Dr. Cornel West: The Mind Meets Music

Hip-hop actually becomes a kind of parent as well as a community in terms of a source of wisdom. Now a lot of times there aren't too many good examples that generate good judgment so you end up with bad examples and bad judgment in terms of the hedonism, narcissism, misogyny and homophobia and so on. But there is no doubt that hip-hop is the main form of transcendence and community for young people who are trying to both get distance from their pain as well as learn to be human.

-Dr. Cornel West


What was the overall goal of this album?

The goal of the album is to promote an awakening among young people especially. That awakening has to do with both a sense of history – that's what the "Never Forget" is about - but also to fuse fun with the struggle for freedom, 'cause I don't wanna down play the fun. I think that comes through on the album, too. You're having a good time but at the same time it's connected to something very serious, which is a lot of people catching hell out there, too much social misery and we need to muster the courage to struggle for freedom.

How much consideration was given to the tracking and flow?

Andre 3000
There was a lot of consideration. The central trope, of course, is journey. So, you "Never Forget" but we're not getting stuck in the past. We're bringing together the three dimensions of time: the Past, the Present and the Future. Therefore, on a journey you have to both go back to your roots in order to go forward with courage and vision and determination. What you see on the album is at the very beginning starting with Talib [Kweli]'s thing "Bushanomics," which for me is just a classic before it even hits. Not because I'm on it but because Talib is at the top of his form. That brother is spittin' like I don't know what with the echoes of Grand Master Flash. So, at the beginning we said we're taking hip-hop back to its roots where the struggle for freedom and the fun go hand-in-hand, and from there it just begins to flow in terms of "Still Here," in terms of "America," in terms of brother Prince and we wanted to say something about "9/11." We wanted to hit the "N Word," especially because of the present day controversy [with Don Imus], confront Bush directly with brother KRS-One and M-1, and go through that three song sequence on time and the nature of time and the way in which you need to make crucial decisions regarding what kind of human being you want to be in time. That's when we got me and Andre [3000 - Outkast] dialoging and Sister Jill [Scott] comes in for the reprise, and we wanted to do a thing for the black sisters especially given all the degradation of black sisters in hip-hop.

How do you reconcile mainstream hip-hop, how did it get so bad?

It's just not that rich and deep in dealing with life. If you actually look at the major hits and major albums and major artists, you don't have a lot of deep and serious stuff out there. The thing is I don't believe in trashing the hip-hop artists. I love 50 Cent. I love Snoop. I love Ludacris and these folks. I'm just very very critical of much of what they do in terms of the content of their lyrics. I'm convinced they could take more responsibility regarding higher ideals of what it means to be human. Now, they are free to do what they want to. I don't believe in censorship. Not only that, but I also believe they can change. That's why I don't give up on them at all.

It's one thing to be able to do it, but it's another to have a responsibility. Do you feel that artists in the mainstream, when you talk about Snoop or 50 Cent or whomever, do you feel they have an obligation to raise their game, so to speak?

Jill Scott
I think they do. I really think they do. Music is such a precious thing in the lives of all of us, I think they have an obligation to be sophisticated artistically, and many of them do meet that. They have an obligation to be mature [and] many of them do not meet that. They have an obligation to be honest and sincere and authentic, in terms of who they are, and I think they do meet that. Who they are tends to be not that mature. I don't want to downplay the role of the industry. I think it's very important to acknowledge that 72-percent of hip-hop CDs are bought in vanilla suburbs by white brothers and sisters, and people are very market conscious in terms of who is buying the CDs and what that particular constituency tends to want out of hip-hop. It's true that it's difficult to be a big star and mature at the same time. I think Jay-Z says that quiet explicitly: if I get too serious folks not buying my stuff.

Nas just put out an album called Hip-Hop Is Dead...

...yeah, Nas is a serious brother.

He sure is. Now I don't think he was saying that hip-hop is actually dead. It was more of a question than a statement, but it is sick. So, can we save it? Can we bring it back to the time when people like Chuck D were really running the show? Can we bring mainstream rap back to that?

KRS' book Ruminations is a good starting point, as well as Chuck D's book Fight the Power. Both those books I think are very important, and that's why I invoke them in my chapter on hip-hop in Democracy Matters because they both have an analysis of hip-hop about when the shift takes place, why it is that the industry tended to promote certain kinds of artists who were not politically sophisticated as opposed to others. And I think they're right about that. I think that once the big big money got in on it, and once the constituency shifted from chocolate cities to vanilla suburbs, they don't explain everything but they explain a lot in terms of the dumbing down of hip-hop. I do think hip-hop will bounce back. I think hip-hop will never die. I think brother Nas would acknowledge that. He's trying to be Socratic. He's trying to get us to think critically, reflect on what hip-hop is - why did it change, how do you move from Kool Herc to 50 Cent. We have to understand that trajectory, understand that story that has taken place. It's a very very rich tradition.

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