It is a truth universally acknowledged, that hip-hop, rap and R&B rule the sales and streams charts, and few artists are in want of a good fortune. Listen to the top 40 and your ears will be assaulted by a cavalcade of limp, crap, hip hop and R&B, often sampling a 90s dance song, or featuring production from somebody Scandinavian with a ‘Van’ in the middle of their name, or simply entreating somebody to love them in a reedy voice over an overproduced ballad backing. You would not be hard pushed to have no faith at all in the medium, which would explain the rise of EDM as the alternative (echoing the early ’90’s in that regard), and encouraging musical traditionalists to cling ever harder to analogue instruments and sounds that haven’t developed since the early ’80s… Royal Blood.
Don’t get me wrong, I always have time for a band that fills the Zep/Pixies based hole in my life, especially as neither Zep or the Pixies seem that keen on doing it anymore. But with a few exceptions, rock and indie seem content in their current status quo of reformation tours and new bands that owe a heavy debt to bands currently on reformation tours.
This seems like a digression, but to work out what I believe the main reason to be excited about hip-hop is, links into the history of rock and indie, and of cultural prominence and it’s side effects, and on a personal note, the reasons I spent my teens and tweens as a pompous indie kid. Though I’ll keep it short, so as not to bore with commonly known details, there is a good cultural history here.
A brief history of the birth of indie
While it came from the rise of the blues and jazz from the 1920’s, rock’s cultural dominance started in the 1950’s, when it was taken up by the youth, and the newly coined term, teenagers was born. The mainstream media treated it as a social disease to be feared, but little could stop it, and it continued to grow in popularity. In the 60’s it developed and spread, growing it’s reach, and being co-opted further and further into the mainstream. Artists broke away from the standard formula, and helped rock develop it’s language. By the 70’s there were generations who had been brought up with rock music, and it was truly the mainstream. It was probably the point at which it was it’s most powerful, and from the tales of excess of the times, the period in which the most money and success was available. Towards the end of the 70’s, and the late 80’s is the point I am most interested in.
Say 1977 to anyone who likes pop culture and they will say one of two things. ‘Punk’, or ‘Star Wars’. this is the point that rock split into two separate tracks, with glossy, sanitised pop going one way, and an alternative scene running alongside it.
Alternative, or indie artists have always been defined not by a cohesive sound, but really by an otherliness, or by not really fitting in to what is normal. From the anger of punk, to the fey twee of early indie, the angst of grunge, and so on, it has always been about not quite being ‘right’. It is my opinion that this firstly speaks to those of us who don’t quite work, hence my own love of indie, and secondly, the freedom of not having to be successful leads to much more diverse and interesting music.
Don’t misinterpret me, there was a strong history of quirk and experimentation before this split, but prior to this, I think nobody noticed so much as the music is still so nascent at this point that it was yet to set it’s rules in stone, ie front men should be cool and charismatic, the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle 8, chorus structure etc.
A less brief history of rap
Now, back to hip-hop. Though it can be traced back to soul, the beat poet scene, even the manner of preachers in religious ceremony, it’s birth was at some point in the late 70’s, with the New York block party scene, and the work of DJ’s like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash giving birth to scratch culture, and MC’s like Casanova Fly leading these parties by rapping over extended breaks from funk and soul records. The start of it’s hitting the mainstream would probably be the success of The Sugarhill Gang’s plagiaristic Rapper’s Delight in 1979.
Then, throughout the 80’s it was again like rock and roll, the sound of rebellion. A thousand worried thinkpieces in the mainstream media were launched off the back of Public Enemy’s Black Panther politics, 2 Live Crew’s obscenity, and everything about NWA. Even the Beastie Boys were seen as dangerously crass. And as before, the young and disaffected loved it, and it grew as a form.
And as before, the 90’s had the scene develop, with offshoots and changes to the style which became more and more varied. If you chart the decade with just one album a year, you can see how hard and fast the changes come and the scene grows:
- 1989: De La Soul- 3 Feet High and Rising
- 1990: Public Enemy- Fear of a Black Planet
- 1991: A Tribe Called Quest- The Low End Theory
- 1992: Dr Dre- The Chronic
- 1993: Wu Tang Clan- Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
- 1994: Notorious BIG- Ready to Die
- 1995: GZA- Liquid Swords
- 1996: DJ Shadow- Endtroducing
- 1997: Fugees- The Score*
- 1998: Outkast- Aquemini
- 1999: Eminem: The Slim Shady LP
- 2000: The Avalanches- Since I Left You
Looking back at that, how dated do some of those albums sound compared to those at the end of the list (some of the best are timeless, however)? The scene had spread, and all types of different identities and styles started to spread, and by 1999, Eminem’s first album was out, marking the first hip-hop star even your Nan knew (Yes, Jay-Z was there first, but he wasn’t Nan huge till after The Black Album).
The 2000’s then saw millionaires made of them all. Hip Hop, more than any other form of music ruled the decade, made household names of Kanye West, Beyoncé, Usher and so many more. Find me a human being who doesn’t sing along with Outkast’s Hey Ya and I’ll find you a liar. But of course, you overthrow the despot in power, then you become the despot in power, and this global success has led to some hideous artists flying on their coat tails. I’m trying to make this article about positivity, so I won’t go on, save to say if I were in a room with Chris Brown, Ne-yo, 50 Cent, and a claw hammer, my only regret would be that I am not the first person to try and kill Fiddy.
So, what now?
I am sure that by now, a smart cookie like yourself has worked out where I’m going with this. Around this point in hip-hop’s trajectory, things should be starting to get interesting. And is it? Fucking right it is.
