Party Music, Early 90s Music, Trap Music, and Awareness — More Than Anything Else, Personal Taste, Knowledge of the Art Form, and Individual Choice Determines the Style and Sound of Music that One Makes, Not the Mainstream
By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)
from left: DJ Tony Tone, LA Sunshine, and Charlie Chase — The gym of Taft High School in the South Bronx, ca. 1982 (Photo credit: Joe Conzo)
Departures from traditions usually lead to new traditions, which are themselves reimagined (repurposed and reworked) themes, tropes, and devices of the traditions from which they departed, or rather forged, themselves from. For some, this break from tradition is quite difficult to accept. For others, the changing or expanding of tradition is rather liberating.
In this light, some commentators prefer to summarize hip hop/rap’s current manifestation as the result of hip hop/rap having evolved and grown up. But hip hop/rap didn't "grow up," as some snobbishly argue. Hip hop/rap wasn't some immature kid wild in its youth and in need of growing up. Hip hop/rap has always thrived on a rough rawness as well as level of polish; of course, the rawness being the more powerful of these two components. Not to be outdone by the evolutionists, there are other commentators who wax poetically about how far hip hop/rap music has fallen in recent years. But even here I take issue. While the overall quality of hip hop/rap has seen a decline in some areas, I believe that as hip hop/rap grew in popularity from its humble beginnings, it simply expanded, allowing for more regional and international voices to enter into (i.e. add to) the tradition. Ironically, or perhaps not, it is this expansion that has now largely led to the frustration of many who feel that the so-called real hip hop/rap has been overtaken by the artificial, supposedly less authentic hip hop/rap of the mainstream.
Nowhere does this frustration about the present-day state of hip hop/rap bubble up to the surface more than on Twitter, the ubiquitous social media website that countless people use for rather forgettable soap-box moments that are often dogmatic, authoritative, riddled with inaccuracies, and personal opinions or theories presented as fact. If you look at Twitter on any given day or night, you will notice that it can quickly descend into a forum for people (of different ages, races, ethnicities, gender, and levels of hip hop/rap knowledge) to rant about what's wrong with post-90s hip hop/rap music. Often within these rants, you’ll find the “mainstream imbalance” argument put forth. This argument maintains that the biggest reason that hip hop/rap music is suffering right now is because of a lack of balance in the mainstream. Or, for some commentators, another way of (condescendingly) saying it is that there’s too much trap music in the mainstream and not enough “other” or alternative choices. I don’t subscribe to this argument because I believe that today’s mainstream actually has far much less influence than it did in the 90s.
The Narrowing of the Mainstream: More Choice Means Less Dependence
In the past 15 years or so, there’s been an explosion of choice in the marketplace. When it comes to music today, there’s more choice than ever! Individuals have much more freedom to directly choose the music that they want to hear, or for that matter ignore. This means that individuals have infinite control over what they hear and how and when they hear it. Also, there’s been a noticeable decline in the power of the radio. While not entirely dead, substantially fewer people tune into the radio for their music consumption and recommendations. Right now, there’s a wide variety of outlets for listeners to consume, discover, and learn about both new and old music. For many people, the web has displaced the role that radio and television has traditionally played. Currently, there’s much less of a dependence on the radio and television — the primary vehicles of the mainstream — for guidance because people can get their cues and recommendations elsewhere, like from various new music targeted websites, music service providers, and, of course, their growing peer networks via social media. Whether an individual takes advantage of this unprecedented level of choice is not the fault of the mainstream.
Certainly, with the abundance of choice came the narrowing of the mainstream. And this makes perfect sense. As overall product choice increases, mainstream product offerings — i.e. those products overtly intended for mass appeal — naturally contract. This is because those with the strongest marketing power, the biggest promotional sway in the marketplace, and the greatest control over manufacturing and the channels of distribution want to ensure the success of the products in their orbit. Thus, they hope to achieve this by limiting what actually gets pushed in the marketplace. Think in terms of physical shelf space in a store. There’s only so much space for products to be placed on the shelves at Walmart, Target, or Best Buy; so those products with mass appeal, i.e. those with the most widespread recognition and the greater chance of selling, get the shelf space. Or think about when the radio only plays a certain number of (the same) songs everyday. That practice isn’t based on a vendetta against a balanced mainstream, it’s a business model designed to control the market space and ensure “hits.” If radio stations and their programmers (or music television shows and their producers) believed that balance in their programming would ensure hits and greater profitability, they’d do it. But that’s not the philosophy that many radio stations believe in. They understand the widespread contraction in the mainstream; more importantly, they understand the nature of today’s fractionalized media. In other words, precisely because there’s so much choice and actual variety, they’ve decided to narrow the music that they put into their rotation.
