Hip-Hop is a global phenomenon. Having totally over-thrown popular culture for going on for two decades, and having been around for 40 years, there is no denying its relevance.
Unfortunately as is common place in the music industry, media and money made light work of perverting a beautiful thing. One need only to watch a few docci's around the history of hip-hop to understand exactly how paradoxical the current state of "Hip-Pop" is.
After meeting too many people with a negative view of my beloved music and culture, i decided to write an article to explain to the general public how to not only identify if they are listening to decent Hip-Hop but to offer some basic insight on what it's actually all about.
The first thing that must be mentioned is that Hip-Hop is vast. If we set modern commercial hip-pop aside (which is all exactly the same - shit), there is an incredibly vast array of styles and content matters to choose from.
This is my personal and non-debatable breakdown for the un-initiated, a rationale for those that are unfamiliar with what REAL Hip-Hop is. I've chosen some examples along the way to illustrate my points, I’m well aware there are others. You are welcome to disagree any of the opinions, but i may deposit a turd in your mail-box. Please bare in mind that this isn't a history review for academics, but more a brief breakdown of the genre for curious people in 2014.
Before getting into the breakdowns, i want to cover something very important:
The alter ego
One of the greatly misunderstood aspects of Hip-Hop is the alter ego. In Hip-Hop culture whether it be Graffiti, DJ'ing, Break Dancing, Beat Boxing or Emceeing; every participant is required to develop a pseudonym. This goes deeper than just a name. This is almost a character one develops for oneself - it can be entirely fictional, true to life or an exaggerated version of oneself. The idea is to be as unique and original as possible. You compete against all the other names in the game for ultimate respect and appreciation – and there are many approaches. Understanding this has a lot to do with how we contextualise the content matter in hip-hop music. Here is a well-known example of why it's important:
Eminem was very heavily criticised for a track he wrote where he basically murdered his wife and dumped her body while being accompanied by his young daughter. The major public went crazy because they could only interpret his rhymes and message from one stand-point, which is literal. Not surprisingly, parents around the world were infuriated because they assumed he was spreading messages of murder and violence to their children. The problem is they did not have the cultural knowledge to contextualise the message. Eminem (or Slim as i prefer to call him) is a self-proclaimed emcee’s emcee. He comes from a battle background and his goal for his early albums was nothing more than to knock the socks of other emcees. A good rapper can only make so many songs about how lethal they are before they need to find new and creative ways to demonstrate their capacity with words. Slim really gets this concept and has been a pioneer in the game of creating concept tracks that are not only cohesive and engaging, but are packed with the insane multi-syllabic rhymes and wit that you expect from a seasoned battle rapper. So despite there being elements of real emotions behind the music, and inspiration often spawning from real life - there is way more at work than the literal message. When I listen to "97′ Bonnie & Clyde" I hear an amazingly well produced skit packed full of humour, good acting and genius nuances of language. The music is not being made for 9 year old children, but neither are many Hollywood films, TV series or theatre productions. Slim’s primary target audience for the earlier albums was intelligent Hip-Hop heads (ones actually old enough to be allowed to purchase the music).
*I am aware that Slim later released a second part to the song which was substantially more hectic than the first, but this wasn’t relevant at the time of the initial song coming out and being criticised. Furthermore, controversy sells.
The point I’m making here is that the public often makes the misconception that rappers are representing themselves as ridiculously over-the-top or violent ego maniacs. There are some limited individuals who are, but a vast majority are aiming to entertain you with a cleverly written narrative. The first assessment one needs to make when listening to a real Hip-Hop tune is the intention of the rapper in relation to his alter-ego or character. This listening approach can transform a track from an annoying bragging contest into a visualised story of humour and wit. This whole concept does not really apply to any modern mainstream Hip-Pop but for understanding the underground, or mainstream rappers early works, it is important. A lot of the beauty of Hip-Hop lyrics is in the intricacies of how language is manipulated and sculpted, and in the open-ended way one can portray oneself. If you know what to listen for, the entire genre opens up.
