“Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?”
The famous line relayed by Jay-Z on his 2001 standout track Renegade with Eminem asks a question that many of us ought to give thought to today more than ever. Is music really being taken in for its core message or does it simply serve as catchy background music for us to bop our heads to?
Hip-hop is an artform that can be traced back to the 1980s and 90s in New York. As it slowly evolved, it became more than a form of art and transcended into a cultural movement — having its own dances, vernacular, style, and attitude. At its core are the tenets of rhyming, b-boying as well as knowledge of self-consciousness. It served as a form of expression for African-Americans in depressed economic conditions.
Fast forward to today, and we can evidently see that what started as a cultural movement out of the boroughs of New York has found its way to being the most popular genre of music in the world, with a style and flare that has likely influenced all of us in some way.
“Unlike other music genres, hip-hop has historically held a political stake in the music industry. The genre risks economic success by proposing a counter-narrative to the status quo that sheds light on white privilege, the ethics of meritocracy, and the history of popular culture in stealing and profiting off the work of Black content creators,” says humanities teaching assistant Jenna Santyr.
What may have started off exclusively is now consumed, and even created, by a wide variety of people. Different attitudes among new generations, streaming, and subject matter has changed hip-hop drastically from the way it started out, and perhaps therein lies the problem.
It doesn’t take a music critic to realize that different aspects of rap today are given more importance compared to what was once the norm. And that’s fine — with time, inevitably, comes change. But what happens when that change is a devolving one that doesn’t serve us?
A genre that once placed heavy emphasis on lyricism, wit, subject matter, and thoughtfulness has now shifted into something easily digestible with a catchy hook and beat that we can dance to without having to give much thought. Is this really what’s best for us? Is this what the originators of the genre envisioned the music one day being like?
THE GOLDEN AGE OF RAP MUSIC
(Courtesy of Sukh)
To understand where hip-hop is today, it’s important to take a look at a time when it was at its peak. Carl Stoffers of New York Daily News describes this time as “spanning from approximately 1986 to 1997”. Names like Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan, N.W.A., Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G., and many other artists were at the forefront of entertainment.
Rolling Stone once described these years as a time when “it seemed that every new single reinvented the genre,” and they couldn’t have been more correct. Almost all of the mainstream artists of this time are now hailed as legends of the genre years later, with timeless catalogues to show for it.
The technical ability of rappers at this time was some of the best we’d ever seen in music. The songs were braggadocious, aggressive, and stylistically innovative. Many consider this era as laying the foundation for much of the wordplay and “lyrical kung-fu” that makes hip-hop stand out to this day.
The subject matter was almost the complete opposite of what was conventionally mainstream. It was often dark and gritty and vividly painted a picture of the difficulty of growing up in an environment where poverty, drug abuse, gang violence, and police brutality were everyday issues — especially for African-Americans.
Another huge subset of people to gravitate towards rap music was the youth as a whole.
“Youth is a subculture in the liminal period of childhood and adulthood, expected to behave like adults but not granted the privileges of adulthood (voting, drinking, and independent living). Hip-hop resonates with youth as a way to express the frustration and anger of living with multiple restrictions, as well as the celebration and excitement of breaking the rules and experimenting with future identities,” says Santyr.
The creativity of artists at the time allowed for different messages to be sent through music, providing voices for those who otherwise would have no way of communicating their hardships, as well as offering hope for listeners who could tune in and identify. Tracks like Fuck the Police by N.W.A. showcased that rap could serve as a form of protest, while songs like Keep Ya Head Up by Tupac questioned many of the negative ways in which we treat women in our society, via a poetic approach.
The popularity of the genre could not be ignored. Slang like bling bling soon found its way from urban streets across America to the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. Gold chains and pumps began popping up in the fashion world. And, of course, the charts reflected it all. The year 1991 was the first time a rap album reached the top spot on the Billboard 200 (a feat accomplished by N.W.A.’s second studio album).
