
Without further ado, here are my selections:
2Pac: Plain and simple, we cannot talk about rap and hip hop without talking about 2Pac. 2Pac was a bit of an enigma. Ask your mom to draw a picture of a rapper and she’d likely draw someone that looks like 2Pac… muscular, shaved head, fierce stare, bandanas, tattoos. Yet, go through his catalogue and you’ll find some of the most beautiful lyrics within the genre (ironically, many of them written to or about his own mother) blurring the line between rap and poetry. There is no doubt that he was a gangsta rapper, but he had depth and nuance that many of his peers lacked. And through both his music and his tragic death, he helped catapult rap into the mainstream. So, again, you can’t talk about the genre and not have Pac. You just can’t.
Notorious B.I.G. :Forever linked with 2Pac because of a similar untimely death at the hands of an unknown shooter, Biggie represents the East Coast in the over stated East Coast/West Coast rap “war”. But more than that, he was a storyteller. Like Pac, his lyrics were more than just lyrics… they were a tapestry of awesomeness. He embraced his larger-than-life physique to craft a larger-than-life personality, yet somehow always seemed down to Earth. If rap was throwing a party, he’d probably be the guy you’d want to hang out next to. Whether he was rapping about how much the ladies loved his rotundness (“Big Poppa”, “Hypnotize”) or about growing up in Brooklyn and dreaming of making it big, he had a flow and smoothness that was the definition of cool. Okay… those two were easy. Now it gets hard.
Jay Z: I was tempted to go with Dr. Dre here. It is really hard to overstate Dre’s influence. He has his own fantastic catalogue of music, plus all the artists he’s helped create through his producing and label. Simply put, rap wouldn’t be where it was if not for him. He built the first commercially viable rap empire from inside the game. (Ugh, maybe I should go with Dre here… no, no… stick with what you got). But Jay Z is Dr. Dre 2.0. He took what Dre did and doubled down, successfully. He is beyond a crossover star… he is a go anywhere star. He fits in equally well hob nobbing with Wall Street CEOs and can still hold his own on the block. OH, and he’s a phenomenally talented rapper who spits some of the best lyrics going right now. If you asked my mom to name a rapper, she’d probably get really confused before eventually coming up with Hova. If Dre helped bring rap to the mainstream, Jay helped make it the powerhouse it is today. Note: If you asked me to switch lives with one person on Earth, Jay would be very, very high on my list. He is, simply, The Man. The only hesitation I have is that despite all that, he still has to deal with the racism that comes with being a black man in America. But now we’re getting too heavy; just know that I sweat the man a bit, so this might be a tad biased.
RunDMC: Mount Rapmore wouldn’t be complete without delving back into its history a bit. I’ll be honest… I’m not big on traditional canon. I don’t think you need to know the entire tradition of an art form to appreciate its more contemporary products. This isn’t to diminish what came before… culture constantly builds upon itself… only to say that there is (often) a difference between doing a historical examination of an art and enjoying the best it has to offer. All that said, given that rap is one of the few art forms where we can definitively trace its history and lineage (the genre as a whole is younger than some of our writers here), it would seem silly to not incorporate that into Mount Rapmore. With that in mind, I’m picking RunDMC. The other names I considered for this spot were the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, and Rakim… mostly because if you asked me to name historical rap figures, those are the name I could muster up. But I’m picking RunDMC for two reasons: I’m more familiar with their work than the other acts and they helped take rap from the streets and house parties into the mainstream. They were the first act to have an album go gold and to be nominated for a Grammy. They literally kicked down walls with Aerosmith, helping introduce the form to white audiences. They represent the birth of mainstream hip hop, while still producing some of the genre’s best and most influential work.
So, there you have it. My Mount Rapmore: 2Pac, Biggie, Jay Z, and RunDMC. Putting these in their more proper order, you’d have RunDMC first, for making hip hop possible, than Biggie and 2Pac, for making it something you couldn’t help but know about, and Jay Z, for building it into an empire. Who you got? Let’s battle this out in the comments section! (Bonus points for anyone who rap battles it out.)