The Crunk and the Dead 

Breaking down hip-hop '04, Morricone-style.

Lil' Jon? Good. Nelly? Bad. P. Diddy? Go ahead, guess. Now that 2004 is fading into the rearview mirror, let's recap the emerging trends that actually kept hip-hop interesting. For starters, it's interesting that hip-hop is still here at all, a quarter-century on, and in fact still kicking up dust on both a mainstream and underground level. Like a blinged-out Timex, the culture has taken a (sometimes self-inflicted) licking and keeps on ticking. But you've gotta accept the good, the bad, and the ugly, too -- somehow they're all connected. (Cue Ennio Morricone theme music.)

Rap Beefs

The good: Eminem and Benzino make up, defusing a potential race war.

The bad: After Dr. Dre is assaulted at the now-infamous Vibe Awards, rapper Young Buck of G-Unit stabs Dre's assailant; rumors abound that Suge Knight was involved (which he denies). NBA star Ron Artest stages an on-court, world-class, season-ending meltdown just as his rap album drops. Jay-Z and R. Kelly's much-hyped tour ends disastrously, with accusations of violent threats exchanged. Most tragically, Vallejo don Mac Dre is shot and killed in Kansas City.

The ugly: Mac Dre and ODB's heirs scuffle over their potentially lucrative estates. "Pimp" Goes Mainstream

The good: The word appears in a New Yorker cartoon, signifying its arrival.

The bad: Nelly's P.I.M.P. college scholarship program. Twelve-year-old white suburban girls throughout the red states sing When the pimp's in the crib/Drop it like it's hot, thanks to Snoop Dogg. A proposed ballot measure to decriminalize prostitution gets a thumbs-down from Berkeley voters.

The ugly: Snoop's outfits in Starsky & Hutch.

The Crunk Phenomenon

The good: Producer and professional yeller Lil' Jon becomes a dominant force in the marketplace with Kings of Crunk and this year's Crunk Juice. He also has a hand in Pitbull's club banger "Culo" (Spanish for "ass," incidentally), not to mention hot singles by the Yin Yang Twins, Usher, Youngbloodz, Elephant Man, and Lil' Scrappy.

The bad: Everyone and his mama jumps on the Crunk Bandwagon, including NYC rappers Mobb Deep and Nas, who commission Lil' Jon songs of their own -- so much for keeping it true, nameen, dun?

The ugly: The lyrical content of most crunk music, as simplistic and repetitive as the retarded kid from Crank Yankers.

The Hyphy Phenomenon

The good: "New Bay" artists such as Bullys wit Fullys, Turf Talk, Frontline, and the Federation break into commercial radio and cook up a national buzz. "Hyphy" might be the best Bay Area catchphrase since "Pop ya colla."

The bad: Many equally deserving local artists -- such as Hiero's Tajai, Azeem, Balance, Lunar Heights, and Crown City Rockers -- don't get the airplay.

The ugly: After the fall of Power 92, KMEL has quietly gone back to the way we were -- as of press time, no local rappers occupy the station's playlist.

The Underground Hip-Hop

DVD Explosion

The good: Indie productions like Inventos, Cuban Hip-Hop All-Stars, and Stones Throw 101 present a viable alternative to mainstream video fare.

The bad: The proliferation of DIY sideshow and street racing videos (sample title: The Fast and the Grimey), and the corresponding rise in violence at the real thing.

The ugly: Straight from the Projects -- Rappers That Live the Lyrics: 3rd Ward, New Orleans, featuring C-Murder, currently incarcerated on a murder charge.

Rap's 25th Anniversary

The good: Successful comebacks by veteran hip-hop artists (MF Doom, De La Soul, Masta Ace, Shock G, Mac Dre, Lyrics Born, MC Eiht, Paris) hint at the artform's maturation, and the number of older fans who still identify with the culture.

The bad: For the most part, major media outlets have ignored the over-25 hip-hop audience. The Sugarhill Gang ventured out on tour celebrating the silver anniversary of "Rapper's Delight," but have never owned up to plagiarizing Grandmaster Caz' lyrics for the seminal song.

