(This is a post from our own Chris.)
A few weeks ago over at Blinded Trials (when it was over somewhere), The League’s, er… Ordinary Time’s resident legal expert and Simpsons cartoon character Burt Likko said: “There is some culture I wish I knew more about: hip hop.” Oops! You can’t say things like that around the sorts of people who hang around these parts!
This inevitably led to several of us discussing potential intro-to-hop-hop playlists, and this discussion turned into an idea for a series of posts by different hip hop fans, with the theme of introducing hip hop to Burt, or someone like Burt, who would like to know more about the music and the culture, but isn’t sure where to begin and maybe has some reservations about some of the music’s content. This is the first post in that series. Burt is entirely to blame for everything that follows!
First, a note and a parental advisory:
This post and those of the other participants in the Mindless Diversions hip hop symposium (of sorts) will not be able to explain hip hop to you, or give you a complete sense of what hip hop is “about.” It’s not simply that we are a bunch of white men, and hip hop has a deep connection to black American culture that we’re incapable of capturing fully, or even that, regardless of our skin color, we are for the most part not very typical hip hop listeners, since many of the artists we like lie somewhere outside of the mainstream, and in some cases well so (I’m looking at you cLOUDDEAD). The most serious limitation with these posts will be that we’re focusing almost exclusively on hip hop music, while hip hop is much, much more than music. It is a broad, diverse culture, with many of its own subcultures not only across the United states, but across the world. Fully appreciating the music requires more knowledge of the culture than we could possibly convey to you here. For example, hip hop is constantly and endlessly self-referential, with artists frequently referring to the work of other artists from throughout its history. What’s more, hip hop’s lexicon, which can change at a dizzying speed, never really discards its words or phrases, so that they often pop up again years, even decades after they went out of style, which can make keeping track of hip hop music’s various dialects difficult even for serious fans. Social media like Twitter, which hip hop culture has embraced, make things even more difficult to follow without a high degree of immersion in the culture and some knowledge of its history.
I tell you all of this not to scare you away, but in the hope that, if you are new to hip hop, you might consider this your starting point, not as a complete introduction or guide.
PARENTAL ADVISORY: Hip hop, like most genres of popular music in the last half a century, often talks about sex and drugs, and cussing is pretty common. What may be different about rap, if you don’t listen to it very often, is the frequent use of the n-word. Before each song I’ve included a warning about which of these things the song contains, using the following symbols: C = Cussing, D = Drugs, N = N-word, S = Sex, A(sshole) = Blatant Sexism. If you get to a song with whichever of these symbols represents something that bothers you, I recommend skipping that song.
Hip hop: is a style of dress, a movement to music, a mural spray painted on the side of a building, a beat, a flow, a DJ in a club thumping the bass so hard you can feel it in the tips of your fingers. Hip hop: is a life that some people step out of bed into, and some people live only when headphones meet their ears and the beat finds them. Me: I am somewhere in between, closer to the headphones than the bed, but living it enough that I’ve watched the ripples in my beer at a club on occasion. I don’t know that I am the best person to introduce anyone to hip hop, but I do know that it is a music that moves me, and that I am eager to share.
I would love to start with a brief history of the music and the culture, taking you back to dance parties in the Bronx in 1972, where records were mixed together and manipulated to keep people dancing, or to when, some time after that, someone tried rapping to the mixes, and it worked. Then I could give you a tour, musically, of the road hip hop took to get to where it is today, with the party music and story-telling of the 80s, then the hard core sounds of the streets of L.A. in West Coast and G-Funk gangster rap, and the equally hard core sounds of the streets of New York in the East Coast style. Then I might bring you to the point in the history of hip hop at which the deadly wave of hype and anger and money crashed on the jagged shores of the industry-created and industry-hyped East-West coastal rivalry, costing hip hop its two brightest stars, and leaving many of its artists and its fans in funk for several years. At that point you’d find the song at the top of this post, Black Star’s “Definition,” in which Yasiin Bey (then Mos Def) and Talib Kweli (always Talib Kweli) lament the violent turn hip hop culture has taken, when everyone feels like they have to out hard everyone else. Finally we’d arrive at a mature hip hop, and its mid-decade rennaisance that continues today with a seemingly endless spring of talented new artists and reinvigorated told-times.
I would love to do all of that, but I worry that I have limited space and you have limited time, and that much of that music is more meaningful, and more accessible, if you encountered it in its time, at least without lengthy explanation and contextualization. It stands to reason, then, if I want to bring you into hip hop, if you’re not already here, I should start with the music that is still in its time, the music of today, or at least of the last decade, and my giving you Bey and Kweli is merely me cheating in order to start with one of my favorite songs. From here on then, let’s you and I live in the now, and let the music do the talking.
Whatever you think of his personality, or at least his public persona, the now in hip hop begins with Kanye West. Much of where hip hop is today began when Eminem decided to stop being a cartoon character, and Kanye West decided to go into the recording booth instead of standing outside of it (he was a popular producer, working extensively with Jay-Z, before going solo). These two artists, especially West, made the Midwest the center of hip hop for much of the 2000s. West coast style, as is geographically understandable, is a bit of an amalgam of the East and West coast styles of the 90s, and on his early albums you can hear Snoop and Dre from the West, and Jay-Z and Rakim from the East, in just about everything Kanye does, but he had a voice of his own too, and part of it was in his largeness and its introspectiveness. This is what other Midwestern artists have taken from him. Consider Chicago’s Lupe Fiasco:
Fiasco has a bit of an old-school feel, but with hop culture has a tendency towards swagger to the point of stand-offishness, Lupe’s habit of wearing his heart, and his social consciousness, on his sleeve, and in his music (and famously, on Twitter) – here he can’t even rap about rap without being conflicted – can be refreshing.
