How Blaxploitation Gave Hip-Hop an Identity
Hip-hop, the aesthetic lifestyle of breakdancing, street art, and rap music has always been a celebration of the culture around it, namely the culture of Black America. Rap music, in particular, became a cultural doorway that allowed African Americans to deliver their message to the world around them. At the same time, rap was always about more than just the message— it was about the image of the rapper. From the original mixtapes of New York groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to the rise of West Coast gangsta rap albums, to the more recent styles like backpack rap and trap. All of rap music has been centered around the persona of the rapper, the feel, and the style.
For proof, look no further than Tupac Shakur. He’s regularly hailed as one of the greatest rappers of all time, and he had an immediate identifiable presence. The bandanna tied to rabbit ears, the baggy jeans, the Thug Life tattoo— all of that added to his allure just as much as his socially conscious and very braggadocio lyricism did. Tupac rapped against institutionalized racism, while at the same time calling for the Black community to stop destroying itself… all on the same track. For me, as a child, Tupac was like a superhero. He had an image that made him seem larger than life.
He wasn’t alone. RZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man and the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan were the same way. They were a band of Shaolin obsessed rappers who loved to act like a martial arts family, and they pioneered the harder-edged rap of the ’90s with albums like Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), as well as tracks like “C.R.E.A.M.” From Melle Mel and Salt-N-Pepa to Busta Rhymes (and even Lil’ Wayne), there’s never been a shortage of eccentricity in the rap game.
Looking at the whole history of rap, a relatively short period, I noticed that styles—personal styles of dress and attitude— had changed fairly dramatically. When I look at popular rappers today, so few of them resemble anything that would have worked 20 years ago. I’m not saying that as a negative, I’m just curious as to why. Yeah, Tupac was like a superhero to kids like me, but he wasn’t on MF Doom’s level of wearing a mask. Wu-Tang was eccentric, but they weren’t as out there as Odd Future. To figure out why the styles have changed so much, I had to take a step back and look less at the music, and more at the music makers. When I did that, I realized something: old school rappers had a blueprint to follow.
Compared to the image of the rock star or pop star, the image of the rapper has dynamically evolved more over the decades since its birth. It’s a scene that’s about personal style, but that style changes every few years. The most well-known rappers in every era are the ones who fulfill both a social purpose and a pop culture niche. They were rappers who evolved to not just the social issues plaguing America, but also to the media that was popular in their neighborhoods. The synergy between the growth of rap and other media is most apparent when looking at the effect that films have had on rap music. By adapting the overblown personalities they saw in films to match their own personal struggles, rappers became the almost superhero icons of their communities.
Generally, rap music has a reputation for being most heavily shaped by gangster films, and not without reason. Films like Scarface, The Godfather, and Goodfellas have all had a long and noted influence on modern rap. They created the idea of a throne of power that rap artists could attain— the glory and grandeur of being a self-proclaimed king. While that imagery was something anyone could get behind, those were mainstream films that, truth be told, were more against Black culture than supportive of it. Still, those gangster films are what most audiences think rappers derive their style from. In reality, rap music has always been as much of a rebuke of the mainstream as it has been an embodiment of it. Rap music, from its earliest days, has always been tied to the concept of “against” rather than “the grain.” From the beginning to the modern sound, rap has owed a debt of identity to counterculture and cult films. Strangely enough, I think the best of what rap music has to offer (its most core tenets and style cues) can all be traced back to one particular kind of counterculture film: the blaxploitation films of the 1970s.
The Power of “Black Power!”
“We didn’t know whether to call ourselves ‘Blacks, ‘Negroes’ or ‘Coloureds’. [“Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud] was the record that united us with a powerful, clear-cut definition.”
To start with, I have to note that blaxploitation films and rap music have a shared history as products of the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Obviously, that’s a long and complex story. What matters most is what led to blaxploitation and rap, and it is that period that birthed the Black American. Prior to the 1960s, there was basically only one accepted American identity: the well-off White male identity. It was patriotic, it was conformist, and it was about fighting the un-American rather than domestic problems. Every other identity in America was inherently lesser. The late 1960s are when Americans, especially African Americans, redefined their identities. The fallout of the Vietnam War was rippling throughout every community, and teaching Americans that the country wasn’t perfect. The drug trade had overrun city streets and disproportionately impacted Black communities, creating a generation of willing and unwilling criminals. Also, the Black Panthers were bringing the problems of Black America to mainstream attention through controversial means. Activists like Huey P. Newton and Malcolm X took to microphones to agitate underlying racial and social unrest. Their words resonated with the youth.
