It’s been 23 years since hip hop was formally introduced to the music world with the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Hip hop was initially considered by many in the music industry as nothing more than a fad, a passing fancy that would go out like New Wave did in the mid-1980s. In its early stages, it was evident that both the music and fashion of hip hop lacked an identity. Most rappers back then still dressed like P-Funk offspring, and hired bands were still the focus of the music.

But a funny thing happened. Critics who predicted the demise of rap underestimated the passion, drive and vision of hip-hop’s early pioneers. Not only did the artform survive and gain a sense of identity, it became a phenomenon. And when Run-DMC threw a curve into the music mainstream by putting out cutting-edge hits like “Rock Box,” “King of Rock” and their classic cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” it was evident that hip hop had arrived.

In just 10 years, hip hop went from being the music industry’s bastard child to becoming its savior. Today, the long arm of hip hop has reached nearly every sector of American society. The music and culture of rap reaches across the globe. Hip hop is a way of life that transcends race, class and sex barriers.

Rap music virtually dominates urban radio and is now even getting played on pop stations. It’s almost impossible to turn on the television without seeing a commercial or sitcom without a hip-hop flavor or influence. Hip-hop genre films are more than holding their own at the box office, and fashion designers like Tommy Hilfiger and Anne Klein have geared their clothes toward a hip-hop market. Just about everywhere you look these days, you’ll see hip hop’s influence.

Because of hip-hop’s success, there are many who believe the music is better now than ever before–that we’re witnessing a golden age.

“I guess hip-hop is bigger than it’s ever been,” says DJ Battle, a Wilmington-based DJ who’s gained both local and national attention for mixing DJ Bumrush’s “Up From The Underground” CDs. “It’s got a wide range of fans from both commercial and underground hip-hop.”

So if hip-hop is enjoying so much success, why is there a rift in the rap community that seems to be widening?

As hip-hop has risen in stature, it has also become too commercialized. It’s almost to the point where you only hear mere strains of rap in its original form on the radio today. Today’s best and brightest hip-hop innovators seem as though they’re forced to give way to less-talented but more-publicized acts that seem to be springing up like wild daisies these days.

For a genre that once prided itself on going against the grain by maintaining its uniqueness and innovation, hip-hop seems to have lost its edge. To see rap’s true cutting-edge artists constantly overshadowed by over-hyped, gimmick acts is a sad sight for many who embrace hip hop.

“There’s still some good hip-hop out there, but for whatever reason, it’s not getting heard,” says hip-hop artist Lu-T, better known as El Mo’Roonz, an Atlanta-based emcee. “Unfortunately, the larger part of hip-hop has more hustlers than actual artists. Rap is their new hustle.”

There’s truth to that. Where you once had clever party MCs rocking the microphone, backed by maestro deejays spinning on the ones and twos, you now have a legion of hustlers masquerading as rappers. The lyrical content of the hustler/rapper is usually mindless, and as some would argue, both socially and morally irresponsible and even dangerous.

The social consciousness that hip-hop once possessed seems to have been replaced by the bling-bling and the glorification of thug-ism, pimping and the hustler’s lifestyle of money, hos, cars and clothes. “I guess it’s a reflection of the black community,” says Lu-T, who joined the Moorish movement seven years ago and uses his music to reflect his beliefs. “I’d rather buy a tape or CD from them than buy drugs. But because a lot of these cats see making music as nothing more than a hustle, they tend to lack any kind of artistic integrity.”

Lu-T describes his music as “hip-hop/spoken word/roots/swamp funk,” a style that demolishes rap stereotypes by delivering enlightening narratives backed by vibrant space-age live music. El Mo’Roonz debut album, Fiyawada (Louisiana slang for “firewater”), will be released this February on Zuudiakus Entertainment, a label Lu-T started a few years ago to ensure he gets his message across.

Lu-T believes hip hop is ready for an infusion of new artists who seek to divert the music to another direction.

“I’m expanding hip hop,” he says. “My whole mentality of my music is from a hip-hop perspective.”

Yeah, but who’s going to play him on the radio?

For many within the hip-hop community, things have gotten so bad that some will even go as far as to say that the music could possibly be in its last days. That hip hop is about to be executed. And that commercial rap is holding the gun, about to pull the trigger.

“Mainstream rap is kind of bad right now,” says Noumenon, a Wilmington DJ who partners with DJ Battle. “Pop rap isn’t hip-hop inspired. I don’t really classify someone like Ja-Rule or Nelly as hip hop. I have to play it in the clubs to put food on the table, but I’m numb to it.”

It’s an interesting paradox. On one side you have the continuance of an art form that promotes knowledge, harmony and good music vibes.

On the other side, you have its commercial offspring that’s dominating the other in record sales, the music charts and mass media exposure. The styles are completely different as much as they are the same.

“These days, you can have two people who don’t listen to the same style of hip hop, but they’re still listening to hip hop,” says DJ Battle, who runs Heavy Rotation Records, a dig-in-the-crates music store in Wilmington. “That didn’t happen 10 years ago.”

The duality of hip hop is why you constantly see and hear Ja-Rule, Nelly and Eminem and why you probably don’t see enough of Dead Prez, Slum Village and Pharaohe Monch. It’s all considered to be the same music, but those who closely follow hip hop know there’s a big difference–and that one is easier to sell than the other.

Fortunately, innovative underground hip-hop artists refuse to go away.

“I think right now that the hip-hop underground is doing well,” says Noumenon, who, along with DJ Battle, received critical acclaim for their APESH!T double-CD mixtape. The CD features hot mixes from both commercial and underground hip-hop artists.

Noumenon, a New York native, tends to stick to the underground side in his mixes.

“Underground hip-hop is getting more complex with funk and jazz,” says Noumenon. “Plus you have a lot of cats that were holding it down in the ’90s coming back into hip-hop.”

Another glaring problem with hip-hop is its association with (if not glorification of) violence. Some of the biggest names in hip hop — Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and Big L, to name a few — have been gunned down in just the past six years.

Two weeks ago, hip-hop pioneer and musical icon Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC was the latest victim of gun violence. Needless to say, the death of one of the most important figures in hip-hop will tarnish hip hop immeasurably.

“You’ve got too many artists who glamorize violence either in language or in thought,” says Noumenon. “If you’re gonna put something out, why have 17 of 18 tracks that are based on violence? Rappers are still feeding into the stereotypes.”

Is it art imitating life or life imitating art? That question has yet to be satisfactorily answered by respected authorities on hip-hop culture.

So where does hip hop go from here? That depends on whom you ask.

“There’s no telling where hip-hop can go from here,” says DJ Battle. “It’s already probably as big as it’s gonna be. And there aren’t too many artists coming out with new concepts.”

Lu-T believes the time for change is now.

“I definitely think hip hop is so far gone, something has to happen and soon,” he says. “I believe somebody has to come along and change things and raise the bar. And I believe I’m a part of that change.” Time will tell. EndBlock

Gabriel Rich is a regular contributor to The Independent.