Still, it must not be forgotten that products gain “mass appeal” for different reasons. Let’s also remember that mass appeal simply means something that appeals to the masses, i.e. a great mass of people. Smartphones have mass appeal; mid-sized SUVs have mass appeal; running sneakers have mass appeal. All three are mainstream products (albeit without the emotional weight of music) and each may have their opponents, but none of them are inherently bad. But in the hip hop/rap music scene of today, just the mere idea of mass appeal is often taken by many to mean something that is inherently bad. Of course, the cover for some commentators who have this opinion is that they’re merely referencing the imbalance in the mainstream.
Thus, this is a dangerous side effect of the mainstream imbalance argument: an implication that anything that’s truly good in hip hop/rap music can’t or shouldn’t really have mass appeal or mainstream recognition even though it deserves it. In fact, there are many people who fundamentally believe that real hip hop/rap music isn’t really meant for the masses; the idea of who true hip hop/rap music is meant for has long had traction. Bizarre, I know. This is obviously counter to what you think many opponents of the mainstream would want. After all, isn’t part of their argument that the mainstream suffers from imbalance, that it needs more variety, presumably more of the kind of hip hop/rap music that’s inline with their taste? Yet, as soon as someone break throughs to the mainstream from the underground, there’s often a backlash from previous supporters who are upset that their favorites are now mainstream, or rather less exclusive.
But I see no irony here because there’s also a sense of elitist pride and authoritativeness that can be deducted from all of this. Just as there are some people who want to be known for and take pride in how much they love hip hop, or being among the first to hear or recognize a new hip hop/rap artist, etc., there are a number of hip hop/rap music writers who want their taste in hip hop/rap music and their “first-to-be-up-on-it” credentials to be recognized. This is akin to the “Anti-tastemaker/But I want to be known as a tastemaker” duality, where one loudly exclaims rejection of tastemakers and tastemaking, but all the while they write, not to just inform but to presumably develop a following — a following that just might make them one of the tastemakers. Perhaps this pursuit of covert (overt) tastemaker status is all about helping to bring more balance to the mainstream, no?
The Mainstream is Not Responsible for the Music that Individuals Choose to Create
Still, I get the point: I acknowledge that there’s an imbalance in the mainstream. But I’m less interested in the obvious. I’m more interested in exploring the overlooked root causes for this imbalance, not lamenting about the imbalance itself. For me, the cause for this imbalance begins with the style and sound of hip hop/rap individuals choose to make. I don’t see the mainstream as some evil boogeyman who’s responsible for getting people to make lousy hip hop/rap music; nor do I see the mainstream as inherently incapable of inspiring anyone to offer up anything good.
Music makers, like all artists, make choices based on their personal taste and knowledge of their art form, as well as their individual purpose for creating art. When you get right down to it, all artists create because they are driven to do so. The extent to which this drive comes from creative compulsion, recognition and fame, or financial profit has as much to do with why and what artists create as anything else. While there are some music makers who will preach that they are “not in it for the money,” there are others who are unabashedly focused on making a profit from their creative labor. Does the former stand on higher creative or moral ground than the latter? All things considered, the mainstream, just like the underground, is a construct, a path that music makers reconcile with their music tastes, knowledge, level of creativity, and purpose.
For this reason, I believe people should be held accountable, not a category. The mainstream isn’t a person, it’s not an entity, it’s not a publication — it’s not something you can complain to. In entertainment, “mainstream” is a generic descriptor typically used to distinguish something that’s high concept, common among the masses, built primarily for profit, and/or popularly well-known. In truth, however, mainstream need not be any of things because there are no hard rules about what gets to crossover into the mainstream; however, notoriety, i.e. mass awareness, seems to be the one constant underlying factor. Once the masses become aware of a product and they engage with it, the product becomes mainstream. In other words, awareness has great power. Focus more on awareness or how to create better awareness about alternative music, and focus less on highlighting the imbalance in the mainstream. Isn’t that the most effective way of actually adding more balance to the mainstream?
But for the loudest mainstream-imbalance proponents, it’s always the mainstream that’s mostly to blame for what’s wrong with, or missing in, hip hop/rap music today. What also can’t be ignored is that some proponents often imply that reaching for a spot in the mainstream is bad, but holding a spot in the underground is good and noble. I don’t see anything wrong with an artist seeking mass appeal or underground critical acclaim, both pursuits are valid. Whether or not any of those who propagate the mainstream imbalance argument would describe themselves as purists, experts, or life-time hip hop/rap fans is of no concern to me. But what does concern me is the tendency for many of them to twist, misrepresent, romanticize, ignore, understate, and overstate key components of hip hop history (all the while predictably blaming the “mainstream” itself as the culprit for it’s own imbalance). And three such components that routinely get butchered in these rants are party music, early 90s music, and trap music.
