In 1993, the nascent phase of hip-hop’s ascent to the pinnacle of pop culture, producer Quincy Jones envisioned a magazine that would deliver the culture in all its attitude, panache, and vibrance to its young, urban demographic. He wanted it to be more inclusive than related, competing rap rags like The Source and XXL, but much more focused on rap and other urban demographics than Spin or Rolling Stone. Partnering with Time Inc. and co-founding editor Scott Poulson-Bryant, Jones brought Vibe into being to tap into the street-oriented and youth-focused new lifestyle, but being an outsider (and considerably older than his target demographic), he still needed the seal of approval from within hip-hop itself.
To that end, he brought in another partner: Up-and-coming mogul/manager Russell Simmons, of Def Jam fame to lend the endeavor that coveted street credibility. However, Simmons clashed with the first editor-in-chief, Jonathan Van Meter; to this day, he’ll deny it, but multiple sources cite his reticence to embrace Van Meter’s more urbane aesthetic, calling it “too fassy” for hip-hop — a West Indian derogatory slang term used to denounce something or someone as being effeminate, or seemingly gay. It’s similar in function to terms like “fruity,” “sweet,” or “suspect.” Simmons went on to found his own rap magazine, Oneworld, that only lasted for six issues before folding (I still have the Lil Kim and Dead Prez-covered issues somewhere at my mom’s crib). Vibe went on to become one of the most influential publications in hip-hop’s history.
In 2017, Complex Media Group, seeking to expand its interest in digital video while strengthening its position in modern hip-hop culture online, began broadcasting the Everyday Struggle show with hosts Joe Budden and DJ Akademiks. Half podcast, half talk show, the videos feature former rapper Budden and Akademiks discussing news and hot topics of the day, with the DJ providing a more moderate foil to the boisterous rapper’s more irreverent takes. On yesterday’s episode, the topics included Brooklyn rapper Desiigner’s standing in the rap world, whether or not Quavo would leave the group Migos for a solo career, and the ever-popular discussion of Kendrick Lamar’s album sales.
However, when the discussion turned to up-and-comer Lil Yachty and his recently revealed album cover for Teenage Emotions, Budden had some choice commentary for the red-braided young MC. While Akademiks expressed positive sentiments, Joe’s opinion was straightforward: “I don’t think that Yachty is hip-hop.” He further went on to express his disdain for Yachty’s label, Capitol Records, stated that Yachty looked “fruity,” and that Yachty is “ruining the culture.” Budden especially took issue with Yachty’s album cover, which features a number of colorfully attired young people, many of whom do not look stereotypically “hip-hop,” especially a pair of young men in the upper left corner kissing. His reasoning for the prominence of the gay couple on the cover is that it’s a publicity stunt, just “shock value,” to gain the support of “the gay community,” ending his tirade with the declaration, “I want to come out the closet, so I can be embraced (too).”
Now, we’re not going to throw insults. I’m not here to shade Joe Budden or Complex Media Group, or anybody. There’s the disclaimer. We might put this in bold, just for those folks who are going to read nothing more than the headline before storming the comments section like White Walkers on the march. Nobody is making any moral judgments on anyone involved with Everyday Struggle, and Joe Budden is entitled to his opinion, just like anyone else on the internet. But, having said that, Joe Budden is dead wrong, and if it were possible for any culture or genre of music to be “ruined,” attitudes like this are far more toxic to that culture than a thousand Lil Yachties.
Here’s why: In short, any subculture or social movement that does not evolve with the times will die. It’s plain to see in practically any rap act that did not ever embrace its own mortality and the transience of the world around it, that group is gone today. It’s nature; organisms adapt to their surroundings and the ones best suited to the environment are the ones that survive. There are numerous examples throughout hip-hop (and any genre, really, but let’s stay focused here): Nas, Snoop Dogg, Jay Z, Bun B, Busta Rhymes, Common, and A Tribe Called Quest have all shown that a willingness to expand, to grow, to be flexible, to learn to ride new waves can be immensely beneficial to a rap career. All respect due, but has anyone seen KRS-One lately? Where is Onyx, where is Kool Moe Dee, Kane, Rakim? Lord Jamar went from the respect and accolades that came from being a member Brand Nubian to a stone-throwing crank on Twitter. These guys are legends, but their stubborn refusal to accept anything that didn’t look like their conception of hip-hop has turned them into dinosaurs, outcast from the culture they helped originate, build, and lead from basement parties in the projects to garden parties at the White House.
