Soul Genesis hopes to reengergize hip-hop by lending it a life-affirming purpose.
Because of the mainstream's focus on profit over prophet, hip-hop makes itself an easy target.
The week BET debuted its town hall meeting, Congress held hearings on the portrayals of African-American women in hip-hop, titled From Imus to Industry: the Business of Stereotypes and Degradation.
"Congress is suddenly concerned about the plight of black women," Hill says mockingly. "Post-Imus, everybody is a black feminist. It's disingenuous. But if there's any truth to it, Congress isn't wrong to ignore underground hip-hop because that's not what people are listening to on the block. But it's all about treating the symptom and not the problem. It's all about blame."
During the hearings rapper and producer David Banner defended hip-hop, testifying: "I'm like Stephen King: Horror music is what I do. Change the situation in my neighborhood, and maybe I'll get better." It's the same argument T.I. and Nelly used--that they're simply rapping their reality.
"To appeal to our reality as an excuse to put out denigrating images is either naive or disingenuous," says Hill. "In all truth, you can reflect the reality without endorsing it. Yes, there are drug dealers on the block and women who have sex for money, but there's a difference between, 'Brothers get killed on my block,' and 'That shit is fucked up.'
"We're enforcing that reality, and we're normalizing it, and it absolutely has an effect. We're naive if we think for a moment that there's not a relationship between the constant bombardment of kids being exposed to violence and sex and consumerism, and the way they operate in the world."
Sitting in a coffee shop one evening discussing the current attack on hip-hop, Ewell says, "You can't ignore the race factor of it. It's an industry where young black males in particular have found a way out of the ghetto to become multimillionaires. The powers that be recognize the potential of hip-hop, if used properly, to be a galvanizing force for change. But what does it say about the systems in place where youth feel like, 'I gotta come up making a song that degrades me and my culture?' What is it about the systems in place that have failed these young people where these are their only options?"
Green adds, "When we came into this, we said there's a system that's failing, and we know it's failing because of what it's creating. When a system is producing such potent destructive images, new systems must be created to help counteract the ones that are in place."
For the founders of Soul Genesis, hip-hop's social commentary has devolved from Public Enemy's black CNN mindset to 50's get-rich-or-die-trying formula.
"Dude, what are you doing?" Ewell says of the Curtis album. "This is your fourth album and you're still rapping about killing. It just shows a lack of creativity that you see in the quality of music. You're actually emulating yourself circa 2001.
"I'm holding you accountable because you recognize your influences and impact on people. You also have a child, and the reality is your child is gonna be sheltered and shielded from all the foolishness that your music helps create in certain communities. That's how I see it. He's creating stuff the people will digest, so what I'm saying is you're in a position of power, and you should use your power for good.
"With Soul Genesis, we want to have a revisionist history approach," he continues. "Talib Kweli and Mos Def both grew up in Brooklyn, just like Biggie, but their rhymes are much different. There are cats who come from these communities that have a whole different view."
Adds Green, "There are many groups that have been able to stay more true to what they believe. Unfortunately those groups have had a much harder time gaining access to those mainstream outlets, and have been pushed to the side."
On Soul Genesis' website, which is still under construction, the featured album is Lupe Fiasco's Food and Liquor. The review describes the album as "the last gasp of optimistic breath for the expiring beast" of hip-hop music.
The music on the site, classified as "InRotation," "Greats From the Crates" and "Below the Radar," is a diverse mix of hip-hop and soul with the common thread of being both underexposed and SoulGen-certified as high-quality and life-affirming.
Each artist, album and song is approved by the SoulGen MOB (Media Opinions Board), seven members with critical ears and a love of hip-hop. Recommended music is rated on criteria including lyrical content, lyrical delivery, production quality and head-nod factor.
"In a few years," says Ewell, "we want to have such an air-tight brand and approval process that our brand becomes in this industry what Oprah's brand is to books. We're not gonna be certifying garbage. And we're not just gonna capsule a volume about positivity.
"It's gotta be hot. The beats gotta be bangin' and cats gotta be able to flow. The music has to be good."
PW's Summer Guide 2014