PHOTO CREDITS: Getty Images/Press
Why Hip-Hop’s Early Incarnation Deserves Fonder Reinvestigation
I have been getting stuck into new music with...
fervency the past few months - and have found some great bands/acts I feel will do great in 2018. One of the things I am noticing is how many new artists are looking back and taking influence from previous years! This might include a Pop/Electro act sourcing from 1980s artists like Madonna and Prince; a modern Rock artist inspired by the muscle and swagger of Led Zeppelin. I am not one prone to endless nostalgia and contemplation but I am interesting seeing how the past is such an integral part of the present. Pop music, for all its shine and polish, sounds utterly infectious when it has bygone D.N.A. and classic strands. It is no coincidence my favourite two albums of the year, Lorde’s Melodrama and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. find strength and clarity in the arms of music’s better days. Lorde, claiming the top spot in my heart, has crafted a masterpiece in Melodrama. It is her second album and one that manages to muse on heartbreak and tough times - but do so with a lot of colour, variation and musical exploitation.
IN THIS PHOTO: Kendrick Lamar
I am in love with the album and admire how the young Lorde has sprinkled elements of the 1980s and 1990s into a modern and progressive work. The same can be said of Lamar and his latest piece of genius. Maybe To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) was a more vibrant affiliation with past Hip-Hop past ventures but I can see a lot of older sounds in DAMN., too. The record has been lauded by critics and demonstrates what a sensational human Kendrick Lamar is. He is one of the few mesmeric Hip-Hop artists that have found their way into my soul. My opinion is Pop/Rock is stronger when matching modern and of-the-moment sounds with the finest from the past: Hip-Hop transcends and stuns when (artists) interweave the glorious past with the urgent modern. I feel too many artists in the genre are neglecting some of the finer days and the sort of possibilities that can arrive from experimentation.
Kendrick Lamar is an exception, I find. If Grime and Rap has a few masters (female and male) and a lot of potential hopefuls: Hip-Hop is in a state of 9-1-1 (to quote an Eminem lyric). One problem I have found is how many newer artists in the genre are losing focus right from the off. So many songs are bringing endless collaborators and that, for all the good intentions in the world, is distilling the song and crowding it out. If a Rock song had four of five guest vocalists on it; that would put off the listeners and cause them to go elsewhere. It seems almost required for the hottest new Hip-Hop star to pen a tune and sling a host of bodies into the mix. Whilst I am delighted there are new Hip-Hop/Rap treasures like Princess Nokia emerging and amazing the senses; her best work makes one think of the glory days of the genres. ABCs of New York integrates bits of Lauryn Hill in parts; the song reminds me of the 1990s and the artists emerging during that period - a dazzling and instant smash for a hot young artist.
IN THIS PHOTO: Princess Nokia
I feel Princess Nokia will have a long and prosperous career. She is an artist with a singular mind and forging her own path through music. Away from her – and some other like-minded, talented peers – there is not a huge amount to recommend. I have written about the logistics and legalities when it comes to sampling music and creating songs that weave a variety of songs together. I have been revisiting the best days of Rap and Hip-Hop and the likes of De La Soul, Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. I adore the ‘Flower Age’ De La Soul and how they managed to pen incredibly engaging and mind-blowing songs without profanity and rampant sexism. I guess that period (the late-1980s) still contained sexism and offence – I like to think there was a greater degree of purity and purpose back then – but I listen to an album like 3 Feet High and Rising and marvel at the way the U.S. band broke grown and created something pioneering.
It was one of the first Hip-Hop/Rap albums that fused comedic skits and lighter tones with exceptional production and sampling. One need only listen to songs like Potholes in My Lawn, Eye Know; Me, Myself and I and The Magic Number and see the list of (other) songs featured within. Maybe I am bathing in the warm waters of nostalgia but I wonder why modern Hip-Hop is defined by polished productions and a rather direct and unabashed energy. I feel De La Soul’s greatest work is not a product of the 1980s – it was released in 1989 and inspired artists who would add an incredible footprint to the 1990s. I listen to that record and laugh at skits and brief turns; admire the fact there are twenty-four songs and the album was too long to put on vinyl – maybe there was self-indulgence in parts but it showed how passionate and determined the band were to make history!
The same can be said of an album like Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. That record arrived in the same year (as 3 Feet High and Rising) and, when it arrived, found critics miffed and confused. Many were unsure whether the sample-heavy L.P. was career-suicide for the New York legends. Of course; time has proved them wrong and that album is seen as one of the finest of the 1980s. Again; there was a mix of comedy and incredible spits; fine rhymes and incredible energy. I guess there is a bit of a difference between Beastie Boys and De La Soul. The latter were seen as hippies and a product of the 1960s – their records were a mellow and soothing affair; offence and trouble were not on their mind, Beastie Boys were a more expressive and fired-up band but they rarely relied on shock and crudeness to make their point. The heyday of their career found them taking a bold and explosive approach to sampling and crate digging.