The next prerequisite to enjoying Hip-Hip is listening to the correct branch that caters to you. Certain styles will be easier to relate to, depending on your personality. Following is a breakdown of some major categories there are to choose from:
Old school is either music made during hip-hop's earlier stages (namely the 70's and 80's), or Hip-Hop mimicking and maintaining that flavour. Music of this era is characterised by a funky nature with lots of break beats. The rhyme schemes used by the emcees are more or less basic "aa bb" type formatting and the messages are clear and direct. A larger chunk of it is just good old fashioned fun music that was great to party to at the time. A lot of the mceeing in the old school era rotated around building an interaction between the crew (DJ and the emcees) and the audience. The emcees were akin to the funny and charismatic hosts at a show. Battling embodied that flavour as well where emcees would use jokes to clown each other. In slightly later years the scene would spawn more controversial artists who started discussing some very serious stuff.
Having been born in ghettos below the poverty line and shrouded in gang-violence, youth movements began to realise that the violence was getting out of control. The 5 elements of Hip-Hop began to replace violence as a way to compete with rival crews. It was a beautiful shift from hate to art that would solidify the healthy competitive edge that Hip-Hop maintains to this day.
So what are we actually listening for in this category? I would say the positive upbeat energy, the innocence and transparency of messages delivered, and obviously an insight into the genres roots. Some notable artists to check out are: DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, KRS-1, Public Enemy #1, Run DMC, Eric B, Rakim (came slightly later but is the godfather of multi-syllabic rhymes).
Gangster Rap / East Coast Hard-core
Gangster rap emerged between the mid 80's and early 90's out of the dangerous lifestyle imposed on inner-city youths (mostly on the west coast). It was hard edged, no hold bared music that depicted: gangterism, drug peddling, womanising, poverty, police brutality and much more. It was almost a direct rebellion to the music that had come before it. It is essentially the style that would become the most sellable in the mainstream. Although the artists received an immense amount of grief from a shocked public, they maintained that the music was depicting an ignored reality that many people had to endure and live in. This style changed the face of Hip-Hop and set a lot of trends that are still around to this day.
The East-coast would produce its own brand of very similar music but they labelled it “East-coast Hard-core”. Years later a feud would ensue between the two coasts that would claim the lives of two of the most influential rappers who ever lived: Tupac and Biggie. Although this genre would slowly quieten down during the 90s, its influence and hard edge would be felt throughout Hip-Hop for years to come. As we read above about the alter-ego, people must remember that much of the music is exaggerated and a lot of the public finds raps about guns and thug-life entertaining, it's quite simple. There are mixed feelings about the genre in the academic world of Hip-Hop history. Many criticise the media's over-use of this thug image for having a negative impact on American youth and prolonging gang-culture. The thing about this category people really enjoy is the hard edge – it’s vibey, energetic and street-wise. Remember that a lot of it is over-the-top, listen to it for what it is. Some notable names: Ice-T, NWA, Boogie Down Productions, Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, Dre, Kool G Rap, Snoop Dog
Because Hip-Hop makes massive use of sampling, and is forever fusing things that weren’t meant to be fused, it becomes hard to create a box to put everything into. I see a category in my head that I can only categorise as "classic". This is music made by notable artists during what was (in my opinion) Hip-Hops prime. A lot of the tracks in this section cross over a few categories but all have the same thing in common - originality and playability to wide audiences. This was a period where Hip-Hop was topping charts and even the most mainstream tracks around sounded great. It was a period where originality, creativity and skills were revered and rewarded. Back in Hip-Hop's hay day it was imperative that artists did their own thing to get respect. Copying or mimicking another artist's sound would only gain fifty steps back. Funny where the music has got to now where you can barely distinguish one artist’s auto-tuned wail from another’s.