Ultimately, there were two phrases that gave this unrest something positive to focus on: “Say it loud — I’m Black and I’m proud,” taken from James Brown’s song of the same name, and “Black Power!” a rallying cry used by equality advocate Stokely Carmichael. Those phrases did the unthinkable and placed value on being Black, and the unique experience that came with it. They weren’t about racial superiority, but they were about racial equality. Those two phrases, along with the greater civil rights movement, taught all of America that minorities had an identity of their own. By the time the 1970s rolled around, racial equality was legalized, but not realized, and the problems of pre-civil rights continued post-civil rights, but the atmosphere was different. There was a whole new culture, and those two phrases, “Say it loud — I’m Black and I’m proud” and “Black Power!” were what signaled the start of a new identity; African Americans stopped being “negroes,” and started being “Black.” The 1970s were spent defining that new identity through two forms of mass media: music and film, and seeing how that identity formed in the youth of the ’70s and ’80s.
In Walks a Black Dude…
“This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man”
–Opening dedication of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
Black America needed a hero of their own— a media icon that minorities could pretend to be when they were with their friends without always having to say things like, “I’m the Black Batman.” That icon came with the birth of blaxploitation films. The hero of 1970s Black culture, the culture that would birth hip-hop, was the blaxploitation hero. Blaxploitation films were marked by a sense of campiness, sex, and violence. The heroes of those films had to be overly cool and belligerently “Black” in a world of White authoritarian control. The 1971 film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, started it all.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was a passion project from auteur Melvin Van Peebles. Van Peebles, wrote, directed, edited, scored, and marketed the film almost entirely on his own, while also starring in the film as the titular Sweetback. The film is about a man who was raised in a brothel, and was being arrested for a crime police knew he didn’t commit, but took him in just to appease the community and their superiors. Sweetback ends up literally fighting his way to freedom (multiple times) with the help of other outlaws. He also “has” to have sex with multiple women, so that they’ll help him. Most importantly, he survived it all. It was a strange film, but it was something Black America was waiting for.
Van Peebles’ titular hero was a Black hero for Black audiences, an idol who kicked ass, while a powerful soundtrack provided by Earth, Wind & Fire played in the background. Van Peebles offered something different than Sydney Poitier did at the time, and certainly different than the Amos ‘n’ Andy caricatures people were used to. Sweetback didn’t serve anybody. He was somebody who was used and fought back. His situation was forced upon him, but he became stronger and cooler by overcoming that situation in modern America. It made over $10 million at the box office against the self-financed budget of $150,000. It was big, and it started something.
Melvin Van Peebles understood that Black youth didn’t need to see another Black servant or another “good” Black man who earned respect by adhering to White standards; they needed a man who fought against the injustices that were in the real world. They needed a guy named Sweet Sweetback, a tough as nails survivor who gets the women, has a cool name, and walks around with a funky hat and stylish mustache. Whether it was problematic or not, Van Peebles gave Black youth a badass to follow, and he produced a film that helped give early rap a theme to follow: us vs. them. That was not necessarily a racial divide; it was about the downtrodden rising against a corrupt system of authority. At the time, however, it was almost guaranteed to be shown as a Black vs. White conflict. Though, critics still debate whether or not Sweet Sweetback is an example of blaxploitation, it exemplified what would become the blaxploitation norms of a militant Black man coming into conflict with and expressing himself against an imposing White authority. It was far from perfect, and suggested the problems of Black America could be solved with sex and violence, but Sweet Sweetback tapped into the zeitgeist and awoke a generation of disenfranchised minorities. Huey P. Newton, cofounder of the Black Panthers, saw it as “the first truly revolutionary Black film.” It anticipated and guided the voice of the next generation; its true worth comes not from the film itself, but from the message it left behind. Naturally, not everybody was just going to get up and go bare-knuckle box cops. Most of the ones who wanted to fight back used their words.
