Monday, February 15, 2010

Thoughts on Indie Rap, Mediocrity and Success

A friend of mine just released a really good hip hop EP, and he asked me for some feedback. The constructive criticism I gave him really got me thinking; figured I'd share some of the thoughts here for everyone. I'm not 100% about all this... these are issues I still wrestle with, but it could maybe spark some discussion. To be clear, though, this isn't my manifesto on what all rap should be; this is just the advice I'd give to a young artist. That's a big difference. Anyways, here it is:

If you read rap blogs, go to music critique sites or just talk to hip hop heads regularly, I think you'll find that the stuff that gets put on a pedestal these days is, more than anything, "solid." I use that word very intentionally. A nice flow, a head-nodding beat, some rapping about rapping or relationships or everyman slice-of-life stuff or maybe some vaguely political grandstanding or whatever.

This is good, though, right? It's not revolutionary, but at least it's better than the stuff on the radio, right?

Well, yes and no. On one hand, there is NOTHING wrong with "solid," straightforward, rappin' about rappin' over boom bap beats hip hop. I enjoy it. You probably enjoy it. Some of my best friends make it. It's great. We're entering in to an era where the industry has less power, more regular-joe emcees are getting a chance to shine, and fans are hungry for throwback, "real" hip hop, particularly after a decade plus of Fat Joe, Souljah Boy and whatever else dominating the airwaves. You'd have to be pretty cynical to see this as a negative. And you'd have to be pretty pretentious and culturally insensitive to see this as artistically unworthy.

At the same time, however, let's not get all kumbaya and shit; this is about constructive criticism. And honestly, I'm getting pretty tired of this endless wave of albums, free mixtapes, EPs, youtube videos, live shows and singles that all pretty much say the exact same thing, the exact same way. Even if what they're saying is positive, even if how they're saying it is engaging, too much of anything can be exhausting.

My man Sketch once said that the most underused word in indie hip hop is "mediocre." I think this hits it on the head. "Hot beats and hot rhymes" shouldn't be our GOAL as rappers; it should be the bare minimum, the foundation off which we can build something amazing. Being able to pick a nice beat and rap well over it shouldn't buy you a seat in the pantheon. Rakim rapped well over nice beats TWENTY years ago. I envision a world where solid rhymes over good beats gets you labeled as "average," and you have to EARN adjectives like "fresh," "brilliant" and "ridiculous" by doing something interesting and unique WITH those solid rhymes and good beats.

There seems to be a lack of ambition in indie rap. Lots of acts trying really hard to make a "solid" 12-track hip hop masterpiece, and fewer and fewer acts with that "I don't give a fuck" attitude, that willingness to PUSH beyond what's already been done, that desire to reach for something new and transformative and innovative and risky. And while aesthetics is part of that, I'm much less interested in discovering new flows and syllable chains than I am in SAYING SOMETHING new.

Personally, I refuse to believe that music, especially hip hop, is the window dressing to our lives. It's not just background noise. It's not just something to nod to in the car. It has the power to actually change people. To inspire, to educate, to do SOMETHING beyond just float around in the air while we play video games.

The metaphor I use is that most hip hop tries to bludgeon you, beating you over the head with the formulas and molds you already know. What I'm interested in, however, is the hip hop that tries to stab you the in the fucking heart.

Maybe that comes from creative song concepts; maybe that comes from spilling your emotional guts into your rhymebook; maybe that comes from playing around with structure and formulas; maybe that comes from targeting an audience beyond the usual 20-something white boys in hoodies who go to rap shows; maybe that comes from a fresh approach to songwriting that goes beyond the 16/8 format and incorporates other genres or styles; maybe that comes from dropping the complex-for-complexity's sake gibberish raps and just telling a story; maybe that comes from just sitting down and TRYING HARDER. It could come from a lot of places.

And yeah, if you do something new, some blogger is going to call you pretentious. If you get political, some fan is going to call you preachy. If you're NOT rapping like a faceless New York mixtape rapper over vaguely Dilla-esque production, a lot of folks aren't going to be checking for you. But you'll open up NEW avenues to success, find new fans and carve your own path. It's worth it.

Now to be clear, this isn't my vision for hip hop as a whole. This is the advice I'd give a rapper trying to get on, trying to do something with his/her life as an individual artist. I don't think that Def Jux is better than Boot Camp Clik, or that we should all start rapping like Busdriver, or that guys who just rap for fun are wasting their lives. I just think that if YOU are trying to "make it" as an artist, it would be in your best interests to keep all this stuff in mind. Rap will ALWAYS have a huge diversity of styles and approaches, and the most straightforward stuff will always take up more space-- and this is perfectly fine. But it's also all the more reason to color outside the lines.

Do you want to make music that's hot, or music that's memorable? This is a key question for me, because while you can do both, there will always be times when you have to choose which way to lean. And I'd rather hear an album with 11 failed experiments and 1 brilliant, life-changing song than an album with 12 "hot tracks."

So yeah, just a bunch of random points. Any thoughts?

1 comment:

Cole Sarar said...

I don't think a lot of artists in a lot of genres- not just rap, not just music, but also writers and visual artists- don't know what constitutes a "new" or "different" vision. A lot of folks, especially young people and people who are inexperienced think that their work is brilliant or groundbreaking because *they* wrote it, and it means so much to them to have created something- the inexperience or illiteracy in their own means they will have a hard time *really* understanding your advice.

Educating oneself is a big part of making quality art- and not just in the tenets of one's own artform and that artform's history- you need to be able to have ideas outside of rap, poetry- whatever.

Maybe your manifesto here could include more ideas of what makes something more than just "solid".