I am agog when listening to Paul’s Boutique and the music the boys laced into their exceptional tracks. Many could argue times have evolved to the point where sampling has become impossible and costly. I am hearing modern artists (in other genres) sample and they have not reported major obstacles. Perhaps that is because they are only sampling a single track (or two) but there are few out there willing to take the initiative and create an album and multifarious and cross-pollinating as 3 Feet High and Rising and Paul’s Boutique. Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back arrived in 1988 and was, arguably, the start of a new wave of Hip-Hop gods. It is hard drawing a line between the three classic acts I have mentioned: each shares the D.N.A. of genius and groundbreaking music. Public Enemy’s strongest statement was defined by anger and a feeling of alienation. With Chuck D on the microphone, the record looked at the plight of black citizens in the U.S.; corruption from police and the government; the way his peers were being segregated and abused. An album that dealt with such harsh subjects did not deliver its music and motifs with po-faced production and a lack of imagination.
Take a gulp of the album and you witness a staggering display of lyrical/poetic inventiveness and sampling; incredible compositions and command like nothing else – a record that compels the body to move and makes you think. Even though we are not in the 1980s anymore; that does not mean Hip-Hop/Rap needs to become too entrenched in modern times. The albums I have named are the tip of the iceberg – I would urge people to properly investigate the late-1980s/early-1990s and the way Hip-Hop exploded and evolved. We cannot claim times were different then: today; there is the same political corruption and sense of division around the world. Not only are many Hip-Hop/Rap artists lacking any true incentive and fortitude: the music is quite flat and commercial. I am excited considering a new Eminem album - but there are few other Hip-Hop artists I am genuinely pumped about.
IN THIS PHOTO: Eminem
At a time when we need these men and women to step up to the plate and show music how it is done – are the best of the breed failing to rise to the challenge and deliver an album with any real substance and genius?! If you look at the finest albums this year; there are going to be one or two Hip-Hop/Urban albums in there - but I feel other genres will take a bigger slice of the pie. Something as blissful and dreamy as 3 Feet High and Rising is what the music world needs at the moment – there are artists who get close but nobody quite reaches those heights – and could spark a new movement in Hip-Hop. At such a dark and fraught time; there is a distinct lack of humour and fun to be found in music right now. Hip-Hop does not have to lose its authenticity and street credit if it returns, to a degree, back to past decades and revokes its magic and wonder. Public Enemy showed you could deliver bombs of passion and proclamation but ensure the compositions sparked and ignited the mind.
I get tired by processed beats and formulaic lines; too many weak-willed mandates and insignificant albums. It sounds like I am taking aim at Hip-Hop but there have been wonderful records from the past few years – creations that have the potential to endure for many years to come. This stubborn and beleaguered music lover is always looking back and wondering whether modern music would benefit from greater pairing with its predecessors. We are seeing the 1980s making a comeback in Pop; the 1990s have never really escaped from music – a lot of artists I am featuring still obsesses over the guitar bands of the early-2000s. I feel Hip-Hop is the genre that stands above the rest and has the power to change lives and situations. During a period where the U.S. is being led to Hell; the world is fractured and people are not sure what the future holds – music holds a place and holds the torch that can shine a guiding light.
I feel Rock and Indie will only progress and inspire if we allow greater chances and access rights for the best of the underground; the mainstream become credible and worthy if there is a restructuring and a thorough investigation – have fewer commercial acts and restructure the charts so unsigned artists are provided the platform to mix with the big names – and Jazz provided better oxygen if people hang up their prejudices and preconceptions. Hip-Hop still suffers from being seen as rather niche and threatening. Few people I know listen to it and many assume (a Hip-Hop record) will be a slagheap of sex, sexism and suggestion. If leaders like Kendrick Lamar are no strangers to spicy language and prevarication: their music is designed to get people thinking and make a difference in the world. He is a rare example of what Hip-Hop can do and how far it can reach. Gone are the days of Lauryn Hill, De La Soul and Beastie Boys. I wonder whether the fact there are no modern-day comparisons is because of rigidity and fear. Many artists are sceptical casting their mind to the past – fearing they would be accused of being unoriginal and a pallid replica – but the difficulty sampling music and injecting that into your own is limiting a degree of creativity and potential.
IN THIS PHOTO: Run-D.M.C. (whose 1986 album, Raising Hell, was one of the most influential Hip-Hop records of the decade)
This is something we need to look at but, as it stands, it is possible and (relatively) inexpensive for modern artists to get permission to use other’s songs – and sprinkle that into their own body. Apart from modern queens like Princess Nokia; I miss the sparkle, colour and dreamy flows I grew up on. Perhaps I am being myopic but there is a great need to desire, among many, for Hip-Hop to open its mind and look back at its forefathers. Maybe there is not a universal writer’s block but there are few who are creating genuine works of art – albums that can remain for decades and inspire the new generations. In order for Hip-Hop to move forward; I think, ironically…
IT needs to take a long, fond look at the past.