So i wrote a 1500-odd word article entitled "Underground Hip Hop Strives for Mediocrity." I don't think i like it though, and probably won't publish or even post it. Why? Well, i think that after re-reading it over and over again my basic point came down to "stop being wack," which isn't much of a call-to-arms. Just some healthy, vaguely elitist venting maybe.
I'm just getting tired of the formulas. As a performer, i have to go to a lot of shows, watching the acts before me, watching the acts after me, watching the fans. And as much as we talk about how formulaic mainstream hip hop is (guns, cars and money), our musical culture isn't all that better. Different, of course, but not necessarily broader or more creative.
Indie rappers talk about the same shit over and over again too, often with LESS originality (in terms of beats, flows and songwriting) than their mainstream counterparts. Here's the recipe for an underground hip hop setlist/album:
1. dramatic instrumental intro
2. monumental head-nodder about rapping and how it's great
3. battley, often homophobic, punchline song
4. vaguely political track full of platitudes and cliches
5. flatly melodramatic, often sexist, emo love song
6. maybe a weed song, or more rapping about rapping
7. maybe a freestyle session (say the name of the city and watch the kids scream in delight)
8. twisting! dude! OMG!
9. one or two more generic songs about rapping or revolution or whatever
Now before you send me angry emails, let me say that a good emcee CAN make this formula or elements of this formula seem fresh again with the right songwriting skills (this is so huge and definitely lacking today), musical creativity (see Lyrics Born, P.O.S.), stage presence/charisma (see Sean Price) or pure lyrical monstrousness (see Brother Ali). That's a very small percentage of the emcee community, however. A whole lot of acts LEAN on this formula (or some small variation of it), neither making it seem fresh nor transcending it.
And i mean, we're all guilty to an extent. I know i am. I think this is why-- here's an excerpt from the aforementioned article i wrote:
...I think that in the pursuit of “realness” and authenticity we’ve killed a lot of creative impulses. For the backpacker/indie hip hop crowd, “hip hop” is defined too narrowly.
It’s not that the artists aren’t talented enough to do more. It’s that we, through the past ten years or so of railing against the artistic emptiness of mainstream hip hop, have cultivated a community whose artistic ideal is a kind of solid emulation of the shit we’re nostalgic about, whether that be early 90s east coast boom-bap or lucy ford-era Atmosphere.
It’s a shame too, because aesthetically, hip hop’s boundaries are nearly limitless. You can rap over damn near any kind of music in any time signature. You can talk about anything—love songs, political commentary, satire, storytelling, persona songs, etc. You can experiment with melody, incorporate any musical style into the mix, play with vocal styles and rhythms, abandon the 16/8 format and write dynamic pre-choruses, bridges and more. You can put together engaging shows with multimedia or theatrical elements. You can put together concept albums. You can push the boundaries of poetry, music and performance art in general. It just takes a little creativity and ingenuity.
Of course not everything that’s creative is necessarily good or easily digestible. I can see how Beans and Aesop Rock and Solillaquists of Sound don’t appeal to every hip hop fan out there. But we need them. We need them to push the envelope and blaze trails. And honestly, I think we need more of them—artists who take chances and try something new with the full knowledge that an often closed-minded underground hip hop audience might reject them. Harshly.
All hip hop has some value. I’m not saying that everyone has to be mind-blowingly original and amazing, especially not right away. I’m just saying that we, as an artistic community, can do better. Underground rap can be more than shit-talking and empty platitudes. It can be more than Atmosphere-clones and DJ Premier throwback instrumentals. It can appeal to a broader audience than 100 white boys who grew up on Rage and Mos Def...
But the big question is "why does any of this even matter?"
I think that the underground hip hop community is a beautiful thing, a whole genre that's easy to get into and creates all kinds of avenues for self-expression. But it's getting stale. I think that an artistic community that doesn't move forward dies. Media moves on to the next big thing, fans stop coming to shows because they've seen it all, the artists themselves scramble for the the last bit of attention by creating safe, digestible art with an immediate payoff.
I want to be part of a big, diverse, dynamic, expanding scene, a healthy scene. If that's going to happen in American indie-hip hop, we'll need to be more creative. And not just in our art, in our marketing, stage shows, everything.
I also realize that my perspective is skewed because i'm in the midwest. Other regions undoubtedly have different indie scenes. Sorry this post was so all over the place-- you should have seen the actual article. Wanted to post something so perfectionism will have to take a back seat.
In other news, my album is 90% finished and has a mid-october release date. Now after writing this, it'll HAVE to be creative. Or i'm a hypocrite. Which would be awful.