KEEP it real. Keep it real has always been the hip hop calling card, liberally sprinkled through any album you hear or interview you read like parmesan over pasta. But what does it mean? Back in the day hip hop was a means of expression, the voice of alienated black America, the single medium that spoke exclusively to the ghetto. Keep it real meant being true to the cause. Public Enemy kept it real. Public Enemy were the mouthpiece of hip hop revolution, a call to arms (metaphorical or otherwise) for America's urban underclass. When Chuck D took to the stage flanked by the S1Ws, a gang of dancers- cum- bodyguards, it scared the shit out of middle America. Rappers were the new voice of revolution.
Ironic then that, ten years later, the hip hop revolution is taking place and nobody's even noticed. Gil Scott- Heron got it wrong. The revolution was televised. On MTV. And 'keep it real' has been turned on its head. It is no longer about being true to an ideal, it's about being true to the dollar bill. 'Keep it real' has become the perfect expression of the American dream. Hip hop is taking America on at its own game and, for the moment at least, it's winning. Just ask Jay.
"Keep it real means being true to yourself," he says. "Don't leave your destiny in nobody else's hands. I go back round our way and kids see me and they're, like, 'He lived under me and now he owns his own company and he's getting paid.' That's keeping it real." Like most revolutions, this one started with the blood- letting. When Biggie was gunned down in Los Angeles in March 1997, six months after the murder of Tupac Shakur, it looked like hip hop was finally digging its own grave. The culture of violence that had fuelled gangsta rap for the preceding five years looked set to implode in almost ritualised self- destruction. But then something happened. God forbid that the catalyst should have been a dire Police- hooked tribute record but hip hop on the East Coast suddenly woke up to the idea that it was time to get paid. So Puffy was working with Kim was working with Missy was working with Busta was working with Foxy was working with Jay. East Coast hip hop has become a team game and everyone is getting a slice of the pie. Ten years ago, white America was terrified of a street- fighting hip hop revolution; ten years later the revolution snuck up on them in the board rooms and on the shop floors of HMV, Sam Goody and Virgin. Hip hop used to be expression. Now it's consumption and you don't go platinum if you are only shifting the units in Brooklyn. Nobody understands that better than Jay.
"I believe that everybody can relate to hip hop, know what I mean? It's just a question of the
way you project. You can't take it for granted that the consumer knows what you're talking
about. If someone's not from where you're from and can't understand what you're saying, it's
like you have to take it slow, go easy on 'em."
Jay is shooting some links for MTV Raps. We are standing on the astroturf of an American football pitch in Harlem's public park. All the Roc- A- Fella crew are there: Damon, Christion, Sauce Money and new signings, Asia, eleven, and Ashley, 13, two little girls with the button- nose smiles of a Jackson Two. The whole scenario is decidedly cheesy. The Roc- A- Fella boys are taking on the Roc- A- Fella girls in a little touch football. Between plays, Jay and Damon introduce the next tune. It seems hard to reconcile the atmosphere with Jay's playa image when the only label he's wearing is his Jerry Rice San Francisco 49ers football shirt. Maybe it's the kids or maybe it's the setting but its more like a jolly company picnic than anything you would associate with the hardened world of hip hop. But Jay is not impressed with the suggestion.
"Nah! It's all one and the same thing to me," he argues. "It starts in the streets. The hustle. That's where I'm from. That's the street thing when you do what you gotta do. Then you're successful at it and that's the playa. That's when you go drink the Cristal. Then you have the Sundays when you're chillin' with the girls and playing football with the family."
"But the rest are getting Brand Nubian/Change up their style from jeans to suits and/Thinking about a pop record/Something made for the stations/For a whole new relationship/Or a new type of scene/To go platinum and clock mad greens/AKA a sell- out/ The rap definition."
EPMD 'Crossover' (1992)
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