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What Went Wrong With… The Polarisation Of Hip-Hop Culture?

An image of baggy jeans and skinny jeans to illustrate the rift within contemporary Hip-Hop culture

In contemporary Hip-Hop culture it seems that fans, critics, and even musicians are constantly bickering with each other, often resorting to contrived responses and offering conventional examples of what they perceive as an accurate representation of Hip-Hop music. Now I’m all for criticising mediocre music but these days it seems to me that the majority of fans are set in their ways; they’re either “old-school” purists or blinkered “new-school” followers and if either camp sees or hears something from the other side they instantly dismiss it as sounding “old” or “new”, strangely with both contrasting terms serving as a disparaging description of each clique’s so-called opposition.

Very similar to the East Vs. West division in the 1990’s, in the 2010’s we can observe two clear factions within Hip-Hop; on one side we have a cliche of 1998-2006 (someone who still wears Mecca rugbies, baggy jeans, and Lugz boots) and on the other side we have a cliche of 2008-2016 (someone who wears Supreme sweats, pre-ripped skinny jeans, and Air Jordan reissues). Okay, so the old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” may come to mind when you read my previous sentence but today’s rap-fans seem more like leaflets; they’re not very deep and more often than not, you can tell the person’s tastes and opinions just by glancing at their exterior. One thing is certain; one of these looks is out-of-style and the other is a year away from becoming out-of-fashion too. Maybe everybody needs to look for a third option.

Whilst on the topic of fashion, although big labels including Adidas and Timberland have always been part-and-parcel of Hip-Hop, once we went from the street (Dapper Dan) to the high-street (Tommy Hilfiger) mainstream fashion labels suddenly became the genre’s leading marketing tool and during the noughties, catwalk fashion almost usurped the music. I was always critical of black artists lining the pockets of rich white designers but these days the issue of clothing vs. music has escalated to the point of distraction. Hip-Hop’s support of fashion labels is no longer an issue of selling out your music but instead is a diversion from an artist’s mediocrity. What I mean by this is that upon hearing bland Hip-Hop, fans incorrectly conflate the issue with fashion but this correlation interferes with the real issue of dull, formulaic Hip-Hop music. For example, Young Thug wearing a dress doesn’t change the fact that his music is appalling, his androgyny has nothing to do with making substandard music. And it’s pretty clear that Kanye West looks like a walking joke regardless what he wears so a skirt looks just as absurd on him as trousers. Remember Kanye looking like a microwave meal at the Met Gala? His outfit that day proved that trousers look just as daft on him as skirts do. Therefore any fan yelling “that’s skinny jeans rap” or “real rappers don’t wear skirts” is missing the real issue of unimaginative and uncreative music.

When it comes to Hip-Hop musicians, innovation and uniqueness is the key to respect but it’s an odd situation when you witness contemporary Hip-Hop fans claiming something sounds “new” or “old” when it quite clearly doesn’t. 9 times out of 10, everything is a throwback to the 80’s and 90’s. A lot of modern Hip-Hop fans for example, hear something distinctive when they listen to A$AP Mob, but didn’t southern and mid-western groups such as Three 6 Mafia and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony come up with that sound back in the mid-90’s? You also get fans lauding Kendrick Lamar’s “woke”, off-beat yet complex flow but didn’t Ras Kass do something similar back in the late-90’s? Conversely, every time an artist like Joey Bada$$ makes a so-called “90’s sounding” album, mainstream critics are quick to label it as such but they oddly forget that all of these aforementioned styles were aspects of the Golden Era. Whether it’s Boom Bap, Trap, or Political Rap, it’s nothing new, so why the bias towards certain sub-genres?

Album reviews from The Guardian showing that they have a bias for Southern or Mid Western style Trap over Eastt Coast Boom Bap

What people seem to forget is that the 1990’s weren’t all “two turntables and a mic”; the decade contained G-Funk, Double Time, Horrorcore, Jazz Rap, Mafioso Rap, and Trap (among others). The 90’s wasn’t a single idea, it wasn’t a single sound, anybody telling you that has an agenda to peddle. I’m sick of people acting like the past was a singular uniform concept and the present is completely and utterly original.

