Positive Hip Hop: Common Market

February 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

Seattle is a city most well known for coffee, rain and grunge rock. Recently, however, they have experienced a boom in independent hip hop as artists like The Blue Scholars have been steadily producing high quality hip hop, musically and lyrically. My personal favorite group from Seattle is Common Market. I was turned on to Common Market by Relevant magazine, and I picked up their second full album Tobacco Road. I was met by a plethora of chill beats produced by Dj Sabzi and perfectly strung together words spit by the immense talent of RA Scion.

The first thing you’ll notice about Common Market is the intelligence that they bring to hip hop. Scion’s lyrics are a melting pot of story and biography, and his raps are an adventurous romp through an array of expertly delivered vocabulary words that make up a truly unique hip hop experience. Both members of Common Market are Baha’i, a faith that values nonviolence and peaceful treatment of others, and this spiritual and political bent shows through in their lyrics. We’re going to take a look at some of their music to highlight their positive contributions to hip hop.

Their first album Common Market is packed full of songs that are full of a driving energy with real hope behind it that seems to suggest that we can band together to make things better. On Every Last One Scion spits:

It’s our intent to re-implement modesty/Demandin’ self-respect be the market’s hottest commodity/Regulate the wealth and decimate extreme poverty/and educate kids with every dollar from the lottery/We ’bout to change the mentality/of old world savagery into a new reality/One where teachers and lawyers will change salaries/and liquor stores are razed to make way for art galleries…

This is not your average radio hip hop. This is two dudes, passionate about changing the way we think about the world and encouraging us to think about how we can actually make a change. Later on in the album on Love One, over a soulful beat from Sabzi, Scion raps about the women in his life: his mom, sister, wife and daughter. It’s a beautiful song that celebrates everything good about femininity and shows that Common Market’s approach to women is not formed by the prevailing view of the hip hop genre.

After their first album, filled with many more songs like those I highlighted above, Common Market released an EP before dropping Tobacco Road. Tobacco Road is a stunning album, dripping with soul, Scion’s lyrics perfectly complemented by Sabzi’s production. The album bursts out of the doors with Trouble Is, but it is the second song Gol’Dust that captures my attention immediately. The song is a exemplary look at greed and the many ways it influences our daily lives. My favorite lines come at the end of the song: “And what’s a legacy worth next to mined metal, yo/Measure me first–depression, it’s better we work/For change, not for pennies, if anything the commodity traded is us for flakes of gold dust.

Tobacco Road is an album concerned with the way in which we work, the affects of industrialization and, ultimately, the way we live our lives. Nina Sing touches on poverty and societal inequality in work and economic conditions. The final verse is a perfect example: “Seein’ fam fallin’ through the cracks in the variance/Famished on a barren land of AIDS and malaria/One percent could fix it with a tenth of their inheritance/Freedom buried in the treasure chest of the nefarious.” Regardless of whether or not you agree with their conclusions, there is no doubt that Common Market is exploring important territory with a level of maturity and verbosity that should be respected. The album concludes with the title track, an homage to Tobacco Road in Kentucky, which also offers up a introspective look on growing up and leaving home. “Mindful of the nights in that state, who they say life is what you make it/When really life is what makes you…The schools failed me, thank God the farm taught me/The value of a calloused hand, how to work and plow this land/How even a modest crop will make your pop the proudest man.”

Common Market is a independent hip hop group that is not afraid to tackle big issues and they do it in an intellectual, effective way. Their songs are loaded with words and ideas that are available for anyone who is willing to listen. Positive and socially conscious, Common Market is making great music with a worthwhile message.


Positive Hip Hop: An Introduction

February 1, 2011 § 3 Comments

While the debate over the artistic/moral validity of hip hop has decreased over the past few years, there are still those who see hip hop as merely a vehicle to promote misogynistic and hedonistic lifestyles that revolve around drugs, alcohol and violence. While I am not discounting the abundance, in some manner of speaking, of this type of hip hop, to discard the genre as worthless without first exploring it more in depth is a grave mistake. Over the next few weeks (months?) I’ll be highlighting some hip hop artists that make compelling, challenging music and showing how this oft-maligned genre is capable of speaking with the same depth and power as any other genre of music.

Before embarking upon this series of exposes of individual artists, I want to speak to the overall state of hip hop in general, and how there is positive and uplifting hip hop even within the mainstream and from artists you may not expect. While I am certainly not the most qualified to speak to the state of current hip hop, I think I can give a fair picture of where the genre currently stands at least in terms of its impact and potential impact, both positive and negative.

