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Hip-Hop As A Shared Activity: How Collaboration Created America’s New Pop

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The recent rise of the collective in hip-hop has been undeniable. BROCKHAMPTON (technically a boy band, we know,) A$AP Mob, Migos, and Odd Future are just a few of the big names from the past few years. Before that, we had the Wu-Tang Clan, Run-DMC, A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A., Fugees, and Public Enemy. Even earlier were The Beastie Boys and Salt N Pepa. And this is only scratching the surface.*

The influence of the group in hip-hop can easily be tracked, and has been, but the pervasion of the collective is not the only reason that the genre is inherently collaborative. Nor is it the cause of hip-hop’s surge in popularity and supersession of rock as the most dominant genre of music in America, according to Nielsen’s 2017 year-end report. There’s a reason why the genre has been able to consistently innovate, come out on top, define what’s cool. And the answer lies much deeper, and much further back in history, than success on streaming platforms, like Nielsen’s findings suggest.

Photo courtesy of Dorothy/”Hip-Hop Love Blueprint”

Last year, the UK-based art and design studio Dorothy released its ‘Hip-Hop Love Blueprint,’ a blue and metallic gold screen print that links together “over 700 MCs, DJs, producers, turntablists, musicians, graffiti artists, b-boys and b-girls who […] have been pivotal to the evolution of hip-hop, from pioneers such as DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash to present day chart success stories Kendrick Lamar and Drake, and global superstars Jay-Z and Kanye West.” While the website description stresses the importance of certain groundbreaking artists and events, in order to truly understand the genre, it’s important to begin by paying attention to the links.

Like in any other genre, hip-hop has its stars—the people whose music shaped the future, whose legacy remains so strong that one wrong word about them could lead to physical threats. Dorothy mentioned some, but it would be pointless to go through the whole list. What distinguishes hip-hop from other popular music genres is not the artists themselves, but the way they are constantly working together in order to create the most dynamic art. When was the last time you listened to a rap album without features? Chance’s blockbuster hit Coloring Book only included two songs without features, Drake’s most recent More Life featured British grunge rappers to explore unprecedented sounds for the Toronto-born artist, 2 Chainz’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music hit hard by including some of the genre’s biggest names (Nicki Minaj, Drake, and Migos are just a few.) Besides a couple of stragglers (notably, J. Cole on his last two albums and Childish Gambino on Awaken, My Love!, among others,) the majority of hip-hop artists have essentially committed to this type of constant collaboration.

The way in which members of the hip-hop community engage with each other is analogous to scientists in a lab, or scholars in a field of research. This is the part where you have to bear with me for a second; all of these examples fall under the category of a shared activity. A shared activity, when loosely explained through Aristotle’s theories, comprises a shared and mutual commitment to a common goal, a mutual understanding of everyone’s individual role in accomplishing this goal, and a mutual agreement for everyone to perform his own individual role within the pursuit of this goal. If the common goal in question is the creation of a chart-topping album—like Flower Boy or No One Ever Really Dies, both of which heavily rely on featuresthen it’s difficult to argue against the fact that each participant checks off the items on this list.

One of the main benefits of a shared activity, especially when it comes to the creation of hip-hop, is the continuous engagement of its participants. If everyone is not only working on their own projects, but also engaging in the projects of others, then there is never a lack of interest or stimulation. Cue the features.

And, of course, the diss tracks. Although it may seem like the point of a good diss track is to stun the subject into silence, they usually—and unsurprisingly—have the opposite effect. Maybe therein lies the purpose. They incite a type of conversation in rap unlike that which exists in any other genre. No one ever truly gets the final word; more often than not, the challenge just sparks the creation of more music. This tradition of call-outs has existed since the early days of rap; the hip-hop rivalry phenomenon has given us hits from artists like The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac, Drake and Meek Mill, Nicki Minaj and Remy Ma. There were even theories that Kendrick was coming at Big Sean on DAMN. This isn’t to create a false equivalency between serious rivalries and occasional teasing, but there’s a reason why rappers seldom run out of things to say; each artist, at one point or another, becomes responsible for making sure that the conversation doesn’t end.