Whether it’s genre fashion or sub-genre sounds, the 1980’s, the 1990’s, the 2000’s, and the 2010’s all contained differing aesthetics. Just take a look at these three rap groups; A Tribe Called Quest, Above The Law, and the Gravedaiggaz. Not only was their look unique, their sounds were too and yet they released music in exactly the same year. I’ll also point out that these looks were unique and credible, in fact you could get away with them today…

An image of 1990s Hip-Hop fashion showing the differing styles

On the flip-side look at these examples of corny ordinariness. Regardless which decade these artists were in, they looked and sounded phony and affected. No matter which period these rappers were from, their outfits and style was laughable, even on the day they originally wore these gross-looking garments…

An image of embarrassing and corny Hip-Hop fashion from the 1990s and 2000s

It seems to me therefore, that the played-out argument about the corny past and the stylish present is a lie. The conversation should be about lame and cool regardless when it exists, it’s not when you’re from but where you’re at.

If you actually look at Hip-Hop culture as a whole, it becomes obvious that mediocrity isn’t a unique symptom of the present. It doesn’t matter when a piece of music, fashion, video, or art is made, what matters is the distinctiveness and credibility of each artist and if you look properly, every era has good and bad, original and unoriginal (which despite many people missing that fact, was the point of my Hip-Hop Timeline article – but apparently certain people think that certain rappers are infallible and can’t be critiqued – I guess the status of “legend” and “genius” needs to be judged a little more shrewdly). But I digress.

So pick a year, in 1994 for example we had music by the Fu-Schnickens, Gravediggaz, Smif-N-Wessun, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and Notorious B.I.G. but did they all sound and look the same? Of course not, so how can so many people say the 1990’s followed one big contrived trend?

If you go forward by 20 years to 2014, we then had music by Underachievers, Dillon Cooper, Vince Staples, Nicki Minaj, Tonedeff, and Hawk House but did they all sound and look the same? No? So how can so many people say that the 2010’s followed one big contrived trend?

The annoying aspect of all this is that people are too quick to put a certain sound or aesthetic into a box; it contains record scratches and Jazz samples so that’s old, it contains echoed claps and heavy bass so that’s new. But like I already said, that’s a very blinkered perspective. If you think 90’s Hip-Hop was just East Coast Backpackers, if you think 00’s Hip-Hop was just Southern Trappers, and if you think 10’s Hip-Hop is just Mumble Rappers then you’ve got a very narrow outlook on rap music.

Back to the topic of “old school” and “new school”, a combination of both the mainstream media and underground heads overrating their own camp’s music whilst simultaneously mocking the opposition, has resulted in this splintering of Hip-Hop culture. Sometimes it feels like a crap civil war with citizens of the same genre verbally warring with each other over something that should be uniting them. If you go to the comments section of YouTube or any online Hip-Hop publication, if a review for a Trap album or artist is favourable, you’ll get all the old heads dismissing it as simple and corny, and if a review for a more orthodox Hip-Hop album or artist is favourable, you’ll get all the contemporary fans saying it sounds dusty and corny too. Of course both these opinions can be true but not when they’re aired by people who repeat the same sentiments based solely on the age of the sub-genre they’re commenting on, these agitators are completely wrong and are misleading the masses.

So let’s make things clear: someone like Drake is wack because he’s a ghostwriter-hiring, poor singing, below-average rapper not because his music is released in the present day. Lil Yachty is trash because he’s an under-skilled, amateur-sounding musician, not because of how he dresses or looks. And don’t forget that MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice both dropped music during the Golden Era of Hip-Hop, but does that make their vapid material an automatic classic simply because it was recorded “back in the day”? Of course not, so why do fans keep acting like Hip-Hop is one type of sound, and one type of style which lasts for one decade at a time? Why does one side keep acting like the past was faultless and why does the other act like everything created in the present is free from reproach? This has never been the case and never will be. Skills and talent transcend time and overrated hacks should be exposed regardless when they exist. You could put someone like Denzel Curry or Meechy Darko in a time machine, send them back to 1988 or 1998 and they would still get love and respect, send Lil Uzi Vert, Travis Scott or Post Malone back however, and they’d be laughed out of the game.

