Since hip hop’s earliest days, there have always been divisions by every possible categorization from lyrical skill, to content, even geography, but above all, by time. Hip hop has always had a fascination with dividing time by eras; first it was the 80’s Golden Age of Hip Hop with guys like Eric B & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and Chuck D. After them came the rise of “gangster rap” on the coasts with labels like Deathrow Records and Bad Boy Records producing some of the greatest rappers of all time. Since then, hip-hop has gone through both a radical electronic shift and a commercialization that was far beyond what the originators could have anticipated. So where does this place us on the timeline of hip-hop?
In with the old, In with the new
Post modernism has always been marked by an acknowledgement of what has come before while simultaneously repurposing it for a new means. What could be a more concrete example of this than Pusha T appropriating a Notorious BIG sample for his latest EP? Kanye’s doing it too – if you can listen to ‘Ye’s latest and tell me that it doesn’t sound more Late Registration than Yeezus, I’d seriously question if you were the police.
Hip-hop is one of the most unique versions of post-modernism; since the invention of the commercially mass available sampler in the 80’s, almost every artist has at some point taken from previous works. With the advancement of DAW software, we’ve long been at a point where kids in their bedroom can create full songs without once touching an instrument. Kanye West built his entire career around the idea of appropriating old soul samples from Nina Simone to the Isley Brothers to even Drake’s uncle on his latest release. The days of cycling studio musicians influencing albums like Aquemini have ran their course and are now replaced by Soundcloud sensation producers.
Redefining the American Dream
Even the self-mythologizing of claims like “6 God”, “The Boss”, and one of the most critically acclaimed albums in recent memory being titled after a rapper’s childhood home lends credibility to the idea that the very genre of hip hop itself stands as a post-modern creation. To ignore the lyrics of the music though would be to spit in the face of the most post modern aspect of all of rap: content.
Rappers have never been looked to in the mainstream as “role models.” What kind of parent wants their child to be growing up listening to the wisdom of those who glorify perpetual subject matters like drugs, guns and money? This rejection of conventional morality and societal acceptance places rap into a similar lane to punk or metal; it speaks to the marginalized most of all. Portraying the struggles of the marginalized is where hip-hop has truly subverted the “American Dream,” creating a post-modern idea of what hip hop actually is. Even those like Kendrick and J.Cole who are generally pointed to as positive role models have few songs free of profanity or some element of satirical materialism that more often than not is missed by the general audience.
It is possible to condemn gun violence while enjoying Chief Keef, just as it is likely that you enjoy Future but you worry about his health. The post-modern age of hip-hop is not like any previous post modernity; rather than intertwining the aesthetic and the moral, it completely separates the two. This is a distinction largely left to the listener; it’s safe to say that most people listening to “Antidote” know about more than just popping pills in the same way that we know that DJ Khaled DEFINITELY does things other than win (like still performing a shitty single from 2010 and bringing out someone else for your late night spot).
Consider even acts that are pushing what it means to be called rap; you can’t imagine that Pimp C and Bun B could have anticipated that by coming out of Houston they’d be paving the way for Riff Raff or that Slick Rick dreamt of groups like Death Grips being the “avant-garde” of rap today. Even a 16-year-old kid can rise from being a hipster in his freshman dorm with a name like Yung Lean, a passion for Arizona iced tea, and a crew named SadBoyz2011.
Some of this is due as well to the ease with which music can be distributed and discussed; everyone and their mother loves to write about what interests them today and it’s easier than ever to create music of your own. Without leaving your seat, you can download a digital audio workstation, find sample packs on the internet and use musical typing to produce a beat. The easy of entry capabilities are only imaginable today because of technological advances in communications. Without technology, it’s hard to imagine rap getting anywhere near as popular as it is today, just as it is hard to imagine rap in any classification other than post modern today.