That idea— the idea that Black youth could actually be upset, fight back against injustice, and come out on top— is where rap’s conscious lyricism comes from. When Sweet Sweetback hit theaters, DJing as we know it today was in its infancy in New York City, the setting of most blaxploitation films. Throughout the early and mid-70s, DJs spun records at block parties in their communities as a way of bringing low-cost entertainment to inner cities. Eventually, at these block parties, the Master of Ceremonies— the MC (or emcee)— emerged as the one with the power. With a single microphone, the MC kept the party’s spirits up, first by talking and then by speaking in tight rhymes over the DJs beats. The early DJs and the MCs were all followers of the Black power movement, and heavily shaped by their surroundings. They watched Sweet Sweetback and the similar films it spawned. That influence gave rap music something to build from. Not only did the soundtrack of Sweet Sweetback introduce them to the idea of sampling and fading between audio tracks, it also showed them that it was possible to talk about the problems of their community with style. It led to the birth of conscious lyricism, and active storytelling through verses that reflected the message of Black power and blaxploitation films. The best MCs became arbiters of Black culture, reflecting through storytelling. With the inspiration they got from their blaxploitation heroes, those MCs adopted new personas: the personas of rappers.
Sweet Sweetback was basically the origin of the early New York ready to fight, ready to love rap style. To see how Sweet Sweetback changed rap’s subject matter, look to Kurtis Blow. He was in tune with the reality of the world as a Black youth and continued on with Van Peebles’ goal of growing the community’s social consciousness. When it comes to playing the character, there was LL Cool J. Sweetback’s style was visually understated. There’s an argument to be made that the film led to rap’s early militant aesthetic of berets and all black, but that was more of a carryover from the Black Panthers. Really, the only part of Sweetback’s look that was flamboyant was his oversized hat. LL Cool J also got by with a nice hat and a track suit or jeans. He wasn’t looking for a fight, but he was ready for one. He was LL Cool J because “Ladies Love Cool James,” not because he loved them. Like Sweetback, LL Cool J’s style was all about responding to what the day brought him, rather than actively looking for a problem. Together, the New York rap scene and Sweet Sweetback influences taught poor Black youth to recognize the institutions of the world (even in their own communities) that it won’t always be in their favor, and to be proud enough of themselves to fight for themselves. That’s why songs like Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” and LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” go hand in hand; they’re all about fighting back, not just fighting.
The Crime, the Cop, and the Kid on the Streets
“Look what would I do? With my record I can’t even work civil service or join the damn army. If I quit now, then I took all this chance for nothing and I go back to being nothing. Working some jive job for chump change day after day. Well if that’s all I’m supposed to do then they gonna have to kill me ’cause that ain’t enough.”
-Youngblood Priest, Super Fly
Picking up where Sweet Sweetback left off, later blaxploitation films focused more on the problems within the community. To this day, one of the main problems facing low income communities is the drug trade and the criminal element the drug trade brings. There’s no question that, for a number of reasons, that problem impacts African Americans more than it does anybody else in America. For most of those who live in high crime areas, the crime isn’t an unintended side effect of progress; it’s the price of progress. Crime and the drug trade became a major theme in Black media because of blaxploitation. Blaxploitation films presented crime as just another part of the system— one function of the prison-industrial complex. There were basically two ends to that system: “The Pusher Man” (someone from the culture who peddled drugs that kept the community under), and “The Man” (the outside authority figure who kept the systems of oppression working to keep the culture in check).
These two characters were best shown in two different blaxploitation classics: Shaft and Super Fly. In Shaft, Richard Roundtree plays a private detective named John Shaft trying to find a missing girl. The girl in question is the daughter of a Black gangster, and she was kidnapped by Italian gangsters. With that premise, Shaft brought its audience into the complex relationship of Black crime and White crime, and examined how the police were more willing to let Black neighborhoods fend for themselves as long as they didn’t disrupt White neighborhoods.
Super Fly also looked at the crime in Black neighborhoods, but from the perspective of a drug dealer who wanted to get out of “the life.” Youngblood Priest, played by Ron O’Neal, intends to buy and sell thirty kilos of cocaine, so that he’ll have enough money to retire. His partner counters that plan by saying, “The Man” rigged the system, so that the only form of reliable employment for them is crime. The partner’s right; they later learn that the ones supplying the neighborhood with drugs are cops who offer them unlimited drugs to sell, as well as protection from the police. Priest only gets out of their thrall by using his criminal instincts and connections.
