The Idolatry of Hip-Hop: An interview with Eso Tre of Substance Abuse
By Jason Kordich
The greatest stories aren’t the ones that we take time and effort to make sure that we repeat every detail exactly the same way. Instead, the greatest stories, the ones that really stay with us, are the ones that become a part of us, so that when we retell the story, they will have evolved in some unique way. We become an active part in the narrative process rather than remaining distant observers.
Subz and Eso Tre form the L.A. based hip-hop tandem Substance Abuse adopted this view of storytelling into the way that they approach making music. Six years after their critically received debut Overproof, the duo has returned with Background Music where we find them aligning themselves with some of hip-hop’s most legendary names (MC Eiht, Myka Nyne, Krs- One, Tash) to create a project that offers a commentary on the evolution of the genre and how this evolution is a reflection of the society that we live in.
If evolution represents a gradual change that takes place over time, then it becomes clear, according to Eso, that the evolution of Substance Abuse as a group directly relates to the changes taking place in the industry.
“Overproof was everything that we were, just being youngsters in the rap game. Just to be able to put a record out regardless if people liked it was a huge deal. We wanted to show that we had alacrity of styles as MCs,” Eso explained. “We are a group that is heavily influenced by West Coast and the East Coast. Background music is more of a themed album. We are not trying to dig into the past, but we are trying to show the experiences that shaped our views of the present. Background music also refers to what the music feels like to us. It is music that just exists. There is no emotion to it. Hip-Hop always had emotion, but the music today is lacking it. It is also a way to look at the way that the type of hip-hop that we make is often overlooked by the masses.”
Part of the reason that the music has been overlooked is because, according to Eso, a tremendous shift in how we assess the quality of an artist has taken place.
“Rap started to lose out when it became very identity oriented,” Eso said. “People were concerned with what side or camp they were a part of. There was so much rapping egoism. I felt like if you weren’t coming out with projects, there was no reason to be gassed up about an artist. It became too much into idolatry and so focused on the name, which was a direct result of the market becoming over saturated.
“People become so desensitized that they feel that they can only go with a name that they trust. The music has assumed a subordinate position with the person who makes the music. When there is so much music out there, a very cynical fan base will result. People had to rely on a name to get them to sift through all of the music, but the downside is that it only became about the name. If you have a name, you can do anything. It doesn’t matter what the music or the message might be. If you are not a known commodity, the quality of your music and the intelligence and message hold very little weight. “
The artists who are not able to have their stories heard are being overshadowed by popular artists whose content often suggests a very self-destructive quality to it. There is a shift in the content in rap. MCs are now making fun of other MCs for being poor. Hip-Hop has always represented a collection of communities, so how divisive is it for artists within that community to attack those that represent a place that they might come from.
“It is very tasteless Hip-Hop is not supposed to be this unwarranted arrogance,” Eso explained. “How many people are lucky enough to get plucked out of obscurity to make music? Hip-Hop was supposed to be about giving people self-esteem. It was about being cool without being a gangster for us growing up. You can’t buy the kind of respect that comes from being dope. Rather than music being an outlet of hope, it has become a way to emphasize what is missing and stress that those who have this void in their lives should feel bad about themselves.”
For Eso this confusion of culture didn’t just take place on records played on the radio but also in the gang and crew culture that he witnessed firsthand growing up in L.A. The track “Crews and Gangs” explores how the blurring of these two communities made it difficult to identify and separate one from the other.
“In the ‘80s a lot of cats got into graffiti because they wanted to be artists,” Eso reflected. “They could just be artists, so there wasn’t the requirement that they had to be ready for anything else. Because the gang culture is so intense in Los Angeles, especially in the early ‘90s, the tagging crews in order to keep up with the times had to adopt some of the mentality as the gangs. Also, there were a lot of gangsters in these crews. There was this incredible cross pollination. Kids from wealthy neighborhoods, every ethnicity and race were all under this umbrella of being in a crew. To have all of that diversity was a beautiful thing, but the gangbanging shit just got out of hand. It was the era that produced us and changed our view in a lot of ways.”
More than anything, it could have opened their eyes even more to the harsh realities of the communities that they reside it. This insight becomes an even more important narrative to share when the people living within these communities are being constantly distracted. “Young Hollywood” explores the assault of getting hit from all sides with empty information that we have to endure on a daily basis.
“Most of the time the people on these magazines are people who are famous for being famous. This song addresses how meaningless fame has become. It no longer is given to someone who has done something intelligent, but instead fame has become infamy. Making a complete ass of yourself is the way to get people’s attention. The people that we are taught to worship is really scary man, which connects back to the concept of idolatry. Fame is completely hollow. It isn’t based on merit.”
While it is difficult to say how Substance Abuse will continue to evolve, it is clear that the more that society stresses the importance of image over identity, the more this group will musically pull us in a direction when the content and character of an album made you feel something that you yourself want to continue to share.