A funny thing happened on the way to Summer Jam. All hip-hop hell broke loose after an off-the-cuff comment by a radio DJ led rap’s reigning queen to pull out of the year’s biggest rap concert. Nicki Minaj versus Hot 97 has no doubt become the biggest rap gossip of the week, but once the drama subsides, an eternal discussion will still linger: What is real hip-hop? And who gets to decide?
In one corner there’s rap purist and Hot 97 radio personality Peter Rosenberg, who trashed Nicki’s RedOne-produced crossover machine “Starships” in front of concertgoers just hours before she was scheduled to take the stage. In the other corner there is Nicki Minaj, whose pop success has made her a punching bag for critics who turn their noses up at anything without a James Brown sample.
Hot 97’s famous tagline is “where hip-hop lives,” and in the radio world that pretty much rings true, though underground artists like Action Bronson, Skyzoo and the Immortal Technique could make a case otherwise. Minaj is technically rapping (and singing) on the fist-pumping “Starships,” and while the Barbie has always been classified as a hip-hop artist, the song didn’t become a top five Billboard single with urban-radio spins alone. Still, Hot 97 does play the record.
If it is judged solely against the boom-bap DJ Premier portion of the genre, then “Starships” isn’t really a hip-hop record, but the track’s pounding bass and electro-pop dance beat is not totally detached from rap’s early days. Afrika Bambaataa’s iconic “Planet Rock,” lifted from Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express,” was centered around dance and not dusty samples or deep and intricate lyrics. In the 1980s, the Jungle Brothers built much of their discography around house and dance music, and they were one of the most celebrated hip-hop groups of their day.
Hell, you can even trace Nicki’s penchant for wearing over-the-top costumes back to Bambaataa, so to suggest that “Starships” isn’t real hip-hop is an absolute statement and isn’t entirely accurate. Now to call “Starships” “wack” is a qualitative judgment and one widely held by hard-core rap fans — so there is some basis to Rosenberg’s charge.
On her latest, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, Nick essentially splits her sound down the middle. On one side, Euro-inspired dance anthems dominate, while on the other side there are hard-core rap joints. For every “Starships” there is a “Beez in the Trap” or “Roman Reloaded,” which builds its beat around nine-millimeter gunshot sound effects. Nicki recognizes that she toes hip-hop’s undefined line, but relentlessly holds on to her rap roots. “I’m still me, hip-hop culture is still in my heart,” Minaj told MTV News back in April. “That can never leave me. I know I’m always gonna be street, because I can’t pretend to be street.”
When she phoned in to Power 105’s Breakfast Club morning show on Tuesday, Nicki insisted that she wasn’t planning to perform “Starships” at Summer Jam. Instead, she planned to rock more fitting tracks and parade out a who’s who of hip-hop favorites during her set. Nas, Lauryn Hill, Lil Wayne, Cam’ron, 2 Chainz and Foxy Brown were just some of the guests with whom Minaj planned to share her stage. Ironically, it could have ended up the realest hip-hop moment of the year.
Tune in to “RapFix Live” on Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET on MTV.com as “Yo! MTV Raps” hosts Ed Lover and Doctor Dre weigh in on the debate.