How 21 Savage, and the Rest of Us, Should Think About 'Relevance' in Hip Hop
Plus a bunch of cool, innovative Hip Hop news items, interesting events, and, sadly, way too many RIPs
🗺️ DJs, rappers, dancers, visual artists, and other Hip Hop artist-educators can sign up for the next Next Level international exchange program…🌍 Hip Hop as changemaker in Senegal… ☕ Jadakiss, aka Mr. Coffee?… 📖 [JOURNAL] Conversations Across Dance Studies edition - Cyber-Rock: A Virtual Hip Hop Listening Cypher… 📑 [BOOK REVIEW] Hip-Hop Heresies: Queer Aesthetics in New York City…🎯 University of Dope card game lands Target deal… 🎦 Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman on their Afrofuturist musical… 📽️ Nas-exec-produced documentary The Invaders hits streaming platforms… 🗣️ Battle rapper Pat Stay brilliantly honored by Canadian politician…
🎨 A History of New York Graffiti Exhibition… 🕊️ 10th Annual UGK Day… 🎶 An Orchestral Tribute to the Notorious B.I.G. at Lincoln Center… 🏆 USA Breakin’ 2022 National Championship… 🤩 50 Years of Hip Hop fashion exhibition at FIT…
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Later in this newsletter, “How 21 Savage, and the Rest of Us, Should Think About 'Relevance' in Hip Hop”
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Rest in peace Jarritt Ahmed Sheel. Jarritt was a beloved artist, educator, mentor and advocate for Hip Hop music education. As an instructor at the Berklee College of Music, or moderating the Hip Hop Music Ed Facebook group, Sheel was always sharing his brilliance and compassion with the world. I was lucky enough to speak with him at length on an episode of Hip-Hop Can Save America! and we had spoken several times since. My heart goes out to his friends, colleagues and family. Please feel free to watch this touching tribute by the Music Education Department at the Berklee College of Music.
Rest in peace to Jonathan ‘Hovain’ Hylton, a very well-known and respected artist manager.
Rest in peace to Don Newkirk whose music and voice were an integral part of iconic groups like De La Soul and 3rd Bass.
Rest in peace Tame One of New Jersey-based group, The Artifacts.
Rest in peace Hurricane G, a Def Squad affiliate.
Rest in peace Terrance Dean, journalist, educator, and former MTV exec.
(Sadly, the one or two mentions I started with, grew into a way-too-long list, and seemingly what is now going to likely be a recurring section. Treasure your folks, tomorrow may never come.)
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💭 A MANNY FACES EDITORIAL
How 21 Savage, and the Rest of Us, Should Think About 'Relevance' in Hip Hop
OK, ok. I know that the debate over this particular Hip Hop culture flashpoint has died down a bit, but I was on vacation (shoutout to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Super fun. Who knew?!) and so I didn’t get to be as timely as I wanted. However, as is obvious by the fact that this EXACT same thing happened back in 2017, it seems evergreen enough to still address.
In fact, the incident, the fallout, and my analysis occupy an area of my advocacy that I like to call: sometimes-there-is-a-larger-cultural-impact-angle-when-it-comes-to-certain-Hip-Hop-debates-but-we-all-too-often-can’t-get-past-the-music-aspect-and-barbershop-type-arguments-so-we-ignore-the-bigger-point-and-miss-out-on-important-teachable-moments.
(I’ll think of a shorter phrase for that at some point. In any case…)
In 2017, Lonzo Ball was asked about his taste in music. Nas came up as being an example of “real rap.” In response, the young basketball and reality show neophyte stated, “Y’all outdated. Nobody listen to Nas anymore. Real Hip Hop is Migos… Future…”
In Hip Hop, as in other areas, intergenerational sniping is bound to set off a flurry of discussion and debate. LeBron vs. Michael. Comic books vs. the MCU. Old House Party vs new House Party, and so on…
Predictably, older Hip Hop heads could hardly contain their rage at the idea that some young hothead would disparage one of the genre’s elite lyricists. “Hip Hop media” (quotes very much purposeful) and social media platforms (who, ironically, survive largely by sparking such controversy and encouraging rage-induced e-finger wagging) were riddled with folks wagging their e-fingers, outraged at how the new generation of rappers generally seem to hold the genre’s OGs in such low regard.
Well, just recently, it was déjà vu all over again, as 21 Savage, fresh off the heels of a fairly notable collaborative release with Drake, made pretty much the exact same statement.
Just before admitting that Nas has “a loyal ass fanbase” and “still makes good ass music,” the 30-year old rapper dropped the soundbite heard around the clubhouse:
“I don’t feel like Nas is relevant.”
