As the 21st century unfolded the gap between commercial and underground hip-hop widened while EDM challenged its crown, writes Oliver Clasper.
According to Jay-Z, “hip-hop is about attaining wealth. People respect success. They respect big. And they don’t even have to like your music.” If he was being sincere, then his words were a sad indictment of what hip-hop had become by the early 2000s. Wu-Tang Clan rapped about cash ruling everything around them two decades previously (signalling that the end so often justifies the means), but over time the music had become an afterthought where once it had been the primary source. A hit is a hit, after all, but after the innovations of the eighties and the diversity of the nineties it was now about shifting units and making profits. No longer was craft important, and a new cynicism crept in that is only now just beginning to dissipate.
Many observers would probably agree that by 2000 the game had changed irrevocably. The feud between the east and west coasts had escalated to the point of all out warfare. Tupac and Biggie Smalls were shot dead in ’96 and ’97 respectively; respected emcees Big L and Freaky Tah were also killed. To complicate matters further, many of the groups and solo artists from the golden generation had split up or simply withered away. Out of the numerous acts listed in the previous chapter, most of which rose to prominence in the previous decade, only a handful would make anything commercially or critically viable in this new decade and beyond. Even more worrying still was that groups of musicians barely existed, just a plethora of solo artists. For a time, 1999 truly felt like the end of the party.
A Tribe Called Quest’s front man Q-Tip released his debut album Amplified in 1999, featuring production from the late J Dilla. But gone were the smart, insightful lyrics of ‘The Low End Theory’ and ‘Midnight Marauders’. Here Tip was either bragging incessantly about booty, or collaborating with Korn. To say that he was cashing in by teaming up with a band that enjoyed a sizable white, suburban following may be crude and reductive, but it signalled a trend that picked up steam in the years to come. (Three years later Q-Tip returned as Kamaal the Abstract, but his sophomore album was shelved after the label felt it had little commercial appeal.) But if one of the best musicians to emerge from the US couldn’t release a record without making concessions then something had gone wrong. In 2004 Jay-Z recorded with the rock band Linkin’ Park, thus furthering hip-hop’s slide into the mainstream in a move that echoed Run DMC and Aerosmith’s collaboration in the late eighties, only without their audacity or originality.
By the dawn of the new century a white emcee from Detroit was arguably the most popular hip-hop artist alongside Jay-Z. Eminem had already released three albums by this stage, although it was his second, The Slim Shady LP, which made people sit up and take notice. His debut, Infinite, is awash with serious social content, smart rhymes, intricate samples, and complex production, but it made little impact at the time, and so an abrasive U-turn was needed. Out went the impassioned maverick and in came the angry court jester; it was like the Beastie Boys, but in reverse. Years later he would go on record to say that, “rap music is the best thing out there, period. If you look at my deck in my car radio, you’re always going to find a hip-hop tape; that’s all I buy, that’s all I live, that’s all I listen to, that’s all I love.” While the older generation of hip-hop artists were strongly influenced by the myriad forms of music that came before them – be that jazz, reggae, disco, funk, or soul – it seemed that by the new Millennium too many artists were listening to hip-hop and not much else. As a result the music was less expansive, less experimental, and altogether less interesting.
Around the same time a producer named Kanye West appeared on the scene as a credible solo artist. Loved and loathed in equal measure (mostly due to his ego rather than his musical abilities), he was, for a time, the perfect antidote to glib commercialism, proving that you could be boldly creative while still selling records. He seemed to respect the legacy that he had inherited, while understanding how to play the game – making millions in the process. He began by picking up where many of the golden generation left off with obscure soul samples and erudite lyricism, but after seven albums in only a decade his cache has weakened significantly, and he has become increasingly bloated, boorish, and populist.
As the aughts trundled on young Americans also seemed to be increasingly enthralled by dance and electronic music – or to be more precise, Electronic Dance Music (EDM), an altogether poppier and debauched version of house, electro and techno. The result of which was the merging of this with hip-hop, as artists and labels began to see the appeal in EDM with the 4/4 drum pattern beginning to work its way into the more commercial hip-hop tracks (albeit by relatively credible artists). As dubstep took a hold in the US, the sound of commercial hip-hop also changed. In fact, as sign of the ignorance and emptiness of the scene in general, dubstep’s biggest American star, Skrillex, had this to say: “Hip-hop and electronic music are so similar in the fact that they’re both very visceral, have so much bass; a lot of times, it’s the same tempos. The culture and some of the sound design is different, but a lot of times it’s the same stuff.” That the tempos are vastly different, and that an emphasis on bass is not a crucial element in hip-hop, was lost on Skrillex. It seemed that by this point nobody knew what the hell they were talking about anymore.
Real hip-hop remained underground, struggling for attention in a field awash with egos and fame-chasers. Labels like Stone’s Throw (Madlib, Peanut Butter Wolf, MF Doom) were doing their best amid a cacophony of noise and nonsense, and as MF Doom put it so presciently in 2004: “To me, from the musical aspect, hip-hop has gone in a direction where it’s like a 100, or damned near 100% percent, on everything besides the music: what you look like, to what you’re wearing, the brand of clothing, to whatever intoxicants you choose to put in your body, to everything except for what the music sounds like.”
Thankfully the last few years have seen a major shift. A new generation has appeared, who appear to follow the same music that their parents had grown up on, combining that with the same punk sensibilities that artists from the 80s and 90s understood so well. Isaiah Rashad, Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown, the Odd Future crew, and Earl Sweatshirt, are among the musicians forging a new path, and enjoying a successful career at the same time. Their influences are myriad – from skate culture and punk music to Techno and boom bap hip-hop. The hope is that the vacuous period following the turn of the Millennium is well behind us, and hip-hop, for now, appears once more to be in a healthy state.