I once read somewhere that the worst thing that ever happened to jazz music was when critics dubbed the early to mid-20th century as the absolute pinnacle of the genre. Since then, all new forms of jazz produced outside of the “golden era” were deemed incomparable to the music preceding it. How could any new jazz possibly match the works of the elder statesmen who pioneered jazz expression in its epitome?
Following this, critics and audiences refused any new jazz that came through from the next generation of aspiring artists. Audiences only wanted to hear music that was similar to what they were used to. How can a genre of music grow and expand in an environment which must follow a rigid set of preconceived conditions in order to be appreciated? It’s like saying, “I will listen to new jazz forms as long as it follows ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. I don’t want to hear ‘9’, ‘+’ or ‘&’.” What results is a music that is only “good” based on its degree of audience satisfaction, it’s not a true reflection of the creative artist at work.
Musical scholar Franco Fabbri once wrote that genres or sub-genres are not stagnant, but rather embedded in various spaces and times. What he means by this is any one genre of music, whether it be 90s Hip-Hop or 60s Rock, is a product of the geographical, social and temporal domain of its production. As these spaces and times change, so does the genre. It doesn’t make sense then to name any one period as the unequaled champion of its genre, if the genre itself is constantly being redefined.
Now this may seem like a lot to chew on, and trust me it is, but when I realised this, everything I thought about Hip-Hop changed. Firstly, let me make it clear here that I am an old-school hip-hop aficionado. I love everything about the music; the lyrical world play, the killer boom-bap beats and the deeply personal self-expression through the art of the rhyme. To me, Nas, KRS-ONE, Guru, Phife, Tip, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, De La Soul, Artifacts, Big L and Wu-Tang are the leading poets of the 20th century. The world would undoubtedly be a better place if more people listened to these guys kicks the maddest rhymes. Man, I cherish the golden era. I almost wish I was born 10 years earlier so I could have been around when this stuff was first released.
You can probably guess then, my ideas about what Hip-Hop should be were pretty staunch. I resisted anything new. I hated Nicki, Drake, Kanye, Jeezy, Big Sean, A$AP and everything I heard on the radio, because for me, these guys stole the spotlight from the original rhymesayers who deserved all the recognition. It incensed me that people actually held these contemporary MCs in such high regard but had no base knowledge or respect for the OGs. To me, these new dudes were wacker than wack; they didn’t have boom-bap beats, they weren’t changing the world with their words. They were just frauds fuelled by the dollar, and they didn’t fit with my romanticized ideas about the genre.
It’s true, I was a dick about my views. I called anyone out who considered these new guys the real MCs, (excluding Joey Bada$$). Though I was ultimately just perpetuating my dick-ness, I felt justified; the music I liked helped to define the sort of identity I wanted to project. I adopted the social views of these artists, I schooled myself in understanding and appreciating the social and political contexts of the music, the era even influenced how I dressed. I was old school hip-hop.
So you can imagine how I felt when I read what Fabbri had to say. Everything I had thought was wrong. My deeply held beliefs about who is real and who is wack are irrelevant. I really was a dick. Everything I liked about the 90s and the music from that era was conditional to the social and geographical location of the people creating at the time, and those musicians were also building on what had preceded them in terms of influences. They were just trying to make their own sound.
It is true that the music at the time being made was really, really good, and you can still hear common stylistic features from the 90s era in contemporary hip-hop. But in labelling the 90s the ‘Golden Era,’ and rejecting anything that deviates from it, listeners and critics suffocate any possible chance for further innovation. The hip-hop I hear today, which for so long I was hostile towards, I now understand as a reflection of the current space and time we exist in. These new artists are by no doubt influenced by the heavy weights of the 90s, but that doesn’t mean they should aim to replicate the sound just because old-school fans like myself say so. I kind of realised I was a fool for trying to objectively compare this stuff now to stuff from the 90s, because, whether I like it or not, the two eras almost independently.
I am not sure where all this leaves me now. I still don’t like most of the new stuff I listen to, but I’ve realised that’s ok. When objective value judgments are made about current music by likening it to the old, then it’s a real cause for concern. In doing this, we as listeners divorce ourselves from discovering anything new, and we destroy any potential for change. And who really wants to listen to the same stuff their whole life? Myself, like many others will just have to embrace the wise words of Lauryn Hill, “seasons change, mad things rearrange.” There will be stuff in the future that I like and stuff that I find wacker than wack. Us old school fans just gotta remind ourselves that the quality of a genre does not decrease with time, it just changes and so do we as people.
Because as someone once said, you know you’ve met the newest thing in music when at first you don’t like it.