What’s Left To Do in Hip-hop?
The commodification of counterculture necessitates selective breeding. Dissecting tradition and narrowing a craft down to its most consumable ingredients make it easier to sell. The blues genre, for instance, was originally a reflection of the early African American experience in the Deep South. With time, its sound was acclimatized to a wider range of emotions and narratives to the point where the founding fathers would have a tough time recognizing it. Once it became apparent that guitar solos were marketable, their reach was extended to audiences of all backgrounds. This is how music is popularized: the substance is diluted to broaden distribution.
Hip-hop has been relevant for approximately three of the five decades since its genesis. Over the last thirty years, artists have fought to elevate it to a mainstream platform, which is where it currently resides and reigns supreme. The emphasis on mass appeal has led to artists abandoning certain practices that helped birth the genre while adamantly holding on to others that stray from its blueprint. Though there’s nothing wrong with catering music to larger audiences, it often takes away the pressure to expand the art form beyond what creators and consumers become comfortable with. Hip-hop’s winning formula has spawned this exact problem: the creative process is easier than it’s ever been and lyricism is at an all-time low.
Two factors characterize hip-hop: the techniques set the genre apart while the lyrical content molds it into a lifestyle. Both of these, in their current state, have stagnated without having their potential maximized. Artists have run the wheels off commercial templates instead of coming up with new prototypes. Though hip-hop is at its peak, its shortcomings in virtuosity and gravitas have produced a plethora of nevergreen music. The shelf life of the genre is approaching its expiration date, so it is important to explore what more can be done to preserve it.
Technology flattens the texture of the human touch. For that reason, a painted canvas will always be more valuable than a print of the same artwork because the latter can be mass-produced with a single click. Works of creative expression in their most convenient form rarely arouse the senses. The digital age has had this effect on music as a whole, not just hip-hop. With so little left to do manually, the act of listening, performing and recording have all been reduced to button-pressing. Music has become weightless and invisible because there’s nothing left to touch or see. Holding a record, putting a needle to its groove and staring at the album artwork to see if the imagery translates into sound is no longer the custom; the entire experience now takes place on a single, flat surface.
Mechanism has a lasting impact on audiences. This is why no other genre in concert gets boring as quickly as hip-hop, because even signature practices like scratching and mixing vinyl records have become rare today. In most cases, it’s one person standing behind a control panel while the other shouts over the crowd, resulting in a chaotic extension of the original recording. The high energy level serves a purpose to those in the mood to party, but its better not to have high expectations for a musical experience.
The key to making any live show enjoyable is allowing the crowd to see where the music is coming from, which is practically impossible to do with laptops and mixers. There’s nothing impressive about watching someone hack away at a drum machine when an actual drum kit could churn out the same sounds.
It is therefore necessary to survey sampling: the main reason hip-hop artists are unable to reproduce their music in a stimulating fashion on stage.
When producers say they’re cooking up beats “from scratch,” they’re usually just reheating old tracks in the microwave. It’s common for entire instrumentals to be put together by chopping up old records, which means not a single cut would be recorded for the song in progress. With all due respect to tradition, the hip-hop sound has very little to do with how it’s made; it can be done just as well, if not better, using musical instruments. Live performances are impersonal precisely because there isn’t much you can do with prerecorded sounds besides mixing them. This is why hip-hop covers are uncommon — with copy-pasted beats, all you have to do is press play. Readymade beats from a laptop feel anticlimactic because the effort that goes into a performance is what engages spectators.
“Ease of use," Jack White said, is “the disease you have to fight in any creative field.” It would be blasphemous to completely do away with sampling, but it also needs to be recognized as the easier alternative to composing. Hip-hop will evolve only when entire songs are written and performed, not just lyrics. If I hear an orchestra, why can't it be a first-hand recording of an orchestra? Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” is one of the greatest albums of the 21st century because it featured professional instrumentalists as well as samples. The Beastie Boys have gone down as one of the best live acts ever in hip-hop because they had guitars and keyboards and percussion on stage, but also a DJ. Today, Anderson .Paak is among the most successful recording and performing artists because he plays the drums, has a band and uses digital cuts.