The ugly: Country/folk singer Terri Hendrix records a hideous honky-tonk version of LL Cool J's "I Need Love."

Hip-Hop and Politics

The good: The proliferation of antiwar compilations and mix tapes such as Slam Bush, What About Us, War (If It Feels Good, Do It). Organizers and activists from all over the country hold the first-ever National Hip-Hop Politics Convention, in Newark, New Jersey. Antiwar rap songs from the first Gulf War suddenly sound relevant again. Jay-Z cuts a track with dead prez. Immortal Technique emerges as the freshest voice of dissent since Chuck D.

The bad: So-called "hip-hop candidate" Dennis Kucinich is unable to name a single song by his "favorite" rapper, Tupac. Both Kerry and Bush ignore the urban constituency. Post-election analysis claims that, despite a surge in voter registrations, the hip-hop generation was not a major factor in the presidential race.

The ugly: Far too many words in the English language rhyme with "Abu Ghraib." Russell Simmons' massive ego threatens to sabotage youth activist efforts. Dilettante celebrity P. Diddy not only steals the political spotlight from community organizers, but comes up with the single worst slogan of all time ("Vote or Die").

Commercial Rap

The good: Talented rapper-producer Kanye West makes it cool to be an average Joe, and is rewarded for his efforts with ten Grammy nominations -- not bad for a college dropout. Mos Def pushes hip-hop's sonic envelope with The New Danger, a gutsy, experimental effort that rocks as much as it rolls. Jadakiss' "Why" proves social commentary and commercial viability aren't mutually exclusive. Nas returns to form with Street's Disciple. The Bay Area's own Federation makes Virgin Records "Go Dumb" with its Rick Rock-produced debut album. Jay-Z is named president of Def Jam.

The bad: Too many thug rappers in love (again). Too many derivative, formulaic songs on national radio playlists. Talib Kweli grasps for radio appeal and only alienates his backpacker fanbase with The Beautiful Struggle. The success of Terror Squad's "Lean Back" makes not dancing (and pulling up your pants instead) acceptable behavior for thuggy guys at nightclubs.

The ugly: Jay-Z can't seem to stay retired, and his collaboration with Linkin Park (to say nothing of R. Kelly) represent crass commercialism at its worst.

Indie Hip-Hop

The good: Danger Mouse's brilliant juxtaposition of Jay-Z and the Beatles on The Grey Album reveals a bright side to copyright infringement, and elevates the mash-up to high art. Strong indie singles like Lyrics Born's "Callin' Out," the Frontline's "What Is It," and Libretto's "Volume" kept hip-hop's creative juices flowing. Aya de León's one-woman show Thieves in the Temple (The Reclaiming of Hip-Hop) confronted stereotypical gender roles and urged empowerment. The SF Hip Hop Dance Fest proved the hip-hop theater movement has legs, and knows how to use them.

The bad: Rampant bootlegging and illegal downloading hurts indie artists even more than it does major-label acts.

The ugly: East Coast indie rapper Necro puts out a hardcore porn video even less tasteful than his music.

The Gangsta-ization

of Pop Culture

The good: Never before has a former drug-dealing gangbanger from Long Beach endorsed a plethora of commercial products (text messagers, his own clothing line, coedsploitation videos, a cable TV show), not to mention dropped a chart-topping album and become a major movie star, fa shizzle dizzle. HBO's The Wire captures the gritty realism of urban street life and gets both the dialogue and the characters right, for once.

The bad: Soul Plane sucked. The ultraviolent, clichéd video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (boasting a gangsta-rap-saturated soundtrack) makes Ghettopoly look like Tiddly Winks. A shoe company ad campaign casts 50 Cent & G-Unit as martial arts instructors and role models for highly impressionable young children. Street credibility suffers for rappers with no visible bullet wounds and/or major felony convictions. Tupac and Biggie still dead.

The ugly: Come to think of it, "Drop It Like It's Hot" would be a highly appropriate slogan for the current Bush administration, with only slightly altered lyrics: If an Arab country gets an attitude/Drop it like it's hot/When Democrats talk about jobs, education, and health care/Drop it like it's hot/If Dubya starts to sag in the polls/Drop it like it's hot ...

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