The 90’s was one of the most creative decades for Black American cultural expression
for TV and film, but especially music. While hip hop came to the public eye in the 80’s, the
1990’s is arguably when hip hop exploded into mainstream popularity. This is why this decade is
often referred to as the golden era of hip hop. 1994 in particular was one of the best years for the
genre. The music industry saw debut albums from Nas, OutKast, and the Notorious B.I.G, plus a
sophomore project from UGK. But one group from the 90’s that often gets overlooked is the hip
hop super duo, Gang Starr. Gang Starr consists of the hip hop producer DJ Premier, and the
rapper MC Guru. One song in particular that I’ve always loved by Gang Starr is “Mass Appeal,”
one of the singles from their ‘94 classic Hard to Earn.
“Mass Appeal” is a prophetic warning for rappers, but truthfully it can be extended
beyond that. It is a message that is not only transferable to musicians and writers (rappers are
writers), but artists in general. Reflective of his time, Guru was a rapper who used the art of
storytelling to provide a narrative around the concept of “selling out.” As I grow as a person and
a writer, this song becomes more important to me. But what exactly does it mean to “sell out”?
What did Guru mean when he said, “and you’d be happy to get a record deal, maybe you’d sell
your soul to have mass appeal”?
Since the beginning of time, art, writing in particular has been driven by authenticity.
People who become a fan of a writer typically do so because of the author's ability to connect
with the reader. When I read someone’s writing, I want to hear their voice, I want to read them,
hopefully to relate to the story in some way. That is what the reader is saying when engaging
with a piece, whether they are conscious of it or not. They are electing to hear that artist’s
creative voice, a glimpse of their soul on that topic. As writers, when you receive an acceptance
for publication, that is validation from the magazine that your authenticity is a good fit for that
issue. That is the editor reinforcing to the writer that they have mass appeal, at least for this
particular piece, in that particular moment. In other words, don’t sell out, because there is a
literary magazine that your rejected works are a good fit for. Many times I doubted my craft,
when truthfully my piece just wasn’t a good fit for that magazine at that time. You don’t need to
change your style or who you are to fit a literary magazine, a publisher, a record label, an art
school, etc. Being your true self will get you much further in the end.
“Mass Appeal,” is not a song I listened to when it first came out. In fact, I was five years
old when it was released. But it is a song I discovered a few years later when I was a bit older. At
the time, I mostly enjoyed the song for the beat, and I’ll be honest I didn’t pay much attention to
the lyrics. It takes me back to middle school, when I would spend hours on crappy internet that
screeched before it loaded anything, much less streamed music. But as I matured, this song
became more important for me not only for nostalgia’s sake, but also contemporarily. For me, it
has become timeless. Quite frankly if you ask a hip hop fan aged 40+ it already was.
Gang Starr’s song is a declaration for artists to “keep it real,” to stay the course,
ultimately not “selling out.” MC Guru tells of how despite all of the hurdles, challenges, and
setbacks, staying true to who you are as a creative is most important. Being an artist is a journey,
and Guru conveys this for all 3 minutes, and 42 seconds. He notes that while some have instant
success, at what cost? Others may gain success at a slower pace, but in the end most likely
haven’t lost who they are or why they began to create in the first place. We live in a world where
people put on a show to be someone else every day. Now that the world will never be the same
again, the least we can do as writers is be authentic. Genuine artistry is all we have left after all.
As long as you are not harming others with your voice, there is a space for you to tell your story.
After all, Guru concludes with that on this masterpiece when he says, “I be kickin the real, while
they be losin’ the race tryna chase mass appeal.”
Author’s Note: R.I.P Keith Edward Elam, AKA MC Guru, 1961-2010
Chris L. Butler is an African American and Dutch poet, essayist, and historian from Philadelphia, PA. His work has been featured in Lucky Jefferson Literary Journal, The Lumiere Review, The Daily Drunk Mag, Versification Magazine, Trampset Magazine, Medium, The Journal of International Relations and Diplomacy, and others.
malady and melody
features staff writers from Flypaper and select music critics invited to review projects and write guest articles. To be released sporadically.