5 Things That Made Hip-Hop Proud in 2014 (Food For Thought)

Looking at the culture, 2014 had plenty to offer. In addition to the albums, the mixtapes, the songs, and the videos, there was real action. The year, from the Hip-Hop vantage point, brought everlasting history in some areas, and demanded change in others. The culture, the players, and the people gave Heads more than a few instances to be incredibly proud, and feel that “it’s bigger than Hip-Hop.” Here are five such moments:

Hip-Hop Standing Up For Change In Light Of Mike Brown and Eric Garner

In recent years, Hip-Hop artists have stood up for issues, ranging from gay marriage rights (Murs, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis) to the environment (Sir Michael Rocks, Homeboy Sandman), however the groundswell reaction to the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were nothing short of amazing. Beyond tribute songs and t-shirts, Hip-Hop artists took action, and rallied the masses through music, through demonstration, and through representing our voices, views, and lenses in a way that resonated with many.

In the wake of Mike Brown’s fatal shooting by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, Killer Mike was among the artists who became a delegate of why the people were so angered, saddened, and disgusted by police. Appearing on FOX News, Mike Bigga—the son of a police officer—was able to state his case, while deftly fielding the questions surrounding his name, his own charged lyrics (“Reagan,” “Burn,” “Pressure”), and more. Mike never cowered, only towered in becoming the 2014 equivalent of Chuck D, Ice Cube, and KRS-One all in together. At the same time, Ms. Lauryn Hill, who rarely releases a la carte music, made AFH’s biggest song of the year in August, “Black Rage.” Built around Rodgers and Hammerstein’s standard “My Favorite Things,” the song embodied the anger, frustration and pain that a large part of the nation–Black, White, Latino, Asian and more–felt during one of the country’s darkest times in recent memory.

Moreover, after the murder of Eric Garner, J. Cole took the streets of New York City to protest, inconspicuously. Rather than self-promote, or insert himself into the issue, the Roc Nation star simply reacted—as a man, who like many men and women, was hurt by watching another human die senselessly on the sidewalks. Actions can speak louder than words, and J. Cole found a powerful way to show this.

Dr. Dre Seemingly Becomes Hip-Hop’s First Billionaire

In 1996, Dr. Dre took a leap of faith for his own perceived well-being. Five years removed from an unhappy business relationship with N.W.A. band-mate and mentor Eazy E at Ruthless Records, Dre reportedly found that even money isn’t worth happiness. A Death Row Records co-founder, Dre’s early reign of hits was followed by some difficult years in the mid-1990s. Some of the doctor’s works (including the beginnings of a Helter Skelter album with Ice Cube) were allegedly erased and re-purposed to 2Pac, while even Dre’s award receptions became stages for controversy against other artists. So, Dre relinquished his ownership in the reigning Rap label, reportedly including his master recordings, and went recluse in his Malibu mansion—starting over again.

Eighteen years later, Dre can laugh last, with happiness and money like no other rapper can claim. The Compton superstar is believed to have become Rap’s first billionaire. Unlike Dre’s homies Jay Z, 50 Cent, and Puff Daddy, the Aftermath Entertainment CEO isn’t known for braggin’ about his ends. However, as the ink dried on a Beats Music merger with Apple that purportedly makes Dre need some extra columns (and maybe a comma) on his bank statements, Doc’ (joined by Tyrese) was all smiles. Moreover, looking back on 30 years of music-making that left him twice out on his own, the music/electronics mogul has been able to keep pluggin’ away with his homies, whether that’s the N.W.A. band-mates, Eminem, or Snoop Doggy Dogg. The money is one thing, but Andre Young’s ability to improve his life through positivity, stay true to his circle, and shut down the stratosphere any time he shares some new sounds makes him an icon, and it makes us proud.

J Dilla Enshrined In The Smithsonian Museum

Painter Vincent Van Gogh is proof that not all artists earn their glory while they are alive. Since the late 1990s, plenty of Heads championed the Champion Sound of James Yancey. Whether going by Jay Dee or as J Dilla, the Detroit, Michigan native advanced the Hip-Hop sound through hypnotic rhythms, far-reaching sample sources, and a fearless belief that the idea of genre can be incredibly constrictive.

