Monday, July 7, 2008

Hip hop started out in the heart

C'mon baby light my fire
Everything you drop is so tired

Music is supposed to inspire

How come we ain't gettin' no higher?

Now tell me your philosophy on exactly what an artist should be
Should they be someone with prosperity
and no concept of reality?
-Lauren Hill, "Superstar"

There is no more frustrating, infuriating, upsetting musical genre than hip hop. I firmly believe this to be true. What started out as essentially street poetry has gone through a thousand iterations, become turned and twisted and spun around and knocked up and down, to finally reach the sad state of affairs it's left in today. In truth, though it's certainly had a shorter life than country music, there are many parallels. This may sound strange, especially for you country fans who have nothing but disdain for hip hop. But like country, what started out as basically poor people's music evolved and changed over the decades. What used to be a movement, a message (to borrow a phrase), has become bastardized, drowned out by the commercial, the mindless mass of modern hip hop monsters.

It's why it's not uncommon for people to blatantly state, "I hate rap music," or "all hip hop sucks." In truth, if all you know is what you hear on the radio, well then based on your experience you're probably correct in that assertion. It may sound like reactionary griping, like the old man who's watching modern society pass him by, but the truth is that modern, commercial, radio-friendly hip hop, with a couple of exceptions, is mostly crap. Amateurish, misogynistic, derivative, weakly produced crap. It's developed on the equivalent of a musical assembly line, by predatory producers and executives who prowl cities and audition halls and neighborhoods, looking for someone with the basic abilities and a badass attitude. Those "artists" are paired with a producer or DJ, and a couple of weeks later, the next Li'l Jon or Flo Rida is born.

Six months from now, they will vanish into obscurity. But for six months, another brainless zombie album full of sex, drugs, and violence - bitches, money and guns, if you wish - will be foisted upon us. The music industry feeds on them like wild dogs, and they've somehow convinced people - everyone from urban school kids to suburban white kids to fraternity brothers to the average radio listener - that this is what black music is about, and what's worse, that this is the best hip hop has to offer.

"Man, fuck that shit, I pay my taxes when I'm asked to

I'm not enthusiastic about it, but shit I make it happen
Yeah, it's last minute, but goddammit they cash it

This is fiscal harassment! They keep touching my assets!

Now I imagine I might be feeling different about it
If it was given outright, witnessing it helping somebody

But it just so happens in life, the school district's too crowded

There ain't no teachers in sight, that's why the kids are so rowdy"
-Lyrics Born, "Stop Complaining"
What you hear on the radio is an insult to hip-hop, a slap in the face to Run DMC and KRS-One and everyone who came before or after them. I'm not going to waste your time telling you to go back and find the old-school stuff, because actually much of that music hasn't aged terribly well. Unless you're a real hardcore hip-hop fan, much of it is going to be wasted on you. Hell, I love hip hop and I can't tell you the last time I dusted off an old Eric B and Rakim album. But you don't have to go back 20 years. There's great, moving, intelligent, thought-provoking and fun hip hop coming out all the time. Music that still has something to say, that hasn't been corrupted by fame and fortune, and that you can still shake your goddamn ass to. Good hip hop is sexy, it's smart, it makes you want to dance - and sometimes it makes you want to revolt. It's what we should be asking of all music.

I'm leaving off the likes of Tupac and Biggie and Jay-Z and some others - those are guys who are still popular that actually do have a lot of talent - in favor of some perhaps lesser known, and less divisive, artists. Make no mistake, these folks are artists. Because of the sheer volume of crap out there, it's often thought of as a lazy or simple genre. That couldn't be further from the truth; as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates said recently, "hip-hop is a lot more complicated than rhyming couplets and stolen drum riffs... I would not, from a mere sample of Kenny G or even John Coltrane, make any broad statements about jazz. Those of us who were shaped by hip-hop are only asking the same."

So indulge me for a moment and let me throw together a quick and dirty playlist of modern hip hop that doesn't, well... suck.

Artist Song Title Album
Aceyalone with RJD2 Cornbread, Eddie & Me Magnificent City
Atmosphere Breathing God Loves Ugly
Blackalicious World of Vibrations The Craft
Brother Ali Win Some Lose Some Shadows On The Sun
Bullfrog & Kid Koala Reverse Psychology Bullfrog
Cee-Lo The Art of Noise (with Pharrell) Cee-Lo Green... Is the Soul
The Coup Hip 2 The Skeme Genocide & Juice
Cunninlynguists Caved In feat. Cee-Lo Green A Piece of Strange
Danger Doom Basket Case The Mouse and the Mask
Danger Mouse & Jemini Omega Supreme [DM Remix] Ghetto Pop Life
Dead Prez Police State Lets Get Free
Deux Process Compatibility In Deux Time
Diverse Big Game (feat. Vast Aire) One A.M.
Dr. Octagon Waiting List [DJ Shadow/Automator Mix] Dr. Octagonecologyst
Flipsyde Someday We the People
Ghostface Killah Back Like That (Feat. Ne-Yo) Fishscale
Gift Of Gab Way Of The Light 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up
The Goats Hip-Hopola Tricks Of The Shade
Hieroglyphics Chicago Full Circle
King Geedorah Krazy World feat. Gigan Take Me To Your Leader
Latyrx Latyrx The Album
Little Brother Slow It Down (Feat. Darien Brockington) The Minstrel Show
Lyrics Born Callin' Out Later That Day...
Masked Avengers And Maylay Sparks Small Time Thing So Wonderful EP
Mos Def Zimzallabim The New Danger
Mr. SOS Don't Know My Neighbors The Pre-Op
Murs And Slug Present Rick James FELT: A Tribute to Christina Ricci
One Be Lo Sleepwalking feat. Ka Di S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M.
Sage Francis Climb Trees Personal Journals
Porcelain Archetype

