How Did Hip-Hop Media Get So Bad?
4:26 PM EDT on April 13, 2023
This year marks hip-hop's 50th anniversary. The art form and the culture that was born out of it have seen a lot of peaks and valleys over those years, but a few defining principles have always remained: authenticity, free expression, and skepticism of systems that have worked to keep the downtrodden in their place. But, over the last decade-plus, the apparatus around hip-hop and the people who have come to represent the culture have gotten steadily worse.
Consider Trap Lore Ross, a white British guy who calls himself a "hip-hop historian." He has close to a million subscribers on YouTube, and the videos he posts to his channel rack up millions of views. His most recent entry, which has been watched a million times in two days, is titled "King Von: Rap's First Serial Killer."
You don't need to watch more than a few minutes of any of Trap Lore Ross's work to understand the register at which he's operating. It was just under 30 years ago that rap media was admonished (slightly unfairly) for its role in instigating the East-West beef that claimed the lives of 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G.; now, it's at this level of shameless sensationalism. His videos carry the same flourishes and aesthetics you'd find in a video from a Comic Con attendee explaining the latest Marvel easter egg to his followers. The difference, in this case, is that the "lore" being discussed, analyzed, and geeked-out over are gang and rap beefs that result in murder.
Trap Lore Ross exists in the ecosystem of online provocateurs alongside high-energy remoras like VladTV and DJ Akademiks, both of whom came up similarly exploiting beefs and gang violence within hip-hop, and have now built large enough audiences to become stalwarts in the rap-media ecosystem. Recently, this ecosystem has taken a noticeable right-wing turn. Akademiks just had a photo op with Donald Trump and signed a deal with Rumble, a video platform that pitches itself as a welcoming home for reactionary pundits. The No Jumper podcast, hosted by another white guy who calls himself Adam22, has platformed people like Nick Fuentes. It's tempting to pin this reactionary drift on interlopers who are less interested in the music than they are in making money off it, but it's also entirely too neat. As actual rappers have gotten into the podcast business, they've shown a similar tendency to parrot reactionary right-wing talking points and espouse their own conservative beliefs.
On March 31, when notable scumbag Andrew Tate was remanded to house arrest in Romania, Drink Champs host and rapper N.O.R.E. asked his Twitter followers if he should have Tate on the show. Although he later rescinded the offer and claimed it was a joke, Drink Champs had previously gotten into hot water for allowing Ye to go on an infamous rant against the Jewish community. And really, anyone with even cursory knowledge of Drink Champs and other shows like it, including those hosted by rappers Joe Budden and Math Hoffa, would not be surprised to find someone like Tate getting an invite. Everything tangential to rap, from social media outlets like The Shade Room to podcasts to YouTube, has in some way promoted content that is divisive at best and borders on racist and misogynistic at worst.
How did it get to this point, where so much of hip-hop adjacent media is becoming rooted in standard-issue reactionary politics and/or the cynical exploitation of the pain and death of the people who still create the music? Well, it certainly did not happen overnight. Part of the problem, unsurprisingly, is structural. Rap journalism, and journalism in general, has continued to crumble, and that atomization has increasingly sent hip-hop fans to social media platforms that incentivize and empower the charlatans we've been talking about. In this sense, the broader hip-hop conversation is being pulled to the right by not just the same sinister incentives but the same algorithms currently doing that work everywhere else.
But there's also the issue of hip-hop's global domination. How can an art form remain punk and revolutionary while also being the hottest genre in music for decades? Rappers are worth near billions of dollars. They are the establishment now, and the biggest stars spend their time gallivanting with the wealthiest white elite. Mainstream power brings mainstream attention from people who do not possess the critical thinking skills necessary to interrogate what sorts of values and politics are likely to be passed down from this elevated status. That the audience is growing is good for business; that the newest members of that audience are the least informed is having about the effect you'd expect.
The main problem, to my mind, is one of artistic and cultural literacy. It would be ahistorical to say that rap music itself has never flirted with conservative ideology. Despite its punk roots, it has always gloried in conservative ideas about women, masculinity, homosexuality, and wealth accumulation. In the past, these things fueled the more racialized fight between terrified white suburbanites and the political figures that pander to them and the creators of a new, crass, black art form they didn't understand. The mainstreaming of hip-hop more or less ended that fight, and now in its place there is something much more convoluted and potentially more damaging. Reactionaries who once demonized rap music as an art form are now free to invite rappers and rap pundits to stand alongside them in defense of the rancid values that the two groups have always shared. Combine that with the average fan's inability to interpret a rap song (or any media really) in anything but the most literal way, or to understand hip-hop culture as anything other than a reality show about gangbangers, and you have an audience that's primed to be led down a reactionary path. That path could include anything from degrading women for entertainment to amassing support for Donald Trump's re-election campaign. Despite these attempts to push against the grain of "wokeness" and "cancel culture," they've just ended up right at the beginning, promoting Christian-based hegemony and Moynihan Report-style myths about blackness.
When Akademiks completes his move to Rumble, he'll be sharing it with the likes of Tate, Donald Trump Jr., Russell Brand, and Dan Bongino—grifters and creeps, cynics and idiots and bigots, and people who understand that pushing on bruises is something like their business model. He won't be out of place there, but the real concern will be in how many more join him.