Cold Crush Brothers Performing at Harlem World, ca. 1983 (Photo credit: Joe Conzo)
Regarding Tradition, Personal Taste, and Individual Choice
Party music in hip hop is tradition, so it’s not a phenomenon that should be discussed or dismissed lightly. However, some commentators prefer to romanticize the early roots of hip hop and present it as a consciously political movement right from the very start. While the socio-economic reality of the backdrop of hip hop is rife with complexities, including issues of poverty, crime, violence, street gang culture, and urban renewal, the notion that the earliest pioneers and practitioners of hip hop were “political” — in every aspect of the well-understood sense of the word — is way off mark. From the onset of hip hop in the early 1970s (late 1960s if you count the significant role graffiti writers played), prior to studio recorded hip hop/rap music, party music was the driving force (in The BeatTips Manual, I cover the roles that party music played, as well as the early history of hip hop culture in great depth and detail). Whether someone rapped a nursery style rhyme of braggadocia or a cursory tale about life in the streets, most rappers of hip hop’s first golden era ( ca. 1973-1979) deliberately made music to be enjoyed at parties, i.e. park jams, rec centers, clubs, lounges. Even when lyricism expanded, both in terms of content and mechanics, party music — and its significance — did not wane.
Yet some commentators would have you believe that real hip hop/rap, early hip hop/rap music, was all but devoid of anyone with questionable integrity; devoid of anyone who dumbed down their music; devoid of silly rhymes or schemes to get attention; devoid of any obvious celebration of money and material things; that the purpose of all of the earliest hip hop architects was only pure love, nothing else. While there was certainly far less money in hip hop/rap before it hit the studio, there was still plenty of compensation in the form of prestige, fame, and women — and many early hip hop practitioners saw party music as means to obtaining all three! Today, many music makers still see party music — which is basically what most trap music tends to be — as viable means to prestige, fame, women, and money.
On one hand, you can blame some commentators’ romanticism on their skewed view of hip hop history, which sometimes seems to be based on incomplete research, conjecture, the inaccurate research of others, or dogmatic theories. I understand, but what’s great about researching early hip hop history is reading the interviews with some of the earliest practitioners, particularly their early interviews where they say — in their own words — what hip hop was about to them. The earliest published “hip hop” interviews — with the first musical architects of hip hop culture — emerge around 1983. Perhaps there are more interviews and coverage in existence, but hip hop seems to have gained no mainstream journalistic interest prior to 1983, save for coverage of 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Further, the first hip hop interviews published in book form arrive in 1984. None of the interviewees (including Kool Herc, Grand Master Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Caz, and others), in either Rap Attack (Toop, 1984) or Hip Hop (Hager, 1984), make hip hop out to be a thing only done out of love. In fact, party music and money figure prominently in these interviews and first publications. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, hip hop DJs desired and expected to get paid; rappers followed after them. And by the late 1970s and early 1980s, disputes over money had lead to a number of rap groups breaking up. That’s not all for the love! But this also doesn’t mean that they didn’t love hip hop. Of course they loved hip hop, they just clearly wanted compensation and recognition; thus, they did those things that they thought would give them that.
On the other hand, you can blame some commentators’ romanticism about hip hop on the gift and curse of hip hop’s second golden era (ca. 1988-1995), which many wrongly consider to be hip hop’s only golden era — see the problem? The gift and curse of the late 1980s and early 1990s was that the hip hop/rap music tradition expanded to include an “art music” sub-tradition, a music meant for deeper observation, not just partying or dancing. Not coincidentally, this art music expansion coincided with the emergence of a number of key beatmaking pioneers. This was the gift. The curse was that the music of this period was deemed to be the only form of real hip hop/rap music. Prior to 1988, 15 years of hip hop/rap music and hip hop culture had already existed. Yet today, when something is said to be “that real hip hop shit,” the underlining meaning is that it's something that only echoes the early 90s or late 80s. Does this mean that hip hop/rap music from 1973 to 1979 was not real? This is an important question, as there were a number of sub-traditions in hip hop that one could draw parallels with today’s scene — none more noticeable than party music and the motives behind it.
