Indie Rock Rhyme: A Look Back at the Year in Hip Hop

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Tired of these rappers, tired of these jackers
Tired of these dances by these fucking backpackers
And I’m sick of all these hipsters

- A$AP Rocky, “Leaf”

When A$AP Rocky released his mix tape in 2011, it became one of the soundtracks for the year. I remember hearing it bumping in DC’s Dupont Circle on the way up to the city’s hippie/hipster/young professional neighborhood Adams Morgan.  For all his apparent disdain for hipsters and backpackers, some of 2012’s best releases seem to be akin to counterparts in indie rock – the very genre A$AP’s Rocky’s villains inhabit.  While not entirely new, hip hop, like indie rock today, increasingly seems to be dividing into niches.  You still have your Drakes, Rick Rosses, and Lil Waynes, but it would seem that today hip hop has developed a more nuanced collection of genres; no longer is rap split between more commercial rap and its sometimes denigrated “counsciousness” variant.  Busdriver’s 2009 taunt – “Be real; conscious rap failed us” – operated as sarcastic inflection of their own worth but also got at this subgenre’s own awareness of its limitations.  Add to this a dizzying geographical variety that makes the West Coast v. East Coast beefs of the 1990s retrospectively narrow and in a sense parochial.  To be fair, there has always been geographical and musical diversity in rap, but in 2011, it would seem that rap and hip hop have matured into a field more diverse and with greater depth than we have seen for sometime.

First, take two long-in-the-tooth vets of the independent scene. If rap artists struggled to string together careers that consisted of more than one or two albums, over the past 20 years we have witnessed the emergence of visionary but non-commercial artists: El-P and Killer Mike.  Both fiercely independent musicians who maintain a DYI orientation, they have cemented their place as more than underground prodigies. On the impeccable R.A.P. Music, Mike spits flows about Ronald Reagan, Lord of the Flies (“Willie Burke Sherwood”), rap as religion (“This is jazz, this is funk, this is soul, this is gospel/This is sanctified sex, this is player Pentecostal/This is church”) and a pronounced disillusion with the state of America (“Even though it’s blacktop from the mayors to the cops/ Black blood still gets spilled,” on “Anywhere but Here”).

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El-P’s Cancer for Cure, gives us the hip hop soundtrack to an Orwellian, Children of Men United States that references drone strikes (“Drones over BKLYN”), authoritarian sexuality (“We’ve got our ways to make you speak/We’ve got our ways to make you talk”), shrinking opportunity (“Well, I know a thing or two about a thing or two/And one of them’s the fact that men like me don’t ever get no second chance”) and even manages to ominously reference the animated series Futurama (“You know I get bent I’m a Bender, Futura-Ra-ma-Dom-inant gene gone bad”). Granted, El-P has been riffing on this subject matter for sometime.  One critic described “Patriotism”, by El-P’s old group Company Flow, as a “A five-minute fulguration to American culture and the military-industrial complex.” Fantastic Damage’s “Stepfather Factory” serves as a good example of the album’s larger sense of doom as the song took aim at the nuclear family and a prescription drug corporate future. El-P’s 2007 I’ll Sleep When Your Dead focused on similar themes, opening with a sample from Twin Peaks. With all that said, you won’t hear a more chilling or innovative song about domestic abuse than his “For my Upstairs Neighbor” off his newest opus.

Of course, El-P and Killer Mike seem tied at the hip this year. They appear on each other’s albums and El-P produced Mike’s 2012 release.   That both artists drenched their albums in overwhelming, dominant beats rather than those of stereotypical “conscious rap” demonstrates hip-hop’s internal development.   As Sound Opinions Greg Kot noted, in several moments, Mike sounds like an angrier, more articulate Ice Cube – a formidable artist who seems to have forsaken rap for other pastures.