Another innovation that is unique to hip-hop is the rise of the producer as an artist in and of themself. Yes, bar the DIY scene, basically every artist in every genre needs a producer. But never before have producers held such distinctive roles in the creation of music that performance legends are seeking them out for their input and style. Like Jay-Z on his album 4:44, which arguably became more regarded for the producing feats of No I.D. than the rapping itself. Or everyone and Metro Boomin, who has left a mark as big as it gets on hip-hop; known for being a mainstream hit-machine, he’s collaborated with nearly every big name from Gucci Mane and 21 Savage to Drake and DJ Khaled. His tagline—“if young Metro don’t trust you, I’m gon’ shoot you,” created by Future in a collaboration with Uncle Murda—has infiltrated rap playlists indefinitely, and has kicked off its own cultural phenomenon. Or Mike WiLL Made-It, who was the beat-maker behind both Beyoncé’s “Formation” and Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.”

Even rappers who lean towards producing their own music, like hip-hop’s biggest workaholic Kanye West, rely on the idea of collaboration in order to create. One of the key features of Kanye’s music is his prolific use of samples—often of relatively unknown artists. Sampling, which is the technique of digitally encoding music or sound and reusing it as part of a composition or recording, is just one more way in which hip-hop artists take advantage of the community-like aspects of music in order to further art. By bringing in voices or sounds that otherwise wouldn’t have been heard by listeners of mainstream rap—like the contemporary classical composer Caroline Shaw, who West collaborated with on tracks “POWER” and “Say You Will”—hip-hop artists are opening up unprecedented avenues for their music.

At this point, you may be asking why this is important. There is an innumerable amount of answers, all dependent on your own experience with hip-hop, but there’s also a common thread that is woven through all of them. Historically, as a genre, hip-hop has not been given the respect it deserves. This isn’t a revolutionary statement in any sense; it’s just a recognition of the symptomatic way we view art that we do not deem to be fine. With rap taking the lead as America’s most popular form of music, it is about time that the contributions which hip-hop and its artists have made to music are acknowledged and celebrated. It is also time that we begin viewing them as more than transient blips in culture, bolstered by teenagers, social media, and streaming services. There have been dozens of articles likening Kanye West to Beethoven or Mozart, but it is important to note that he is not the only artist engaging in intellectual art-creation. He is just one of hundreds in a community of forward-thinkers and risk-takers. Hip-hop may not be a fine art, but that is because it is something much bigger; it is alive and it is growing, and it cannot be contained with four walls and a velvet rope.

*For a more complete timeline of hip-hop, check out ThoughtCo’s “History of Hip-Hop: 1925 to Now”

 

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Hip-Hop As A Shared Activity: How Collaboration Created America’s New Pop: Featured image courtesy of Ashlan Grey/The FADER

Why We Still Need SoundCloud

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When SoundCloud was founded in 2007, it was not necessarily the first streaming service of its kind. Before, there was YouTube and Napster, but what made SoundCloud different was its devotion to creativity. In its initial form, not only was streaming completely free, but also entirely user-friendly. Laissez-faire copyright laws made it easy for unsigned artists (specifically DJs) to post original remixes of popular tracks, which allowed listeners to fall for the romantic notion that maybe music can be free. Now, after a decade, the Berlin-based streaming service has taken quite a few blows—a few of which have steered it away from this original idea of free creativity. However, a closer look at its original values shows why we still need SoundCloud. 

 

At its best, Soundcloud was an avenue for musical discovery. Made up of mostly lesser-known artists, the service allowed users to scratch beneath the surface of popular music. Artists were allowed to make music without the burden of conventionality weighing on their shoulders while they recorded tracks.

SoundCloud was not about making money or recording instant hits. It was about self-expression within a community of like-minded individuals—a huge deal in the music world, considering major labels and record producers were busy cultivating a harsh climate of cutthroat deals, limited contracts, and perfectionism. This is what made SoundCloud as a platform so liberating: It freed artists from this pressure cooker of artificiality.

This isn’t to say, however, that SoundCloud artists were fated for a life outside the realm of the mainstream. Take SoundCloud’s poster child Chance the Rapper. In 2011, after having his musical aspirations mocked by peers and teachers, he spent a 10-day school suspension recording his first ever mixtape, 10 Day.

