As legend has it, on a hot summer night in New York City in the late 1970’s, a young turntablist by the name of DJ Kool Herc started to play two of the same records simultaneously. As he “cut” back and forth between the two records, he formed a rhythmic loop over which he “MC’d” the crowd. On that fateful evening rap music was formed. It is also legend that on that very same night an uptight white gentleman, walked past the festivities and chuckled to himself: “What is this noise they’re making? Rap music? More like Crap music.”
Have no doubt, that saying is neither clever, nor true. Rap music is as crappy to one set of ears as rock & roll is to another, but by no means is the entire art form worthy of dismissal. As it’s longevity and strength today can attest, rap & hip-hop is one of the most important art forms to ever come from this country. Or at least it was. Sadly, even the most staunch rap fan finds it hard to profess their love for it today. It’s like confessing one’s love for sappy romantic comedies. It’s not something we share very openly, and when we do it’s usually more of an under-my-breath muttering.
There’s isn’t anything wrong with us. It’s rap’s fault. It did this to us. It cheated on us with rock & roll. It got caught up in it’s own hype. It’s the one who got addicted to clothes, drugs, & money. It changed and became somebody else. What happened?
Saying rap is dead is the same as saying rock & roll is dead, or Saturday Night Live isn’t funny anymore. It’s a common refrain heard every 5-10 years, and yet those institutions carry on. That’s why they’re institutions. Like rock & roll, rap has it’s cyclical ups & downs. That’s life. That’s art. That’s culture. If rap and rock are connected (and they certainly are) then we can learn a lot about where rap is going by looking at where rock’s been. There is about a 30 year gap between the two genres. Without getting too hung up on specific dates, you can say rock started in the 50’s and rap in the 80’s. Both started out with simple motives; to keep the party going. Buddy Holly’s simple 3 chord progressions, and chorus’ is like RUN DMC and their simplistic beats & refrains. By the 60’s rock had gone from Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard, to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who. A huge advancement in the art form had taken place, and many view this period as it’s heyday. This would be equivalent in hip-hop to the 90’s, and the introduction of The Fugees, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, 2-Pac, and Wu-Tang Clan. Way more advanced than their predecessors and yet still linked to their recent pasts. These groups took the blueprint and concepts of Erik B & Rakim, Slick Rick, among others, and brought it to the next level. During the 70’s rock used newer/better technology to make crisper sounding records and bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Eric Clapton started making boombastic sounding albums that also topped the charts. This era also brought the onset of more abstract styles like prog-rock & punk. For rap this was the late 90’s and early 2000’s, where the true masters of the art form (Jay-Z, Eminem, 2pac, Biggie Smalls) weren’t only considered the best at their craft, but hugely successful as well. They used slicker production to take rap to the forefront of radio. In just 2+ decades rap and rock & roll had both completely transformed into entirely different art forms. By the late 2000’s rap had taken the thrown as THE top genre in pop music with it’s best stars also beings it’s biggest sellers. Then it all collapsed.
We are now in the era for rap, that the 80’s was for rock. With a few exceptions of course, the 80’s in widely considered the lowest point for rock. Few bands came from that era and stayed. Many once great artists released their worst albums in that decade (Bob Dylan, Neil Young), and technology ruined the art form by over complicating it and tainting every album and song with a synthetic sound that is now described simply as “very 80’s”. Drum machines and synthesizers destroyed an entire decade of music. Rap did not heed these warnings. Auto Tune is to rap what synthesizers were to rock. The term one-hit wonder was created for the plethora of fleeting success stories (Flock of Seagulls, A-Ha) littered throughout that time period, and now there are more novelty rap artists than truly great ones. It is all about quick results and the “image” of success. Substance is not required. That is where rap is now. It has got caught up in it’s own success and forgotten what got it there. In a battle to stay relevant, rap has bypassed the formula that made it last for so long in the first place. Lyrics, keeping people on the dance floor, and having a good time. Unfortunately rap is stuck in a rut, but it is is digging downwards.
Fear not true rap fans, because what doesn’t kill rap will only make it stronger. Only after you hit rock bottom can you truly see the top. After all the rock-atrocities of the decade prior, the 90’s ushered in a true rock revelation with the Pixies, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and great albums by REM and U2. Indie rock started up in college towns, and every city had a “scene”. This is where rap is heading. As the economy worsens rap won’t have the luxury of wasting time or money. Labels will have to halt major touring, and artists will have to adopt a more D.I.Y ethos. They will have no choice but to push the envelope, experiment with sounds, stray from trends, and most importantly stay local. Without the money from labels, groups will have to stay close to home, which will then nurture a collective sound specific to one community. The best songs of this generation have yet to be written and my hope is that 40 years from now, someone will be writing an article pleading for rap to return to the sounds of the 2010’s. The heyday of rap music.