Hip-hop’s new candour: an introduction
While pop music in general has the tendency to incorporate into songs the new slang of our times—no matter how jarring it may seem—there’s perhaps no other genre where it is done so consistently without losing the layer of sincerity. Hip-hop has managed to programme as an assembly line, constantly feeding off of youth culture and spouting out, at the end of the conveyor belt of music making, products that are made to reflect those very same happenings—while sometimes in the processes, these products get so popular they induce their own sense of importance in the culture.
Years ago, while still in my late teens, I came back from school one day to discover the The Message by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five on the internet. That was it. That was the start of my increasingly exponential interest in the genre. I grew up in a working class household, the kind where dad would play pop records all the time when you were a kid, so I grew up knowing only the handful of surface level hip hop artists that charted on radio in the early 2000s, something I seemed to be content with at the time. I was big into old school punk in my early teens and by the time I was fifteen I had become immersed in the wonderfully experimental world of post-punk and new wave, populated by the likes of the Talking Heads, Public Image Ltd., and the Pop Group—groups that sounded like no one else but themselves. The Message put all my musical phases on hold, ushering my attention into this new country of braggadocios rhymes and groovy beats. I stopped expecting of hiphop what I did from other forms of popular music and saw it for what it was, or at least, what I thought it was: an art form that, with all its wordplay and samples and sneak disses and overt references and not so overt references, emphasised undisputable loyalty to ‘true narratives’ or the pretense of having them.
While pop music in general has the tendency to incorporate into songs the new slang of our times—no matter how jarring it may seem there’s perhaps no other genre where it is done so consistently without losing the layer of sincerity. Hip hop has managed to programme as an assembly line, constantly feeding off of youth culture and spouting out, at the end of the conveyor belt of music making, products that are made to reflect those very same happenings—while sometimes in the processes, these products get so popular they induce their own sense of importance in the culture. Take for example the use of ‘mama’ to mean ‘dude’ or ‘bro’: While most of our local popular music seem to be busy dwelling in the vapid nonsense of ‘the more complexly “cool” a word sounds, the deeper it is,’ rap’s constant inclusion of actual lingo, proudly and genuinely, is a stark display of its lyrical sincerity. In 2006, when two friends named Kazi and Acid brought out Abar Jigai, the song proved to be so infectious that the term ‘abar jigai’ became a ubiquitous retort among the urban youth (still is). To throw in some perspective, it’s not actually quite uncommon to see hip hop popularising the many catchphrases and slangs we so liberally use in our conversations these days.
One reason for such readiness to adopt new expressions and inventions is to perhaps use them as ‘Totems’ that help inject, in the words of Nabokov, ‘a modicum of average reality’. When, say, we hear someone squeeze in an Instagram reference in his gritty tale of betrayal, it somehow feels more ‘now’, more ‘real’, and while many art forms suffer a kind of reticence to the ‘new’, rap has perfected its use to such extents that many seem to risk the howling depths of datedness.
They risk being ‘disposable’. And many do become disposable. The greats are where they are because they get to stand on top of the large swaths of tracks and tapes that have sunk beneath sea level. It’s true that hip-hop is more disposable than its contemporaries but it’s precisely this apparent quality that largely stops it from having the sort of baggage the likes of, say, heavy metal has. I don’t intend to start some sort of genre war and indulge in the pointless act of investigating which is better and which isn’t, but to make sense of rap’s rise we have to admit that the tricks it has got under its sleeves are far more successful than most others’. And surely it’s better to be the star of the moment before vanishing than dying for years as some irrelevant act your dad tries to make you listen to in order to feel like he’s still part of your life.
‘It’s all just cars and chains and bitches.’
‘But, like, it has to be catchy—y’know what I mean?’
‘I got no interest in listening about how they make millions.’
‘They need to get them some belts.’
‘I can’t differentiate one track from the other.’
‘How many bitches do they have?’
‘Maybe if they stop saying “nigga” so much, I’ll pay more attention.’
‘Where’s the guitar at?’
‘What d’ya mean they “sampled” it? How’s that different from copying? Why you rolling your eyes?’
Once upon a time, back in the 70s, there lived this man named DJ Kool Herc. What he’d do was he’d figure out the one portion of a song that had the punch. The part that got kids dancing. The ‘break’ they called it. Then he’d stretch it out, using two turntable sets. He would call it The Merry Go Around. These parties had MCs, but they were merely announcers then who introduced the DJ and tried to get the audience fired up. As time went by though, these MCs got more and more creative, rhyming their words and experimenting with their content, and soon replaced the DJ as the main attraction of these concerts. They became rappers.
