It is August 11, 1973.
The party is at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Bronx, New York.
Dj Kool Herc, the man known as the “father of hip-hop,” is face to face with the largest crowd he has ever played for, to this date. At that time, what we know as hip-hop today was born.
Known for his idiosyncratic style of using two turntables at once to loop drum breaks, Herc had a style that was eventually adopted by great figures in the genre such as Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. They all showed major connections to Herc’s signature use of “breaks” and speaking over tracks.
It is hard to believe that this sort of style in hop-hop was getting major radio play, but it was the modus operandi for many artists at the time. Some people raised during the formative years of this impactful genre might admit to this being a very interesting time; maybe, a “golden age” for some.
For others, that name doesn’t account for the early 1980’s but rather applies to the period during which hip-hop started evolving- the late 1980’s. Acts such as the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, 2 Live Crew, NWA, Ice-T and many more began to emerge onto the scene, taking hip-hop into a whole new lane.
“When it seemed that every new single reinvented the genre”
Rolling Stone Magazine – February 2, 2010
Most notable for this transition was the duo of Eric B. and Rakim, who released what MTV called “The Greatest Hip-Hop Album in History” Paid in Full. This album brought lyrical technique and delivery that was imitated by iconic figures within the genre for decades to come.
The period which many refer to as “the golden era of hip-hop” was a time in which the genre was evolving. The genre was finding its own path. Nowadays, many seem to believe that evolution isn’t the best thing to do. I see artists being negatively criticized for even attempting to seclude themselves from the rest of the hip-hop scene, speak of anything explicit, and so on and so forth. People expect rappers to stay linked to the style of their forefathers; they are living in the past and it’s obvious.
I was at Kendrick Lamar’s: King Kunta’s Groove Sessions concert in Dallas about 2 weeks ago and overheard a man who had just finished College for Audio Engineering speaking of his favorite hip-hop artists. He brought up Hopsin, Joe Budden, Tech N9ne, Snoop Dogg, Notorious B.I.G. and more bragging of their use of lyrical techniques, figurative language and such that made them top his list.
However, what turned my attention towards him was how he shunned artists such as Future, Young Thug, and Gucci Mane for being less lyrical than the rappers he normally listens to; he even went as far as calling Drake, one of the biggest artists of our time, mediocre. I couldn’t help but turn and defend these people.
Me: What makes Future so trash to you? Drake? Guwop?
Him: Future isn’t lyrical enough; he brags about how much money he makes and speaks gibberish over trap beats. Drake is overly hyped… his music isn’t lyrical enough. They don’t speak about real shit.
Before I continue, quick English lesson; let’s define lyrical.
lyr·i·cal/ˈlirik(ə)l/adjective1. (of literature, art, or music) expressing the writer’s emotions in an imaginative and beautiful way.
Now, back to the story. He was arguing his position by pointing out other artists’ lack of lyrical content and – what he called – “real” subject matter; speaking about how Nas, Rakim, and Notorious B.I.G. did a phenomenal job at doing so and I honestly couldn’t disagree- to an extent. He told me how he despised Future for idolizing lean and Lil Wayne for speaking of the – what he called “idiotic” – subjects such as having sex with women, and wearing designer clothing.
He described “real” subject matter as anything that spoke about the poverty being faced in America, anything that preaches world peace, and not idolizing drug use. But as soon as I recalled Biggie’s use of explicit lyrics outlining his sex with women and his love wearing designer clothing, and Snoop Dogg’s “gangster” lyrics emphasizing his street persona (that was very much legit) and praise for marijuana he could barely hold a valid argument back, he fell silent. The argument just didn’t make sense.
Let’s contemplate: did that subject matter make B.I.G. and Snoop bad rappers? No, in fact, it was part of what made them some of the biggest faces in hip-hop. I wasn’t surprised when he stepped down and continued speaking with his intoxicated friend standing next to him, it wasn’t the first time I have ran into these self-proclaimed “hip-hop heads” who fail to dig deeper into the genre.
Why can’t acts like Young Thug be acknowledged as good artists by some? Is it because they aren’t sharing the same sub-genre of lyricism as Rakim, Nas, Andre 3000, Jay Z, and others? Because they choose to not let their fans overthink their verses? I’m going to leave a quote from Pitchfork’s interview with Dun Deal (Atlanta producer that has worked with Young Thug) and we’re going to think back to the definition of lyricism.
“He was always a cool person; he always dressed weird and the way he used to write his music was pretty crazy. He would just draw what he wanted to do on paper. That’s how he used to record; he would draw, like, a picture. Weird signs and shapes. He’d be in the booth looking at the paper, and one day I went in there and looked at it and said, ‘You didn’t write any words down.’ He looked at me and said: ‘I don’t need no words.'”
Dun Deal on Young Thug – Pitchfork September 28, 2015
Is that not expressing the writer’s (Young Thug) emotions in an imaginative way? It is very beautiful in my opinion; Thug is able to look at a paper with just shapes and understand what he wants his song’s layout to be. Let’s not mentions Future’s music which is packed – and I mean packed – with lyrics highlighting depression and drug abuse. “I spend a lot of money so I don’t be depressed” raps Future on “Substitute Everything” or on “Deeper Than The Ocean” where he raps “Sometimes I wanna get inside the Escalade and crash it.”
Future is probably the best at channeling his emotions in a unique way, and due to his use of auto-tune and 808 basslines, his effort is ignored. Travis Scott falls into the same category; as if we can’t reminisce deeper songs such as “Impossible” or “Drugs You Should Try It.”
Slowly but surely, artists are finding their own way to express their emotions through their music and stand out just like their predecessors did. Lyricism has evolved with the other elements that make a song today. Of course we have artists such as Lupe Fiasco, Jay Electronica, and Ab-Soul who still enjoy practicing their lyricism with the use of double entendres, allusions, and other figurative language devices, but that doesn’t necessarily make them any better than the previous artists mentioned. Although one thing that does put every one of these artists into the same category is the production they choose to channel their lyrics over, it has all changed over time.
Hip-Hop has come a long way since the use of turntables and scratches, or boom-bap and cowbells. Production nowadays just doesn’t sound similar to the likes of J. Dilla and Dj Premier’s old catalogs; does that necessarily make it bad?
No, not at all.
Producers like Zaytoven, Young Chop and Kanye West are among the many who have contributed to the continuing progression of hip-hop production. There was once a time where hip-hop was flooded with scratches, loops and vocal samples that made people want to dance the whole song. That’s far from the case in 2015. Producers who have been making beats for decades are evolving.
It isn’t because they feel that the old norms of hip-hop production were “trash”, it’s simply because they have come to accept the evolution of their genre and what they must do to maintain relevance. DJ Premier recently released a EP with Royce da 5’9″ and throughout the whole project you could still hear the unique spirit and style of Premier pumping through the veins of it; it just sounded more modern. Producers have to stay relevant one way or another and if they are stuck in the past making records that are not with the trends in some way, shape, or form, they will die out. They will evolve – just like every other element that makes a record today.
Hip-hop is continuing to push the envelope and create new lanes, carrying forth the uniquely rebellious spirit that has caused controversy since its inception. We are in whole new generation for this art and we must understand and accept this change or else the genre will fall.
Things change… and that’s the way it is.
Connect with Guillermo on Twitter at @xalexvonx.