Thursday, 12 December 2013

Whatever happened to Hip-Hop?

With the recent release of Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP Part 2", I began to ponder "whatever happened to Hip-Hop"?  Upon listening to the aforementioned album, it's clear that hip-hop as a style of music really hasn't evolved or grown much. Indeed, Eminem hasn't changed his music much either for that matter.

So what happened? Probably nothing that any real hip-hop fans would be concerned about. However, for a style of music so innovative, personally I think its a shame that it appears to not have developed past its adolescence.

Hip-Hop is probably the last recent, genuine innovation in popular music. What started out as an underground phenomenon in the ghettos of New York City, has since gone global. It was genuinely innovative due to the fact that it fused existing recordings (usually old funk, soul, disco, and in some cases Krautrock by the likes of Kraftwerk) played on a pair of turntables, upon which the DJ would create a looped musical backdrop for an MC to rhyme over.

The MC spat out fast, breathless, rhythmic lyrics with mind-boggling precision, filled with street-wise references and clever rhyme schemes. Sure Bob Dylan may have attempted it or even defined the stream-of-consciousness narrative of fast flowing verse in the 1960s (see "Subterranean Homesick Blues" for proof, and he may not have even been the first), but on the streets of New York it was turned into an art-form by Afrika Bambaata, Grandmaster Flash, The Sugarhill Gang and The Rocksteady Crew in the early days.

These artists were street-wise but were very pop-music focussed. A tougher and more aggressive, in some cases socially and politically conscious, style was pioneered by RUN DMC and Public Enemy, with rabble rousing messages of hope and fighting the good fight for better services and rights within society. The Beastie Boys introduced frat-boy fun into the mix. And then...

...from the West Coast of the US, from South Central LA, came Ice-T and NWA, with a gritty, portrait-of-daily-life style music, painting a bleak picture of life on the streets: running and dealing drugs, hustling guns, armed robberies, police brutality, gang turf warfare all peppered with gratuitous references to violent killing and sex, with liberal use of profanity. For a while in the late 80s and early 90s, this music seemed genuinely threatening and people in positions of authority were affronted by it. But for once, music was dangerous again, and therefore exciting.

The problem, as I see it, is not that I'm offended by rap music's gratuity, but rather that this blatant shock tactic has become the rule rather than the exception; the standard by which one should make Hip-Hop. From where I sit, Hip-Hop hasn't evolved from what Ice-T did with "Original Gangster" in 1991. Ice-T made a habit of being violent, profane and sexually explicit in his music before everyone else did and now everyone is still doing that, 20-odd years later. It's almost as if it is a style of music in a state of arrested development.

Maybe, of course, that is entirely the point. As a teenager myself in 1990, listening to NWA on headphones for the first time, it did feel quite subversive to be listening to music that your parents would be righteously pissed off at you listening to. I'm sure, now in 2013, teenagers still feel the same about smuggling home a Kanye West album and hearing the shocking revelations and sensational stories within. Maybe that's why it hasn't changed much in 20 years - because the audience gets younger as older fans move on, and a new generation of teenage boys looking for that record guaranteed to piss off the parents discovers the music.

Even now, NWA is still frighteningly stark and pointed, the subjects spoken about by Obie Trice and his D12 posse are exactly the same as the ones sung on NWA's "Straight Outta Compton" in 1988. But what's probably more interesting is how Hip-Hop has been blended with other styles of music: with Rock (Run DMC and Aerosmith, Public Enemy and Anthrax), and with Jazz (US3, Quincy Jones on his "Back On The Block" LP).

Hip-Hop in Australia and the UK has taken a while to take off, not least because early exponents of the style in these regions were slavish imitators of US artists. Notwithstanding The Streets (UK grime MC Mike Skinner whose work was just plain awful, I thought) artists like Britain's Tinie Tempah are making huge inroads with their own unique British flavoured style.

In Australia, the Hip-Hop scene has flourished underground without much mainstream coverage. For years Aussie MCs have suffered from the cultural cringe: with rap seen as an American style, local types rapping in a Aussie drawl was seen as anachronistic. Mind you, through a hell of a lot of hard work, we've seen the likes of The Hilltop Hoods, Bliss 'n' Eso, The Resin Dogs, Drapht and heaps of others become successful on the festival circuit.  It's been a long time coming, mind you. Locally we haven't taken to Australian hip-hop much before 2006 when Hilltop Hoods' "The Nosebleed Section" became a surprise smash, without falling into the same repetitive trap as (U.S.) West Coast hip-hop has.

What's your view on Hip-hop? Is it still fresh and exciting? Or tired, repetitive and staid? Let us know in the comments below.


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