Instruments bring a level of richness to music that makes you believe how real it is. Most hip-hop acts fail to give us a glimpse into the development of an idea because their creative process doesn’t involve “eureka” moments. Contrarily, it’s just producers browsing through songs made by others artists and picking out the best bits. There’s no way to interpret that in an exciting manner on stage. Bringing a composition to fruition from the ground up comes with more control over the music. A guitar lick can then be played in different ways and a drum roll might be slightly altered depending on the musicians’ mood because these changes can be made under the immediacy of improvisation. These are the things that make live performances thrilling to watch.
The generosity of a stage act and the studio operation behind it enhances the customer experience, but the face of the operation is what gets people attached. The artist’s personality is a major selling point in hip-hop because audiences pay attention to lyrics given that rap is arguably the most crucial element of the genre. The conscious poets appeal only to a minority, so it would be unfair to expect everyone to appreciate their work. It is, however, disappointing to see how little today’s leading artists have to say in even the most word-heavy songs.
Knowing nothing about a whole lot and rapping a whole lot about nothing quite fittingly compliments aggressive defiance. Confidence has always been cool, but it is also used to camouflage ignorance. Artists today are peddling a façade of toughness and rebellion without offering anything to substantiate it. This distorted image of authenticity, sadly, is incredibly self-destructive.
Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth said, “People pay money to see others believe in themselves.” In hip-hop, this takes on the form of brutal competition. Artists constantly disparage one another in an attempt to come out on top, and the fans love it. It’s no different than bystanders recording street fights on their phones instead of intervening. Battle rap is an fundamental element of hip-hop tradition, but musicians no longer have to make a name for themselves by freestyling and battling each other on the block. The digital age has allowed hopefuls to record and release music from their homes and promote themselves on social media. The pro wrestling style of drama is nothing more than a publicity stunt that ends up being detrimental to a culture already plagued with violence. Tough guys writing each other irate sonnets is certainly cute, but it’s also embarrassing to watch grown men take offense to others claiming to be a make-believe king. Competition in hip-hop is made out to be a life-or-death scenario whereas it’s just another form of reality television. Musicians have coexisted forever, so claiming that hostility is an in-built characteristic of any creative domain is unfounded. Gordon summed it up perfectly: “the higher the chance you can fall down in public, the more value the culture places on what you do.”
Toughness is considered a prerequisite for hip-hop, which is why the culture is so similar to pro wrestling — there are winners and there are losers, but everyone still thinks they’re the greatest. Even though the idea that a selective few want it more than others is flippant, combative dominance continues to be a measure of competence. Bullying is embedded in the culture, and this is evident in its brimming track record of homophobia and misogyny. Denigrating queer folks was commonplace till talents like Frank Ocean, Kevin Abstract and Lil Nas X demonstrated that sexual identity is irrelevant to art, whereas “women” and “bitches” have become interchangeable terms to a point of no return. Machismo has alienated fans of hip-hop for decades and protecting it will only do the culture more harm.
Music has the power to make us feel like we’re a part of something special. Look at any premature death and there’ll most likely be a community of fans convinced that it's a conspiracy. This is because we attach a lot of meaning to anything that moves us. The chances that Nipsey Hussle was murdered because he had dirt on the government are slim, but his fans, on the other hand, might disagree. Influence isn’t to be taken for granted, which makes it all the more disappointing when artists put in the bare minimum instead of pushing for growth.
Music has become the least important part of hip-hop culture. The fashion and drama will find life elsewhere, as will majority of the fan base. Meanwhile, hip-hop music will silently let out its last breath without anyone noticing and its fundamentals will be absorbed by the next big thing to take over the industry.