Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur have been in the news more often recently than they were during their heydays as East and West Coast rap stars, respectively. A Los Angeles Times series and a new movie -- each presenting different theories as to who killed Shakur in September 1996 and Smalls six months later -- have spurred street debates in urban enclaves such as Brooklyn and Compton, as well as college dorms and even the aisles of Midwestern Sam Goodys. Was Biggie (aka Notorious B.I.G., born Christopher Wallace) the mastermind, if not the trigger man, in Tupac's slaying in Las Vegas? Did Death Row Records president Suge Knight engineer the whole thing to boost the coastal wars and, by extension, record sales? Did the LAPD kill them both, as suggested by former Los Angeles detective Russell Poole?
Who knows? Like so many conspiracy-laden intrigues, this particular puzzle might never be solved.
One thing the Tupac/Biggie saga did seem to confirm was what much of middle America thought all along: Rap music is about shooting, killing, gangbanging and cashing in. The Thug Life, in other words, which Shakur -- a poet and actor -- espoused in his lyrics and that infamous, abdomen-wide tattoo. After all, what signs do we have to indicate otherwise?
Plenty, says Dustin Craun, a leader of the student-run Hip-Hop Congress at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The group is a regional branch of a nationwide grassroots organization that aims to elevate rap culture above its sticky stereotypes. Not surprisingly, Craun's got his own theories about what happened to two of rap's felled icons: He calls the L.A. Times series "bullshit" and seems to favor the cops-did-it theory. But musically, his own tastes lie with artists like Talib Kweli and Hi Tek, Mission and Mos Def -- those who use independent means to make music for an "enlightened" fan base and who view music as an agent of social change.
Lately, though, he says those artists have had a rough time getting their music -- and their messages -- heard by an audience caught up in the rehashing of an old story.
"I feel like the L.A. Times and all these people just want to dredge up all this stuff again, to focus on hip-hop's bad side so that someone can look at it and say, 'Hey, look, these lyrics killed someone,'" he says. "I wish they would look at it deeper and say, 'Why were they even rapping about that hard stuff? What in society led to those circumstances?' Like, Biggie was sometimes talking about slinging drugs just to buy food for his daughter. If you go deeper, you see hip-hop just mirroring what's happened in society. It takes on a real political side to it then, and that's something that the powers that be want to keep down, in my opinion."
According to Craun, independent hip-hop is already down. Earlier this year, when the Congress held its first ever "Hip-Hop Week" symposium on the CU campus, Boulder was buzzing over artistically spirited acts such as Jurassic 5, the Beat Junkies and Atmosphere, all of which had played to sold-out crowds in the college town. At the symposium, many of the events were packed to capacity, and the capper -- a performance by Kweli and local crew, Elemental -- sold out the Glenn Miller ballroom. This time, though, Craun says his group is planning a scaled-back event, a three-day affair that will culminate with a performance from Saul Williams, Mission and others on November 2. (Originally slated to begin on Thursday, October 17, the event was bumped to the first week of November; Craun blames "organizational weirdness" for the schedule change.) While Craun expects decent support for the event, he senses that the style has lost more than a few fans over the past year -- and the current "rock is back" craze that's sweeping up college students and other scene watchers hasn't helped.
"Americans, especially American youth -- they just follow fads. It's a trendy culture in Boulder," he says. "A year ago, two years ago, everybody's talking about hip-hop, hip-hop, hip-hop. But now it's not viewed as the popular thing, and people have moved on to other things. It doesn't even matter, though, because there will always be this core of people who know that this music matters, that it is responsible for giving us some of the greatest poetry of our time."
Though he points a finger at faddism, Craun really blames the music industry for bailing on artists who don't buy into the bling-bling thing. Jay-Z, Naz, Eminem and even the Nappy Roots may still enjoy plenty of time on the commercial-radio dial, but under-the-radar artists struggle for support from their own record labels, not to mention record buyers.
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"It's just really hard for the independent stuff to be heard," he says. "You've got a few huge companies that control the majors. Like Columbia. They didn't even want to put out a record by Lauryn Hill -- the biggest-selling female rap star ever -- because they said there was no radio single on it." Hill's Khalami Phase is tentatively scheduled for a December 10 release after more than a year of delays, according to Columbia's Web site. "My theory is that they didn't want to put it out because it's all about revolution of the self and revolution of the spirit," Craun adds. "That's not the kind of thing that you are going to hear on the radio, or on MTV. People don't even know that this kind of stuff is out there, because there are so few avenues for them to be exposed to it."
With the help of some CU faculty members, Craun plans to do a research paper exploring the connections between the music industry, radio and the realm of "invisible" artists in the hip-hop underground. In the meantime, he'll continue his non-academic efforts on behalf of the music he loves -- even if there are fewer B-boys and girls to hear his message.
And the shows don't stop: It's time to wish Rocket Ajax farewell on Saturday, October 19, at Cricket on the Hill. The show is alleged to be Rocket's last before the band seeks gold in Los Angeles. Kallisti, the impressionistic Denver combo led by Conrad Kehn, opens.... A creatively charged trifecta takes over the 15th Street Tavern on Thursday, October 17, when songwriters/auteurs Gregory Ego and Ralph Gean appear with PW3. It's art, it's odd, it's a fine bill.... Hope for today's youth may be restored on Sunday, October 20, when the Denver Young Arts Orchestra presents its annual fall concert. The performance, taking place at Boettcher Concert Hall in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, will feature symphonic performances from musicians who began playing in utero. Well, maybe not, but close enough. Heed the kiddie call.