Conscious rap’s origin story is complex, confusing in parts even, with deep roots that grow from and within the broader hip-hop genre. The music’s inspired by (while simultaneously inspiring) socio-political culture from the 1960s through to the present day.
Curiously though, it’s not always political.
There’s a lot to untangle. And much like conscious music itself, there are no promises that the journey will be easy, but the discoveries found within are worth it.
In this article:
WHAT IS CONSCIOUS RAP?
Conscious rap is a subgenre of hip-hop. It differs from most hip-hop as it promotes awareness of socio-political, economic and cultural issues.
Other topic explorations within conscious rap include Afrocentricity, the problems facing everyday people, poverty, and religion.
Unlike mainstream or gangsta rap, conscious music focuses on an aversion to violence, crime and materialism and doesn’t promote it. Rather, conscious music encourages discovering insights on an individual level that could lead to collective positive change.
CONSCIOUS RAP VS CONSCIOUS HIP-HOP VS POLITICAL HIP-HOP
Conscious rap and conscious hip-hop are two names for the same genre. And while there’s some crossover, “conscious” isn't the same as political hip-hop: the water gets muddied because their origin stories and themes hold multiple commonalities.
The key difference? The execution.
Conscious and political hip-hop might raise awareness of the same social turmoil or share an equal disdain for commercialism, but the message and solutions are expressed differently.
Political hip-hop is more likely to have a confrontational delivery and doesn’t guide you delicately through the discovery process.
Whereas, conscious rap allows the listener to reach their own conclusions because the focus is primarily on knowledge of self. And unlike political hip-hop, conscious rap doesn’t have to be overtly political.
EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUS RAP
As hip-hop rose in popularity during the 1980s, conscious rap emerged from within. Even though conscious hip-hop isn’t political hip-hop and differs from mainstream rap, their journeys are intrinsically linked.
So to understand the conscious element, it must be untangled from the broader evolution of hip-hop.
WHERE CONSCIOUS RAP CAME FROM
Conscious rap originated from the widespread social struggles of Black America rather than from life in a specific city.
While it can’t be traced to a “scene” (another facet that differentiates conscious rap from other contingents of hip-hop), the origins can be linked to a time: the 1980s. Conscious rap’s arrival was however, a few decades in the making before that decade.
WHAT FUELED THE RISE OF POLITICAL AND CONSCIOUS RAP
The rise of political and conscious rap was fueled by Black power and the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s. As these came to the fore, the unconscious struggle faced by Black Americans became conscious: it was getting harder for the rest of the world to look away and ignore these crucial issues.
Music continued to provide a much-needed creative outlet to navigate the social ills of poverty, oppression and racism throughout the 70s. While the Afrocentric themes invoked community pride.
Then, Ronald Reagan’s America made life for inner-city African-Americans ever more desperate. Throughout the 80s, political hip-hop decried socio-economic and cultural issues like police brutality, political apathy, poverty and unemployment, proposing militant solutions. At the same time, conscious rap became a means to dissuade people from crime and violence as a response to the struggles of urban living.
CONSCIOUS RAP’S 60S AND 70S EVOLUTION
The music of the 1960s and 70s mirrored the socio-political landscape. Songs like James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I'm Black And Proud)” in 1969 put Black pride at the forefront.
Meanwhile, Marvin Gaye’s socio-political album What’s Going On (1971) explored complicated subjects like the Vietnam War, substance abuse and poverty: a far cry from his fun-loving Motown sound of the early 60s.
On his signature track “Higher Ground” (1973), Stevie Wonder declared he was “Gonna keep on tryin’ ‘til I reach my highest ground”.
In that, he pledge to do so even in the face of adversity – the archetypal conscious message.
Gil Scott-Heron's spoken word of the 1970s and 80s was arguably the most direct musical influence on the evolution of conscious and political hip-hop. He’s also credited with fueling rap’s formation in general.
CONSCIOUS HIP-HOP IN THE 80S
In 1980, Brother D with Collective Effort released what many consider the first socially conscious hip-hop song, “How We Gonna Make The Black Nation Rise?”.
At a time when hip-hop was integral to the party scene (focusing more on entertainment than education), the lyrics warned listeners: “You dippy-dippy-dive and so-socialise, but how we gonna make the black nation rise?”
Then in 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released “The Message”. The lyrics describe the harsh reality of inner-city, poverty-stricken ghettos prevalent during the Regan era.
Despite moving away from hip-hop purely as entertainment, “The Message” became the first conscious hip-hop track to achieve major success. It broke into the Billboard “Hot 100” chart and became NME’s 1982 “Track of the Year”.
As Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye transformed happy-go-lucky Motown into social commentary-filled funk/neo-soul, “The Message” took hip-hop from the house party scene and platformed social activism.
The rap-anthem also caused a broader shift in hip-hop by centring emcees at the forefront ahead of mixing and scratching.
CONSCIOUS RAP IN THE 90S
Six years after “The Message”, New York-based hip-hop group Public Enemy made waves with their 1988 album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.