Positive, often termed socially conscious, hip hop has not always been on the forefront of the genre, and I would daresay it still is not, but its presence is being felt more and more. Mainstream, radio hip hop is still often full of content that one would not consider uplifting or encouraging to a way of living that is concerned with deeper issues, but we must be cautious of labeling every artist or every song as things which are not worth attention. To make this point I’m going to point out some great, thought-provoking songs from some of the more morally derided hip hop artists of the past few decades. Let’s clear our minds of the assumption that every hip hop artist, mainstream or otherwise, regardless of their reputation, makes music that is irredeemable.

I’m only going to be tackling a very small cross-section of mainstream artists here, looking specifically at Eminem and Kanye West. Let the record show that I agree there are a number of artists making rather meaningless music, but a knee-jerk reaction is not something beneficial to either our critical thinking skills or to art in general. Even artists traditionally known for producing “offensive” music have their moments where they shine light onto some important issues.

Eminem is not known for being a very positive emcee, as he is probably most well known for his violent, profanity-laden and at times racist and sexist lyrics. But those who stop there, condemning Eminem without a second thought, miss out on some poignant commentaries on modern hip hop and on his life that reveal a thoughtful, introspective side of Eminem that has some important things to say. The song and video above, “Like Toy Soldiers”, tackles the issue of violence within the hip hop community, as Eminem points a finger at himself and the entire culture that surrounds so called “battle” raps. The song speaks to the violence that has been propagated by this culture and concludes with Eminem rapping, “I’m just willing to be the bigger man/If y’all can quit poppin’ off at your jaws well then I can/ Cuz frankly I’m sick of talkin’/I’m not gonna let someone else’s coffin rest on my conscience.”

Other songs from Eminem such as “Mockingbird”, “When I’m Gone” and “Stan” stand out as tracks that offer more than just profanity and shock value. In “Mockingbird” and “When I’m Gone” Eminem spits about his daughter and family and how he wishes some things were different, taking a very candid look at his own life and evaluating it. “Stan” warns of the danger of celebrity worship, by over-exaggerating Stan’s admiration of Eminem and showing it for the dangerous thing that it can actually be. And while Eminem’s output hasn’t been markedly less offensive after “Stan”, it seems that in the song  Eminem is realizing the potential negative  impact his music can have on those that listen to it. While Eminem’s music is still not for those easily offended by profanity, some of it is quite profound and provides us with insight into a man who has some beneficial comments to make.

Almost known more for his public outbursts than his music is Kanye West. Famous for having an ego the size of Jupiter, Kanye is often not taken seriously thanks to the persona that he emits. However, if we look past that, we can see that some Kanye’s music has a great deal more depth to it than just the ravings of an egomaniac. “Jesus Walks” got a lot of publicity when it was released due to its rather up front spiritual message and listening to it again today provokes much of the same reaction if one can separate their bias for or against Kanye from the equation. Apparently, Kanye has released a new version of the video for “Jesus Walks” but I like the old version much better (please excuse the video quality). It seems as if Kanye grasps the Christian message of grace for everyone in the song and video better than some Christians. The song is also an indictment of the mainstream hip hop scene’s unwillingness to grapple with spiritual issues, as Kanye raps, “So here go my single dawg radio needs this/They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, videotape/But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?”

In addition to “Jesus Walks,” Kanye has a number of other songs that deal with issues such as self-confidence, materialism and poverty or other social issues. Also on his first album The College Dropout, are songs like “All Falls Down” and “Family Business,” which touch on topics such as Kanye’s self confidence and his relation to his family. On his second album, he explores conflict diamonds and the wars fought over them in “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” with Jay-Z and raps a heartfelt song for his mom with “Hey Mama.” Graduation boasts plenty of braggadocio, but also contains some uplifting tracks like “Homecoming” and “Big Brother” and “Everything I Am” finds Kanye looking back at his life and asserting, “Everything I’m not made me everything I am.” Kanye is still immature at times, and certainly isn’t providing deep content every time he rhymes, but he has his share of songs dealing with serious things and trying to spark change in his listeners.

I hope that this brief introduction to hip hop has shown you that not all hip hop is crude and profane, but contains music that is meaningful. Admittedly, at times we must look through the rough exterior to see what is within, but I believe that is a worthwhile endeavor. As we continue on in our look into positive hip hop, the artists I’ll be spotlighting will more consistently comment on social, political and religious issues than Eminem and Kanye. They will approach these issues from a variety of perspectives and come to a myriad of conclusions. These artists all have something important to say and are deserving of an audience who is looking at their work critically.

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