I would pin this prime era to roughly 1995 until about 2002/3. This was when every artist was pushing the production and lyricism to its limits. It only took a few seconds to know who and what you were listening to. A lot of the BIG names we all know in Hip-Hop exploded during this era and solidified their place in Hip-Hop History. Music of this period tended to maintain the hard edge of the gangster era but fused itself with all sorts of new sounds as well as dropping much of the violence and negative messages. The beats were characteristically bumpy and well produced, it was the type of shit that was guaranteed to make you bop your head. There are countless hits releases in this period utilising samples from decades of popular music, and label’s had money to clear those samples. It's hard not to appreciate or hear the creativity in classic Hip-Hop because it is all on the table, out in the open - it's good music. The easiest way to explain is to give you a shit-load of examples and you will see what i mean: Dr.Dre, 2-Pac, Busta Rhymes, Wu-Tang, Gangstar, DJ Premier, Jurassic 5, Snoop Dog, Mad Lib, Fugees, Mobb Deep, Redman, Method Man Jay Z, LL Cool J, Roots, Canibus, Onyx, Sticky Fingaz, Lauren, Hill and Many more.
There are TONS of mainstream and underground artists that have not been mentioned, that is for another article. This period is probably the best one to sift through for people not so familiar with Hip-Hop or turned-off by todays spew.
Battle Rap orientated Hip-Hop
Battle rap is the freakish prodigy baby of Hip-Hop that is at the very core of emceeing. Up until the earlier 2000s, the art of battling had been mostly contained to street corners, clubs and events. Generally only those privy to knowing who, where and when would get to witness meaningful battles. Surprisingly, battle rap and true hip-hop itself are receiving a much needed revival in the past few years as we see Battle Rap growing into a professionally filmed league sport.
Back in the day, emcees would gain respect in the underground by defeating notable names wherever paths crossed. The word would spread by mouth and you would earn another stripe, it took a long time to establish a rep. Considering that battles were not being covered by media much, one of the things that helped you along was publishing songs with written battle rap versus. Often artists would engage in track battles where two opponents would release songs aimed at one another. This spawned an entire sub-genre of Hip-Hop music that rotated around writing the most technically advanced and razor sharp lyrics possible. That was “writtens”, BUT, the most important requirement from a good battle emcee was the ability to freestyle. This is the art of making up rhymes as you go along. The best approach to overcoming what your oponent is saying is to respond, you can’t pre-write responses for stuff you haven’t heard yet. This made freestyle a very important tool in battling. Sadly we have seen the art of freestyle dying out in the past few years. The leagues are opting for the pre-written 3 round system and with ever-rising standards, emcees are expected to deliver perfectly so they use as much memorised material as possible. There are still a few excellent emcees who freestyle, some even in written battles. The upside is that the standard of written rhymes is higher today than ever before in Hip-Hops history. I'm hoping to see the return of frees soon however, with the growing popularity and public interest in Battle rap.
What I love about this category is the fact that it gave the whole world a level playing-field to compete on creatively. You don't need to be a gangster or a brawler to defeat someone who is. It's a battle of intellect and pen-wielding ability. There are no distinctions between fact and fiction and as long as it makes you sound bad ass, and your opponent look stupid, it's open-season. Humour plays a massive part in making enjoyable rhymes, I really love to laugh and so do most people. It’s basically one big playful game that emcees take very seriously.
Every country has its own styles, flavours and humour. The emcees and leagues vary from pure geeky comedy to macho gun-thug bravado, but it's all a battle of wit and self-confidence. To answer the question the public immediately asks when witnessing a battle; no - there is no violence that spawns from these battles. Obviously there are isolated incidents as there would be in any activity (eg. table tennis), but violence in battles is very heavily frowned upon in the culture. One altercation can have you banned from a league indefinitely – it is against the roots of the sport itself. At times it might appear overly vulgar, aggressive, disrespectful and cut-throat, but one must remember that it’s a performance. There is no-one in the world more proficient at squeezing impact out of a string of words than a battle rapper. I find something very Shakespearean and uplifting about a culture that teaches us how to defeat someone with words rather than fists, and how to take a loss like a man.