Whereas Sweet Sweetback showed Black youth they could fight back, Shaft and Super Fly justified fighting back by showing crime as a product of oppression and portraying Black America as neglected by justice. These films led to tracks like “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, almost the entire catalog of Public Enemy’s records, and Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” The “reality raps” that turned into ’90s gangsta rap come from this same background. N.W.A. rapped about the “Pusher Man” character in their track “Dopeman,” about “The Man” in “Fuck Tha Police,” and about the system as a whole in “Express Yourself” and “Straight Outta Compton.” Both Shaft and Super Fly still show up in rap albums to this day because they were such strong cornerstones to the rapper’s identity. In the cases of Shaft and Super Fly, the legacy left behind was less about style, and more about a mindset and imparting a sense of responsibility. Black culture had to protect itself from the dangers pressed upon them by “The Man.”
A Man and His Women
” The Mack (1973 film starring Max Julien as an Oakland pimp named Goldie) is one of my favorite movies. I look at (Julien) as my godfather. Something about that movie, his rise, his struggle, the things he put his family through — I was always infatuated with Goldie. I wanted to be slick and charming to the woman and have the right thing to say.”
Perhaps the most direct part blaxploitation played in crafting the character of the rapper was the portrait of the player, the mack, the alpha male— the pimp. The pimp was, in many ways, the extreme version of the blaxploitation “hero.” He was shown to be both philosopher and a fighter, sexually successful, against the rules of “The Man,” and stylish at all times. Films like Willie Dynamite and Dolemite made pimps the men boys wanted to be. The boys would be rappers who studied the mannerisms of these films, and crafted their own smooth talking pimp personas.
As important as Dolemite‘s titular rapping pimp was, the pimp’s lasting popularity in rap music is largely a result of 1973s The Mack. In the film, Max Julien portrays a character named Goldie, a recently released convict in Oakland who aims to overcome poverty by becoming a pimp with his associate Slim, played by Richard Pryor. Afterward, Goldie is embroiled in the complex mechanics of the city: the racist White cops who’d rather use him than stop him, the drug trade that keeps him and the other minorities down, the Black power movement that could threaten his lifestyle, and of course, the relationships between pimps, prostitutes, and johns. Of those four points, the last is the most important when discussing The Mack‘s imprint on rap. Goldie wasn’t just a pimp; he was the pimp. Goldie, Slim, and the pimps in the film— the “players”— became a blueprint. Goldie, despite being a convict and a pimp, had power in his neighborhood. He had the money and authority Black youth wanted, and he gave them a lifestyle they could see in the world around them; one they could aspire to no matter their circumstances. They didn’t see the problems in idolizing pimps. They didn’t see the misogyny, the violence and instability, or the social decay; they just saw a cool Black man in cool clothes who got what he (and they) wanted. The Mack was a mirror image of the rap music that followed it: “Part gritty urban realism, part ridiculous male fantasy.”
To this day, rappers from Snoop Dogg to Jay Z to Outkast have acknowledged the impact The Mack had on them and rap in general; lines from the film have been sampled in dozens of well-known tracks. The vision of the baller, gold chains and flashy clothes came from the style of pimps as shown in The Mack. Similar films, like Willie Dynamite, encouraged Black youth to treat everything, even women, like a business. Rappers had to be able to handle their own business at all times, and never look flustered. Countless rap tracks have taken major cues from blaxploitation pimps: Big Daddy Kane’s seminal ’89 hit “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy,” 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.,” and Too $hort’s “Ain’t Nothing Like Pimpin,” which all helped to solidify the idea that the rapper had to exude the power and poise of a blaxploitation style pimp.
On the most extreme end, the influence of pimps, like Willie Dynamite and Dolemite, led to rap’s most overblown, visually interesting and humorously philosophical personalities. That’s where Outkast’s style lies. Outkast first rose to prominence with the ’93 track “Player’s Ball,” named after a gathering of pimps that happens in The Mack (it was later made into a real event). The flamboyant styles of pimps, the coats and loud colors, the processed hair, the focus on looking “So Fresh, So Clean,” was exactly the kind of image Big Boi and Andre 3000 had during the height of Outkast’s popularity. 3000, in particular, embodied the style of the elegant pimp. He spoke softly, but his verses were immaculate and often about his own image or about women. He was a fashion icon, as well as a rap icon because for him, the two were all part of the same character. His style was not only influenced by pimp movies, but also by the fact that rap seemed to be becoming too reliant on taking the pimp image at face value— saying, “When I look at rap videos, it’s pretty much the same video over and over, a bunch of women in swimsuits and the guys rapping about money or jewels. Me and Big Boi wanted to change that.”
