Why Does Mainstream Rap Do What it Does?

The purpose behind this work is to give explain why and how mainstream rap became entangled with songs full of messages of negativity. I decided to write this because I listen to a lot of what is considered “underground” rap and have disliked for a long time how mainstream rap is corrupting the minds of today’s youth. I think that people should care about this two reasons. One is because this music I reaching the ears of the children that are the future of our country and their impressionistic minds absorb what they’re told really quickly. Secondly I believe that for our country and the world to become a better place we need our celebrities and role models for our children to be people worth looking up to.


Why do the more negative topics of misogyny, violence, and drugs portrayed in main stream hip hop get more popularity than underground hip hop where more prevailing topics such as political corruption and racial equality are discussed?

Rap has a big influence in the music industry and American culture. A lot has changed since the times when the best way to get signed was attending a battle rap and wowing the crowd. However the rap scene has changed a lot since then. Today people are willing to sell out their ideals in a heartbeat in order to make more money. Some rappers don’t write a single one of their own lyrics anymore. They do what’s called “selling your soul” which is when you let the record label take over all creative control on your music. It’s because of people like this that the statement “hip hop is dead” has become so prevalent. Yet still people listen to and heavily support this music over more conscious music they could find in the “underground”. The reason mainstream hip hop gets more popularity than underground hip hop is because of party culture, the way the rap scene evolved during the 90’s, and because of you, the consumer.

First, the difference between underground and mainstream is that mainstream music is the songs that appear on the radio and other major media outlets or produced by major labels. Underground rap on the other hand is the music that is made by independent artist or small labels. Furthermore there are artists who have successfully blurred the lines between the two sides such as Eminem and Tupac Shakur. Both were influential main stream rappers who might not have always had positive messages but maintained their individuality and own voice by fighting against the tide. It’s also important to understand that rap has a somewhat complex history full of conspiracy theories, but here I will present only the guaranteed factual information and use that  to analyze the differences between the two worlds of hip hop. Lastly just for clarification I will explain the difference between hip hop and rap. According to rap legend KRS-One “rap is something that is done, while hip-hop is something that is lived.” While Flavor Flav of Public Enemy claims that hip hop is “something that makes you want wanna get out there and breakdance” (Ebony Magazine). Ultimately this makes the final definition a bit confusing. Since there both labels and most people just lump into the same category the word is virtually interchangeable, so when rap is being referred to it is commonly called hip hop as well. In the case of this paper I’ll be using the word interchangeably.

The rap game today is full of rappers making music about drinking till they black out, smoking and popping pills until they believe can touch the sky, and demeaning women in anyway humanly possible. The music is spreading to all ages as the rappers glorify their lifestyle as the impact that partying has on the lives of young adults and teenagers spreads. The party culture has been ever growing in America and the chart topping rappers have an influence over that. When rappers praise and talk then the fans listen. For example when Snoop Dog released “Gin & Juice” cocktail beverages became more popular in hip-hop party culture. Likewise, Cristal, Hennessy, and Courvoisier sales also shot up after rap artists P. Diddy, LL Cool Jay, and Busta Rhymes, respectively, praised these expensive alcoholic beverages (Diamond 274).  Also most people who committed crimes and considered rap music to be their favorite genre believed that the music was imitating their lives rather than being the cause behind their actions (Diamond 276). This means that the negative messages that rappers in the mainstream are portraying make young teenagers think they are in the right and what they’re doing is normal. Ronin Ro did a good job of exemplifying this when he said, “Hip hop lives under the oppressive shadow of a handful of gangsta rappers with meager skills, drug-addled worldviews and far-reaching effects on American youth.” He asserts that this faction of artists “is fast on its way to casting its shadow–projecting the artists’ drug abuse, misogyny and self-hate–over this generation” (Wahl 98) Critics will point out that rap draws upon culturally specific narrative modes such as “playing the dozens,” in which violence functions (merely) symbolically. For instance, Robin D. G. Kelley asserts that gangsta rap is almost purely symbolic, has become a straw man for other American problems (Wahl 98).

William Eric Perkins, for example, contrasts the negative effects of gangsta rap to the potential of “message” rap, which could become “a vehicle for a regenerative anti-authoritarianism (so necessary in an age of growing right-wing cultural fanaticism) in youth culture and black youth culture in particular” In the response most representative of these moves, Houston Baker asserts that “if one concentrates on what I call the positive sites of rap … one realizes how signally creative, important, and varied rap is as a generational form” (Wahl 98). It should be noted that there are many successful rap artists who avoid, and even protest, violent, misogynist, or racist subject matter. As catalysts for social change, these artists seem to fail to fulfill their revolutionary potential at the moment in their careers at which increasing commercial success allows them access to “the mainstream,” that amorphous middle-class majority that consumes entertainment in staggering quantities and never strays far from the middle of the political spectrum. If this great “mass” could be swung just a little to the left by entertainers, one imagines, it might be prompted to political action. Time and again, though, the potential for politically committed positive rap acts to enter the mainstream and jar it out of its political complacency seems to fail. (Wahl 98).