This predictably sent hordes of e-critics scrambling to their keyboards in furiously-typing-cat-meme style to defend the honor of one of Queensbridge’s finest, especially in the shadow of his most recent release, the highly acclaimed King’s Disease III. In fact, the recent run of albums that Nas has been on (KD I-III and Magic), fortifies the Nas-IS-relevant defense even more than when Lonzo Ball slighted the Illmatic rap icon (back in 2017 Nas had been much more silent, release-wise).
But here’s the thing (that a lot of folks have already given me grief over). In both 2017 and in 2022 these young men had a point.
In 2017, Nas had a legacy for sure, but he simply wasn’t pumping out albums (Life is Good came out in 2012, while Nasir wouldn’t arrive until 2018). So, in terms of the music business… The music industry… Compared to Migos and Future… At the time… Nas.. Well…
He just wasn’t very relevant.
Here’s what I wrote back then:
For a 19-year old who is fully immersed in today’s pop culture landscape, much of which is heavily influenced by current hip-hop music and culture, Lonzo Ball is absolutely correct. In this context, Nas is only barely relevant (even that is only due to a brief flash of excitement over his 2016 song “Nas Album Done,” with DJ Khaled).
Of course, the counter argument is just as viable, as I quickly pointed out:
The rebuttal, as it has played out repeatedly in social media commentary, memes, celebrity responses, “thinkpieces” and threats of a curse, refute this notion by pointing to Nas’ legacy as a musical artist. Defenders tout his influence on generations of rappers who came after him, and his long-standing status as a respected lyricist who often brought out the best in what the genre has to offer. Migos or Future, they argue, wouldn’t even exist without Nas.
Although this is somewhat more of a subjective and emotional argument, it is a compelling one. In that context, sure, Nas is indeed ALWAYS relevant.
So there is definitely a debate here. And I can kind of see both sides. Again, to quote myself:
Understandably, there is a sector of the hip-hop generation, the ones who came of age alongside its ascension, who consider themselves of that culture. As they have aged, they have witnessed the positive effects that their understanding of hip-hop has had on society, and bemoan the ways in which commercialization of that culture has eroded much of its beneficial characteristics. Part of that fear rears its head in the form of off-the-cuff comments by young people when it comes to their understanding and respect for the shoulders on which they or their artistic heroes stand.
But to the younger generation, they are simply doing what their elders did when they were on the come up. They are finding community, enjoyment, solace and escapism via music and culture, adapting and creating new offshoots of it as they go, with an ingrained but perhaps subconscious understanding of what they are drawing off of. The argument that young hip-hop heads should be more cognizant of from whence they came is difficult to enforce when most old school hip-hop pioneers and architects themselves admit that they had no idea — or real interest in — what their actions would become. They were simply creating things in their own way, using whatever influences and resources they had available to them, that resonated with their peers. Expecting a younger generation to be fully aware of this or insisting they remain rooted in the same creative box as their elders can be seen as going against the counter-cultural foundation that exists at hip-hop’s very core.
For many, this in of itself is a fascinating phenomenon, one with deep artistic, cultural and social significance. Both of these arguments have validity, and so in general, these debates are important.
But in this case, nearly everyone is wrong.
And then I wrote something that is as true today as it was 5 years ago:
The fact is, right now, today, Nas is one of the most ‘relevant’ figures in American entertainment history, and although this status is rooted in his music, music has very little to do with it.
To be fair, this statement setting up the bigger point I’m getting to here, was a little more accurate back when Nas hadn’t been on such a prolific streak. But even today, as super dope as KDIII might be — especially to those who grew up alongside Nas’ career — it’s not like you will hear his new songs on the radio. We’re not hearing them on TV shows or movie soundtracks. They’re not bumping out of most cars. They’re not the soundtrack to a TikTok challenge or trending Instagram audio. Nas isn’t being interviewed by influencers, or even most Hip Hop or mainstream media. He’s not promoting a
stupid NFT. He wasn’t on Clubhouse offering a rebuttal to 21 Savage. He’s not headlining ComplexCon.
Like it or not, these are the platforms that reflect relevance in today’s entertainment landscape.
So, except to his “loyal ass fan base,” when it comes to the overall music business, Nas really isn’t that relevant. Especially compared to an artist who just dropped an album with perhaps the genre’s most perennially relevant star. Especially when that album debuted at #1 on Billboard, immediately landing songs in eight of the top 10 single chart slots — with all 16 tracks appearing in the top 40!
Simply put, way more people knew about, listened to, streamed Her Loss than King’s Disease III. Way more.
