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On a recent episode of Everyday Struggle, rap's generational divide was on full display in a conversation between co-host Joe Budden and Lil Yachty. But more than the talk of album covers and 360 deals, one thing that stood out during the segment was the discussion about happiness.
Yachty was adamant that his music was meant to encourage people to "stay positive and love yourself."
"I am happy every day, because life is moving in a very positive way," he said.
A cynical Budden dismissed that attitude as "media-trained." Yachty insisted he was honest, saying that in light of his current success, "How could you be upset?" "Because I don't think that's where your values lie," responded Budden. Joe, as any hip-hop fan knows, has a bit of a reputation for being grumpy—one that he is well aware of.
But the relationship between hip-hop and outward, visible happiness has been more fraught than one might think, and it's bigger than Joe and Yachty. For decades, there's been a back-and-forth over what level of happiness is acceptable in rap. At various times, smiling, dancing, and joking around — basically any outward expression of joy — were stigmatized as corny and uncool. Some of this could be chalked up to rap's changing tastes, but underlying it were issues of black masculinity, the devastation of the crack era, corporate ownership and consolidation, and much more.
Hip-hop didn't start out with a frown on its face. Early rap crews like the Cold Crush Brothers and all those groups with numbers in their names (a popular countdown that you can still hear at Bronx park jams to this day incorporates many of them: "Fantastic FIVE, Fearless FOUR, Treacherous THREE, Awesome TWO") made their names on being entertainers. More than songs, the groups had routines, and got by on a mix of boasting, crowd work, and interpolating popular songs of the day. (What, you thought Drake invented singing in rap?) One thing that almost everyone remembers is how much fun people were having. Hip-hop was party music—so much so that, for the first few years of its existence, the idea of a rap record was basically unthinkable. Rap was a party, an event, a scene. To put that on a record would make as much sense as trying to get your family reunion or summer barbeque on the radio.
Even once actual records started being made in 1979, the fun largely continued. But in 1980, a group called Brother D with Collective Effort released arguably the first socially "conscious" rap song, "How We Gonna Make The Black Nation Rise?" While it contained some of the same boasting and appeals to "so-socialize" as other songs of the era (and used a familiar sonic backdrop, Cheryl Lynn's disco classic "Got to be Real"), it also talked about housing, unemployment, education, the KKK, and more. It was an early—perhaps the very first—example of a strain of rap that would explode in the late 1980s: one that mixed politics with black nationalism and racial uplift.
But right alongside that trend was a movement that was in some ways its polar opposite. In the early-to-mid 1980s, remember, no one was really sure what to make of this rap thing. Out of the old tradition of raunchy "party records" (Millie Jackson, Redd Foxx, Dolomite), and the equally bizarre tradition of novelty songs a la Weird Al, there was no shortage of jokey rap tunes. In 1983, Shawn Brown released "Rappin' Duke," a song that had him rapping in a John Wayne impression. No, really.
And that was far from the only rap novelty of the era. Even Rodney Dangerfield had one. The practice was so popular that Ice Cube, prior to NWA, was making dirty homemade parodies of Run-DMC and Joeski Love (you can hear how a young Cube transformed "The Pee Wee Herman" to "The V.D. Sermon" here, if you dare).
But all that joking around started to fall out of favor thanks to three guys from Hollis, Queens. While Run-DMC released their first single in 1983, it was their self-titled debut album the following year that really put them over the top. The group, along with Russell Simmons and the late producer and musician Larry Smith, created a harder, stripped-down sound, eschewing the disco interpolations of their predecessors. And Run-DMC's look was the total opposite of the Funkadelic-inspired costumes of groups like the Furious Five. Their simple, stripped-down look quickly became iconic, and people imitated everything from their hats to their footwear. They ushered in a new, streamlined, and ultimately more serious style, one that reflected real life in the streets—not a non-stop party at a club.
Not long after that came the beginnings of what is arguably happy hip-hop's antithesis: dead-serious gangsta rap. In 1985, Philly rapper Schoolly D released perhaps the very first gangsta rap song, "P.S.K. What Does It Mean?" That song started a revolution, and soon Ice-T was copying its cadence for his tale of L.A. street life, "6 in the Mornin'" (Ice has, to his eternal credit, always been open about the borrowing). NWA heard Ice-T, and took that as inspiration for their own "Boyz-N-The-Hood." All of this was happening right as the crack epidemic was reaching its height. By some measures, the effects were at their worst between 1984-1990, not coincidentally right as gangsta rap was taking off. Artists growing up in the middle of the crack epidemic were understandably likely to use their time behind a microphone to report what was going on, or to tell cautionary tales, than to talk about partying and shiny, happy people.
