The Failure of Hip-Hop Journalism: Rewritin’ Hip-Hop History

Misc - Pen and padTo hear some hip-hop journalists tell it, there was a time when hip-hop magazines were the vanguard of the revolution. Not since David Walker’s “Appeal” were there such powerful writings that shook the foundations of the system. Some believe that if it wasn’t for hip-hop journalists, slavery would have been back in effect after the Reagan administration.

However, contrary to popular belief, The Source was never “The Negro World,” nor was XXL ever the “The Messenger.”

This is not to say that hip-hop magazines have not had their shining moments. XXL’s first couple of issues showed promise that something new might have been on the horizon and The Source did give the early conscious rappers a voice in its early years. But that had more to do with the fact that hip-hop, itself, was going through a brief conscious era more so than The Source shaping the direction of hip-hop. The writers were merely reporting what was happening in hip-hop, not plotting a new “vainglorious” course.

Today The Source does have a few interesting articles, especially in its “Ear to the Street” section. However, this is an exception to the rule. For the most part, hip-hop journalists give the same rehashed stories over and over again regarding beefs, street credibility and the obligatory paragraph about a rappers love for weed.

The goal of hip-hop magazines has and always will be to sell subscriptions, not to lead black folks to the “Promised Land.” For the most part, the mission of hip-hop journalists has been to give pseudo black culture to mainstream America in small doses at a time.

In other words, the cat who buys a hip-hop magazine in 2009, is the same dude who bought that Alfonso Ribeiro Learn How to Breakdance book back in the day.

This is not to say that the writers of 20 years ago were any different than most hip-hop artists whose end game strategy was to gain acceptance by the mainstream and to prove once and for all that rappers were people, too.

To suggest that there was ever a period when hip-hop journalists/artists ever consistently put fighting the power before fighting for profit is a myth that has been repeated so much that it has become part of the official hip-hop canon. Of course, there were some writers who used their skills as tools to empower the masses. Even today a few still exist, such as Davey D and Rosa Clemente. However, they have found ways to move the crowd, mostly, outside of mainstream avenues. Also, there are a few hip-hop artists who have used the art to deliver political commentary to the streets such as Pittsburgh’s Jasiri X.

While some would write about “The Poor Righteous Teachers” back in tha day, few wanted to be one, as assimilation into the mainstream was more lucrative. This is the true side of hip-hop journalism that few want to discuss, therefore we become victims of historical amnesia.

Hip-hop history becomes problematic when, like the rest of American history, it becomes revisionist. Those who are entrusted to record historical events tend to give themselves or their causes greater roles than they actually deserve. Therefore, many who see it as their crusade to return hip-hop back to a “golden age” are trying to time travel back to an age that never really existed to that degree.

If we are, truly, trying to move hip-hop forward, we must first dispel the myths of the past.

First of all, hip-hop journalism has never been “revolutionary” in and of itself. We must remember, as much as we try to extend the time period, out of the almost 30 years since hip-hop was first put on wax, the period of “conscious hip-hop” was relatively short, barely lasting four years. What ever conscious hip-hop of that era was, it was not able to engage itself in a protracted struggle against the powers that be. At best, the writers did the best they could to enlighten the masses within the narrow confines imposed on them by those who had a vested interest in keeping young urban America in the dark.

While some writers consider themselves “underground hip-hop journalists,” they face the same contradictions as underground hip-hop artists. As Huey P Newton said “movements are driven underground” through some form of political repression. The writings of true revolutionaries are quickly labeled as contraband by the oppressors, therefore you would not be able to buy them for $4.99 at your local grocery store.

We must also remember that conscious hip-hop began to lose its “pro-blackness,” as soon as it began to gain acceptance by the mainstream. What could have been a force to teach unadulterated black history/culture to the youth soon became just another way for white kids to live the hood life vicariously through hip-hop. They could drink of the rivers of blackness without experiencing the after taste. Although, we may wax nostalgic about the pro-blackness of the hip-hop journalists during ’88-’92, just like the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, they were never allowed to reach their full potentials because of the influences of outside forces. (read: Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse.)

Despite all the new prognostications of hip-hop journalism’s sudden growth spurt into collective maturity since the last election, it still is well below the intellectual level that it should have reached during its 20 years of existence. While some refer to the shallowness of today’s Soulja Boy-esque hip-hop as ringtone music, today’s hip-hop writings can be best described as “text message journalism.” Thus, it has not evolved much from where it was two decades ago.

Out of all the things hip-hop magazines coulda/shoulda done to advance the culture, their crowning achievement was promoting the East Coast/West Coast Beef.

If hip-hop is to move forward, the scribes must see the past as its was and not through rose colored Gazelles. As the saying goes, “those who don’t learn their history are bound to repeat it.”

The author of this piece is Paul Scott, aka the hip-hop TRUTH Minista. He pens his own blog at

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