There's a Message in the Music

by Quentin B. Huff

16 February 2010

Photo of Run DMC (partial) by
©Glen E. Friedman 

The Lore of Yesteryear

KRS on Stop the Violence Movement & Tour

KRS on Stop the Violence Movement & Tour

The Lore of Yesteryear

Songs tapping into a wider variety of source material have the potential to grab more listeners and gain the admiration of existing ones.

At its core, hip-hop thrives on history and tradition. Rappers are almost always aware, acutely so, in fact, of their influences.They often describe the locales they represent (see 2pac’s “California Love” and Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind”). They also pay tribute to the giants of the culture, as in 2pac’s “Old School” and Nas’s “U.B.R. (Unauthorized Biography of Rakim)”. Likewise, Joell Ortiz’s mixtape Joell Ortiz Covers the Classics finds Ortiz going for broke over some of hip-hop’s most recognizable productions.

This reverence for the lore of yesteryear gives hip-hop a rich, though sometimes familiar, reservoir of source material. It also places rappers in a unique position to reflect on the past while offering their views on the present and the future.

Similarly, hip-hop’s songs are uniquely situated to provide listeners with access to historical critique and starting points for dialogue. Sampling, for example, allows contrasting voices, instruments, and styles to be juxtaposed. Although it’s not always an affordable tool, considering the costs of clearing samples, the technique yields qualitative dividends when it’s handled right. Consider, for example, the inventive use of James Brown samples in “Brand New Funk” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Using the sounds of a legendary funk master to augment the rap group’s “new funk” is a stroke of genius, a way of melding past and present into something timeless enough to still be enjoyable in the future.

As for critique, consider Nas’ “Black President”, a single intent upon examining the viability of a Black president in the 21st century while sampling 2pac’s decidedly 20th century commentary, “Although it seems heaven sent / we ain’t ready to have a Black president”. More obscure crate digging, which we often get from folks like Madlib and Pete Rock, also serves the educational function already discussed.

Viewed in an optimistic light, the downturn of in-store record sales should prompt artists to reach higher, to aspire to create meaningful records, if for no other reason than to be distinct from the competition and survive these difficult economic times. What was once a fiercely centralized system has become increasingly, and in some respects delightfully, diffuse. Independent labels, plus a robust mixtape culture, help promote the projects artists enjoy most. 

Internet distribution promises a wide audience at a lower cost. The whole thing has opened the entire game to a diverse selection of artists, leveling the field somewhat when it comes to getting noticed.  Moreover, many of these artists have used their freedom of distribution to share interesting concepts that might have otherwise been shelved at a major label for lack of easy categorization. 

Of course, there’s an argument to be made that so much consumer access makes it easier for artists to get lost in the sheer volume of voices. It seems like there’s a new beat maker or emcee waiting behind every hyperlink. Perhaps, though, this challenge might be met with creativity, and releases that embrace history and culture go a long way toward distinguishing the leaders from the also-rans.

Meanwhile, this independence of distribution gives artists the ability to explore less worn subjects without worrying as much about fitting into a company’s promotional campaign. Apple Juice Kid’s albums reworking music from Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong immediately come to mind, fulfilling the need for creativity by imaginatively reworking the material while also serving an educational need for those who are unfamiliar with these jazz icons.

“Oh, sure,” you say. “Internet distribution is all well and good. But e-fans are as fickle as the ones offline. You know they’ll hate on rappers that try to be creative.” Maybe so. Chamillionaire’s “Internet Thugs Attack”, from his Mixtape Messiah 7 mixtape, addresses this in a hilarious way. In it, the rapper gets blasted by an Internet fan(atic) who rhymes that he will “terrorize suckers on the Internet daily”, “click this mouse pad at your career so damn hard”, and commit all sorts of virtual mayhem. 

Nevertheless, the point remains that rappers are more likely to release what they want through Internet sites and blogs, without worrying too much that they will lose out on the retail end. In fact, the retail agenda might be better served by taking advantage of Internet channels. In this way, historical and cultural rhymes will have ample opportunity to flourish, along with a better chance of reaching an appreciative audience.

I’m not suggesting that rappers lean exclusively in this historical direction. That could be just as monotonous as having too many songs involving sex, violence, or any other topic. Songs exclusively devoted to culture may be fine for a niche audience, but too much of it could be divisive. The use of historical subjects shouldn’t become trite or formulaic. For artists, however, songs tapping into a wider variety of source material have the potential to grab more listeners and gain the admiration of existing ones. Audiences, in turn, are (hopefully) entertained by creativity and a greater sense of conceptual balance.

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