At the time of Dilla’s 2006 death from an autoimmune disease, the MC/producer stood tall as a Grammy-nominated artist, who had made heralded albums with his Slum Village crew, his JayLib project, and had amassed high-profile catalog with Common, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, and The Roots. However, always the perfectionist, Dilla would never live to see just how much his work would truly touch the masses. While “J Dilla Changed My Life” t-shirts are fixtures at Hip-Hop events, and tributes have come in a vast array of forms, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture now display the producer’s Akai MPC. From this station, J Dilla changed how Hip-Hop sounds and feels for so many, and like all cultural icons and purveyors of change, one of the highest bodies now immortalizes James Yancey as such. Without simply looking at sales, but rather true sonic impact, Hip-Hop is proud to tell our story to generations to come through this true artifact.

Jay Z Purchases Ace Of Spades, A Farewell Pop Off To Cristal

Any marketing expert can tell you that the Hip-Hop Generation is a target demographic for brands of all kinds. Especially through the music, the fashion, and video media, our stars can dictate, almost instantly, the merits of a designer, an automaker, a gadget, or even a sparkling wine. In the late 1990s, an erroneous rumor circulated that designer Tommy Hilfiger made disparaging remarks about Black people wearing his clothes. Almost immediately, legions of consumers withdrew from the red, white, and blue brand—and even major supporters such as Grand Puba and M.O.P. pulled out. The blow was devastating enough to haunt Hilfiger’s reputation, leading him to go on “Oprah” years later to put notions to bed.

French winemaker Cristal cannot say the same. Beginning with Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt (and for years prior, thanks to the Roc-A-Fella Records entourage’s club habits), Cristal champagne became a status symbol of good taste, carefree living, and alluring habits. Jay, and in turn, The Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, 2Pac, and even Big L touted the gold bottles of the elite sparkling wine. Hip-Hop clubs like The Tunnel began stocking the drink, and others across the nation followed suit, bringing extremely high profile to the niche blend by Louis Roederer, and in turn, skyrocketing prices. However, in 2006, Roederer’s Managing Director, Frédéric Rouzaud, told The Economist, “What can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business,” when asked if the Hip-Hop aesthetic challenged the brand’s prestige and overall value. Leading the charge, 10 years in, Jay Z touted “grand opening, grand closing,” and moved his allegiances to Armand de Brignac, or “Ace Of Spades.” More than 60 years old, and also encased in gold-painted glass, Jay Z touted this bubbly since Kingdom Come, and eight years later, (with wife, Beyonce) took ownership of the label from Sovereign Brands. Cristal hasn’t been poppin’ in Hip-Hop since, and Jay feathered his cap with his second trend-captivating drink suggestion, and a “for us, by us” raised glass to the grape gods.

Nas’ Illmatic Gets Its Due 20 Years Later

In April of 2014, Nas’ debut Illmatic turned 20 years old. While Nas is signed currently to Def Jam, leading his fledgling Mass Appeal imprint, Sony Legacy treated the Queens, New Yorker’s debut like the classic it is, not only commissioning the re-release, but by promoting and marketing the album like they would a budding sensation. Years removed from a Ruffhouse/Columbia Records contract, Nas supported an Illmatic XX release, featuring extended liner notes, additional recordings, new videos, and a remastered sound of the LP shouldered by Large Professor, DJ Premier, L.E.S., and others. Hip-Hop has been no stranger to Greatest Hits projects and honorary television specials and tours, but one of the genre’s most celebrated albums (which has never been reflected in sales) was taken to a new plateau, and Hip-Hop cheered along.

With the fanfare, Nas’ beacon debut served as a benchmark for young artists to aspire to. Whether Joey Bada$$, Logic, or Your Old Droog, artists looked at the style, the earnestness and the impact of Illmatic, and seemed to reflect as much in their own art. Meanwhile, whether DJ Premier in the form of PRhyme, or “One Love” namesake Cormega in Mega Philosophy, 2014 let Illmatic remind everybody that 1990s disciples took risks, carved individuality, and made heads nod—a winning formula no matter the year.

What made you proud in 2014?

Related: Stream and Download More Than 35 of the Best Mixtapes of 2014 (Mixtapes)