Hip Hop’s Lost Identity: Revisiting EPMD’s ‘Crossover’
The year is 1992. Somewhere in Brooklyn, New York, a Lasonic TRC-920 boombox sits prestigiously on a cracked cement stoop. A haze of sunlight reflects from the plastic window covering the band selector and the giant, silver tuner knob shows permanent smudges across its glossy surface. The dial is turned to about the middle of the available frequencies, broadcasting 98.7 KISS FM. The woofers pulse outward, projecting the sounds of Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith trading rhymes about the current state of rap music and its infiltration of popular culture.
“The rap era’s outta control, brother’s sellin their soul To go gold / Going, going, gone — another rapper sold,” the song declares. The New York natives made no qualms about their beef with rap’s rising status as a mainstream genre, calling out rappers for, ”thinkin about a pop record / somethin made for the station …. To go platinum and clock mad green AKA, a sellout — the rap definition.”
EPMD’s groundbreaking single “Crossover” from 1992′s Business Never Personal, attacked radio friendly artists for their “pop” sound. What came to be known as one of the group’s biggest commercial successes — ironically, netting them considerable radio airplay — was, at its core, a rebuke of rappers of the era “selling out”, and only the beginning of an ongoing war between hip hop’s waning core aesthetics and the push to sell more records.
Prior to the release of “Crossover”, NWA told us to “F*ck the Police” and around the same time of the EPMD release we were given classics like The Chronic, Bizarre Ride II, Can I Borrow a Dollar amongst many others. At that point, hip hop was more than music. It was a voice for a population that was otherwise muted — it was about identity. “Crossover” attempted to preserve that part of hip hop that many seemed to be willing to trade in for the prospect of creating a hit record.
Although the bounce of the bass lines, the flowing samples, and witty lyrics were undeniable, the content of rap music at the time wasn’t universally relateable. Raw depictions of inner-city struggle and mounting racial tensions gave way to dance records, developing rappers into a less-threatening type of artist. Mainstream success came quick for the likes of Vanilla Ice, Sir Mix-A-Lot, and MC Hammer as they lined up to trade in funky beats and descriptive lyrics for catchy hooks and gaudy fashion trends. They each fit the bill of an artist mainstream America was willing to showcase.
EPMD clearly depicts an era where the rap landscape is quickly losing its identity. Fast forward 20 years to our current situation and it’s hard not to say “I told you so”. With the majority of today’s mainstream rappers embodying the group’s vision of “rap sellouts” and the dominance of “hip pop”, crossover artists have become commonplace — just as Sermon and Smith prophecized in 1992.
Even narratives of the inner-city streets filled with drugs, gang violence, and prostitution are no less acceptable than a Quentin Tarantino film. These issues continue to plague communities but the generic, upbeat sounds of popular hip hop artists have passed them along as just entertainment.
Hip hop has all but lost its footing as a stage for social commentary and creative individuality. We live in an era where folks view Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) as just an actor and people have the nerve to look at Stankonia as Outkast’s debut (you see the damnedest things on YouTube). When MTV dubs its 10 hottest rappers on the premise of “swag” — we have a serious issue. Mainstream artists have flooded us with the same messages of sex, murder, partying, and fortune, created in a world where the contextual identity of these themes have eroded almost completely.
Don’t look now, but we’ve turned this corner once before. This entire ordeal is reminiscent of jazz, and its fall from the artistic genius of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, and Thelonius Monk to the watered-down, easy listening of — jazz aficionados may want to look away — something called “smooth jazz”. The whole turn of events is eerily similar.
Granted, we all think about making money, who doesn’t? But, is nothing priceless? Seeing the state of hip hop change over the years and the intent to sell dominating over quality music has gone a long way toward damaging the credibility of the genre and culture. Even some artists who started off underground have done their best groundhog impressions and are now beating us over the head with music that isn’t worth the free download we get it as. We have DJs who don’t DJ (or do much of anything, for that matter), and rappers who “party rock” in lieu of rocking the mic.
“Crossover” is a hip hop prophecy of biblical proportions. Like many things in this world, the message is not often heeded until years later. Maybe hip hop as most of us knew it is forever lost to the prospect of fame with little talent or little effort. Or, maybe we have another run of that real hip hop sound making its way to the masses. But for now, I’m with PMD, “I’ll stick to underground — keep the crossover.”
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