Not all emcees who fall into this category actually participate in battles however, many just enjoy writing the type of competitive lyrics that the audience classifies as battle-orientated. For example I would classify Mad Child and Necro as battle orientated, purely based on the writing style, whereas some classify them as Horror-core or Death-Rap. I guess it depends on your interpretation. There is a stereo-type that battle rappers can’t make good music but many artists have surpassed this stereotype.
Some notable names that have (in my opinion) made good battle flavoured music: Canibus, Necro, Ill-Bill, Jedi-Mind Tricks, Mad-Child, DZK, Slim Shady, Snowgoons, Cruger, Lunar C, Shotty Horror
Some well-known battle rappers who make music outside of the battle theme: MC Juice, Craig G, Illmaculate and Sand People, Soul Kahn, Loe Pesci, Dumbfounded, Flight Distance
Some rappers focussed more on freestyling and battling than music: MC Supernatural, Thesaurus, Kid Twist, Dizaster, Iron Soloman, Madness, Dirtbag Dan
This is the more intellectual side of Hip-Hop. Music made in this sub-category characteristically contains meaningful and serious messages. Typically it contains narratives about things such as: society, global affairs, culture, life, conspiracy and especially politics. This genre is actually often referred to as "Political Rap". But it also contains tracks about deep and personal inward journeys. There is no specific time period for this category as music of this nature has been around since early on in Hip-Hop History. Conscious hip-hop is more so defined by the content rather than the sound, so naturally it crosses over with a few other categories, namely the next one. It is the conscious branch that showed us how powerful Hip-Hop can be for spreading truth and building awareness in the public.
Although it is usually very direct it can border on abstract in lyrics when the content matter is more emotional, spiritual or psychological. There is no advice needed for how to appreciate this strand of the music, just find someone who discusses subjects you can relate to and its smiles all the way to the bank. Some very notable names: KRS-1, The Roots, Dead Prez, Nas, Immortal technique, Common, Mos Def, Brother Ali, Atmosphere
Experimental / abstract Hip-Hop / Alternative + Dark Poetry
This is a great category for those that are not too fond of the traditional Hip-Hop sound. It's very loose and experimental, the point being to explore and challenge the genre definition. The styles vary greatly from faster electronic beats that border on Glitch-Hop to slow and organic tunes that border on Trip-Hop and Dub. Artists in this field strive to create the most original, strangest or most psychedelic sound-scapes possible. A large portion of this music is instrumental or without lyrics.
It's hard to explain the sound, as it varies so widely. My best suggestion would be to check out 3 or 4 of the artists suggested and make sure you check out a few albums or time periods of each. What you are listening for is the creativity that comes with defying genre specifications and the use of: extensive sample manipulation, use of unusual sounds, effects processing, unusual structure and loads of electronic instruments. Notable names (where emcees have been mentioned it is in reference to their musical production): J Dilla, El-P, Blockhead, MF Doom, Madlib, Prefuse 73, RJD2, Sibot, Markus Wormstorm, Flying Lotus
Dark poetry is a general term i use to refer to lyrics that are moderately abstract or expressionistic and closer to poetry than most traditional hip-hop lyrics. This style of rhyming goes hand-in-hand with abstract and experimental hip-hop beats. The intent is usually to paint a picture or feeling with words. Other times the lyrics are a cryptic riddle of metaphors and figures of speech. Practically all of this music is conceptual in nature and often it is the listener’s job to interpret or de-code a meaning. The tone tends to be quite dark and usually the rhyming patterns are sophisticated. Some notable artists: Aesop Rock, Cannibal Ox, MF Doom, Jam Baxter, Fliptrix, Kool Keith, Dose-1, Leak Bros, Flight Distance, El-P