"I want to be free to live, able to have what I need to live

Bring the power back to the street, where the people live
We sick of workin' for crumbs and fillin' up the prisons

Dyin' over money and relyin' on religion for help

We do for self like ants in a colony

Organize the wealth into a socialist economy

A way of life based off the common need
And all my comrades is ready, we just spreadin the seed
-Dead Prez, "Police State"

Go ahead, tell me that's not poetry.

As always, suggestions and recommendations are always welcome.

Now playing: Dead Prez - You'll Find A Way
via FoxyTunes


chris said...

This is why Lupe Fiasco needs to get even more famous. His rise this year is promising - hopefully others will catch on and we'll get more cerebrally-minded rhymes infesting the Top 40 soon, not just thriving in the underground.

kelsi said...

it's because of artists like these that i really did have to stop saying i didn't like hip-hop.
good music is good music, whether it's genre or not.

prisco said...

The Roots. Seed 2.0.
It's probably miso-soupistic, but fuck it.

Go to The Landmark. Watch The Wackness. It made me dust off 3 Feet High and Rising and bust out the ol' Tribe Called Quest.

Lise said...

What, no Aesop Rock?

Thank you for this post. Seriously.

Boo said...

Damn. Lise beat me to it.

Aesop ROCK honey! Start with Float. Fucking amazing.

Also: El-P. New album (I'll Sleep When You're Dead) is also freakin' amazing.

Spank Rock! He's dirrrrrty. Good dirrrty.

Yay to Mos Def, Blackalicious, freakin' ATMOSPHERE (!!!), and I have a question: Does Zap Mama count as hip hop? Where are the girls at, dawg?

(Sorry for that lapse into 'dawg' territory. Usually not my style, but I just felt it...)

Erin said...

That was really great. I don't know much about hip hop, but I really do appreciate lyrics that are socially minded. Now I am going to have to download all of this.

harleymom said...

I am a big The Coup fan (I live in Oakland and am married to a socialist - I don't have much choice).

I'll have to check out more of this list.

Claire said...

Highlights include "Bamboo Banga", "Hussel", "Paper Planes", Galang" and "Bird Flu"

Best Sri Lankan/West London hip hop artist ever!!!!!

Plus, she rocked Bonnaroo, take that Kanye you whining little ponce.

Cibbuano said...

my god, I needed this.

I've been reviewing CD for a couple of years and last year, I said 'That's it'. I couldn't take it anymore.

I sold myself as a hip hop reviewer, with a basic knowledge of the genre. Every new album that I'd review would leave me surly and angry. I'd rant.

Then they'd send me a reissue of some old school, and I'd love it.

It put me in a vicious mood, but the tipping point was listening to the local indie radio station and realizing that all the originality and drive to be creative has passed into the indie rock scene. I quit the position in a hurry.

Nas - "It A'int Hard to Tell"
Ice Cube - "Us"
ODB - "Brooklyn Zoo"
The Fugees - "Nappy Heads"
De La Soul - "Buddy"
Zion I and the Grouch - "Make You Fly"
Busta Rhymes - "Break Ya Neck"?


Who'sThatGirl said...

I actually have a really good friend that does hip-hop... he's amazingly talented which is why I fear he'll never be "successful". If you want to check him out you can find him at or . Hopefully, you fine people will agree with me.

Trent Sketch said...

Great list, but I think there's a glaring omission.

The Streets

The rhymes are very clever and memorable. The beats don't overwhelm the content. And they're very, very British. That's a win to me.

And I almost forgot (if you count her as Hip hop)


TK said...

You guys are the best. To touch on a couple of quick points:

Chris - Lupe Fiasco is amazing - I actually feel sort of guilty about leaving them off. But I feel like they, like Coup, are about to take off.

Kelsi - absolutely!

Prisco - I feel, perhaps incorrectly, like The Roots is mainstream enough that I don't regret leaving them off. Seed 2.0 is new to me... off I go!

lise, boo - Aesop Rock's omission is also embarassing - Labor Days is frigging amazing.

erin - I can't gaurantee that you'll like ALL of it, but I appreciate your thinking.

harleymom - your hubby sounds very wise.

claire - M.I.A. is too awesome for words - if you haven't already, the Diplo mixed "Piracy Funds Terrorism" is unreal.

