The Scene is speaking to Soup, aka Zaakir of the legendary West Coast hip-hop group Jurassic 5, and in record time, the conversation has turned to the grim state of contemporary hip-hop.
"There's always a way of changing everything, but are the people too conditioned to see it?" he asks. "Some people think that what they are doing is fine — and that's the scary part."
Jurassic 5 has seen the entire game go down in the 20-plus years since they started. They formed during hip-hop's creative peak in the early '90s, made their national breakout with the instant classic Quality Control as the genre hit its commercial peak in the late '90s and broke up as the genre and the industry hit new lows in the mid-Aughts.
In the years since the split, hip-hop has seen some bizarre permutations — remember those three weeks where everybody sampled twee indie-dance music? — and drifted far from its point of origin. Maybe it's because we didn't have J5 around to remind us where the whole culture came from. As a culture, hip-hop has drifted away from what J5 would call "original beats with real-live MCs" and toward a formulaic, assembly-line approach more akin to the bubblegum pop tradition than the sound that was developing on the playgrounds and at the parties in the South Bronx 40 years ago.
A side note: So far this month, country bro Colt Ford, Aussie pop rapper Iggy Azalea and bowtie-sporting 25-year-old G-Eazy have all hit No. 1 on the Billboard Rap Albums chart. Ugh.
As the genre has grown and matured through what some might see as a subtle and thorough evisceration of its past, the broadness and depth of hip-hop's history as represented in pop culture have been whittled down to a handful of Biggie and Tupac tracks. With the exception of the handful of tracks that make it onto urban adult radio, hip-hop of the pre-gangsta era — the era that J5 has pulled much of their inspiration from over the years — has all but disappeared from popular memory, and that can be partially blamed on the Logan's Run-style approach the industry takes toward aging artists.
"Any time you hit 30 in a genre of music, and they put you in the grave — put a flower on your grave — they aren't even asking you what it was like or what your accomplishments were, 'cause it's a 'young man's game,' " says Soup. "But even that is a lie — all of these most popular people are not in their teens or their early 20s. ... It's funny, 'cause it's not a young man's game, it's a whatever-music-the-people-like game.
"Society wants to push out people with experience and bring in people that have none so they can form their ideas for them," he continues. "And any time they do that, they aren't going to do it where it has any substance. A corporation doesn't have any substance. It's about building money."
While it can be argued that hip-hop has always been about absorbing other cultures and eras and refashioning them for the now — Afrika Bambaataa sampling Kraftwerk on the song "Planet Rock" is a perfect example — these days it's tough to see who is guiding the decision-making. Is it the suits, or is it the artists? Have the fans just given up, and has quality been forsaken in favor of accessibility? So much of what qualifies as popular rap music in 2014 would have been laughed out of the room 30, 20, maybe even 10 years ago.
"When was the last time I heard a real hip-hop song that blew up that didn't have any type of formula to it?" asks Soup. "Didn't have a Taylor Swift playing guitar and singing background? Didn't have a Miley Cyrus twerkin' on the left side of the stage? That doesn't happen anymore."
But all is not lost. Jurassic 5 is reunited and touring again, after all. While it probably won't deter your obnoxious neighbor from blasting "Fancy" at god-awful hours, the J5 reunion does fill a need that so many of us have. Not everybody is satisfied with weak writing delivered atop unimaginative beats when it comes to our hip-hop. Some of us need harmonically dense, stylistically innovative tunes built to last on a foundation of hip-hop classicism — some of us need Jurassic 5 to remind us why we listened to hip-hop in the first place, even if the rest of the world is busy gorging on featherweight bullshit.
"I don't think it's going to change, I really don't," says Soup. "I only think it's going to get worse. It's an unfortunate thing, but the people gotta change. But I don't know if they're willing to do that, because we've been conditioned — and our conditioning has been conditioned."
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This is nice news.