When Rapper’s Delight by the Sugarhill Gang dropped in 1979, it was the start of something entirely new, its popularity partly making way for many more acts to surface. Pretty soon, Kurtis Blow was a superstar and in 1982 Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five came out with The Message—one of the first instances of rap talking about the conditions of black people and what they were going through. When Melle Mel goes, ‘Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head/ it’s like a jungle sometimes/it makes me wonder how I keep from going under’ you can feel his frustration with him, you know it’s ‘true’ because it can’t possibly be anything else.
Rap was slowly gaining momentum, materialising on charts and even being ‘sampled’ by other forms of music (remember Blondie’s rap part in Rapture?). Groups like Run DMC and Public Enemy were already playing their loud and politically charged hip-hop and in 1986 when Aerosmith’s music video Walk This Way came out, it showed exactly what was going on then in the American music industry. In the video, both Aerosmith and Run DMC are shown to be playing in adjacent studios, and when the noise gets to be annoying for both of them, Steven Tyler is seen breaking the wall apart and peering within, bringing with him the mainstream, to gawk at the rising stars of hip-hop and everything they represented.
While Run DMC & Beastie Boys were loud and Public Enemy louder, it was only in the late 80s that the west coast group NWA, consisting of Dr Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E, among others, brought gangsta rap on the table. NWA is prime candidate for the point I’m trying to make in this essay: none of them had any criminal record, yet their songs, marked by the glorification of violence and drugs, spoke ‘true narratives’ of their time and place. What they were talking about were imaginary, yes, but perhaps in no other genre are these narratives taken so sincerely with so much belief put into them. And even now, when we have rappers who don’t write their own bars or blatantly lie about their pursuits, the mere fact that they’re all still vetted for some kind of authenticity is what accounts for the novelty and popularity of the genre. It’s also striking to note, after having to re-listen around 77 records in the past couple of weeks, how the genre predominantly revolves around one’s
self-worth, how it almost always has a ‘struggle’ at its core to talk about. Braggadocios rhymes are not there for pointless egotism, but to show how one’s community is not as powerless as it is shown by the powers that are present. Or in the least, that’s how it used to be.
Contradictions sprout out of every medium, and rap is no different. It would be dishonest to write an essay on hip-hop’s new sincerity without acknowledging the works grounded in cynicism that show up here and there. Old-schoolers wouldn’t like them, saying they aren’t ‘real’, but they are and just help the music evolve into various new forms.
You can boil down rap’s conscious half as a black protest art form and the rest as the millennial successor to the many dominant entertainment we’ve seen materialise over the decades, but what makes it unique, for me personally, is its trademark street poetic end-product that holds onto sincerity in a time when it is most needed, and never letting it go, no matter how imaginary all these situations really happen to be.
Almost 40 years into the advent of the genre, hip-hop has gone from being basement music to a worldwide sensation. Nowadays, hip-hop has become the genre that sees the most innovation. Rappers are seen the same way rock stars were seen in the late 70s. We have Kendrick Lamar carrying on the rebellious west coast rap of his predecessors and we have the likes of Death Grip experimenting with Noise and Punk and electronic music in ways only a band in the age of internet can. Last year, in 2015, when Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was released, it just reinforced the notion of how relevant the form is today, in the context of the state of race relations in America.
And here we must come to terms with the absurdities of feeling sympathetic for struggles that don’t seem like struggles. When Tupac bemoans the state of black people, calling out, ‘I wonder if the lord still cares for us niggas on welfare,’ how do you think you should react since you come from a place that doesn’t even have welfare?
Our own local ‘gangsta’ rap, though bland in content and poor in quality, does still talk about the increasingly ‘genjam’ culture that permeates through our country, something most other mainstream rock and pop consider to be too beneath them to bother about. It’s not up to us, though, to tell artists what they can and what they can’t sing about, and our only intentions of making such distinctions is to point out the necessity for those kinds of music in our culture to survive and not die out and how loathing the form for bringing just that is merely a kind of thinly veiled elitism.
We live in an age where Knausgard is a rock star and everyone wants to know who Elena Ferrante ‘really’ is, a time when Beyoncé brings out incredibly well produced albums that fling fan forums into prolonged discussions on the personal happenings of her life. But one thing is absolutely certain from all this: memoiresque art is in. And hip-hop now is one big ball of that, wreaking havoc to the point of destruction in a room full of kids pretending to know everything on Twitter.
Rafee Shaams is an essayist and short story writer, currently based in Dhaka. His works have previously been published in Six Seasons Review and the literary pages of The Daily Star. Who Even Cares Who Cares? is his debut collection of short stories published in 2016.
While pop music in general has the tendency to incorporate into songs the new slang of our times—no matter how jarring it may seem—there’s perhaps no other genre where it is done so consistently without losing the layer of sincerity. Hip-hop has managed to programme as an assembly line, constantly feeding off of youth culture…