In fact, the Royal Society of Open Science conducted research on American mainstream music from 1960 to 2010 and stated that the rise of hip-hop was “the single most important event that has shaped the musical structural of the American charts.”
So, given the rich history of hard-hitting subject matter and unique styles, it asks the question: who steers the direction of music?
PERSPECTIVES OF THE MASSES
(Courtesy of Sidak Sran)
Hip-hop has become the go-to music for the masses, and is now the biggest music genre on the planet. The Billboard Charts, which were once led by the likes of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Justin Bieber is now home to artists in hip-hop, like Drake, Young Thug, Lil Uzi Vert, and DaBaby.
“I first got into hip-hop when I was around 12 years old. All my friends that lived in my neighbourhood were a few years older than I was and they were always listening to hip-hop music whenever we hung out,” says long-time hip-hop fan Sidak Sran.
So, what exactly do people today want out of their music? Well, it depends who you ask.
“In general, I do believe that hip-hop as a whole has become less lyrically driven and more digestible to the masses,” says Sran.
“Only die-hard hip-hop fans tend to dive into the lyricism to understand what the message of the artist is. Thus, there is a massive market for hip-hop that is a lot easier to take in for the masses, which a lot of rappers are taking advantage of.”
Sran has a point. In fact, data gathered by StoryBench tracked lexical diversity per decade for Billboard charting rap songs of different decades, and found that the 90s had the highest level of diversity, with the 2000s and 2010s being lower by comparison.
Though Sran leans more towards lyrical hip-hop, he does state that he is a fan of all subgenres, ranging from pop rap to mumble rap.
“It’s my hope that hip-hop continues to stay diverse and does not gravitate towards one subgenre such as ‘mumble rap’, which seems to be dominating hip-hop today.”
Mark Merritt, a software development professor at Seneca, Humber, and Sheridan College, is a hip-hop fan that can empathize with the struggles of Black people often depicted in the genre.
“With my dad being an immigrant from Jamaica coming to Canada in the early 90s, I grew up with a heavy hip-hop influence. I think it’s a great avenue for young Black men to express themselves. Those who grew up without much always have a story to tell about their upbringings and there is a real sense of authenticity that comes with it. Having grown up myself without too much, I can relate to a lot of the messages I hear in the music,” says Merritt.
“My go-to style is trap music, or drill music. Something about the dangerousness and rawness behind that style of hip-hop always gets me going. Whether at the gym, or just driving around, I can listen to it at any time,” he adds.
While people may be aware that more lyrical subgenres of hip-hop are out there, it’s possible it does not stop them from enjoying, and perhaps even preferring, rap that exhibits less lyrical and message-driven content. The question now is, what causes us to gravitate towards this type of music?
The chart demonstrates a drop off in lyrical content from the 1990s to the 2000s and 2010s. (Courtesy of Storybench)
Instant gratification provides us with convenience on a level that we have never seen before. It allows us to live in the age of NOW. We want our food delivered to us NOW, we want our accomplishments shared with the world NOW, we want our Amazon orders NOW, and most of all — we want our music NOW.
The phenomena of buying CDs seems like it was ages ago. Even downloading music onto your phone seems like a distant memory. But the truth is, it really wasn’t that long ago. Streaming music only became popular on a large scale a few years ago.
Services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal allow us to listen to practically all the music in the world for a nominal subscription fee. The upside of this is obvious — all the music we can possibly imagine is available to us whenever we want, wherever we want, with the conveniences of skipping, rewinding, and replaying all at our fingertips.
The downside of this? We begin to appreciate music less as a whole. When we were hoarding CDs or scouring iTunes or LimeWire for our favourite songs, we were unknowingly putting an investment of time, money, and passion into the music.
This investment made us appreciate the music we had more because we weren’t nearly consuming as much of it and we weren’t sure when artists would release more.
