You’ve heard them all before. Those songs where a good rap singer sings the raps well about how good he is. Hell, if you’re an MC, you’ve most likely done them yourself.
I know I’ve done them. All of our favourite rappers have done them over and over.
More often than not, that braggadocious demeanour spills out into real life, and then multiplies in the cavernous abyss of social media.
From my own experiences dealing with promoters, battle opponents and co-performers alike, it sometimes feels like hip-hop has become a series of competing egos rather than a community.
Whole events get wrecked over egos. Alliances break up over egos. Fights start between crews over egos. Heck, administrative quibbles and angry exchanges on Twitter aside, some emcees get killed over egos. It’s real, and if you know a rap community well you’ll have had to have tried very hard not to meet a rapper who’s full of themselves.
It’s easy to take issue with the self-serving thumping of chests, both on-record and off. But as a beta male (let’s not skirt around the truth here, we’re all adults) who more or less watches from the sidelines and passes comment, what do I know about the real place of ego?
Except, of course, the act of drawing the attention of a whole room to your person is inherently egotistical. Whatever creative field you toil in, you’re doing it because you sincerely believe you have something unique and beautiful to offer that culture.
Even if you’re young, shy and insecure, as so many rappers started out, your ego is calling you to step on that stage and feel better about yourself.
This ego boost applies to communities as well as individuals.
In the Bronx, throughout the earliest days of the movement, the MC was a secondary feature, there to keep the block party crowds present and correct for the DJ to control.
Once emceeing became an art form in its own right, it brought with it the notion of lyrical identity. Rapping became lucrative and evolved itself almost yearly. Black America finally owned something sustainable. Something through which the next generation could build and control a real identity.
With an identity comes ego. It’s a double-edged sword. You cannot feel true confidence without concretely knowing, building and expressing your identity, and you shouldn’t let that ego change your identity at any cost.
Don’t get anything important twisted: hip-hop has had the living daylights appropriated out of it on a global scale. It was plucked out of its boisterous adolescence and thrust into the clamouring hands of a global audience, so effective is it as a mouthpiece for the disaffected.
Amongst the many energies diverted in that transition, the egotistical lyricism was no longer solely the defiant sound of a proud new culture taking root. It became, in many case, simply… ego.
That zest and boastfulness still permeates literally millions of rap songs a year. Both Kendrick Lamar and Joey Bada$$’ most recent records contain sterling examples of both, balanced with a healthy social conscience.
But the special type of ego, a collective ego that comes only from a joint rising up of a group of people, has been diluted beyond recognition. Its afterbirth, however, the narcissism and self-absorption that can accompany any creative success thrust into the wrong hands… Well, that’s still here. Probably to stay.
Naturally, when rappers start out, they are slowly building brands based on nothing but growing skill and content. Would a company not say they were the best, try to differentiate themselves from the competition? If you’re starting out by yourself, or even with a small crew, that brand reflects on a smaller number of people. Or even just the MC themselves.
So of course it comes across as ego.
Some get so much success so quickly that it transforms them. Some fall head-first into their stage personae, so absorbed are they in acting as performer, manager, promoter, sound engineer, PR team and social media warlord.
Some were just dicks in the first place and were attracted to the idea of shouting anything they want in front of a roomful of people who appreciate the sound of people who know they are dicks being dicks.
And hip-hop lets them, because that’s the point of it. It was one of the first chances black culture had to say whatever they want, and post-gentrification it’s now seen as a chance for anyone to say whatever they want.
That is a natural platform for egotism, and a potential invitation for disaster.
Tie in the provocations of social media, where every event has to look like a sellout, every battle has to be an all-time classic and every song has to be a stone-cold banger, and it becomes clear that society pretty much hoovers up hip-hop’s overflowing ego.
Yet somehow, with as many emcees as I know who are flat-out dickheads, there are even more who are focused, wonderful and absurdly talented people, often in spite of overwhelming odds, and who have a massive amount of respect for the others in their field.
They stick their necks out for their teams, put back into their communities and nurture young talent. They look after their families and friends. They’re engaged in charities and community work. Many are carers who work with the sick and elderly.
And they never lose sight of the bigger thing of which they know they’re a tiny, tiny part.
There will always be great people, and there will always be Billy Big Bollocks flapping his gums like a champion.
That is why the ego will never fully kill hip-hop. Because it hasn’t managed to make humanity fully extinct yet, and as soon as we knew how to make words we were using them to exaggerate the girth and length of our penises.
Rap well and be nice.