Let me preface this entry by saying I’m not trying to claim any authority over hip-hop. I’m merely providing my own personal insight on a genre of great interest to me by taking what I’ve heard from the music that has come out of the genre, as well as taking from my experiences attending hip-hop shows and engaging in conversations with people who enjoy hip-hop culture as much as I do.
My interest in hip-hop spurs from my interest in beat-making and beat development — mostly percussive elements, including syncopated lyricism. As a youngster, you could find me with my headphones on, pumping early Outkast and late 2pac. That awkward little teenager was equally as gangster as he was able to identify with the lyrics in the songs in which he was listening to.
Now, I’ve taken a more critical appreciation for a genre often claimed as dead, not relevant or lacking in artistic development. This unusual rant you are about to embark on was partially inspired by visiting the now infamous debate between Sasha Frere-Jones (a very successful and prominent music critic who currently writes for The New Yorker) and the now extinct intellectual, ironic rap group Das Racist. Long story short, Frere-Jones claimed the genre of hip-hop to be dead in his piece, “Jay-Z, Freddie Gibbs, and the end of hip-hop,” and Das Racist wasn’t having any of that, writing a very detailed, often hilarious, response making every attempt to debunk Frere-Jones “authority” on the hip-hop culture.
You can read that on your own, and I encourage you to do so. But this piece is for me to express my opinions on the ever-evolving genre we know as hip-hop.
My understanding of hip-hop has never revolved around a specific sound. When someone says, “You should check out this new hip-hop group” I never associate the genre to a specific sound. One of the more beautiful aspects of hip-hop compared to other genres today is its diversity — in sound and in subject. Hip-hop artists today vary in style of delivery, style of production and style of persona.
I would argue that today’s hip-hop artists are better rounded in all aspects than they have ever been. Artists like Jay-Z, Kanye West and El-P are rappers, beat makers, producers, entrepreneurs, what have you, all in one. As Hova has very accurately stated, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” This isn’t the Diddy-style “business man” where something is handed off directly to someone as they sit back and watch it grow in front of their own eyes. All three of those examples I listed are real life Gatsbys; living definitions of the American dream.
And for anyone who calls for hip-hop’s “good ol’ days” and claims “real hip-hop” lies within a certain sound of production (i.e. a predominately jazz-influenced sound), let me stop you right there and urge you to quit complaining and run a Q-Tip through your ears (pun intended). Artists like Joey Bada$$, Ab-Soul and Madlib are making music that is arguably more jazz-influenced than A Tribe Called Quest.
On the lyrical end, artists like Earl Sweatshirt have an uncanny ability to syncopate and bend words to do their rhythmic bidding (“Odd Future with a spoon in your Danimals / hungry as a cannibal trapped in a van of cantaloupes.”), or like the legendary underground wordsmith MF Doom (“A rhyming cannibal who’s dressed to kill, it’s cynical / whether is it animal, vegetable or mineral / it’s a miracle how he get so lyrical / and proceed to move the crowd like an old negro spiritual” [it’s out of mere coincidence that both of those phrases deal with cannibalism — oh well]).
Aside from the lyrical development present in today’s hip-hop, MF Doom is also one of the more dominant personas in the entire scene today. Doom’s identity was kept a secret for the majority of his rise to underground fame in the hip-hop scene, providing a unique aspect to his music and live performances. Similarly, Captain Murphy blew up 2012 music blogs after rising from nowhere, with his identity kept a secret until his first performance at the end of the year where he was revealed to be influential electronic producer Flying Lotus. These anonymous performances give a whole other artistic appeal to hip-hop shows. So much of what people believe about today’s hip-hop music is based on modern rappers’ identities (i.e. gangsters rapping about a jumble of nonsense).
But identity in hip-hop today goes much further. More and more artists are releasing music and merchandise independently in order to maintain a sense of identity. Odd Future is one of the more notable examples of this. And, think what you may of them and their material, but they’ve basically started an empire independently. The 12 (or so) member collective is in charge of everything from music to merchandise to touring to graphic design for themselves. They’ve risen to fame by releasing free mixtapes and taking full advantage of the internet as a campaign module.
Death Grips are another example of a hip-hop group striving to maintain their original, unaltered identity. Death Grips were signed to the major label Epic after the release of their first album, but soon after left the label in order to pursue their own artistic endeavors, ultimately costing them a small fortune they had been promised by the monumental label.
Not that individualism is the only important aspect in music anymore. There is a common misconception that rappers today are doped-up, idiocentric numbskulls incapable of making any comment free from narcissism or chauvinism. The latest, and perhaps greatest, example arguing this is Kendrick Lamar, a Compton rapper who set music critics across the globe ablaze in 2012 with his studio debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Lamar displays self-awareness unique from any music being listened to today. Period.
But intellectualism is no novelty in hip-hop either, and it is indeed no less prominent throughout today’s scene. On the contrary, in fact. The formerly mentioned Das Racist are known for their obscure and intelligent references to pop culture, and rapper Killer Mike’s 2012 track “Reagan” explores a hyper-political theme representing the thoughts on an entire racial generation.
Artists like Mos Def and the Roots were some of the most politically active musicians in the late 90s and through the 2000s that any music scene has ever seen. And they’re continuing to carry that theme strong to this day.
Even Macklemore, an artist who spontaneously catapulted to the top of the genre, is doing his part in voicing opinions on reform within the genre and the country as a whole. Songs like “Wing$” and “Thrift Shop” provide criticisms on American capitalism, while “Same Love” properly advocates for civil rights fought for so strongly throughout the entire country this past year.
This is all to go without mentioning the steps hip-hop in general has taken to eradicate homophobia and sexism in a genre that was once defined by those two themes. There are obviously many steps to still be taken, but when there are underground hip-hop scenes in NY dedicated to a LGBT style, or when female rappers like Azealia Banks, Angel Haze and, yes, ahem, Nikki Minaj hold their own and rhyme as swiftly and efficiently as most male rappers do, it’s tough to say these aren’t steps in a more enlightened direction. All of these things are certainly worth taking note of.
What else is there for a genre to be comprised of? If anything, it seems to me that hip-hop is almost over-encumbered in comparison to all other genres. And let it be noted that this is all coming objectively from a guy who spent the majority of his collegiate career exploring the first three Kings of Leon records, the b-sides of Arctic Monkeys singles, and the to-be-expected infatuation with the Strokes. Despite this, I have yet to discover a sense of diversity in a music scene like that of which I’ve found within hip-hop.
From my examination, hip-hop is alive and kickin’. But, then again, I’m no doctor.