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Speaking of Ice Cube, has anyone taken NWA’s legacy and made it their own as intelligently as Compton’s Kendrick Lamar?  Lamar and NWA have been discussed elsewhere, but it needs to be said that what Lamar does on the Dre-produced good kid, M.A.A.D. City may be the best reinterpretation of NWA’s legacy of anything that’s come after the demise of Compton’s most famous rap outfit. Tonally distinct but clearly influenced by NWA, Lamar filters his predecessors through the sensibility of BIG and Pac, but with the ear of a novelist (or since this is LA, a screenwriter).  Have you ever heard a rap song told from the perspective of a dead gangbanger or prostitute (“Sing about Me I’m Dying of Thirst)? What about from a mother worried about (“It’s you they looking for, Raid outside/Rather see you locked up than dead/Only you would say that I’m selfish“) her “at risk” son?  Sure, some critics like Jim DeRogatis took Lamar to task for trafficking in rap cliché and misogyny, but this criticism seems so misplaced as to be laughable. Lamar may be giving us a very specific Compton experience—he pretty much ignores its swelling Latino American community—but it flips clichés.  New York Magazine’s Nitsuh Abebe put it best: “But what’s most striking is the depth Lamar brings to the story itself—a vision of his younger self always in danger of succumbing to that spiritual emptiness, and looking for things (religion, family, rap) rich and substantive enough to fill the hole.”

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Even rap’s interaction with hip hop this year pointed to a more open genre.  Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange proved an exceptional album even though its creator drew as much attention for his sexuality as the record’s musical content. Tyler the Creator, ostensible leader of the West Coast rap collective Odd Future known for throwing around words like “faggot” and “homo,” embraced Ocean’s bisexuality.  Ocean even appears on the 2012 release Numbers by Mellowhype (an Odd Future production). One could argue that while still not as tolerant as one might hope, the hip hop world seems to be changing.  Odd Future, for all their misogyny and homophobia, represent a very different rap reality than that of NWA or even the Wu-Tang Clan.  The West Coast collective combines punk abrasiveness, deep rap pedigree, and a DIY skate aesthetic.  Admittedly, Tyler and his crew are horribly offensive (the misogyny in some of their songs can be overwhelming) but also incredibly compelling. Throw in all the artists above and hip hop, notably rap, seems to be entering a new exciting era where groups like NWA now provide postmodern templates to be broken down and reconstructed via younger artists.  If albums like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Ramones (1976), Pet Sounds (1966), and The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) served as texts to be reinvented by lonely boys and girls in their bedrooms, one hopes for similar developments in rap now that its youngest practitioners can look back  over 30 years of tradition, especially the late 1980s and 1990s: Ilmatic (1994), Ready to Die (1994), Straight Outta Compton (1998), The Chronic (1992), Strictly for My … (1997), Step into the Arena (1991), Aquemini (1998), Enter the Wu-Tang (1993) , pretty much anything by Jay Z, and the list goes on. Building on ground laid by Run D.M.C., Public Enemy, and Rakim, the 1990s added West Coat and Southeast voices. Rap artists today have a fuller discography from which to draw. Who’s the Grizzly Bear of rhyme? the Wilco? Only time will tell.

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Finally, the passing of MCA and the dissolution of Das Racist serve as a more doleful remembrance of hip hop this year.   MCA’s death marked the end of an era and most certainly the final chapter in the long and wonderful legacy of the Beastie Boys. As we noted at the time, the “King” Ad Rock, MCA, and Mike D channeled old school hip hop, punk, and hyper-referentiality in ways never seen before and gave a generation of awkward suburban white kids—among others—a pathway into one of the late 20th century’s most important cultural developments: hip hop.  In relation, though definitely not as tragic as MCA’s passing, DR’s break up left numerous ToM contributors crying over their bootlegged mix tapes.  Das Racist openly eschewed conscious rap labels and, they argued, beats.  They once declared themselves the anti-Talib Kweli. In many ways, DR’s raps emulated the Beasties from the scattershot cultural references to the poking humor, though DR perhaps poked a bit harder especially on issues of race.   Still their interviews (more tense than the B-Boys and perhaps, dare I say a tad less confusing, but definitely tongue in cheek), humor, and cultural jabs made them natural successora to the B-Boy crown.  Alas, it was not to be and maybe should have never been.   I leave you with a couple lines from Paul’s Boutique’s “Shadrach.” Big ups MCA.

The dirty thoughts for dirty minds we contribute to
I once was lost but now I’m found
The music washes over and you’re one with the sound
Who shall inherit the earth the meek shall
I think I’m starting to peak now Al

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  1. [...] recoiling. The Carnegie Endowment’s Adam Gallagher serves up our second installment.  Click here for part [...]

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