This is the most problematic part of blaxploitation’s legacy. The pimp character’s purpose of shedding light on how the Black version of success is skewed toward criminality was lost on too many people. The stereotype was taken as a complete positive rather than a necessity, and it was the easiest blaxploitation image to imitate without needing any true social message. Even though the films died out, the pimp influence on rap reverberates in its lasting misogyny and toxic masculinity. The idea of the man as the hustler, the woman as the prize and property, and the glorification of the pimp mentality is one of the most criticized aspects of rap music. Blaxploitation heroines did exist in Foxy Brown and Coffy, and those films did show that women had agency within the Black community, leading to female MCs, like Lil Kim and other rappers, who positioned themselves as female pimps. Still, rap has yet to fully disengage from the pimp fantasy. As a result (even now), rap is mostly male dominated, aggressively heteronormative, and very indulgent in flashy outfits that include gold chains and cool shades.
Remixing the Classics
“Right now, musically i’m inspired by everyday people”
With all that said, I get why rappers changed so much over the past generation. It was always going to because rappers were a reflection of the community, a community that had a complete identity shift over the course of rap’s first couple decades of life. The civil rights movements came and went, blaxploitation films died out, rap expanded beyond low-income communities, and the next generation of rappers grew up looking at other rappers as their heroes, rather than characters like John Shaft. I dig rappers like Wiz Khalifa because he seems like such a Millennial take on Snoop Dogg. He, like many of his contemporaries, is thrift store chic, and that look matches the more laid-back and stream of conscious lyrics of modern rap. Khalifa cites ’90s rappers as some of his biggest influences, and his style, as the thin pot smoking rapper who wears tight jeans and fedoras, represents an update of the rap persona. He reflects the fact that rap is learning and growing more from itself and other genres than it is from blaxploitation.
I think that trend started around the time Pharrell Williams was getting big for his ability to outthink what critics thought rap music was capable of. As part of the production duo, The Neptunes, and as part of the funk-rap group, N.E.R.D, Williams had a major hand in bringing rap music into a modern, experimental age, producing over 40% of the music that ended up on US radios. Williams is a self-described nerd, and his life experiences didn’t sync up with the life experiences of the Black youth that blaxploitation and rap music was initially aimed towards. His suburban upbringing and skateboard culture shaped his music career just as much as his love of rap albums did. Those varied interests carried over into his personal style. Truly, the only way to describe it is eclectic. By having his hand in so many rappers’ careers for the past 20 or so years, Pharrell Williams has slowly been moving rap more towards the mainstream, not just musically, but also in terms of appearance. Pharrell Williams moved rap away from the age of blaxploitation and towards the age of backpack rap.
The Rebirth of Consciousness
“[Kanye West] came in the game and was like ‘This is who I am, and these are the type of things that I love, and I’m excited about them, and I don’t necessarily have to carry myself as anybody that I’m not.’ And people picked up on it.”
-Chance the Rapper
After the rise of acts like Migos, Fetty Wap, Lil’ Yachty and almost every trap artist, rappers whose style seemed like parodies more than anything real, I soured on modern mainstream rap. It was easy to figure out, but all their words rarely added up to a message. I understand the appeal of just making music to dance to, but it wasn’t my thing. Of course, the last thing I want to do is get into a debate that boils down to “rap just ain’t what it was back in my day.” I’m more interested in the form that the blaxploitation era attitudes are taking today.
When rap went mainstream, that led to a counter-culture within rap itself. Several, actually. Some of it stayed closer to the ’90s era rap, like A$AP Rocky. Some went more bizarre, like Odd Future Wolf Gang. The one that stands out most to me, though, is the controversial backpack rap style. Backpack rap was the successor to early rap’s conscious lyricism and reality raps. It focused on introspective lyrics, seeing any community struggles as an extension of one’s personal struggle, and seeing the glory of fame and fortune as, essentially, just another part of that struggle. Backpack rap was the underground style of rap that was pushed to the forefront by rappers like Atmosphere, Lupe Fiasco, Zion I, and most importantly, Kanye West. Their style paved a way for the “new golden age of hip-hop” that’s being led by artists like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Logic, Childish Gambino, Aesop Rock, Vince Staples, Earl Sweatshirt and their peers. All of them talk about how the hip-hop heavyweights of the late ’80s and ’90s inspired them, but they themselves play a very different role than the aggressive revolutionaries and pimps they grew up listening to. They adapted rap personas to fit their reality rather than the other way around. They are, in my opinion, rap personas that fit Millennial sensibilities and their desire to “stay woke” at all times. West is a perfect representation of how and why backpack rap, sometimes derided as the style for hipsters, came to fit the age of neo-blaxploitation.
