It has been twenty years since hip hop has started its movement into the national mainstream consciousness, and to this day, despite rap music's commercial and artistic success, many people are still mired down in stereotypes of what rap music is about. Some of this is due to the media's sensationalistic bias towards rap, only reporting bad things that happen in the community. Part of this is due to the fact that plenty of rappers choose to do and say incredibly stupid things. And of course, the fact that plenty of white Americans still have a Fear of a Black Planet, and are racist either actively or passively is a factor also.
But another problem with rap is that people inside and outside of it view it so one dimensionally, although this is actually an improvement over viewing rap as no dimensional , as seeing all hip hop music as a point, as all being one thing.
When hip hop first burst upon the national consciousness, it was just that, a point. All hip hop music was seen as being a novelty, the latest dance craze from NYC. By perhaps 1984, hip hop was seen as more than a fad, it was seen as a form of harmless party music, although many people would make jibes about how it "wasn't music at all". But in any case, hip hop was on the whole in one position.
Of course, before long, the first hip hop scandals were developing. As soon as Run-DMC had a few concerts where unfortunate violence occured, hip hop suddenly occupied two positions, with very little middle ground. Hip hop was either harmless party music, or else was music causing young black men to run riot and shoot people.
Unfortunately, to this day, those are probably the two things that people probably think of when they think of rap, party music or misogynist violent screaming. And in many people's minds, these two stereotypes don't even have any clear discrimination, so that an activity as harmless "but stupid" as a hip-hop dance party is seen as either an orgy or a bloodbath. Of course, the behavior of a certain small group of stupid people at parties and clubs has done nothing to dissipitate this image.
That this image of rap was fixed in the media and public perception 15 years ago is unfortunate enough, but more so considering the fact that from the years 1986 to 1990 saw a great expansion of the social and artistic expression in hip hop music. These were the years that such movements as Black Nationalism, afrocentrism, boho, gangsta and pop all became elements in rap. During these years, women also became rapping succesfully, rap gained a large white audience, as well as expanding to international prominence. Unfortunatly , instead of people accepting hiphop as the multifaceted thing it was, all of these developements got squashed down on the one dimensional continuum between "good guy" rappers, such as PM Dawn, Q-Tip , Hammer and Digable Planets and "bad boy" rappers, such as Ice T, Ice Cube and pretty much everyone from LA or who ever used the word fuck or bitch.
The introduction of such intellectual rappers as the Native Tongues did expand the positive images of rappers away from being just fun party boys to being intellectuals with social consciousness, it only served those rappers who couched their social commentary in terms acceptable to mainstream liberalism. Unfortunately, a rapper like KRS-One, who couched his deeply spiritual world view in terms he learned while living homeless in the NYC streets, was often criticized and ignored by such publications as Spin and Rolling Stone, let alone by the mainstream media.
So, with a one dimensional view of rap, it was impossible to cleary differentiate KRS-One and Public Enemy from Too Short and NWA. And this situation continues to this day, where such acts as Mos Def and Puff Daddy are put in one group as "safe" rappers, and rappers like Eminem and the Wu-Tang Clan on the other side as "dangerous" rappers.
The problem is that "safe" and "dangerous" aren't the only lines that can be drawn. Just for starters, a line should be drawn between consciousness rappers and non-intellectual rappers. Not that the old line is meaningless, it is just that to even begin to describe the situation, we must realize that both axes exist, and that they are for a large part independent of each other. That is, the degree to which a rapper cusses or talks about violence can be fairly well removed from the degree to which they have an underlying message in their music. Conversely, many rappers who only talk about parties and dressing up are totally unconscious, living only to party and get laid.
Which brings us to my node title. The best way to describe this situation is with this ASCII diagram, explaining where different rappers lie as far as their x value of streetness and their y value of consciousness lay.
Too Short | Puff Daddy
Eminem | Party Rap
X Value + ___________________________________________________
KRS-One | Mos Def
Wu-Tang Clan | The Roots
Y-Value + Consciousness
Notice that this diagram has two flaws...first, I drew it backwards, with the x value and y value going left and downwards, simply because that is how I visualized it in my head.
Secondly, this diagram doesn't show the fine variations that could be drawn. For example, I would actually put Eminem on the line between consciousness and non-consciousness, because I think his lyrics are actually designed to raise consciousness in a roundabout way. Also, a group like the Roots would probably be on the line between street and non-street.
Also, despite where I put the Wu-Tang Clan, I somewhat suspect that the Wu-Tang can only be described using some kind of Polar Coordinate system.
All in all, this graph is only a rough guide to the diversities that exist in lyrical content, without taking into accounts such things as musical complexity, social vs. political consciousness, commercial vs. underground success, or how intelligent the rappers overall worldview is, and how consistent they have been at maintaining conduct in accordance with their words has been. Mostly because those things are too hard to draw in ASCII.