When The Nas looked out his window and wrote what he saw

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

Nobody knows what caused the crime in the USA from 1963 to 1993. Nobody knows why it ended. It’s is the most important cultural event of the last 60 years, waiting to be explained. One lens we can use to talk about it is Hip Hop. And New York played a special role in that crime wave, and any explanation needs to tell a special story about New York. And those who were there at the time, and looked out the window, and saw what was happening, and tried to write honestly about it, they have something to say to us now. I’m interested in the story of hip hop, at least partly because there is no way to understand the USA if you don’t first think about hip hop.

Although New York hasn’t been the center—or even an especially noteworthy hub, for that matter—of rap music for over a decade, it still holds a special meaning. New York is the Mecca of rap, the fertile soil from which it sprung and where the golden age of hip hop blossomed. This is where Kool Herc spun back the breaks and where Rakim stumped for his preferred presidential candidate and where Nas peered out of his Queensbridge window, penning rhymes to capture the vibe that surrounded him. As the old heads and the true school fans and certain magazines and radio DJs will tell you, New York made hip hop what it is. And to some degree, every rapper who performs here has to reckon with that history, and with the way it’s stubbornly clung to as if it were the single moral and aesthetic lodestar from whose path the fallen genre has strayed.

Lil B the Based God played New York on Thursday, and the performance—which didn’t involve much in the way of actual performing and was instead much more of a DJ set, something of a surprise to the Based World denizens who showed up to jump around to “Violate that Bitch” and “Swag On My Dick” and “Justin Bieber”—was, more than anything else, about New York’s and Lil B’s places in rap, and what they have to do with each other. It was a strange, fascinating show.

..Real hip hop may as well be the slogan of New York rap. It is the refrain of those who most prize the stylings and values of ‘90s NYC hip hop, of lyricalness and soul samples and a narrow definition of expressed intelligence and consciousness. Talib Kweli is Real Hip Hop. 36 Mafia is Something Else.

Lil B, too, is Something Else. And while the crusaders for Real Hip Hop have in most respects lost the culture war, they haven’t retreated so far back as to have lost all their avenues of power and influence—especially not in the movement’s capital, New York. Lil B in particular has faced the wrath of this crowd, at one point painted as the very face of what is not Real Hip Hop. In part this is because he is genuinely and intentionally weird, but mostly it’s because his emphasis on how things sound at the expense of being lyrical, and how unashamed he is of producing work that doesn’t score highly in the rap traditionalist’s rigid grading rubric. (Great Lil B songs are great mostly because of how the sounds make you feel, not because of the what the words themselves mean, though it’s also important to note that he also can rap well in the traditional manner, and that the lyrics to many of his songs are some of the most honest and affecting you’ll find in music, period.)

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