The record included the track “Don't Believe The Hype” with socially-conscious lyrics inspired by noted political activist Noam Chomsky.
In 1989, Public Enemy topped Billboard's “Hot Rap Songs” chart with “Fight The Power”. The lyrics highlighted the prevalence of racism across America.
And in 1990, their third studio album, Fear Of A Black Planet, sold two million copies in the US, a landmark for the hip-hop genre. Meanwhile, Public Enemy's Compton-based contemporaries, N.W.A, also gained traction.
N.W.A were gangsta rap (or “reality rap”) pioneers when this hip-hop variant had an obvious crossover with the political and conscious subgenres. The group interwove gangsta rap themes like violent imagery with the conscious rap element of Black unity alongside the political aspect of socio-economic realities for poor urban communities.
CONSCIOUS RAP’S STORY CONTINUES IN THE 2000S
As the 1990s continued, so did conscious rap’s prevalence. Artistes like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Arrested Development, Nas, Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah shared political messages while bringing Afrocentric vibes to the fore.
While 2Pac became synonymous with gangsta rap, he spoke to the conscious with tracks like “Keep Ya Head Up” (1993). The song became an anthem for female empowerment.
"And since we all came from a woman. Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman (yeah, yeah),” goes the lyrics.
“I wonder why we take from our women. Why we rape our women, do we hate our women? (Why? Why?)”
The success of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” (2003) was a sign of the changing times. Materialism and hedonism began to replace conscious rap themes in hip-hop throughout the 2000s.
In the 2010s, a mini resurgence of conscious ideals (namely fighting for racial equality) led by Lupe Fiasco, Killer Mike and Immortal Technique arose. Although, it was nothing compared to the conscious rap movement prevalent in the 80s and 90s, especially regarding commercial viability.
CONSCIOUS RAP MOVEMENT: THE GOOD AND BAD
The conscious rap movement has a complicated legacy. Perhaps the most significant upside was that it educated people about the struggles of everyday Black Americans and allowed listeners to come to their own conclusions.
The genre also gave rappers who didn’t want to go down the overtly political hip-hop or gangsta rap routes a creative outlet while providing listeners space for self-exploration and positivity.
THE ‘CONSCIOUS’ LABEL CAN HOLD ARTISTES BACK
In the hip-hop industry itself, some artistes now see the “conscious” label as something that could unintentionally limit their commercial success and mainstream exposure.
Talib Kweli, for example, is often referred to as a conscious rapper. But Kweli states the industry (press and record labels) has “demonised the term consciousness”. Even though, on a personal level, he’s proud of making music that entertains people and moves them in a positive direction.
An example of a respected press outlet doing this was Complex magazine, declaring, “Most conscious rap is condescending, simplistic and corny.”
In response to Complex’s damming take on conscious hip-hop, Kweli said: “That’s why I fight against being put in that [conscious artiste] box because the people who strive to put me in that box, subconsciously or intentionally, are limiting the audience that can hear my music.”
From a commercial standpoint, conscious rap experienced a boom in the 1980s and 90s. Hip-hop fans seemed happy to be educated and entertained simultaneously. Then in the 2000s, the appetite for conscious hip-hop began to wane, and it's never re-reached those initial heights.
Whether led by fan disinterest or a lack of labels willing to promote conscious rap to the masses, commercial success isn't always guaranteed.
So many artistes are dissuaded from exploring the conscious in exchange for more commercially viable hip-hop genres.
IS THE CONSCIOUS RAP MOVEMENT ALL TALK?
Conscious rap talks a good game about positive social change, but was it all just hot air? Sure, notable conscious artistes like Common, Queen Latifah and J. Cole back up their words about social change with action.
But even hip-hop’s most uncompromising artiste (as it pertains to diluting his “conscious” message), Lupe Fiasco, recognises: “That ignorant music [gangsta rap] that people make sometimes, they can turn around a massive fortune off of that, then turn around and in one cheque, write away the ills of their community that they grew up in.”
Take 21 Savage as an example of this. Savage draws on violent and criminal aspects of his younger years to create gangsta/entertainment hip-hop with no real “conscious” value.
Still, he also takes the proceeds of his record sales and gives back to his community with the annual Issa Back 2 School Drive initiative.
Meanwhile, the American hip-hop collective ASAP Mob could be accused of glamorising substance abuse in their music. But their Always Strive and Prosper Foundation is “dedicated to providing young people with accessible and realistic education about substance use and abuse”.
So even if artistes choose to feed the masses with entertaining rap rather than being “conscious”, they”re still socially active and effect change on a grassroots level: arguably where it matters most.
A HISTORY OF CONSCIOUS RAP IN EIGHT SONGS
Nothing tells conscious rap’s story better than the music and the artistes themselves. So sit back, relax and let our conscious hip-hop recommendations take you on a journey from the 1970s to the present day.