Horror-Core is a unique branch of Hip-Hop that is centred on Horror themes. The dress, the lyrics and the operatic beats all contribute to a feel that is quite reminiscent of death-metal culture. The emcees paint pictures of gruesome and spine chilling scenarios full of blood, gore and the supernatural. It is almost horror-movie fan art. Some battle orientated artists fall into this category due to their natural style and still remain traditionally "Hip-Hop", whilst others are deliberately far detached from the culture. The scene has been around since the earlier 90s and has mixed reception with the public and hardened hip-hop heads. Listening to this genre can be done in a few ways – the lyrics are usually pretty well written so one can focus on structure or you could simply envision the images the artists are laying out for you. Some notable names: Brotha Lynch Hung, Insane Clown Posse, Kool Keith, Gravediggaz, Necro, Cage, Kung-Fu Vampire, Tech N9ne, Tyler the Creator
This is a swaggy style that was spawned in the South and gave birth to many offshoots such as Crunk and Trap. This is one of the most recent styles to win acclaim in the mainstream. Music of this nature is perceivably slower than regular hip hop (although sometimes written at a higher BPM in half-time). The focus is often more on the beat and music while the emceeing is more aesthetic than in other styles. This genre makes heavy use of retro drum machine sounds and electronic instruments. The early music of this region focussed a lot on thug life, drugs and popular culture such as fashion, clubbing and money. This made it a great candidate for the mainstream. The most recent versions of this music do not qualify as Hip-Hop in my mind and are quite frankly very pop-orientated. It is in my opinion the most recent artists from the Crunk and Trap hybrids who are attributed to severely dumbing down and commercialising the mainstream Hip-Hop image (Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz and Waka Floka – I’m looking at you) . Generally, I’m not a fan, however there are some great exceptions so don’t assume all artists from the South sound the same.
Some rappers pull off very impressive performances rapping in double-time to these beats. Rapping in double time is when a rapper essentially cuts each bar in half and delivers twice the amount of syllables you would if rapping on the beat in a regular fashion. Mixing double-time with regular timing is very popular in related stems of this style however double time rapping is not only limited to southern hip-hop. It just makes a great candidate for double time due to the slower pace of the tracks. This category is a bit of an acquired taste but I would imagine if you like the sound of retro drums, synths and stylistic emceeing, it will appeal to you. It goes down well at a club and some really enjoy partying to it. Notable names from the earlier periods: The Geto Boys, Outkast, Ludacris, Three 6 Mafia, Rick Ross, Goodie Mob
That, ladies and gentlemen, is just the tippy-top of the iceberg that is real Hip-Hop, i missed out a LOT of names and info so if you found something you like, it's guaranteed there’s more where that came from. I have very deliberately tried to steer away from discussing the mainstream hip-hop of today too much as it is practically not Hip-Hop anymore. Even legendary emcees in today’s mainstream are only driven by album sales and charts. If you want to listen to real Hip-Hop you have to search for it, hopefully this is a descent launch pad.
The scene has been through a real slump over the past period but thankfully is seeing a lift with battle leagues driving back interest to sophisticated and relatable lyrics. I have mostly discussed prominant artists in this article, ones who have been around for a while. There are many new talented artists popping up lately who are making killer Hip-Hop. In a future article I will cover new-age Hip-Hop and whose making rad shit.
Don't let the media and big-industry convince you that hip-hop is only about flashy dick-heads rapping about money at the club. What you hear on the radio and see on TV is 90% garbage.
Turn it off. Hit with hammer. Repeat.
Keep it real homies! Peace :)
Robert R. Ventre
Some info about the author:
Rob is a devoted Hip-Hop head who has been following the movement since the late 90s.
He lives in a pineapple under the sea.
We would love you guys to contribute whichever artists you feel deserve a mention in the comments section below. Let’s spread real Hip-Hop to those who are seeking it!