The False Divide Between ‘Conscious’ and Mainstream Rap – The Atlantic

One of the challenges of profiling dream hampton, the cultural critic who has cut a winding trail across journalism, filmmaking, and activism since 1991, is that she is sick of hip-hop, the art form she is most famously associated with. Another challenge is that she has too many stories to fit into any one article. Interesting bits end up getting left out—like the tale of the time she stopped the Notorious B.I.G. from beating up Questlove.

The anecdote stems from a dynamic prevalent not just in hip-hop but across art forms: the supposedly rigid dichotomy between the alternative and the mainstream. In the mid-’90s, the Philadelphia band the Roots—whose lyrics referenced political topics such as the Bosnian War—represented the scene of “conscious” rappers preaching social change. And Biggie, who brought a Shakespearean pen to tales of “party and bullshit,” was seen by many in the conscious camp as a money-minded entertainer.

The Roots’ 1996 music video for the song “What They Do” satirically labeled itself as a “Rap Video Manual.” It mocked mainstream-hip-hop clichés with scenes of rappers sipping champagne (actually ginger ale, according to a subtitle) and bikini-clad girls twerking (they end up suffering from “severe butt cramp”). Around that time, other alternative-leaning acts such as the Fugees and De La Soul were also dismissive of hip-hop’s materialism and frivolity. But Questlove, the Roots’ drummer (whose real name is Ahmir Thompson), told me that he had been oblivious to the video’s concept during its shoot. It wasn’t until he viewed the finished version of the clip that he realized it was specifically parodying the video for Biggie’s hit One More Chance,” which portrayed a Brooklyn party filled with bubbly and babes.

Biggie wasn’t amused. He’d championed the music of the Roots earlier in their career, and this was how they repaid him? Hampton, his close friend, recalled him telling her that he wanted to beat up “the big one” in the band, Questlove, whom she knew from editing his writing for Rap Pages magazine. “I was like, ‘That’s the softest one!’” she recalled telling Biggie. “‘Do not hit Ahmir! He’s a fuckin’ nerd!’”

Hearing of Biggie’s ire, Questlove submitted an editorial to The Source that tried to clear the air. But it never ran: In March 1997, Biggie was killed in a still-unsolved shooting. The murder “fucked me up,” Questlove said. “I think the only person I cried to about it was dream.”

The repercussions of the video continued after Biggie’s death. In February 1998, while attending a Grammys afterparty in New York City, Questlove got an emergency page from hampton telling him to call her right away. “Leave right now,” he recalled her saying. She’d heard that someone from Biggie’s former entourage was at the event—and that he wanted to ambush him. Questlove left immediately.

Questlove said that this was not the only time hampton acted as a go-between for rap’s “haves” and “have-nots.” He told me about buying a copy of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint in New York City on its release date: September 11, 2001. “I literally was like, If I’m gonna die, I gotta know what The Blueprint sounds like first,” he recalled. But listening felt like a betrayal: Questlove was a champion of the underground, and Jay-Z was, as Questlove put it, “the capitalist rapper.” He compared playing the album to breaking into “someone’s secret Playboy stash under the bed”—dishonorable but exciting.

What’s worse, he ended up loving The Blueprint. When he told hampton, a close friend of Jay-Z’s, “it was almost akin to coming out to someone,” Questlove said. “She could have cried tears of joy.” They got into an argument: She wanted to tell Jay-Z about Questlove’s admiration, but Questlove was worried about losing his indie cred. She told Jay-Z anyway—and within months, the two men were collaborating on an album.

The tensions underlying these stories still shape hip-hop today. Take, for example, one of this year’s most acclaimed albums: Sundial, by the Chicago rapper Noname. The lyrics attack capitalism, the military-industrial complex, and emcees who have allegedly sold out to those things, including Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z. At one point, Noname raps that she feels “motion sick / driftin’ in and out of consciousness like the rappers do.” But the album is also an example of how political engagement doesn’t always equate to enlightenment. One song features a plainly anti-Semitic verse by the rapper Jay Electronica (“i’m not going to apologize for a verse i didn’t write,” Noname wrote online).

In the ’90s, hampton argued in print against treating certain strains of rap as superior simply because they seem conscious. Speaking to me, she expressed ambivalence about “didactic” art and pointed out that even brainy acts such as A Tribe Called Quest have released ill-conceived and misogynistic songs such as “The Infamous Date Rape,” which casts doubt on women who make accusations of sexual assault. Protest artists often get romanticized by the media, but “that’s never been my call—for rap to be protest,” hampton told me. “If it was good and it was that, then great. But I just want rap to be good.”

Good is a subjective judgment, and one thing that sets critics apart from fans or political pundits is that critics try to be honest about the complex relationship between aesthetics and morality. Although my profile focused on the ideological dimensions of hampton’s career, there’s a way of seeing her trajectory as a search for truth and beauty. She came to New York City to study film, and over the years she has shifted back and forth between activism and art. In some ways, criticism—especially criticism that frankly examines the social ideas embedded in entertainment—sits at the intersection of those two things.

The sculptor Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, a friend of hampton’s, told me that the writer cares “greatly about craft and attention to detail … in a period of time where there does seem to be a holding-up of a lot of mediocrity.” Hampton’s filmmaking (such as her recent short Freshwater) is influenced by directors such as Terrence Malick, for whom style always supersedes ideology: “Whatever story [Malick is] telling—about a war, Pocahontas, or whatever—I love those moments when you just spend seven minutes on a blade of grass,” hampton said.

Her influence on hip-hop, too, has aesthetic dimensions. Questlove said that without hampton, he might not have linked up with the producer J Dilla, which led to critically acclaimed collaborations with D’Angelo and Common, among others. She also introduced him to the music of the singer Cody Chesnutt, who ended up on the Roots’ 2002 hit “The Seed (2.0).”

He added that she had, in fact, made him more conscious—but more in terms of how he communicates rather than what he communicates. “She has a really uncanny way of planting a seed so effortlessly,” he said. “It’s a work of art to say an effective sentence and the next thing, you’re running to the internet or the library.” His friendship with hampton, he said, pushed him to continually think, “How can I use my art to change people’s minds? How can I use my art to plant seeds of new ideas?

Questlove also said that hampton ranks in his top-five writers of all time. “I don’t mean Black women writing or hip-hop writers or music writers,” he clarified. “She’s the first person I got access to that was able to express things in ways that no one my age [could] do.” Informed of this accolade by text, hampton replied, “Hip hop and its hyperbole,” with an emoji rolling its eyes.

*Lead image: Illustration by Paul Spella. Sources: Theo Wargo / Getty; George De Sota / Getty; Larry Busacca / WireImage / Getty; Josh Brasted / FilmMagic / Getty;  C Flanigan / FilmMagic / Getty

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