So despite rap fans arguing over “who is better” and Hip-Hop enthusiasts forming sets since the inception of the genre, and despite feuds being an integral aspect of Hip-Hop culture, stereotyping and generational divisions was never meant to be part it. If you’re a fan of Hip-Hop, please stop arguing over pointless shit – it’s either dope or it’s trash – it doesn’t matter when, where, or by whom it was made. I don’t see fans of other genres arguing with each other, dividing themselves over fashion trends and musical eras. Do fans of Rings Of Saturn hate Slipknot or Sepultura? Do fans of Snail Mail hate Eddi Reader? Do Jorja Smith fans hate Alicia Keys? Do Skrillex fans hate The Prodigy? Do fans of Tommy Lee Sparta hate Cuttie Ranks? No? Then what the fuck is wrong with the Hip-Hop community?

The War’s On.

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20 replies »

  1. Young Thug wearing a dress doesn’t change the fact that his music is appalling, his androgyny has nothing to do with making substandard music

    This isn’t really true though — his androgyny has a lot to do with how shitty his music is, and vice versa. Autotuned singing is inherently emasculating as opposed to traditional rugged MCing. That’s just the effect of making everything so high pitched. Plus it goes much more naturally with R&B-type beats (the “trap” of today has little to do with the real trap sound from circa 2010, which was hardcore and from the streets and which did not and could have had autotune in it).

    It is no surprise the emasculation and even outright homosexualization of hip-hop has gone hand in hand with abandoning traditional MCing in favor of autotune.

    And eventually the dresses came too…

    send Lil Uzi Vert, Travis Scott or Post Malone back however, and they’d be laughed out of the game.

    They would have been laughed out back in the days, that is correct. But today they are not, and that is a major difference. There was a serious backlash against Hammer and Vanilla Ice in the early 90s. Where has the equivalent been the last 10-20 years?

    • Someone can be shit regardless of their appearance. Did Kanye’s music change when he wore a black kilt/skirt? If Young Thug wore 90s Pelle Pelle sags would he all of a sudden start rapping with skill? Shit makes no sense.

      And “Homosexualizaton” of the genre? Ever see some of the shit Afrika Bambaataa and Melle Mel wore back in the day?

      You could interpret anything as “un-rugged” with that homophobic stance. I mean weren’t diamond earrings, hanging a bandana from your back pocket, necklaces, fur coats all “feminine” if not entirely gay? If the answer is yes, all those things occurred during the golden era of Hip-Hop.

      Also rap fans were too complacent during the 1990s and 2000s, they should have given every rapper who wore a velour tracksuit, mink coat, gator shoes as much hate as they do rappers in skinny jeans. There was almost ten-twenty years of corny as fuck Hip-Hop fashion but people were fine with it. There were loads of rappers who were trash back then too; Nelly, Lil Zane, and almost everybody on No Limit but everybody went though a period of liking tacky garbage. And by the way, nobody blamed the crap music those rappers were making on the shit they were wearing so why do it now?

  2. “It’s either dope or it’s trash – it doesn’t matter when, where, or by whom it was made” This 100% truth. Great article my friend. This sums up my beliefs as well, so I can only add to the convo. As someone who grew up during the Golden Era of rap music, it took me a little while to figure out talent is what makes something great, not necessarily style. I do believe that most fans are not connoisseurs of good music, and that the ability to quantify talent is a skill within itself.
    With the advent of technology, hip hop was able to reach far more listeners; those who aren’t purists, but importantly are consumers. Music is a business, and people spend impulsively; so a large population can base supportive decisions on something ultimately irrelevant (by our view); such as looks or cultural background i.e. not musical talent. Coupled with record companies paying off radio stations to sell a watered down product, equates to the state that rap music is in now. Moreover, why would record companies want to hire someone who knows there worth and can negotiate terms when they don’t need to? Or hire talent that can cause problems on any level when the average consumer of rap music doesn’t care how good the music actually is? This is obviously my hypothesis, which is based on economics, technology, and a person’s ability to appreciate things deeply.
    There is much more to it of course, but let’s look at the Apple example. People who appreciate technology, and the power it can afford, would never buy an iPhone. For the same price you could get something much more programmable, and equipped with 3 times the performance power. But part of the reason iPhone is successful is marketing, and also that the average Joe—who’s IQ follows suit—probably doesn’t appreciate technology that deeply. Basic instinc kicks in and these consumers want what all the other sheep have in order to feel like they’re a part of something. They majority of paying customers I believe, therefore, have superficial and primordial motives. Rap music has then become just another victim in it’s transition to pop culture. Independent networking of artists and listeners who care about music deeply needs to happen more, so that the actual artistic aspect of rap music is not forgotten.
    Again good job on the article, and I didn’t mean to post this long but your points resonated what I have felt for some time.

