Hip Hop and race. A pairing that was destined to be so, yet has always and still does cause a fracas in many circles. It’s an obvious quandary when you think about the history of the genre: a form of music and sub-culture created by underserved African America and Latino youth in the hoodest of hoods, the Bronx, as a response to having nearly everything stripped of respective neighborhoods and communities, and essentially a way for those youths to try getting through and enjoying life despite their destroyed and desolate surroundings.
But as with any culture or subculture deemed to be alternative, progressive and even dangerous by many a person that stands outside of that culture or subcultures’ boundaries, Hip Hop eventually became part of the mainstream to include more faces and more voices, many of them not of color. That’s the great, and to some, also troubling thing about Hip Hop, especially in the 21st century: just about anyone can use the art form to express a pain, a struggle and a story that many of us wouldn’t have even thought about hearing before.
There’s not much of a point to go into a history of White rappers here. Many older heads are well aware of the lineage of melanin-deficient emcees, from the Beastie Boys to 3rd Bass during the Golden age, to probably the biggest novelty White act of all time in Vanilla Ice. Simultaneously, many a younger rap fan has been exposed to a plethora of White emcees in the current day and age: Machine Gun Kelly, Action Bronson, Mac Miller, and Macklemore are some of the hottest right now. A few that still bubble under the radar include Bubba Sparxx and Asher Roth, while Iggy Azalea, Rittz, Riff Raff, Lil Whyte are noisemakers in their own respective rights, as well. And what’s a music journalism article on white rappers that doesn’t mention the man considered to be a legend and one of the G.O.A.T.s of the rap game who happens to be white, Eminem? Exactly…pretty damn pointless.
Fact is, it’s truthfully not fair to try lumping all emcees that just happen to be Caucasian in the same bunch. Each of the above mentioned artists, and many more, have their own distinctive style. MGK brings a Midwestern, wild child, punk rock aesthetic to the game, while Action Bronson’s Ghostface influence permeates throughout his Boom Bap-centered, New York Shit-esque flow, helping him dominate the mixtape game with titles like Blue Chips and Saaab Stories.
Macklemore’s West coast drawl from Seattle, combined with an over-the-top, DIY approach to production, distribution and even video directing and editing, has translated into big money for he and partner Ryan Lewis with their album, The Heist. While Mac Miller’s done something that’s somewhat similar but a bit more alternative and sometimes abstract musically, with a stoned college slacker guy, indie music methodology that has seen his latest release, Watching Movies With The Sound Off, one of the biggest albums of 2013.
But the thing that’s beginning to stand out about these and other artists of European descent is this: a newer generation of fans, and even some of us that are on the cusp of being in between generations in Hip Hop fandom, really don’t consider any of these artists to be “white rappers”. They’re merely emcees in the game. Time was, an artist like the Beastie Boys and 3rd Bass, in their heyday and even with their success, were viewed by many fans as just that. Then, when Vanilla Ice came along a little later in all of his MC Hammer-imitation, clownish glory, so was he.
It wasn’t until Eminem entered the stage that the idea of the novelty white emcee stigma began to get broken down. Marshall Mathers was somewhat of an anomaly: a crazy, borderline sadistic white guy from Detroit that looked about as non-threatening as possible, but one that could go round for round with just about anyone when it came to battle rap. Many of us were slightly too oblivious to know it, but we were being exposed to somewhat of a sea change. Even though Em has freely admitted in the past that he believes his race has played a part in him having the success he’s had, he was eventually no longer seen as a here today, gone tomorrow stigmatized white rapper. And the fact that he’s set to release his seventh studio album next month with The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is dead set proof.
So, are we finally at a place in Hip Hop’s history where we can say for sure that the proverbial novelty white emcee, one whom is mediocre to slightly above average in talent and longevity and leans more on the crutches of race and gimmickry for success, is dead? Much like many an issue-centered debate in Hip Hop, there’s really no definitive “yes” or “no” answer. Gray areas and blurred lines (no pun intended) are all up in through.
And though many of artists of a certain persuasion have worked extremely hard to move past being labeled only as a “white rapper” and make the world take notice of their skill, there may always exist that certain stigma within the confines of Hip Hop. Why? Because Hip Hop is an All-American invention. And much like the land of the free and the home of the brave, Hip Hop is a creature that has certain stigmas attached to it, like it or not.
Truth be told, the current generation of both artists and fans are making major strides in the way that Hip Hop is viewed and what it can be, and one of those fronts is race. Case in point: legendary New York emcee Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian, never one to hold his tongue, recently relayed in an interview on VLAD TV that emcees that just happen to be white are basically “guests” in the house of Hip Hop. In response, Top Dawg Entertainment affiliate Schoolboy Q felt these comments were “racist” and that Jamar should have refrained from using them.
As a genre, a culture and as a community, Hip Hop is far from where it wants and needs to be in terms of real race relations. But even with the smallest amount of progress, there could be some light shining on Hip Hop’s racial future yet. One where all emcees will be considered that and only that…emcees.