While mainstream rap music does contain messages about drug and alcohol abuse that hasn’t always been the case. Content analysis of song lyrics found that popular music of the 1990s was generally hostile toward heroin and cocaine and that younger listeners were being exposed to more negative images of marijuana and LSD than older listeners who had grown up in the 70’s or 80’s when those drugs were spreading in popularity (Diamond 276). Therefore, rap music has been used to demote drugs rather than promote them, but this occurred only in some songs in the 90’s. Afterwards mainstream music had this rarely happen again

The rap game in the late 80’s and early 90’s changed entirely. From most rappers attempting to master the lyrical craft that was becoming almost like a sport. The ultimate goal was to best all other rappers and become the greatest MC (Master of Ceremonies). However, in the late 80’s N.W.A (Niggaz with Attitude) and Public Enemy emerged they were on the forefront of what’s referred to as “gangster rap.” As the other rap groups at this time broke off and other rappers were beginning to retire the wildly popular themes that N.W.A and Public Enemy were portraying lived on through each of their member’s solo careers (Wahl). As they gained more popularity record labels saw the opportunity to make money and pushed these rappers down the throats of the consumers. These messages never died out though. There have been outliers in the mainstream, like Eminem or Tupac, but record labels kept making money off the rappers promoting criminal activity so that’s all most consumers have ever even been exposed to. In the 90’s Hip hop lived under the oppressive shadow of a handful of gangster rappers with meager skills, drug-addled worldviews and far-reaching effects on American youth. This faction of artists effectively cast its shadow–projecting the artists’ drug abuse, misogyny and self-hate–over that generation (Wahl 98). Unfortunately this effect spread from one generation to the next and almost no positive changes have been made to the rap industry. The only difference today is that gangster rap has died down and the violence has been replaced with more talk of misogyny and drug use.

The final reason that rap with negative messages outperforms more positive music is the consumer, which includes you, the listener. Simply viewing the top ten songs on Billborad’s Top 100 Rap Songs as of December 2nd 2014 shows this. One of the songs in the top ten is called “No Type” by Rae Sremmurd which can be best summarized up by the chorus which goes “I ain’t got no type/ Bad B*tches are all the I like.” Another example is the number 5 song “Lifestyle” By Rich Gang. Not only is this song literally incoherent mumbling but if the lyrics are looked the whole song is about how the rapper’s “lifestyle” is consumed by smoking, drinking, money and sex. Yet another example landing at number 10 on the list is “Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj. Now not only has this song sold millions of copies, but its sole purpose is literally talking about large butts. The chorus says “My Anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun.” These are not the only examples, almost every song on the top 15 has at least some messages involving the typical money, women, drugs, and/or alcohol. The fact that such music that holds no type of purpose or meaning behind an art form that originated from people mastering word play, but holds a top spot on the billboard can only be due to the consumer. The song “Anaconda” that was previously mentioned has in fact gone double platinum in America alone meaning that it has sold over two million copies, therefore, the consumers who are in charge of how record labels make money are supporting these misogynistic songs. The fact that the best way to make money is by talking about drugs and girls what gives rappers any motivation to stand behind the quiet voices who try to preach positive topics.

Ultimately rap has many roots and has grown and changed since its inception. It started as a tool for self-expression, but today has become a way to make money. There were several contributors to why rap has become the way it has. The first and foremost being the negative transition that rap took in the 90s by becoming “gangster rap.” Secondly there is the strong role that party culture has on American youth. Teenagers and young adults in America have embraced the lifestyle of living life to the fullest exemplified by the term YOLO (You Only Live Once) popularized by Grammy award winning artist Drake. The final reason for rap music in the mainstream being filled with so many negative messages is the consumer. Time after time the public buys the negative music leaving underground artists with no hope to ever truly make it big unless they sell out their ideals. Rap is rap no matter how it’s portrayed, but artists should take it upon themselves to try and be better role models for all the young people who look up to them and sometime try and be a little more serious with what they put out there.




Works Cited

Belle, Crystal. “From Jay-Z to Dead Prez: Examining representations of Black masculinity in mainstream versus underground hip-hop music.” Journal of Black Studies 45 (2014): 287-300. Web. Oct. 2014.

Diamond Sarah, Bermudez Rey, Schensul Jean. “What’s the Rap About Ecstasy?: Popular Music Lyrics and Drug trends Among American Youth.” Journal of Adolescent Research 21 (2006): 269-298. Web. Oct 2014.

Nielson, Eric. ‘Here come the cops’: Policing the resistance in rap music. International Journal of Cultural Studies 15 (2012): 349-363. Web. Oct 2014

Oware, Mathew. “(Un)conscious (Popular) Underground: Restricted Cultural Production and Underground Rap Music.” Poetics 42 (2014): 60-81. Web. Oct. 2014.

Shaw, Shaka. “The Difference between Rap & Hip-Hop.” Ebony: Entertainment and Culture. EBONY Magazine, 19 Sept. 2013. Web. 2 Dec. 2014

Wahl, Greg. “‘I Fought the Law (and I Cold Won!)’: Hip Hop in the Mainstream.” College Literature, Winter99 24.1 (2007): 98. Ebsco Host. Web. 25 Oct, 2014


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