    • I like the analogy you give of the iPhone. I guess when anything becomes popular for aesthetics or other superficial reasons rather than substance, it loses its core principles. Mainstream Hip-Hop definitely mirrors the Apple situation right now, although thankfully, pop culture items only have a finite amount of time in the limelight, just look at all the failed once-popular technology companies that consumers have abandoned. Instead of eventually becoming the Nokia of music, maybe mainstream Hip-Hop can reinvent itself when its popularity starts to wain back into a credible art-form once again. Because there’s enough young, underground talent to do so.

  3. Good article . You have to remember how much easier computer technology has made it to make an album than it was thirty years ago . Especially for a young artist who doesn’t have much money . Esham recorded his debut album in one day on a used karaoke machine in late 1988 .

    The problem with comparing 1994 to today is that groups like Gravediggaz (Rest In Paradise Too Poetic) , UGK (Rest In Paradise to Pimp C) and Cypress Hill were getting a mainstream push from MTV and their albums were available in mainline record stores . There was variety back then . Hip Hop had balance . For every rapper like Coolio there was a Ras Kass .

    Young guys with talent like Dillon Cooper and Denzel Curry are considered “indie rappers” nowadays . They don’t have a chance to be plugged to a huge mainstream audience (not even a more established independent emcee like Hopsin is) ; where as in 1992 Pete Rock , Kam , Kool G Rap and House Of Pain were being put on by MTV . Because of the demise of MTV , the rise of the internet
    and the demise of major labels being able to think outside the box .

    I believe now that the internet has become the enemy of most people . Mainstream outlets like Complex tell you who to listen to . That’s basically promoting superficiality in the very same way dating websites like Plenty Of Fish , OK Cupid or Tinder do . Luckily there are outlets like this one that encourage the opposite of superficiality and group think . I remember when I found this blog — it was like finding a needle in a haystack .

    My brother in law listens to older heavy metal exclusively . He is a fan of Testament , Metallica , Slayer , Black Sabbath , Exodus , Pantera , Sepultura , Tool and Megadeth . When I ask him what he thinks about newer metal bands like Killswitch Engage he says that they suck compared to his time-tested favourites . So I guess that is an example of a someone being a heavy metal purist .

    • That is a large part of the problem. “Mainstream” Hip-Hop only becomes mainstream after a lot of marketing and promotional help, and yes back in the early-to-mid 90s, MTV, The Source, Rap Pages etc. had credibility and authority to say what consumers should listen to or buy. They weren’t always right but they were 60-70% correct in what they plugged. These days the likes of HipHopDX, Pitchfork, and the rest are filled with (for sake of a better definition) middle-class lames. These dullards collectively have the worst taste in music, either that or they’re paid to promote trash and defend hacks. It’s a similar situation with film, you routinely get high scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic for crappy contemporary films whereas the same critics underrate what came before (Die Hard With A Vengeance vs Live Free Or Die Hard comes to mind).

      When young rappers say Tupac is overrated many people agree but if you say Kendrick Lamar is overrated modern fans create multiple threads in Genius or The Coli and berate your opinion. The masses really don’t want a bad word said against modern rappers and yet they relegate the talented ones to the underground or like you said, the “indie” or “alternative” section of the genre. If this generation of Hip-Hop wants respect, collectively the fans, critics, musicians, and publications need to push the better shit to the forefront and stop having hissy-fits when someone tells them their favourite stars are trash.

  4. Other than huge technological advances ( starting with Napster launching in June of 1999 going to the present day of Instagram ) there a couple of factors that have changed hip hop .

    – It is regarded as acceptable ( and admirable ) to be be a complete fool and sell out . Look at Kanye West’s antics earlier this year . Would an early career Master P ( I’ve never been a fan of his music ) have supported David Duke’s political career from 1989 to 1992 ?