It is what it is, my friends, neighbors, supporters and haters. Granted, King’s Disease III debuted at #10, allowing Nas to tie longtime rival Jay-Z’s record for most top ten albums by a rapper, but both Drake and 21 Savage have been swimming in the charts and on tours for the past decade. This is Nas’ first major appearance in nine years.
The mistake people are making is insisting on a level of relevance we remember Nas to be in during his Illmatic, Stillmatic, or “Ether” days. But past industry dominance simply doesn’t carry over to today. Legacy does not equal relevance. Strong appeal to a moderate sector of the population, does not equal relevance. A bunch of dope albums that didn’t really crack the top charts, but then one that did, would be amazing for most artists, but still isn’t that big a deal in the grand industry scheme of things.
Now before some of y’all give up on me. Nas is making phenomenal music. In my opinion, no one has been better at showing that Hip Hop can age gracefully. He remains an elite lyricist. A legend in the genre. A face on Hip Hop’s Mount Rushmore. It’s commendable that he’s still doing it and doing it well. To a great degree, active longevity DOES equal relevance.
But this is still a commercialized industry. The youth are still the focus. Flash and razzle dazzle still own the game. And regardless of what you think of the musical output of 21 Savage or Drake, the fact is that when it comes to the music industry, they are the epitome of relevance, while Nas is relegated to a smaller, less relevant lane.
Ugh. See? Even I can’t stop debating this with myself!!
I keep forgetting that my point here is that we’re all missing the real point!
The REAL relevance of Nas extends way past his musical influence.
Since 2013, there has been a Nasir Jones Fellowship at Harvard University, providing institutional support for multiple Hip Hop-focused scholars, academics and artists.
Nas has invested time, money and creativity into the Mass Appeal media ecosystem, ensuring that Hip Hop has a proper, respectable voice in print, video and online. As an extension of that partnership, Nas has executive produced and appeared in several Hip Hop- and non Hip Hop-related films and documentaries.
And perhaps most impressive, Nas is a founding partner in Queensbridge Venture Partners, a venture capital firm that has invested in — and seen impressive returns from — various tech-based startups including powerhouses like Lyft, Dropbox, Casper and Genius.
All that seems pretty damn relevant, yet tragically underdiscussed.
I guess this is what grinds my gears about Hip Hop-related discussions — we all are so used to the MUSIC lane, we often fail to include the culture and society lane. We talk about contributions to “the culture” but often undervalue contributions to culture. These discussions have the potential to bring so much more information to light, to remind folks that Hip Hop is so much more than music, yet we all tend to stay caught up in the barbershop, top-five-dead-or-alive-style debates.
What I think is more helpful to the cause (“the cause” being a greater understanding of Hip Hop as a force for good outside of mere entertainment) is for 21 Savage (and other young people, artists or otherwise — and in fact, ALL of us) to understand the true relevance for a 50ish-year-old rap artist isn’t whether his music is on the radio or being used on TikTok. In fact, the music is more of a bonus, the icing on the otherwise highly relevant cake.
A huge part of Nas’ legacy is that he took a successful career in music, and made it into something bigger, something much more lucrative, something much more sustainable, something that is creating generational wealth, and through academia and media, something that is helping Hip Hop tell its own story.
But how is 21 Savage even supposed to know all this about Nas? His musical legacy… His current musical impact… Or his impact in all of the areas I mentioned above?
Who’s teaching him?
Who’s teaching your kids?
When I posted about this on social media, IG friend @rhyhmicmind1 reposted with the following comment:
We played Nas’ “40 side” for a group we did at the Alameda County Juvenile Detention Center. These were young folks who generally weren’t tryna hear that “old shit”. But by first validating their perspectives and opinions on what they think is dope, and then taking the time to provide context and break down a bit about who Nas is, what he’s done, who he’s influenced, etc., they ended up loving it. And they were able to take in some of the incredibly powerful messages that he conveys in that song. Shoutout to @mannyfacesofficial for this breakdown on the current @21savage & @nas issue, and for recognizing these issues as opportunities to really put youth up on game!!
Ahhh. Now THAT’s what I’m talking about!
The more we make younger folks feel stupid for feelings or opinions that make sense to them, the less likely they are to ever care about the generation that came before them.
We can continue to brush them aside, laugh at or mock their lack of knowledge of history or knowledge of self, or take an equally immature approach of simply demeaning their craft or taste in music.
Or, we can use these moments to help deliver that knowledge to younger folks, in a way that values their perspective, instead of expecting that somehow — in a world where Vlads and Akademiks and Charlemagnes have somehow become the so-called keepers of “the culture” — they are going to figure it all out on their own.
— Manny Faces