Take a look at an old photo of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in full disco regalia. Compare that with N.W.A. in 1989 in their all black baseball jackets and 501s jeans, scowling beneath their Raiders caps and juice-dripping jheri curls. Now compare both to the mafioso looks embraced by a nineties-era Jay Z; compare that version of Jay to the buttoned-up model that proclaimed “I don’t wear jerseys, I’m thirty-plus.” Then compare all of those to modern rappers like Young Thug, Travis Scott, Lil’ Uzi Vert, and yes, Lil Yachty. From the outside looking in, there’s no aesthetic trend to tie any of these disparate performers and eras together, yet from the inside, we know.
We know that these are all young, Black men rebelling against a system that has been out to get them as long as they’ve been alive, who’ve striven to achieve more in a world that has carved out a narrow range of roles for them to fall into, who have overcome odds stacked against them and adversities arrayed before them like war machines guarding the battle lines they can’t cross, lest they upset mainstream America with their tattoos and their ice grills, their braided, nappy hair, and the simple fact that they are black and poor and a reminder of all those injustices that they face.
Simply put, hip-hop was built by outsiders for the outsiders. As a culture, as a movement, hip-hop cannot thrive without embracing outsiders. Be they gay or bi or trans or non-gender-conforming, white, Black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, Desi, men, or women, hip-hop has always existed to give voice to the voiceless. It’s built into the DNA of the culture, whether the old guard, wannabe gatekeepers care to acknowledge that or not. Gay people were among the first to frequent the downtown New York bars and clubs where rappers performed at those early shows. Rappers have always embraced high fashion, created by the women and gay people that they so frequently upbraid in their rhymes to prop up the alpha-male facade that voices like Joe Budden’s have made so central to the myth of “Real Hip-Hop.”
Budden himself earned much of his respect in the rap world by largely eschewing many aspects of the tough guy image, as well as being a great technical rapper. On songs like “10 Minutes” and “Walk With Me,” from his eponymous debut, Joe revealed his vulnerabilities, talking about depression and struggles with drug abuse. While there was still plenty of the usual gun talk and narcotic-pushing bravado, he let the mask slip, if only a couple of inches, to reveal the person behind it. He was a little insecure, a little scared, a little sad, a little hopeful, a little proud, a little hurt — just like anyone else.
For him to then turn around and deny anyone else the opportunity to do the same is not only hypocritical, but hurtful to both Joe and the culture. While Joe is a respected MC whose work with Slaughterhouse has shown that he can go bar for bar with anyone, including Eminem, Busta Rhymes, and Jay Z, his critiques of Yachty don’t focus on technical skill or stagecraft, but on Boat’s looks and his presentation. They aren’t the concerned criticisms of someone who is genuinely worried about the craft of rap, but the preservation of an outmoded, obsolete, and degenerative form of hyper-masculinity. It doesn’t benefit anyone to maintain the status quo, where young, gay listeners or other “weirdoes” feel like they have to hide within hip-hop circles. This constricts hip-hop’s reach and stifles the message. I’m not saying he has to like Yachty; he doesn’t. He doesn’t have to like, listen to, or relate to Yachty, but he does have to respect that Yachty brings another perspective to rap music, and arguably a needed one, at that.
Yachty talks about loving himself, despite the boxes the world tries to force him into. He talks about being sad, but provides a living example that it’s possible to deal with that sadness without turning to self-destructive behaviors (He is a spokesperson for Fresh Empire — a teen-targeting anti-smoking initiative that meshes impressively with his sober-living, straightedge persona). He wears colorful beads in his hair, and has a multicolored, diamond-encrusted smile (courtesy of a Fruity Pebbles-styled grill) that says, Live life to the fullest, embrace how vibrant and unique and fun life can be. That sounds like hip-hop to me, and despite what some would have you believe, that’s a far more accurate description of what hip-hop is and can be than “army surplus, Timberland boots, and wool caps in the summertime.”
In 2017, although all of the above mentioned publications were hit hard by the recession and the advent of the digital media age, they all weathered the storm, to varying degrees of success, with The Source, XXL, and Vibe still surviving as digital entities with significant online presences. However, just a quick Twitter search can tell you enough to be able to determine the level of relevance each has in the public space; while The Source, the most “Real Hip-Hop” of the three has a respectable Twitter following of over 530K, it also has the lowest number. XXL’s leading 1.2 million followers can be at least partially attributed to its willingness to embrace social media before any others, Vibe’s 836K is nothing to sneeze at.
Those numbers are a testament to the importance of knowing a sea change is coming and being willing to ride the wave. While the existence of music blogs could and did negatively impact their print circulation, they didn’t take to social media to decry the popularity of Uproxx. They changed their game and kept doing what they do in a new way, on a new platform, and with a new outlook. This isn’t just what hip-hop does, it’s what hip-hop is. Hip-hop is always looking to the future, to the next big thing, to the horizon. The sun might be setting on the era of rappers like Joe Budden, but it’s rising for forward-thinking trailblazers like Lil Yachty. If that’s where the culture is headed, then the future is looking very bright indeed.