GIL SCOTT-HERON, ‘THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED” (1971)
AllMusic’s John Bush described Gil Scott-Heron’s “aggressive, no-nonsense street poetry” as inspiring “a legion of intelligent rappers”.
When you listen to his 1971 track “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (a title based on a slogan from the 1960s Black Power movement), you hear the hints of what conscious rap would become.
The lyrics are full of cultural and entertainment references, not for entertainment’s sake but to question consumerism and political apathy.
Scott-Heron also reminds the listener that “Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day”.
GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE, ‘THE MESSAGE’ (1982)
“The Message” famously took hip-hop from house parties to the realms of social commentary. But lead vocalist, Melle Mel later reflected that Flash and the Furious Five didn't actually want to it.
“Because we was used to doing party raps and boasting how good we are and all that,” he said.
If the group continued down the house party route, they would’ve missed out on mainstream success, and the world would've missed out on another crucial brick in the foundation of conscious hip-hop.
PUBLIC ENEMY, ‘FIGHT THE POWER’ (1989)
The summer of 1989 saw Public Enemy release a track fusing the powerful activism of political hip-hop with the Afrocentric positivity of conscious rap.
“We’ve got to fight the powers that be”, the group sang in one song. “Cause I’m Black and I'm proud.”
“Fight The Power” took conscious rap to new heights, setting hip-hop in motion to dominate the charts for the next two decades.
While it’s easy to interpret the song as fighting the power of law enforcement in general, according to Public Enemy’s bass player Brian Hardgroove: “It's about fighting abuse of power.”
QUEEN LATIFAH, ‘U.N.I.T.Y.’ (1993)
Queen Latifah's “U.N.I.T.Y.” shines a light on female-centric issues like street harassment and domestic violence. She also called out wider hip-hop culture, namely how it promotes slurs like “b*tch” and “hoes”.
Latifah’s lyrics empower women to stand up tall, say no and stop accepting abusive treatment.
“You say I’m nothin’ without ya but I’m nothing’ with ya. A man don’t really love you if he hits ya. This is my notice to the door, I'm not takin’ it no more,” she sang.
It’s worth pointing out that 2Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” (also released in1993) is a perfect complement to Latifah's “U.N.I.T.Y.” – as both these songs sought to empower women.
PHAROAHE MONCH, FEATURING COMMON AND TALIB KWELI, ‘THE TRUTH’ (1999)
Three conscious hip-hop powerhouses in one track? That’s how you know “The Truth” will be a conscious anthem for the ages. The lyrics remind the listener that “whoever shall stray away from right lives wrong” and that “denial of self” is “forbidden”.
And even though truth “produces fear” the conscious aim is to “bring the light to the dark, breathe some life in this art”.
The threads running through this song (understanding self, speaking truth to power, leaving the listener to find their own path) encapsulates the essence of conscious hip-hop at its best.
IMMORTAL TECHNIQUE, ‘THE 3RD WORLD’ (2008)
By 2008, the hip-hop genre has, for the most part, moved away from conscious or political values to sheer entertainment.
Immortal Technique however, was one of the few artistes still out to make his listeners think. After five years away from the industry, Technique returned with his third studio album, The 3rd World.
The first verse of his title track, “The 3rd World”, opens with the lyrics, “”I’m from where the gold and diamonds are ripped from the earth.
“Right next to the slave castles where the water is cursed,” it continues. “From where police brutality's not half as nice. It makes the hood in America look like paradise.”
The rest of the song then provides unyielding insights, highlighting heinous atrocities and social ills.
Technique donated The 3rd World proceeds to build and fund an orphanage in Afghanistan.
KENDRICK LAMAR, ‘THE BLACKER THE BERRY’ (2015)
Following Public Enemy’s politically charged wake, Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker The Berry” placed conscious messaging front and centre.
Lamar’s direct and cutting lyrics call everything into question, from corruption in law enforcement to systemic racism.
“The Blacker The Berry” is featured on Lamar’s third album, To Pimp A Butterfly which highlights the Black-American experience. This was his first number-one on the US Billboard 200 chart, proving that conscious hip-hop could still be commercially successful.
LO VILLAGE, ‘SICK’ (2021)
If Lo Village isn’t on your radar, they should be. They’re putting conscious hip-hop back on the map and taking it to the next level by infusing lo-fi and neo-soul vibes.
Lo Village centres on Afrocentric themes and explores Blackness. Their 2021 tune “Sick” discusses gun and racial violence.
In an interview with Audiomack, vocalist Ama discussed Lo Village’s decision to start writing socio-political lyrics.
“We wanted to let people know we give a f**k and that we’re not just Black people acting like s**t’s not happening,” she said.
For more conscious rap tunes, check out our playlist below:
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Cover Credit: Scott Hemenway/Alamy Stock Photo
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Writer | Rachael Hope
Rachael Hope is a writer and visual artist. She loves to explore the connections between creativity in all its forms and broader culture. When not being creative herself, you’ll find her practising yoga or exploring nature.