Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Hip-hop: state of the genre

All music evolves and builds upon the changes in society and the people who listen to it and create it. All genres owe their existence to the styles created before them.

Hip-hop, more that any other genre, pays homage to all of its pre-existing styles. Hip-hop has gone through many changes within itself since it began to bless our ears so many years ago. What started as a medium of funk and soul has transformed into an outlet for empowerment of the people. The result is a very diverse art form. Hip-hop is also a music that was once called dead by some of its past innovators. Exploring hip-hop today clearly shows that those words are wrong, as hip-hop has emerged like a phoenix from the flames into a new entity.

As with all styles of music, people designate a time in which the genre reached its high point. In hip-hop it is referred to as the golden years, or the “golden age.” Depending on whom you’re talking to, the exact years will vary, but to many, the period is between 1988 and 1994.

This time period gave us albums such as Slick Rick’s “The Great Adventures of Slick Rick,” The Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “Low End Theory,” Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back,” Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” and Nas’ “Illmatic.” These records defined what hip-hop was and what it has become today.

But what happened after 1994, according to many hip-hop connoisseurs, was that the genre began to separate from what had defined it. Some claim “gangsta rap” was to blame, but if that were the case then hip-hop would have felt the effects way before 1994, due to the work of groups that date back to the ’80s (like NWA and The Ghetto Boys).

However, most tend to blame two things. First and foremost: White America and its youth. The embrace of hip-hop culture by young, white suburban teenagers brought a much larger audience to the table, leading to more money surrounding it. This process had been occurring for quite some time. It can be traced back to the early heyday of hip-hop, with groups like Run-DMC and Onyx, the two of which collaborated with popular rock ‘n’ roll groups.

Another entity of our country, Corporate America, discovered the financial opportunities in popularity amongst White America in hip-hop music. The money was there to be made, and Corporate America had a strong influence over many artists. The labels began to see that certain types of hip-hop made more money for them, such as pop, which outsells everything. The labels began to demand that type of product from its artists and they were refusing to put out albums by respected artists in the genre that wouldn’t conform. Basically, all hip-hop had to sound the same and it had to refer to the same subjects: love songs (the quasi formation of hip-hop as R’B), sex and/or violence.

Welcome to 1997, which we like to call the “Age of Puffy.” The funny thing about this is that Puffy really isn’t to blame; he was just the leader of the pack and the best at creating music that Corporate America wanted – and that the public ate up.

Between 1996 and 1997, we lost two of hip-hop’s greatest contributors: Biggie and Tupac. In the wake of their deaths, people began to have a bad taste in their mouths for the violent hip-hop that carried a large part in the responsibility of the deaths of those two young men.

Sean “Puffy” Combs, now known as P. Diddy, provided an alternative to that style with softer and more pop-appealing acts, such as Mase and 112. This was the age of the crossover acts, just as old-school group EPMD predicted. Well-respected emcees such as Jay-Z and Nas began to make music that was more appealing to the masses and less appealing to their original core audience.

The charts were topped with this form of hip-hop and the music began to lose its identity while entering the mainstream. This left a large audience of fans and listeners of hip-hop when it was in its “golden age” feeling alienated and searching for more than what they were hearing.

Enter the underground. Just as there were people wanting to hear what they were missing, there were artists who were sick of what was out there and began to create music away from the major labels, on independent labels and by doing shows in small local venues. These small labels, such as Rawkus Records, began to acquire a rather large and loyal following from hip-hop fans that were sick of commercial hip-hop.

Rawkus Records brought us a very refreshing brand of hip-hop in the late ’90s. Sporting acts such as Pharoahe Monch (formally of Organized Konfusion), Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Company Flow (who ended up leaving Rawkus and disbanding; and one the main members, EL-P, then created his own well respected hip-hop label Def Jux). They also put out popular underground acts showcase albums in the “Soundbombing” series, which is the label’s true claim to fame. These albums featured many up-and-coming and rather unheard artists at the time as well as proven acts like Common, Eminem, Brand Nubian, Boot Camp Clik and Q Tip.

This created a lot of buzz for underground hip-hop music. Labels started to notice that the people who bought underground hip-hop albums didn’t just buy a few albums once in a while (which was the trend of people who bought the pop albums) – they bought a lot of albums, every week. These fans were like drug addicts and underground hip-hop was their fix. Underground hip-hop was a refreshing alternative to the mainstream commercial hip-hop that was being pumped out of every corporately owned radio station, and labels weren’t the only people who noticed this change. Other artists who were more associated with the mainstream began to notice this.

This brings us to contemporary times, which is like a “second coming” for hip-hop. The lines between underground and mainstream are becoming more and more burry. Mainstream acts that lost listeners of the underground scene are starting to gain them back with solid albums that appeal to the mainstream as well as the underground fans, such as Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint” and Nas’ “Stillmatic.” Hip-Hop is also seeing the rebirth of former greats like Scarface, with his album “The Fix,” as well as new albums by members of Wu-Tang and also from former Death Row record label members such as Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.

Today artists have gained more creative control over what music they put out. With Dr. Dre and Eminem giving free reign to their acts, their labels, Aftermath and Shady records, respectively, are practically controlling what’s hot and what’s not in hip-hop right now. We also are seeing a lot of collaborations between artists, once thought of as underground, with many mainstream acts. Two great examples are the Rawkus and Rocafella collaborations, with Jay-Z on a Talib Kweli record, and Mos Def on a record by Kanye West (one of the Roc’s celebrated producers responsible for a large part of Jay Z’s “The Blueprint”).

There is also a new trend: Hip-hop music is becoming darker, but in a good way. Hip-hop is getting back to its grittier and most raw form of presentation. This should be no surprise, considering that hip-hop’s most popular act, Eminem, is from the underground hip-hop circuit, and his form of music, although very mainstream, is very dark at times. His star act, 50 Cent, is also the first straight-up rapper to be on top of the game in a while. Whereas Jay-Z and Nas both opted for a mix of R’B and rap during the late ’90s, 50 Cent opts for a style more likely to be associated with the style of Tupac and Biggie (although his lyricism is not up to par with the late greats). In other words, he may make a song that appeals to the mainstream, but his presentation is still very raw. This has influenced acts like Jay-Z and Nas to make music similar to the music with which they debuted rather than what they had been putting out during the late ’90s.

So what’s next? Well that can’t be answered, but the albums that have been coming out in the mainstream lately have become m
ore and more true to the art form as we knew it in the “golden years,” while still unique in its progression. There are also much celebrated acts from that age back in the studio after years apart, such as A Tribe Called Quest and Pete Rock and CL Smooth. Will they live up to the past success? Only time will tell, but we assure you that there is a lot more to look forward to these days.

Keep your ear to the street. If hip-hop is going to be reborn, the street is where it starts – not in a major record label office, contrary to popular belief.

Justin Chellman and Peter Dale are Collegian columnists. You can listen to their hip-hop radio show called “The Red Line” on WMUA 91.1 FM every Friday from 9 to 11:30 p.m. E-mail them at [email protected].

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