Firstly, where the 80’s had Sarah Records, Heavenly, Creation and all the other fantastic labels that popped up to serve the sudden need for a home for the new, up and coming, strange talents popping up, in today’s world, where it is no longer economically viable, mixtape culture is taking it’s place. Essentially, a free album, commonly less produced and sketchier, and a great way of getting your name out there. There are a million a week, and you have to sift through a lot of mess to find the diamonds, but free of sampling clearance or any publishing worries, they can often be better, more experimental, and rawer than the eventual physical record. The only downfall to this is that the restrictions of a ‘proper’ studio album can lead to underwhelming results after this. Wale was a victim to this. His Seinfeld influenced Mixtape about Nothing was a tour de force, but was followed by an underwhelming album proper. Maybe the majesty of the best sitcom of the 9th made him reach higher, but more likely without the freedom to mess around, and to experiment and fail, the album just felt too safe.
Either way, mix tapes are a great way of finding new artists without shelling out cash, and a great way for artists to both get their stuff out there fast and to everyone, and for them to do whatever they want.
At the other end of the spectrum is the freedom that stupid amounts of money can bring, and the perfect example of this is (who else) the ever divisive Kanye West. His last two albums, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus are essentially the two ends of the freedom that massive success can buy. Fantasy is a huge album. Huge grand music, huge guest spots, enormous sampling budget. It is probably the most lush sounding hip hop album ever made. The frame of reference is less hip hop, and more the poppier end of prog rock, not just in sampling King Crimson, but in the 3 minute auto tune noodle at the end of Runaway, and the prolonged ‘Yeezy taught me’ skit. The start of Lost in the World is as symphonic as any ELO or Yes track.
Conversely, Yeezus is difficult, abrasive and at points downright stupid. If you’ve heard it, I doubt you’ll ever be able to get the line, “Hurry up with my damn croissants! ” out of your head again. The production, by Daft Punk and Rick Rubin is harsh and abrasive. You have to want to listen to it. If you do, it is full of emotional and comic gems. Neither of these albums would have been imaginable a decade ago, and that they exist at all is a sure sign that hip hop is moving on.
The wealth of other artists taking it to new places is growing every day. I neither have the time or the knowledge to cover everything, so what follows is a primer to what I love right now about loving hip hop.
Hip hop Top Trumps
Self aware rap by a hispanic/Indian trio with great jokes and a university degree. When you listen more they are also as angry as Public Enemy ever were. Sadly they split up after two perfect mixtapes, Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man and a solid album, Relax, but Himanshu Suri (Heems) and Kool AD are still putting out solo mixtapes that are just as good.
one track- Impossible to choose, but maybe You Oughtta Know.
80’s indie equivalent– Half Man Half Biscuit. Write them off as a joke band at your peril, there’s a shitload more going on.
Like Yeezus, discordant and nasty, but rewarding you more with every listen. It’s creepy, unsettling music, on CLPPNG they outdo any other artist for taking hip hop to strange places.
one track- Get Up. Literally just rapping over the screech of a radio alarm clock. No idea how this could or should work.
80’s indie equivalent– Sonic Youth, for making noise an art form.
Not a new artist. Indeed, he’s been going since the 90’s with KMD, as MF DOOM, Victor Vaughan, as half of Madvillain with Madlib, as Dangerdoom with Dangermouse- he has a billion names and personas, and continues to use his name to put newer artists and producers in the spotlight. His quickfire, verbose style creates brilliantly clever rhymes that fold back in on themselves like origami swans.
One track- Hoe Cakes
80’s indie equivalent– The quick wit and fun makes me think maybe The Housemartins.
A giant of a man, and a former well respected chef in New York, Bronson mixes up sexual gratuity, 70’s film references, and culinary advice with a flow that echoes, but is never derivative of, Ghostface Killah. His Blue Chips mixtapes back up his style with scuzzy samples which fit his style perfectly, like a hand rolled rice paper spring roll.
One track- Larry Czonka
80’s indie equivalent– The dirty, scuzzyness and willful courting of controversy of his best stuff makes me think The Birthday Party.
Chance the Rapper
With a singsong voice and a charming friendliness, Chance the Rapper is probably the most likely crossover star of these artists- he’s already been a featured artist on a Justin Bieber single! His mixtape #10day was one of the musical highlights of last year, sampling indie folk darlings Beirut and Mtumbe (the original artist sampled on Juicy by Biggie) to great effect.
One Track- Juke Juke
80’s indie equivalent– Carter USM, as I always imagined Jimbob was somebody who would be your cool friend.
A voice like a kicked dog, and the filthiest lyrics since 2 Live Crew. Brown was cutting his teeth on the mixtape scene for years, almost becoming a member of G Unit (his style was too rock) until his album Xxx blew up. Followed up by last year’s killer Old he is a natural successor to ODB, except that he can also hit emotional notes while clowning.
One Track- Monopoly. Kills it.
80’s indie equivalent– Minor Threat. He can hit more in two minutes than others can in five.
Heems and Danny Brown on a Vampire Weekend track. Heck yes.
So how exciting could it get? There’s so much more out there to be blown away by than this. In 2000 words I can’t even cover the surface. Please do comment if you have a recommendation, I want more of this stuff!
* Yeah I cheated, ’97 was a weak year so you get two from ’96.
** My knowledge of the history of hip-hop owes a heavy debt to Jeff Chang’s wonderful book Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, which suffers only from a heavy bias towards artists I love!