Joke: “A hip-hop purist and his friend walk into a bar for a good time.”
It’s funny, right? Because hip-hop purists don’t have a good time—they’d rather spend their meanwhiles masquerading as tastemakers, directing traffic in and out of the “respectable” rap lane. They’re the cultural-gatekeeping equivalent of Otis the security guard from Martin.
We all know them. And you can find these curmudgeons everywhere, waxing poetic on what is and isn’t “real” hip-hop and lamenting that today’s music is death by horrible hip-hop music.
But then, last Thursday, no less a name than the universally respected ’90s rap legend Q-Tip—stalwart of the old school—emphatically voiced his approval of Migos’ latest mixtape, Young Rich Niggas:
And if you don’t know who Migos are, you might as well just Euro-step yourself outside of this column—kidding. They’re an Atlanta-based trio known for their club-friendly trap anthems, and hip-hop’s latest obsession. They had one of the biggest viral hits of last year and revolutionized a flow that’s been borrowed by most of the rap game; they’re more cherished than the Beatles, apparently; and they’re so cool they set Q-Tip’s phone on fire.
But how? How could Q-Tip—A Tribe Called Quest’s Kew Tip—be co-signing this trap trash? How could he like that kind of music? You can practically feel the purists clutching their vintage Afrika Bambaataa vinyl in disbelief.
So many Twitter users came after Q-Tip for his nod of approval that he had to respond:
At about the same time, it turns out, that Gucci Mane was being discussed in my favorite GroupMe forum. A peer of mine flatly refused to consider Gucci “real” hip-hop, saying, “The man has an ice cream cone tatted on his face.”
Because a tattoo is most definitely the litmus test of musical validity. I see.
In his estimation, Gucci Mane—who has almost as many head-scratching tattoos as career moments—is an amalgamation of black cultural stereotypes that he’d just as soon forget. Obsessed with jewelry, drugs and, apparently, prison, Gucci was the exact type of “undesirable” black artist, unworthy of inclusion within the hallowed grounds of respectable, “real” hip-hop.
And to me, that’s all the “real” hip-hop debate is, really: less unbiased, nuanced, critical examination of musical quality and more snap judgment of “acceptable” and “unacceptable” blackness.
It’s what makes purists feel good about themselves when they tout a Kendrick Lamar or a Common while simultaneously downplaying a Young Thug. It’s them saying, “I support this type of good black musician, not this other isht.” It’s respectability politics.
Every time a purist, cloaked in self-righteousness, beats his chest for real hip-hop while giving the finger to a Migos, 2 Chainz or Gucci Mane, he’s creating a musical caste system, arbitrarily deciding what type of artist and music is beneath his taste, and thus unworthy of the hip-hop canon.
Attempting to gauge and internalize trap artists like Migos the same way you would a traditional lyricist like Nas is incongruent—and impossible. You don’t see rock fans listening to Slipknot’s hard-core metal the way they do Fleetwood Mac’s bluesy rock.
Hip-hop is a culture that isn’t rigid or singular. Trap, underground, g-funk—they all have the same cultural stake as old school, gangsta or conscious rap. And they all play a role in the culture. I could be wrong, but I don’t think “Fight Night” was made with the same cultural intention as “One Mic.”
As cultures grow and evolve, so must their vehicles. Hip-hop music is now is a reflection of different aspects of hip-hop culture, not just the parts that purists personally approve of. And there will always be a need for “Fight the Power,” just as there will be an urge to “Shake It Fast.” The realm of hip-hop is expansive enough that the presence of both archetypes is not only OK but also necessary. So do us all a favor, purists, and stop fighting a losing battle.
And while you’re at it, turn up the Migos, please.
Aaron Randle is a Howard-bred writer living in Kansas City, Mo.