changesmall2Here’s an interview with Blue Scholars and Common Market at the 2009 South by Southwest festival in Austin.

Note to self: Next time I see Sabzi, Geo, or RA Scion outside a venue after a show, do NOT, under ANY circumstances, “accuse” them of making “conscious hip-hop.”

Sheesh. Did you see the Sab’s reaction when Mr. Interviewer used the dreaded C-word to describe their music? You’d have thought the producer had been accused of stealing beats from the pre-made demos on his Casio keyboard! When did conscious rap become a bad thing?

I’m guessing the reason why he got so upset is because Blue Scholars doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into a particular category, which I understand — labels are only good on clothes and produce. But in the interviewer’s defense, how is he supposed to quantify the very particular styles that exist within the genre?

My Lady once told me that she can’t listen to a Blue Scholars album all the way through because it eventually starts to depress her. I can kind of relate. Even their party-rocking tracks contain traces of the revolution. The fact is, Geo’s rhymes always reflect a consciousness of the world around him. This is exactly why his music resonates so loudly in a place like the Pacific Northwest, where we pride ourselves on being “progressive,” and “liberal,” and always down-for-the-cause, sometimes to the point of silliness.

I think most thoughtful fans of hip-hop like a little bit of that in their music. You could argue that the Scholars’ spirit best represents the very origins of the culture. Paying them this kind of compliment could be the highest form of praise for what they’ve accomplished as artists. So where’s the beef, Sabz?

I’d be interested to further hear his take on the matter and I shouldn’t speculate on what his particular thoughts might be. I do think that unequivocally putting the “conscious” label on some artists and not others is dangerous. Here’s why: it’s too broad of a term. When we say “conscious,” what exactly are we describing? If, in this case, “conscious” refers to Geo’s lyrics about his Filipino heritage and the struggles his people go through then, yes, his music is conscious. If “conscious” is synonymous with “political” then, yes, without a doubt Blue Scholars’ music is conscious.

For better or worse, in the world of hip-hop criticism, “conscious” is typically indicative of a style that’s considered more valuable than another. This is rarely explicitly stated, but the connotations are there. The problem is, we can’t conveniently use the term to describe one type of subject matter, while excluding others that might also contain value.

If you were to ask ten random fans to describe the subject matter of Blue Scholars’ rhymes, nine out of ten might use the word “conscious.” Ask the same ten fans to describe the subject matter of Dyme Def or D. Black’s music, and you’d be lucky to get four out of ten to use the term. This is where the problem might lie, and possibly why Sabzi gets so upset.

I have to presume that D. Black’s rhymes are inspired by his life experience. Black is a young African-American male in an “inner-city” environment. His experiences in life have thus far been shaped because of these facts. The angst from his trials and tribulations as a black man in America are completely evident in his lyrics. So why would we not describe his music as “conscious?” Would Mr. Interviewer have used the term if he were interviewing D. Black? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Other words might come to his mind. Words like “gangsta,” “street,” “ghetto,” “crack music,” etc. Words that don’t necessarily come with positive connotations.

Fact is, D. Black’s hip-hop is just as viably “conscious” as Blue Scholars. The general populace just doesn’t put as much value on it and therefore doesn’t use the term to describe it. And that’s a damn shame. The reasons for this extend far beyond what I am capable of as a writer, and are best left for the experts to meditate on.

In the end, I still don’t think we should stop using the term altogether. I would still use it to describe Blue Scholars, and I would use it to describe D. Black and Dyme Def. There are degrees to which “conscious” can be applied. If you really wanted to get technical, I suppose you could put all of Geo’s lyrics on a page next to all of D. Black’s and try to quantify how many times each rapper says something of value that might positively contribute to a discussion on racial/sexual/social politics. Who would win the “conscious contest?” Honestly, I don’t know. I’m not interested in conducting an experiment like that. I think it’s better to just listen to the words, actively, not passively. If we can recognize that there’s something to be learned while we bump this sh*t loud in our cars, then we’re steps ahead of the game.


  1. Very nice. What I don’t get is, if they aren’t “conscious” then what are they? Depresso music? Alternative Hip Hop? Politico? Social Sidestream?

    and why take offense?

    Unfortunately, no music can be devoid of being described. The vast majority of BS & CM music is based on very deep political/social/religious views. If we are comparing that to mainstream hip hop then it does take alot of thought to write something out with so much impact and meaning. This alone resonates “conscious hip hop” to me.

    Quit being so defensive and change the formula if you want to be described differently. We only get what they give us.

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