To be certain, hip hop/rap is a music tradition that contains a number of different sub-traditions. Depending on who you ask, it is the disdain for some post-90s traditions — namely trap music and some of the lyrical dimensions that typically accompany it — that irritate many people. Incidentally, I wonder if any of the mainstream imbalance proponents ever go to clubs, where today’s mainstream often shares some of its glory with hip hop/rap classics from the past and new tunes on the come up. If they do boycott clubs, such an anti-club or club-music stance is ironic: Clubs have always been an important staple of hip hop culture. Nonetheless, before I go further, it's worth pointing out that not all 90s inspired hip hop/rap is good or useful; conversely, not all trap music is terrible or useless. If you disagree with this simple premise, i.e. if you believe that ALL 90s inspired hip hop/rap is good and ALL trap music is bad, then it's likely your view of hip hop/rap music is much more narrow than you think. Remember: Hip hop’s second Golden Era begins roughly 10 years after it’s first one ended in 1979. So which era’s really real?
DJ Toomp at his production studio in Atlanta (Photo credit: Amir Said)
Usually in music, what's beautiful to most is what's familiar to them, the thing that they already know, the thing they recognize; and it usually follows that what's ugly and distasteful to them is what can't fit into their expectation of what something should sound like. In the latter scenario, one can dismiss an entire aesthetic simply because it doesn't subscribe to what one already likes. And that's fine. What can be problematic, however, is when one demonizes the entire aesthetic itself. This is often the case with trap music. That they are merely railing against so-called mainstream hip hop/rap music or the “lack of balance" in mainstream hip hop/rap music is the common pretext for some peoples' opposition to trap music. But when you consider the decreased importance of radio and the reality that there is now a limitless number of ways to choose, consume, and find new music, the mainstream imbalance argument seems antiquated.
The issue isn't with the trap music sub-tradition itself; although, unfortunately, there are some who routinely argue that trap music isn't "real" hip hop. The issue relies with personal responsibility. Trap music doesn't make beatmakers (producers) or rappers hold back creativity. DJ Toomp has a catalog of great stuff. Likewise, trap music doesn't force lyricists to dumb down their lyrics or their message. Big K.R.I.T. and T.I., artists from two different spectrums in terms of sales and notoriety, have proven capable of highly creative lyricism that is at times profound and at times fun and light. And while I find most (not all) trap music to either be run-of-the-mill, mindless, or uninspiring, I don’t think trap music itself is the culprit.
Proponents of the mainstream imbalance argument also want to ascribe a (big) share of the blame to the general hip hop/rap music press, in some cases specific bloggers. Now, while I do believe that hip hop/rap music criticism has declined in a number of areas (for instance, plenty of music reviews from a number of hip hop writers are more fanboy love letters than critical observation and insight), and that there are a number of dogmatic, know-it-all, and self-righteous music bloggers in hip hop/rap, I can't bring myself to blame them for the mainstream’s imbalance. That's because the decision to create music is a personal one. Just the same, what style and sound of hip hop/rap music one chooses to make is also a personal decision. As creative decisions in hip hop/rap music go, what someone chooses to do or not is always based upon four factors: (1) Personal taste, which is based on one’s creative influences and knowledge of the art form; (2) Current trends; (3) Past traditions and trends; and (4) purpose — either creative compulsion, recognition and fame, or financial gain.
The Problem with Creative Safety in Numbers
The beatmaking (hip hop production) community was not always as vast and accessible as it is now. Between 1979 (the year of the first studio recorded hip hop songs) and 1984, there were only a handful of music producers who specialized in hip hop production. And from 1985 to 1989, the list didn't swell. it wasn't until the early 90s that we saw a minor explosion in the number of dedicated beatmakers. It was also in the early 90s that we get our first glimpse of an actual beatmaking community. But this community was much less accessible than the present beatmaking community, mostly because the cost of production tools, lack of instructional and teaching materials, and, of course, the lack of a robust internet. Thus, the beatmaking community found it relatively easy to establish (non-written) metrics of quality and creative standards. In other words, the small number of beatmakers in the early 90s made it easier for the beatmaking community to police itself.
