Thoughts on Hip Hop?

Recently, a friend asked me what I thought about Hip Hop. Big question. I paused and shrugged it off. I probably mentioned a couple of artists. I usually don’t like broad questions, but this one stuck. The question may be superficial, but what do I know and think of hundreds of individual artists? That’s worth exploring.

I don’t have much to say about Hip Hop as a subculture. Being a Brit born in the late eighties the closest I got was reruns of The Fresh Prince. Or through Toejam and Earl (enough to get me excited about making a sequel). But music is something I have an interest in. Some Hip Hop has been unavoidable, and some I have sought out.

My musical coming of age happened in the time of Nu-Metal. By the time I was paying attention to the genre, drop-tuned guitars had become blasé and artists were looking wider for new sounds to pull into the melange. As well as singing and shouting, a lot of the bands were rapping over rock beats and using DJs or other electronics.

In this mix Linkin Park took the world by storm with their debut Hybrid Theory. This was a polished and fully integrated mix of sounds and styles. In The End got the most play and the Hip Hop influence is clear with the sound of the beat and the rapping during the verses. They even followed this up with a Jay-Z collaboration. It works, but it’s more of a mash up than the DUN-DMC/Aerosmith or Anthrax/Public Enemy reworkings that had come before it, which put me off at the time.

Since then my exploration has been tangental and at the fringes. Often only going one leap from an artist I know already. I discovered Saul Williams through his collaborations with Trent Reznor. I’ve gotten into B-Dolan and Sage Francis through their work with Scroobius Pip. (I’ll probably check out the rest of the Strange Famous artists at some point too.)

But I’ve also picked up stuff just by being interested in music. Some exposure was unavoidable, even mostly staying in the rock-centric world of MTV2. Everyone knew how many problems Jay-Z had and the singles off The Marshall Mathers LP were played to death. Even if bits seemed more censored than uncensored. When Scroobius Pip says guns, bitches and bling aren’t part of The Four Elements I get the reference. When Blondie says “Flash is fast, Flash is cool” I get the reference.

But the stuff I’m interested in (or at least seek out) tends to be complex and intelligent. Or really personal. The first time I really listened to Me ‘Em Purr (a hip hop song about unemployment and depression) it almost brought me to tears. More like this, please.

But I do love a good beat, and I do have an appreciation of flow. And not completely agreeing with the material doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it for what it is. The first Kanye West album I’ve given a proper listen to is Yeezus. The talk of it’s harder, more industrial sound pricked my ears up. I quite liked the album (but I’m still not sure about Bound2 or it’s video) and thinking back I’ve enjoyed what I can remember of his previous singles, even if they haven’t made me check out the rest of the album. There are probably many artists that I’ve written off more than I should due to only being exposed to their club hits. Beyonce also come to mind for some reason, but I’m sure the list is way longer.

In a world where pop steals from every genre (and a genre might be defined by how you make your kick and snare sounds) they are becoming ever diluted and irrelevant. There’s rap as a technique and Hip hop is a school, or approach, to making music. Everything is influenced by everything else and I’d like to go deeper.

During my research Spotify helpfully gave me a playlist of songs to explore, YouTube too, but there’s much I’ve missed. What are the seminal classics and why are they important? Who’s pushing the boundaries past and present? Who’s just to damn good to ignore?

Much exploring ahead.

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