This is one of two hip-hop retrospectives in PopMatters’ Best of the ‘00s special section; the other one, by Andrew Doscas, can be read here.
Hip-hop might be the most scrutinized genre in U.S. If you think the aging Rolling Stone subscribers who shout “rock is dead!” are bad, you’ve never dealt with a hip-hop purist, the zealots who permanently live in 1994 and refuse to acknowledge modern rap feats. These people are, however, quite useful for collecting the story of hip-hop. Their rabid analysis is helped by hip-hop’s relative youth.
The Early Years
By the time Grand Master Flash and DJ Kool Herc were experimenting with turn tables, other pop forces like Jazz and rock had passed their wildest years. Hip-hop’s most influential single is only a few years over 30, and many classic rap records aren’t old enough to buy booze.
Hip-hop is the genre we’ve seen grown in tandem with the way we consume music. From radio, to MTV, to the internet, we listened to every step of evolution, and watched most of it as well. From this, it’s clear that hip-hop has always been weird. A genre can’t have guys like Afrika Bambaataa at the forefront of its scene without at least some strangeness in its DNA.
The ‘80s where a fractured place, eventually united by a flood of boom-bap and commercial artists in the ‘90s. After the death of Biggie and Tupac, hip-hop purists thought it was the end. But from the grave of the golden age shuffled out the oddest amalgamation of ideas ever seen in the genre.
The Rising Giants of the Late ‘90s and the New Millennium
Two drastically different cities, in terms of geography and sound, spawned two late ‘90s titans that refused the old rules. From the sweaty sprawl of “Hotlanta” came OutKast, and in the cold industrial mess of pre-hipster Brooklyn came Company Flow.
OutKast, comprised of André 3000 and Big Boi, was always an outlier musically. The duo’s late ‘90s albums showcased its refusal to stick to one genre or subscribe to the usual hip-hop lyrical tropes. André 3000 and Big Boi created their own musical gumbo made of soul, gospel, blues, and the kitchen sink. Their rhymes revolved around sci-fi themes and social inequities in their home town. To quote André 3000: “I want my children to say, ‘Daddy really said something, he wasn’t just trying to brag on himself.’”
Company Flow aimed for similar heights, but relied on a different attack. While OutKast had you shaking your rump while it made you think, Company Flow scared you straight. The cold terror of Funcrusher Plus created the roots of abstract and industrial hip-hop. With the chilling “8 Steps to Perfection” alone, Company Flow rapped about paranoia and genocide of a floating and unnerving beat from legend-in-the-making El-P.
That was the foundation and, to put it mildly, it all exploded in 2000. We’re in our own era of experimental hip-hop now, with Death Grips, Clipping., and Young Fathers standing out amongst a wide and deep crop of artists. However, the sudden mutation that rushed through the genetic code of hip-hop in the early ‘00s was unheard of. In 2000, OutKast properly took over the world with its most experimental album, Stankonia. The duo rushed to the top of the charts with the brain-frying genre mix “B.O.B.”.
OutKast was not the only catalyst for further change, though. In the same year, Eminem had one of the strangest hip-hop hits of all time with “Stan.” It was a breath of fresh air in the stagnate stink of mainstream radio; after all, this was the same year that Limp Bizkt got a number one album with Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water.
Meanwhile, in the underground, Deltron 3030 warped down to earth with a concept album about a dystopian future where psychic rappers could cut through bones just with their rhymes—no, seriously. Less than ten years after Ready to Die, we were rapping about MCs from Mars.
Hip-Hop Across the Globe
Hip-hop also expanded beyond the root demographic. Here I’m not referring to white dudes; they’ve been around since the Beastie Boys. Rather, it was the international community that latched onto the primarily American genre and made their own brilliant experiments. Japan and the U.K., in particular, delivered some of the decade’s most thrilling moments.
From the U.K. arrived artists like The Streets and Dizzee Rascal. The Streets’ Original Pirate Material was one of the decade’s most praised albums, and Dizzee was the first mainstream rap artist to make a dent across the pond. Both were proudly un-American in their flows and lyrical content, striking a defiant stance that hip-hop couldn’t be monopolized by one country.
The pinnacle of U.K. hip-hop came from Sri Lanka raised Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A., who released the dominating “Paper Planes.” The insane single mixed guitars from The Clash, lyrics about a “3rd world democracy,” and Maya’s strange flow to, somehow, become one of the most massive hits of the decade.
In Japan, hip-hop had already been seeping into the culture throughout the ‘90s, but the cross-Pacific fusion became cemented at the turn of the century. Samurai Champloo and Afro Samurai were popular TV shows set in an alternate universe Japan where ninjas and roaming swordsmen had headphones blasting out Wu Tang. Afro Samurai even had RZA composing the score. Samurai Champloo had Japan’s best hip-hop artist working on the beats to accompany the animation. Nujabes, born on the same day as North American beat maker extraordinaire J Dilla, crafted luscious beats deeply inspired by Jazz. His albums Modal Soul and Metaphorical Music still stand as some of hip-hop’s most blissed out releases.
But the influx of international artists in hip-hop was a symptom; the cause was hip-hop’s gluttony for other genres. The ‘00s found rappers and producers devouring influences that the pioneers of rap couldn’t have envisioned. This is borne out by a key comparison of two of the most critically acclaimed hip-hop albums of all time, one from the ‘90s and one from the ‘00s: Nas’ Illmatic and Madvillain’s Madvillainy.
Illmatic was the gritty boom bap flavored magnum opus that defined the ‘90s’ sound. 19 year old Nasir Jones, known best by the name Nas, rapped about the trails of life on the streets and made the quintessential New York album. By contrast, Madvillainy, released almost exactly a decade later, was an album of two underground kings, smoking blunt after blunt to create a rap Frankenstein. Madlib’s beats sampled accordions and ‘60s TV show theme songs while MF Doom rapped eloquently on abstract topics. So much had changed.
The Madvillainy highlight “All Caps” was also a benchmark in the growth of hip-hop lyricism. With Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Organized Konfusion, and others, the ‘90s had plenty of socially conscious rappers, but the ‘00s was when they truly came into their own.
OutKast was the leader with “Ms. Jackson”, but many rappers set their sights on political topics. El-P had the paranoia infused “Deep Space 9mm,” Talib Kweli had the danceable but heavy, “Get By,” and Immortal Technique had, well, pretty much every song he put to tape. Add in MCs like Brother Ali, Mos Def, and groups like The Roots, the ‘00s showed maturity and growth that outstripped the previous decade of hip-hop and other genres as well.
Aesop Rock was the patron saint of ‘00s’ weirdness. Ace delivered mind boggling verses on all of his releases, their lyrical content recalling “Ulysses” more than “C.R.E.A.M.” When Aesop and El-P Teamed up for the epic six minute diss track “We’re Famous,” El-P’s first fiery verse summed up the new standard of hip-hop while striking down naysayers blinded by nostalgia. “That’s why I always get respect from true soldiers/While half of the critics claim it every year: ‘Hip-hop’s over.’/Fuck you! Hip-hop just started.”
The words were prophetic. 10 years after “We’re Famous” dropped, hip-hop is still mutating and shifting in strange ways. The old guard might dismiss it, but hip-hop doesn’t care.