Fast forward two decades later, and the number of beatmakers — not to mention other music producers who dabble in hip hop — has swelled dramatically. While some may prematurely conclude that this is a bad thing, I think it’s good. There’s strength in numbers. But there are two main problems that have emerged with the rapid inclusion of scores of new beatmakers. First, a fundamental lack of knowledge of the art form, particularly its history. Most new beatmakers often overlook the musical and historical knowledge in pursuit of the instructional knowledge. This is one reason why YouTube beatmaking videos routinely make up the main educational regiment of vast numbers of new (and not-so new) beatmakers. And while a small number of these videos may be helpful (the majority hold little educational value) in teaching someone how to do some technical steps in a given music process, seemingly none of these videos offer extensive background understanding, historical context, or other critical education nuances. This creates an environment in which the ultimate goal is the pursuit of technical process, rather than the pursuit of beatmaking know-how and understanding. And this know-how and understanding only comes after you’re familiar with all of the spheres of beatmaking — the technical, the logical, and the creative spheres. That requires a lot more than just instruction on how to use a given piece of gear or how to perform a specific process. (For a more in-depth discussion of the three spheres of beatmaking, read The BeatTips Manual)
The second problem that a rapid swelling of the number of beatmakers has caused is creative cover or safety. With so many new beatmakers, it’s hard for there to be any real self-policing. Instead of creative standards and quality metrics being a key goal of many new beatmakers, we now have a little league baseball atmosphere, where everyone gets to play and no one’s beats are ever bad, it’s just someone else’s opinion, or someone’s just hating. In this atmosphere, as long as you’re doing the same bare minimum technical things, you’re creatively safe. This is certainly the case with regards to trap music because trap music has a low barrier of entry, especially knowledge-wise. Some of the most popular trap music is very sparse, nothing more than an 808 kick drum-led arrangement and a couple of sounds. I’ve often described this tier of trap music as almost anti-music because there’s not much really going on in the beat. But never mind that there’s different degrees of quality and complexity when it comes to trap music beats (and rhymes), the only thing that matters to lots of new beatmakers who pursue this style and sound is that they can make trap music. And again, because the threshold for what constitutes trap music is so low, these beatmakers can take comfort in the creative cover (safety) that exists by the sheer number of beatmakers doing the exact same thing.
Conversely, the sample-based East Coast/New York rap sound, whether you like it or not, has a higher barrier of entry knowledge-wise. The art of sampling isn’t something easily picked up; you don’t get a sampler and some records one day, then make something dope or even decent the next. On the other hand, to make entry-level trap music one can simply tinker around with some 808 sounds and come up with something passable. Note: This is entry level trap music; but entry level trap music still has its support! Entry level sampling requires a bit more knowledge and experience, particularly in the areas of chopping, arrangement, and drum programming. Also, there’s not the same level of creative cover (safety) in sampling because there are still clear metrics about what is decent in sampling.
There Are Some Music Makers Who Simply Want Mass Appeal, and There Are Some Who Don’t
Finally, there’s the nationwide populous appeal of trap music. It’s not difficult to hear what the current national sound is; both new and veteran beatmakers (and rappers) can see what the mainstream is primarily made of. As mentioned before, one’s purpose in making music is an important individual choice. Lots of music makers want mass appeal and everything that comes along with it. And for many, the quickest or most accessible path is to simply duplicate what the mainstream is already showcasing. Still, there are plenty of others who don’t want mass appeal, but instead, they want critical acclaim within a given niche or style and sound of hip hop/rap music.
Some simply want mass appeal and they’re only interested in what they believe to be the best way to get there. And while simply making a replica of what’s already out (tried formula though it may be) isn’t the guarantee that some believe it is, the mainstream — in the abstract — isn’t why someone makes one form of music over another. Again: Why someone chooses to make a given type of music boils down to: (1) Their personal taste, which is based on one’s creative influences and knowledge of the art form; (2) Current trends; (3) Past traditions and trends; and (4) Purpose — either creative compulsion, recognition and fame, or financial gain. But one can gain recognition, fame, and financial gain side-stepping the mainstream altogether. Unfortunately, many are simply unaware of that. Thus, I find that the biggest cause for today’s imbalanced mainstream isn’t the mainstream itself, but a widespread lack of either the will or desire among many individuals to do something outside of the mainstream’s safety zone. I think much of the blame for this can be placed on a huge lack of awareness — notably a lack of awareness of hip hop/rap history, a lack of awareness of alternatives modes to success, and a lack of awareness of just how varied hip hop/rap music can be.
To change (or expand) mainstream hip hop/rap, you have to change the conversation. Pull back the curtains on the mainstream imbalance argument, and what you’ll find, at its core, is a conversation about contemporary music and the direction its gone in for the past two decades. The mainstream is an easy target; it’s the most visible apparatus in popular culture. But mainstream, abstractly speaking, isn’t the problem — it’s not the sickness, it’s the symptom. There will always be a mainstream. And what’s represented as a given mainstream will reflect the creative decisions of the groups of music makers, as well as the influence of the tastemakers, of the time. You want to change what’s represented as mainstream hip hop/rap music, i.e. add more balance to it? Well, aside from deepening media coverage of powerful alternatives, you have to change the music makers. Help make new music makers become more aware of the many different styles and sounds of hip hop/rap music, and help them become aware of hip hop’s long held emphasis on originality and innovation. Doing so will inevitably change the mainstream.