1988 is rightfully remembered as arguably hip-hop's single greatest year. Even a quick glance at the list of albums released that year is mind-boggling. But one thing that stands out is just how diverse the projects are. Among the political mayhem of Public Enemy and the stark street tales of the Geto Boys, you can find the outrageous storytelling of Slick Rick; the light-hearted, well, playfulness of Kid 'n Play; the sex-drenched tales of 2 Live Crew; and, of course, Biz Markie. Biz's debut album Goin' Off came out that year, and it featured plenty of happy, funny tunes like "Pickin' Boogers" and "Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz." The following year would give Biz his biggest hit of all, and would also give us another win for Team Happy, De La Soul's classic "Me Myself And I," ushered in by a hilarious video that explicitly made fun of many of 1980s rap's tough-guy tropes. Gangsta rap was rising, but it wasn't the only game in town.
The pushback wasn't long in coming, however. After leaving NWA, Ice Cube came to New York and got down with the Bomb Squad production collective, best known for their work with Public Enemy, on his debut solo album AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. The record was a massive hit, and an angry Cube wanted no part of happy rappers. "I don't want to see no dancing," he rapped on the album's very first song. "I'm sick of that shit." And he wasn't the only one. Backlash against pop crossover acts with happy tracks and lots of dancing in their videos was ubiquitous among a certain segment of hip-hop.
But there's one example that shows how thin the lines between the camps really was. Tupac Shakur got his start as a backup dancer with the Digital Underground, of "Humpty Dance" fame (you can see footage of him performing with the group on Arsenio's show here). But by 1991, he was starting to get restless playing the background, and decided to go solo with 2Pacalypse Now. If you needed a bigger metaphor for hip-hop moving from lighthearted, jokey music to more serious street stories, well, good luck finding one.
Sometimes the tug of war between happy and "hard" got physical. In January 1992, P.M. Dawn, who sang over ’80s New Wave samples and dressed like hippies, was performing at the Sound Factory in New York City. Several months prior to the show, Details interviewed P.M. Dawn leader Prince Be, who had thrown some mild shots at KRS-One. KRS was upset at Be, came to his gig, and famously threw Be offstage at his own show. But the event took on significance beyond a beef between two rappers. It came to be seen—as perhaps was intended by KRS—as a strike back against "soft," radio-friendly hip-hop, and a blow for the keepers of the flame of authentic hip-hop culture.
Another version of that same fight came in the middle of Biggie's 1994 track "Unbelievable," where the Notorious one makes a strange threat. "Your life is played out like Kwamé and them fuckin' polka dots," he raps. The dis of Kwamé—the rapper and producer who made playful, fun hip-hop and, yes, wore easy-to-make-fun-of polka dots—signaled the arrival of a new generation that had little time for jokes (and by some accounts, ended Kwame's career on the mic).
By the early 2000s, the ubiquity of gangsta rap was starting to run out of steam, and opportunities for a change, and for happiness, were making their way into the mainstream. OutKast's "Hey Ya" was about as much fun as you could have without actually shaking it like a Polaroid picture. The song inspired countless catchphrases, parodies, and terrible earnest acoustic cover versions. The tune, of course, was a massive hit, and showed that there's room to be happy and still be in arguably the greatest rap duo of all time. And then came the battle that changed everything.
In September 2007, Kanye West's Graduation and 50 Cent's Curtis were both set to be released on the same day, September 11. 50 boasted that he would triumph in sales, saying that if West outsold him, it would mean "he did a better job than me on his album." When the big day came, Kanye outsold Fif' by over a quarter-million units. The definitive victory was a symbol that 50's ever-boastful, emotion-less gangster persona was on the way out, and something with a little more range—and, yes, even some room for humor and joy—was gaining traction.
But not everyone was happy with how things were progressing. Jay Z's 2009 track "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)" was ostensibly about the pitch-correction software that was (and is) ubiquitous in commercial hip-hop. But below the surface, it had Hov telling youngsters that rap had gotten too soft, too sing-songy, too fun. Things should go back to being serious, dangerous, and "hard." "I'm a multi-millionaire," he sneers. "So how is it I'm still the hardest nigga here?" For Hov, the lack of "gangsta" and "violent" tendencies in rap is something to be criticized, and he's hoping they can be resurrected.
But many artists, including some close to Jay, disregarded his warning. Chance the Rapper, most prominently, has created a joy-filled, gospel-influenced project with Coloring Book, and fans (and award shows) have responded in droves. D.R.A.M. released one of last year's best debut albums, Big Baby D.R.A.M., highlighted by the happy-go-lucky weed anthem "Broccoli" (which not coincidentally features Yachty) and an album cover showing him posing with an adorable puppy and cheesing from ear to ear.
So that leaves us at today, with the latest incarnation of the decades-long argument between content and form; between thinking and feeling; between partying and learning; between innovation and legacy. No matter what happens between Budden's keep-it-real rap and Yachty's "bubblegum trap," several things are certain: Both tendencies are necessary, and hip-hop will continue having these arguments for a long time to come.