Cibbuano - to be fair, I fear the indie rock scene is rapidly becoming victim to a similar plague - a dilution of the talent pool.

Who'sThatGirl - I just DL'd his free stuff - you know, I kinda dig it. Check that guy out y'all.

Trent Sketch - Hmmm... the Streets is a glaring omission indeed... I'm not sure if I subconsciously left him off due to my focusing on black artists, but he deserves a spot. Let's add "Empty Cans," as that song almost makes me cry.

Jez said...

I'm riding on prisco's comment; The Seed 2.0 is one of my all-time favorite, not just hip hop, but ALL-TIME FAVORITE songs.

I don't ask for much these days
And I don't bitch and whine when I don't get my way

Also, that De La album is a fucking classic that ages well. I don't really count the Beastie Boys overall as hip hop. They're sorta like Pink Floyd to me with what they do, or Radiohead, but "Paul's Boutique" IS a classic hip hop album, and brilliant, even Chuck D. said as much.

Great first post nailing another genre, my brotha. I wanted to say that I liked hip hop, but I'm so behind the times, it's scary. Plus, like you say, hard to get to the good stuff. My buddy P Mart likes rap, but the stuff he likes doesn't appeal to me. It's more poetic than the pablum they put on the radio, but I gotta have that groove, man. Again, see "The Seed 2.0." The riff is so basic, but it's like your first band in high school - you don't think about it, you're just banging it out going "YEAH!"

Henry said...

I would urge all of you to check out the hip-hop group Jedi Mind Tricks.

They have this symphonic/eastern Wu-Tang-esque thing going on which I can't really describe.

b said...

oh, this list makes me happy inside. i'd also like to push for the inclusion of flobots though. they are pure amazement. there's of course 'handlebars' which is playing on the radio, but 'mayday', 'fight with tools' and 'same thing' are all stellar.

causaubon said...

awesome list, kids!

i do a weekly, free-format radio show here on the local student station on wednesday nights ('here' being north eastern Europe so it's on around noon, for you eastcoasters) and because it's free-format (as in, i-play-whatever-the-hell-i-feel-like-playing) i quite often do shows very similar to the list you put up here.

three months ago i did a country music show which was disturbingly similar to your country list and i have done a few hip-hop shows now that have featured many of the same artists you mention here.

some that i'd like to add, though:

Anti-Pop Consortium- "Dead in Motion" and the like

Binary Star- "Binary Shuffle" or "New Hip Hop" or anything else off of their second album, Masters of the Universe

The Herbaliser- anything from any of their albums. While not really a hip hop outfit, producer Jake Wherry and DJ Ollie Teeba team up with some excellent vocalist: the sweetness that is Jean Grae (aka What? What?), Roots Manuva (who isn't on you list on his own?), MF Doom and a host of others, spanning 5 excellent albums...and counting

i still really enjoy Handsome Boy Modelling School's first album.

even though they're not that new, Brand Nubian's "The Return" was really nice, and shows that "old school" (man i hate that term) isn't dead and doesn't always sound dated.

and finally- DJ Format, with guest MC's (who both are my boi-z, being Canucks, i might add) Abdominal and D-Sisive, really have proven that the jazzy, ultra danceable golden era hip hop of Digable Planets, De La Soul etc is still alive, vibrant, and definitley doesn't sound dated. check out "If You Can't Join 'Em...Beat 'Em" and "Music for the Mature B-Boy", both very excellent albums.

others that i'm still listening to:

Ugly Duckling
People Under The Stairs
Dilated Peoples
Jurassic 5/Ozomatli
Freestyle Fellowship (Aceyalone's first outfit)
Souls of Mischief
Main Source
Lords of the Underground
and of course...they want effects, some Das FX...

keep up the great work, dudes. it's nice to know that i'm not in the minority anymore.

Mike Valentino said...

Ay yo, crank that Soldier Boy.

Anonymous said...

that whole album

Felicia said...

Wheeee!!! Miseducation is one of my top ten favorite of all time albums. I saw Lyrics Born a few years ago in Chi-town, he is amazing and mind boggling. Check out Ohmega Watts too.

surviving myself said...

No Black Star??????

Rose said...

Dear TK: I couldn't tell you how I came across this here project of yours, but I kinda want to have my sloppy, sweaty way with it. You have some great writers here, and I'm enjoying the posts- but none so much as this one, which schooled my white ass in a genre that I perceived as overwhelming. Seriously, aside from the occasional Outkast or NERD track, I didn't do hip hop- not because I was convinced that I didn't like it, but because I had no idea where to even start. This is a great primer. I've been working today on lowering my Lame Quotient by listening to some of this stuff. I'm particularly into the Blackalicious.

GOAT said...

Speak on! I'm completely with you. Matter of fact, "hip-hop," which is still a term they use for radio rap, has such negative links to it that I don't even wanna be a part of it.

Hopefully, the record companies that feast on thoughtless music, will be soon wiped away by the death of the industry...and the birth of the independent artist revolution!

Anonymous said...

How about some Blues Scholars?