    – No matter what sub genre of hip hop is brought to the table lyricism has been eroded . There are lyrical trap artists out there . Wordsplayed is one contemporary example . However , the terrible ones are getting all the money and mainstream media attention . Hip hop was meant to be an expressive lyrical artform . The subject matter varied from the beginning — Melle Mel , Prince Markie Dee , Rammellzee (Rest In Paradise) , Spoonie Gee , Kurtis Blow , Kool Moe Dee , Egyptian Lover , Too Short , Sha-Rock , Donald D . All of these artists had different styles . But lyricism was mutually encouraged to develop and become more complex . It wasn’t about fashion either . Donald D didn’t dress like Egyptian Lover and vice versa . By the mid 80’s Chuck D , Rakim , Boogie Down Productions ( Rest In Paradise to Scott La Rock ) , Craig G , Kool G Rap , Ice Cube , Schoolly D , MC Shan , Scar Face , Willie D , LL Cool J , Just-Ice , Brotha Lynch Hung , Masta Ace , Awesome Dre , Frukwan , Kool Keith and K-Rino all started to push the boundaries of lyricism . Are most mumble rappers / mainstream rappers trying to push each other today in “the lyrics department” ?

    What do you think of these points ?

    • I agree. In the 80s and 90s fans would listen to the lyrics (most of the time) and analyse who was better. By the time the 00s came round, fans instead started to say what sounded better in terms of production. Once producers like Pharrell and Timbaland made it all about the beats it paved the way for lacklustre lyricism because any garbage can be laid over “hot beats”.

      Coupled with the fact that people love to copy what’s making money these days (hence multiple clones of the same popular look/sound) there is pretty much no room for variety. Contemporary fans hold one rapper (Kendrick) as the pinnacle and everybody under him can basically piss about mumbling and it’s okay ’cause you only need one lyrical rapper to uphold Hip-Hop’s credibility (despite there being hundreds of better rappers in the underground) while everybody else focuses on profit-making.

      Nobody cares about balance and musical diversity these days because dumbed-down Trap makes money and money is king. We have every mainstream rapper from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s to thank for that; gold chains, whips, bitches, champagne, clubs, and designer clothes. When all that matters is cash, even if the shittiest form of music makes the most, there’ll be a swath of people rushing to make more – in my opinion that’s why mainstream Hip-Hop is so trash today.

      There was variety back in the 80s because Hip-Hop wasn’t making as much money as it does today. But I guess, while a product is finding its place in the market, there’s still time to experiment. Now there’s too much money at stake to do that.

  5. Long time reader and fan. Enjoy the criticism but often feel the sense of frustration understandably overshadows some detailed analysis. Would like it if you could use your intellect to dissect the designs of commercial media as opposed to fine art by looking at bricolage, reverse bricolage, and astroturfing. It seemed like you were on to something about the effect of the casting couch on culture. If you have the time and will, please try googling “Bob Dylan Lays Down What Really Killed Rock and Roll.” Though its topics are outside of the scope of your articles, the marketing and social mechanics are very much relevant to your writing. Cheers and looking forward to the next entry.

    • Damn, the payola scandal sounds a lot like the post-millennial takeover of commercial radio and the suppression of underground music (Clear Channel etc.). Thanks for the info, I didn’t know that much about the co-opting of Doo-Wop and the separation of Rock ‘N’ Roll along racial lines. It seems the division of fans has been going on for decades…

      View story at Medium.com

  6. Good article I always wondered why Hip-hop feels like it a side line every genre has a line but they don’t label everything underground and mainstream.Seems to me that we let the media dictate the genre instead of the fans deciding what is awesome and what is wack.

    • I agree. “Underground” sounds become mainstream when the media finally accepts them, the problem is they’re usually too late, making hits out of tired sounding shit. Mainstream Hip-Hop is just underground stuff from several years back.

  7. The question then is this — What went wrong with the underground after about 2005 or 2006 ? If you look at Kendrick Lamar and the other members of Black Hippy you see a steep decline in authenticity , lyricism and creativity compared to earlier groups like Swollen Members , The Demigodz , Nappy Roots , Cunninlynguists , Cannibal Ox , Blue Scholars , Common Market , Dead Prez , MHZ Legacy , Little Brother , Blackalicious and Clipse . It’s like every mainstream emcee born after 1989 stopped caring about lyricism .

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