I don’t want to act like Kanye West is the final word in backpack rap or modern rap in general, but divisive as he may be on a human level, his music and style embody rap’s place in current mainstream culture. West, like Lamar, Cole, and many others of the style, is a smart man. He is the son of a Black Panther and a professor, excelled in school, and had a passion for arts. He is also a film buff with varied cinematic interests that include surreal films from Alejandro Jodorowsky and anime, like AKIRA. Reflecting his thoughtful and financially stable upbringing, West wore polo shirts, sweaters, and naturally backpacks. West didn’t create the term backpack rap, and it wasn’t created for him, but he came to resemble the style’s most successful and accessible attributes. His style grew a bit more eccentric, but for him, his personality was the crux of his persona. He memorably said that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” during a live broadcast on NBC that was raising money for Hurricane Katrina relief. With those words, West helped to set a tone of mainstream rappers once again taking on “The Man.” When his album, Graduation, outsold 50 Cent’s Curtis in 2007, there was a sense that the age of gangsta rap was finally being undone, and with that, the idea of taking blaxploitation’s influence at face value was rendered obsolete.
Beyond all else, the important thing to remember is that blaxploitation and rap came from James Brown singing “Say it loud — I’m Black and I’m proud!” Bringing the problems of Black America to the forefront wasn’t always the main concern for blaxploitation or rap. Sometimes, all that really mattered was showing off a level of pride for the culture. What mattered, more than anything, was being cool.
Watching their heroes on the big screen inspired up-and-coming early rappers in the ’70s and ’80s that fashioned themselves as “heroes” on cassette tapes. Rap music, at the beginning, had a clear drive and a set of blueprints to follow. There was a sense of celebration in blaxploitation films. Willie Dynamite, Foxy Brown, Dolemite and all their contemporaries were campy and varying levels of serious, but they were fun. Films like Black Belt Jones really were about making a Black superhero, and giving hope to people who historically had very little. They featured Black characters beating their enemies (often with karate), getting laid, and getting by. They were about never being defeated by racial injustice. That was a big deal.
That celebration of the unique culture was being echoed by early DJs like Grand Wizzard Theodore, Grandmaster Flowers, DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata, and of course, Grandmaster Flash. As mentioned earlier, this was the period of block parties and the birth of rap. Rap was a way to discuss problems without question, but it was also a way of telling the community that no one was alone. Whether it was just telling a relatable, but stupid story, as in Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” or reminding everyone that things could get better as in 2Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up.” There was a sense that rap music was central to the Black identity in America because it was derived from a place of pride. Films like Shaft, Superfly, and The Mack redefined how a Black person should carry himself, not as a “negro” or a “colored,” but as a Black American.
The rappers I grew up listening to in the ’90s were pretty upfront with who they were and what they represented. I knew exactly what every verse was getting at, and every bar had a purpose. There’s a reason Tupac can be found at the top of so many “best rappers” lists. He, as the son of two Black Panthers and a product of the streets, was everything blaxploitation and early rap stood for. His style, in terms of lyricism, persona, and dress code, changed during his career, but always acted as a reflection of blaxploitation. He brought every element of blaxploitation— Black pride, awareness of the criminal cycle, pimp mentality, and stylistic exaggeration—to each album he made.
Personally, as much I prefer to look toward the underground sound when I’m making my playlists, I am a bit hopeful that rap music is getting back to its roots. I don’t mean the roots of the racial divide or the misogyny, but the idea of consciousness and culture being mainstream. I dig the fact that blaxploitation is back in the form of neo-blaxploitation with things like Luke Cage and modern remakes of Shaft and Super Fly. I was excited to see 2015s Straight Outta Compton film because it brought rap full circle; N.W.A. went from following in the footsteps of blaxploitation heroes to essentially being blaxploitation heroes, and showing why rap was needed in the first place. I get hyped when big name artists come out to make the soundtracks for films like Straight Outta Compton and Black Panther. We are in a period of social reconstruction. Rappers, backpack rappers and otherwise are switching up their styles to match that, but I think that style still comes down to the legacy of blaxploitation. Blaxploitation was problematic; it was still Black exploitation after all. Yet, there’s no denying that it signaled a major turning point in Black consciousness. That consciousness gave rappers something to rap about…