(Courtesy of Griffon Webstudios)
This is likely something we all are suffering from. Digital Information World reports that the average attention span for humans was 12 seconds back in 2000. It is now eight seconds. For comparison, the average goldfish’s attention span is nine seconds.
So how does this affect our music? It’s an ongoing loop between people getting bored of music quickly and artists putting out more music faster to appease their listeners.
What ultimately suffers is the quality when artists are more concerned with quantity. Some hip-hop albums lack replay value for this reason. They were designed to be listened to only a few times, at most.
The ease of accessibility in terms of making music is largely a great thing. To get started in music now, taking out studio time, having a world-class producer and state-of-the-art equipment is far from necessary. As an artist develops, those things will slowly be required. But to simply make an entry into the game, all one needs these days is a decent microphone, a sound-editing software, some headphones and a SoundCloud account.
The upside of this? Anybody can make music. The downside of this? Anybody can make music.
When the creation of music, and rap specifically, is accessible to a lot more people, much like our tastes, the artistic market becomes oversaturated as well. Originality will inevitably take a toll as so much music hits the airwaves so quickly, and artists will sound more similar to one another than ever before. Original ideas will eventually become more scarce.
An unfortunate trend that we have seen in hip-hop is losing great artists too early. Some of the most notable being the deaths of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G, both being shot in the prime of their careers.
As if this wasn’t unfortunate enough, we have recently seen rappers get killed just as they begin to taste success, with notable examples being New York artist Pop Smoke and Toronto’s own Houdini.
“I hope to see more hip-hop artists investing in a positive lifestyle. The violence and chaos that is going on in the genre right now is very disruptive to our culture and society as a whole,” says Merritt.
“Kids are looking up to these individuals and a lot of them are getting the wrong message.”
THE ARTISTS’ TAKE
(Courtesy of Sukh)
Of course, a critique of hip-hop would not be complete without hearing from some of the creators in the genre themselves.
The instrumentals, melody and beat are all integral parts of any hip-hop track worth listening to. And this is where the art of production comes into play.
“Production, in the simplest form, is the art of creating the musical parts for a song. Different producers have different skill sets and approach production differently,” says Sukhman Sidhu, known by his stage name Sukh, a GTA-based hip-hop producer who has worked with over 40 artists.
When it comes to hip-hop, Sukh is accepting of where the genre is going, and simply sees it as part of the process in the genre gaining popularity.
“I don’t think that message-driven music has gone down, I think that hip-hop as a whole has become more popular and with that comes a branching of different subgenres. Just like how rock and roll branched into metal, prog rock, hard rock, art rock, krautrock — the same is happening for hip-hop. The kids want to listen to what they want to listen to, who are we to gatekeep them?”
Marvin., a GTA-based solo artist who was formerly part of the collective FARGONE, has a clear vision when it comes to his art.
“My goal with my music is to leave a mark and create a legacy. I feel like the best music is always the music with the most relatable content, that’s what I try to project the most,” Marvin. says.
In terms of the rap scene today, Marvin. notes what catches his attention and sees the music of our time as a new era in the genre.
“Melodies and lyricism is what catches my attention the most. I think we’re in a new era of hip-hop and music in general is something that’s constantly evolving — it won’t ever stay the same. Personally, I’m not too sure what side I fall on, but a mixture of both is what I’d like to believe.”
(Courtesy of Marvin.)
WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US?
As we enter the third month of 2021, perhaps it’s time rap finds its way back to the fundamentals that made it so unique in the first place. As a culture, we should be pushing for music that makes us think, provokes debate, pushes boundaries, and makes us feel things, rather than music that we can just zone out to. It’s time for a change.
With a drop in lexical diversity, and an increase in the speed at which we get the music, we may be diminishing the quality of the rap experience for both artists and fans alike. The only constant is change, and hip-hop is no exception to this. It would be a benefit for the culture as a whole for this change to move forwards rather than backwards.