Now try Cleveland’s Kid Cudi (with rockers MGMT and Ratatat):
Cudi is so out there that even he calls himself a Martian, and he titled two of his albums “Man on the Moon.” His music is one part psychedelic electronica, one part experimental rap, one part personal confession, and all parts infectious. Lyrically and musically he’s as talented and original as any mainstream artist today, though long-time fans of the genre might detect hints of KMD and Outkast, with some Kanye thrown in for good measure. Here he is again, telling us just how unique he is, but not without a hint of irony:
C N D
My favorite rapper to come out of the Midwest in the last decade, though, is Chance the Rapper, another Chicagoan:
C N D
I don’t even know what to say about Chance the Rapper. He doesn’t so much much rap as snicker his lyrics through his nose, but what lyrics they are! And the phrasing and flow are almost perfect. When I finish one of his songs I feel disoriented, like maybe I just smoked some of whatever he’s smoking. What just happened? What am I listening to? And why did he tell me everybody hates the Lakers? Oh, but I have to hear some more (this time with California’s Ab-Soul):
C N D S A (a bit)
In the last few years, the epicenter hip hop has been in the South, New Orleans and Atlanta in particular. Lil Wayne, from New Orleans, is everywhere, and it seems like every other new artists you hear about is from Atlanta. Even popular new artists from elsewhere, like Drake (from Canada), are imitating the southern style. I definitely prefer the New Orleans style to Atlanta’s (though I do dig Atlanta too), with its little bit of the West Coast, little bit of the old school southern, and little bit of Purple (as in the popular concoction of prescription cough medicine, Sprite, and Jolly Ranchers). One of my favorites is from the Crescent City is Curren$y:
C N D
Most of the music Curren$y has released so far has been in the form of mixtapes: low budget collections often with minimal production and a rawer feel. “New Jet City” is a pretty typical example of his style: Snoop-like near comatose laid backness, and the feeling that he’s only loosely beholden to the beat beneath him. I imagine this loose connection to the beat can make him a bit difficult to get into for people just beginning to explore hip hop, so try a more conventional song. He has the first verse here, and fellow New Orleanean Trademark da Skydiver (best… name… ever) has the third, with Phillies Young Roddy in the middle:
C N D A (a bit)
Not everyone coming out of the South is coming out of one of the big hip hop hubs (in addition to New Orleans and Atlanta, Houston and Miami are producing artists at high rates). Take, for example, Big K.R.I.T. From Meridian, MS:
His first full length album was criticized for, among other things, being too pop, but his 2013 mixtape King Remembered in Time (you can listen to it all there), which includes the above song. He’s a got a country feel with an old school style that’s reminiscent of NWA and Rakim (like everyone is reminiscent of Rakim).
These days, everyone collaborates. The regional feuds are over (though there are plenty of odd personal feuds). This makes for some really interesting blending of styles and techniques. For example, one of my favorite new songs is Talib Kweli’s “Push Thru,” which features our friend Curren$y (first verse), and a spectacular verse (the third) by Los Angeles’ Kendrick Lamar, with Brooklyn’s Kweli in the middle:
C N D
I love this song, and I could write an entire post just about how awesome Kweli is, but I’ve include it here mostly so I can start gushing on Lamar. When he put out the excellent solo debut, Section.80, he got some attention, and anyone with ears who heard him recognized a star in the making, but his 2012 release good kid, m.A.A.d city has blown everyone away. It is a musical and lyrical masterpiece. Here is one of the singles, which is a big radio hit right now (even my teenage son loves it):
C N D
You might be tempted to think this song is celebrating binge drinking – “first you get a swimming pool full of liquor, then you dive in it” – but listen to the beginning again. This song, and the entire album, is about peer pressure, temptation, and the mistakes that Lamar made, or could have made, as a young man trying to navigate life in Compton.
All I have in life is my new appetite for failure
And I got hunger pain that grow insane
Tell me do that sound familiar
If it do then you’re like me
Making excuse that your relief
Is in the bottom of the bottle
And the greenest indo leaf
As the window open
I release everything that corrode inside of me
I see you joking, why you laugh
Don’t you feel bad
I probably sleep and never ever wake up
Never ever wake up, never ever wake up.
My girlfriend, who’s much closer to the stepping-out-of-bed hip hop fan than I, calls Lamar a “song stylist,” but I think of good kid as more of a one man show. He plays multiple role, with different voices, all in the service of showing us what life was like growing up in Compton.
Before I wrap things up, let me take you outside of the U.S. for a bit. Hip hop may have been born in America, but the rest of the world quickly recognized its potential. Lately I’ve been really enjoying Russian-born artist DJ Vadim:
Rap in France goes back to the 70s, and has been a major cultural and even political force in les banlieues.
Sefyu is heavily influenced by East Coast hip hop artists like Rakim and Wu Tang Clan, as many French rappers were. Fans of those artists may enjoy IAM, Tandem, MC Solaar (who worked with Guru), Suprême NTM, Noyau Dur, and Dabaaz.
If this post is going to have any credibility, I have to end it back in America, so I’ll finish with possibly the greatest rapper of all time, Nas. My writing skills are insufficient to adequately describe his transcendent debut album Illmatic. The Village Voice called it the “platonic ideal of any New York rap,” which, by limiting it to New York, doesn’t fully do it justice. It is 40 minutes of near perfectly rapped lyrics, so evocative of the city streets from which they are drawn that you can almost smell the aslphalt, laid over beds and beats constructed by some of the most talented producers of the day. I’ll let Nas have the last word:
Here’s an extended playlist with these and other songs: