How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Support the Underground

By David “The Mast” Masters

“They only say hip hop is dead ‘cause the dope shit is underground.”
– Joe Budden, D.O.A. Freeverse.

Music has been with me my whole life. I don’t believe illegal downloading is okay and every piece of music I own is bought/paid for. My CD collection has everything from thrash metal like Slayer to Prince. From mellow and jazzy folk artists like Norah Jones, to Norweigan black metal pioneers such as Emperor. If you’re into more electronic sounds, I have everything from Depeche Mode to Burial, from Brian Eno to Kraftwerk. If I like it, I’ll buy it. Good music is good music, to me. Today, I’m here to discuss hip-hop.

My first dalliance with the genre of hip-hop was ‘Prophets of Rage’ by Public Enemy. I was too young to appreciate bars, but something about the aural flow and linguistic punch of Chuck D. managed to hit my inner ear. It felt like swearing in French. If you don’t know what I mean, watch The Matrix Revolutions (it’s shit, but for reference).  After rattling off a barrage of foul language spoken in French, The Merovingian so eloquently states that swearing in said language is “like wiping (your) ass with silk. I love it.”

It was kind of like that. Hearing, “With vice, I hold the mic device. With force, I give it away, of course.” immediately struck me. As I grew older, I gained more and more of my hip-hop sensibilities, morality and code of ethics from that one line. “With vice, I hold the mic device.” Chuck was saying that he grabs the mic, his tool of artistry, with authority and an air of confidence. “With force, I give it away, of course.” Here, he is suggesting (from what I interpret), that if he’s gonna give the mic to you, be prepared to rule it or don’t bother. My point is that I like my MCs to rap well. I don’t particularly care if you have mediocre lyrics so long as the music is pleasing to me. Lyrics, in all music, are nothing more than a good bonus at best. I buy music for the sound. MCing, though, is an art within the music. It is a skill. One does not need to be able to perform linguistic somersaults, à la Canibus, to be a great hip-hop musician. In fact, the best albums are often ones with a heavy balance.

To elucidate: 2pac was never a top seed if we’re discussing lyrics. Ed Lover said that, word for word, when talking to Joe Budden. “I live the era, I knew Pac personally. He is not a top seed if we’re talking about lyrics, which is what BEST RAPPER should mean.” Yet, I would much rather listen to ‘California Love’ than a lot of what Canibus has produced. To judge hip-hop artists is not to judge them as MCs and vice versa.

Where am I going with this? Well, I want to talk about underground hip-hop vs. mainstream hip-hop. To get right into it, and continue from the previous thread, lyrics are typically a huge point of division between the mainstream and the underground. Though the mainstream has always been in the vein of more popular material, thus the more accessible, it did allow for incredibly talented lyricists to ply their craft as hip-hop artists. Nowadays, I do not believe that is so. I’d like to weigh up the changes, why things have changed, and whether I think they are changes for the betterment or decline of hip-hop.

Rewind to the 90s. Everyone will tell you that everything was so much better. Granted, the 90s probably do rack up as the greatest musical years of all time. Not due to nostalgia, but due to the sheer amount of stylistic movements across all genres. You had the grunge movement out of Seattle, the alternative rock movement out of L.A. and the West Coast, and you had the whole new wave of hip-hop artists. This, I believe, is where the current mainstream differs. Allow me to explain…

When Redman, Method Man, Wu-Tang Clan and their ilk came forth, people DID shun them. They dressed differently, they rapped about different things, and they were generally looked upon with the same view many people use today! “Ack! These new guys have no respect!” However, analysing the classic 90s hip-hop albums reveals to us the difference between now and then. Muddy Waters, those first two Wu albums and the affiliated solo efforts, ‘Ready to Die’, ‘The 18th Letter’, ‘Uptown Saturday Night’, ‘Lifestyles ov the Poor and Dangerous’ etc. These albums, if not made by vets, had clear musical links to what came before. Even if they sounded entirely new, they either had musical or influential links to what had proven to be pioneering, quality hip-hop.

Who can analyse a Young Money (you knew it was coming, shut up) track and say that? We’ve gone from musical evolution, to musical creationism. People are looking at all rappers as hip-hop artists, and that isn’t the case. I refuse to label Drake as a hip-hop artist. That isn’t me being afraid of new things, it’s him not being hip-hop. He raps. That’s it. He is no more a hip-hop artist for rapping as Adele is a punk rock vocalist because she too is a singer.

The continuity of history is gone, I feel. Let me clarify, though, that I do not feel everyone HAS to listen to, or like, Rakim or any of those older guys. I just think people should know where things came from, and what music was like at different points in time. Today, the mainstream of hip-hop is all about collaborating with whoever will help you get that money, and if you disagree…you’re a hater. It’s focused on “swag”, a word of which the usage should be punishable with death, and things of that nature. Things HAVE shifted, and I don’t necessarily believe it’s for the better. Taste is subjective, but I find it hard to believe that anyone can watch the last episode of Yo! MTV Raps and not feel depressed. I watched it when it aired, and it saddened me then. Seeing Rakim, K.R.S., Serch, Extra P., Special Ed, Red, Meth, Chubb Rock and many others getting it in to the instrumental Pete Rock remix of Real Hip-Hop by Das Efx is something I will never, ever forget.

They all looked like bums, but did it matter? No. What mattered was their ability. When you ask Drake to recite a verse, or drop a freestyle, he can barely manage three of four bars without pausing for a while. MCs these days have not developed to appreciate the craft of MCing in and of itself, for the most part. The closest thing we have is the B.E.T. Cypher, and that’s nowhere near the same.

“They’re doing alright! They’re getting all that money!”, I hear you say. True. That is a benefit of being a mainstream hip-hop musician. But at what cost? I am no Drake fan, but even evaluating his earlier work shows a magnificent difference between the Drake who did ‘Good Riddance’ and the Drake who does thinks like ‘Over’ or ‘Fall for Your Type’. Compromise is key, more so than ever. A mainstream hip-hop artist is not going to get away with putting a single out with no chorus or hook on it, for example. You would never see a posse cut, A TRUE posse cut, make the grade now. The ‘Flava in Ya Ear’ remix (if you haven’t heard it, then yes, I judge you) would never get the notoriety today that it did when it came out.

Joe Budden most famously put out ‘Pump It Up’ on Def Jam, as well as Focus (which, I believe, he did for DJ Clue and it blew up unexpectedly). They smashed into clubs and everyone bumped it. Then the album dropped and people were horrified to hear self-referential, reflective tracks such as ‘Walk with Me’; a masterfully executed meditation on how fame and fortune can change you and/or everyone around you. They didn’t want that, and so Joe was eventually forced off Def Jam and retreated into the underground. The money wasn’t as good, the exposure was non-existent, but he had 100% control over EVERYTHING he did. The result? Go listen to any of his four Mood Muzik mixtapes. The third installment, specifically, is absolute brilliance. He has lamented his time in the mainstream, even going so far as to say, “I pick anonymity over being famous.” “I’m not worried ‘bout the limelight, ‘cause that’ll manifest when the time’s right.”

Now, we see Joe and his four-headed monster group, Slaughterhouse, signed to Shady Records. When I heard ‘Loud Noises’, I internally screamed like Homer Simpson in Candyland at the prospect of no-chorus barfests coming back into the mainstream. Then I heard ‘My Life’ most recently and began to fear for the group that I truly believed would be saviours. That’s what happens, though. When sales security isn’t a guaranteed shout, do you push on or take the easy way out? Many mainstream MCs have done this, and it’s a regular pitfall. If you listen to Ludacris (yes, the guy who did ‘Baby’ with Justin Bieber) on ‘Incognegro’ or ‘Back for the First Time’, you will be blown away. He was the Southern Redman, at one point. His second album, ‘Word of Mouf’, showed some mainstream sensibilities (who DOESN’T love ‘Area Codes’ and ‘Rollout’?), but it had that Luda-essence. Then, things went wrong.

Most famously, though most often disagreed with, I have to shine the light on Eminem. ‘The Slim Shady L.P.’, to me, is arguably the greatest complete work in hip-hop history. It has great music, side-splitting comedic lyricism/ad-libs and some genuine, thought-provoking material. Lyrically, he not only smashed the ball out of the park on a technical level (‘I Still Don’t’, ‘Just Don’t Give a Fuck’ and ‘Brain Damage’), but he told amazing stories with his words (‘Rock Bottom’ and ‘If I Had’. Fast forward to the time when he realised he could get a lot more money and fame if he did give a fuck, and he’s doing Stan (one of the most overrated “deep” tracks ever. Do not EVER call that song deep, to me, ‘Without Me’, ‘Ass like That’ and the deplorable bandwagonry of ‘Mosh. People call it stylistic evolution, I call it selling the fuck out, to be marginally less eloquent.

There just seems to be a great amount of rappers, but no hip-hop. That is the issue, nowadays. I refuse to believe it’s nostalgia, because it isn’t. I have an analytical, justifiable beef with the way things have gone, and I refuse to support or affiliate myself with the hip-hop mainstream until it sorts itself out. MCs aren’t willing to grind hard in favour of owning everything they do, and doing everything they want. Granted, Drake may want to do what he’s doing now, but I have such unwavering suspicion when I see such a massive stylistic leap in someone’s back catalogue. How can ANYONE see Snoop Dogg doing tracks with Katy Perry and not give a big, loud, Nate Dogg-style “HOLD UP”? There was a time when Triumph by Wu-Tang Clan was a worthy, chartable single. Now, the closest thing we have to a posse cut is ‘Forever’ or ‘Bed Rock’. That’s not ok, and I’m not ok with it.

Make NO mistake, for I am not anti-mainstream. I am anti-what’s mainstream now, and I think that’s perfectly understandable. In 2012, where record labels, though powerful, are becoming less and less relevant, I believe artists should start taking back demand. Artists seem to be in a rush to give something to the labels that can be sold, or remixed. Instead, make the labels want YOU and you will retain the power. Labels need artists. Artists do not need labels. Record labels exist because of musicians, and it will NEVER be the other way around. Demand more, push for more, and make THEM change. There’s room for Young Money, J. Cole and all these mainstream guys, but they are out there, like it or not, representing hip-hop because they rap. All while Elzhi is probably never going to see the exposure they have.

I know we’re in a recession, and I know we’re in a steal-before-you-buy (if you even buy) culture, but please…if you claim to be a fan of hip hop…BUY something independent. Go support Flight Distance or 24/7. Rhyme Asylum or Jehst. Iron Solomon or Illmaculate. Soul Khan or Atmosphere. Just take a gamble on something less than famed and you more than likely will wish you’d done it sooner. I don’t wish to use this phrase, but the true essence of hip-hop (yes, such a thing exists) IS dying and it will continue dying until all that’s left is rapping over an R&B instrumental. That is, unless, people start pushing.

Chuck D. held what he loved with vice, and gave it away to these newer generations with force. I feel like he is being let down. Let’s change that, as fans.

  1. Hmmm said:

    What a nonsensical article. What, precisely, is wrong with what you’ve termed “musical creationism”? Do we think poorly of Charlie Parker, or Captain Beefheart, or even Emily Dickinson or Franz Kline, because they eschewed of the deadweight of the past? Since when was a “continuity of history”, in terms of the way you narrowly define it, a requirement? Everything is a apart of history, even a reaction against the past styles represents a “continuity of history” that you can’t quite grasp. What is a rapper if not a hip-hop artist? If you’re going to make these bizarre proclamations it’s best that they be sufficiently explained (making an arbitrary Adele remark and then attempting to draw equivalence doesn’t quite cut it). The way I read it, rappers who you don’t like aren’t hip-hop artists, and those you like are. Not exactly a sound critical foundation. “There seems to be a great amount of rappers” you say, “but no hip hop”. Here you are redefining terms in order to dismiss some and canonize others. It would be better if you actually defined what “hip hop” is, your own views should not be taken as something the public is privy to. The closest you come to touching on the matter is when you dubiously declare that a “true essence… does exist”. An anti-essentialist such as myself has to pause at such a questionable remark. If there is a true essence, define it, you’re not going to get credit for bringing up a dubious issue without elucidation. But then again, such a statement is in keeping with the general feel of the article which is measured in tone but vacuous in terms of substance.

    • Perhaps you’d like to write a piece in response to this article?

      • Hmmm said:

        Sorry, I missed the reply. Thanks for the offer but I don’t have much else to say on the matter. I just found it to be an incredibly sulky piece and couldn’t pass up a quick response. I was hoping maybe I would have stimulated a response that would clarify the original piece, but it seems that ship has sailed.

    • By the term “hip-hop artist”, David is referring to an artist who clearly embraces the basic values of hip-hop art and culture, regardless of their particular sound or style. People who rap but only pander to popular tastes, surely can’t be considered true practitioners of hip-hop (i.e. a culture and art which, at it’s core, runs counter to mainstream interests.)

    • I understand why you and many others might disagree with the article, but the fact is, David, the article’s author, is an unapologetic purist in every sense. He also enjoys pissing people off by airing his rather dogmatic opinions.

      • Hmmm said:

        He is referring to something he made up, actually. He is ignoring the stylistic variety of early hip-hop. The music of Young Money–good or not–is very much in keeping, in spirit, with the block parties of NYC. And even if it weren’t, and it still demonstrated hip-hop stylistics, that wouldn’t make it any less hip-hop. Since when was being a “true practitioner of hip-hop” the same as “run[ning] counter to mainstream interests”? That is a made up definition bandied off like it’s a truism. There are no “basic values of hip-hop”, hip-hop is not a monolithic genre and to treat it as such is to dismis vast swaths of music. Frank Zappa did not make music very much like Chuck Berry, the innovator of rock music. That doesn’t mean Zappa isn’t a rock artist; genres are mutable, not fixed labels. Only the shakiest of arguments would say otherwise, and that’s a major issue with this piece. Most artists would love to be popular, does that make them less true than those who want to capture a niche market? Do you think Mozart relished the fact that musical fashions changed and he was ignored towards the end of his life? Why would hip-hop artists being any different?

        I have no problem with having contrarian opinions. As someone who doesn’t care much for Woody Allen or Alfred Hitchcock in film; doesn’t think F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemmingway are great American writers; and generally believes that the comic canon needs to be started anew; I’m in too delicate a position to feel otherwise. Yet, if being an “unapologetic purist” means redefining words, rewriting musical history, ignoring the fact that not being able to trace a direct line from the roots of something to a given artist is not a bad thing (do you think poorly of Caravaggio because you can’t detect much 300 BCE Roman art in him?) and taking a generally intellectually dishonest position then I don’t want any of it.

      • The argument David is trying to make, however heavy-handedly, is that there is in fact a very discernible difference, especially nowadays, between those who are “rap artists” and those who are practitioners of hip-hop. While this distinction, and indeed any claim to hip-hop “realness”, is extremely subjective, it’s still important we explore it, especially given how important the authenticity debate has been throughout hip-hop’s history.

        Personally, I don’t want to get into such a futile, cyclical debate about the subject, but I’m sure David would oblige happily.

      • Hip-hop in its very essence is a form of counter-culture, no?

  2. I like your writing, as well as the Diz vs Canibus battle piece. I do however feel you should truncate your articles a little. Not saying there is nothing wrong with the writing now, but I feel alot more people would read, share, interact if you learn to condense these thoughts into shorter segments. But I enjoy reading, keep it up.

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