In his own words, he chose SoundCloud because it was the only platform that allowed him to upload his work without asking for a subscription payment. As a result, free, accessible music became his purpose (he doesn’t make songs for free, he makes them for freedom). Later came Acid Rap and Coloring Book, two mixtapes that have received wide commercial success despite the fact that he remains unsigned. At the young age of 24, Chance remains one of the most conventionally successful rappers of his time, regardless of the fact all his albums are available for free download.

Chance isn’t the only rapper to find fame through free streaming. More recent overnight sensations include Ugly God, who just dropped his debut album following the instant success of SoundCloud hit “Water,” Post Malone, Lil Pump, and Smokepurpp, among others. It would be nearly impossible to list all the rappers who have benefitted from this free platform because, when it comes to SoundCloud, fame isn’t the only indicator of success. There’s something to be said about a song you recorded in your bedroom being labeled art, even if it’s just by one person.

The community aspect of the service fosters a positivity that is missing from the critical “real” world. In this way, SoundCloud operates as a sort of escape from the unforgiving industry. It is a microcosm of the larger industry—one without all the “X out of 10” album reviews, Hot 100 charts, or sale numbers.

Rap isn’t the only genre to flourish under SoundCloud’s guiding hand, either. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the SoundCloud platform was its freedom from copyright infringement laws, which allowed DJs to elevate electronic music to new heights. Unlike YouTube (a competitor with SoundCloud for best free streaming service), SoundCloud allowed DJs to post remixes of pre-existing tracks without fear of their content being removed.

For instance, look at Kygo, whose remix of Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire” received over 50 million plays on SoundCloud. This was his jumping-off point, and it resulted in his release of “Firestone” on the streaming service, which led to critical and commercial acclaim. His personal success snowballed after this, as did the legitimization of house and electronic music as an artform. In 2016, he became the first house music producer to perform at an Olympics closing ceremony.

It is no secret that this is a very idyllic look at a corporation that has strayed very far from its roots. Since its creation, SoundCloud’s intentions have become much foggier. The corporation has negotiated deals with major labels and artists, allowing at least a portion of contributors to make money on advertisements (a move that betrays the idea of “all music is created equal” in its entirety).

In 2016, they introduced SoundCloud Go, a paid subscription service. Ironically, all of this failed them financially. They had almost gone under this year, but their saving grace was emergency funding. But just because the company is safe financially does not mean that everything that made it great is. It’s quite the opposite; SoundCloud does not only need a bailout, they need to return to the values that made them great. Otherwise, free music is doomed, and they’re going down with it.

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Why We Still Need SoundCloud: Featured image courtesy of SoundCloud

Female Rappers on the Rise

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In a genre defined by hypermasculinity, profanity, and the sexualization of female bodies, it’s not surprising that there has never been a historically high concentration of women in rap. When it came to hip-hop, women were always tied to the role of “featured” artist, or contributing harmonies and hooks, but rarely verses. However, things are finally changing in the rap world and we have many genre-defying female artists to thank for that. We rounded up a list of the most up-and-coming female rappers on the rise that you should not be sleeping on this year.

 

CARDI B
If you haven’t heard Cardi B’s breakout single “Bodak Yellow,” then you must be living under a rock. The overarching message of the song is obvious from the first few lines: Cardi B thinks she’s better than you, and she wants to be the one to tell you. The song takes cues from classic rap culture surrounding money, glory, and celebrity. It also subverts the classic rap narrative because Cardi is a woman—the antithesis of the tough, black male rapper stereotype. She’s effortlessly breaking boundaries, and she’s doing it in a way you can dance to.  

NONAME
Starting out as a slam poet in Chicago, Fatima Warner (Noname) broke out onto the rap scene when she was featured by Chance the Rapper on the Acid Rap mixtape. Since then, she and Chance have collaborated a few more times (Surf, Coloring Book), but she was also busy recording her own debut album, Telefone. An uncompromised look at the experience of growing up a black woman in Chicago, this album is a triumph. Not only does she experiment with unconventional jazz-influenced beats, but she also uses her background in spoken word to craft extremely smart and personal verses.

YOUNG M.A.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Young M.A. (also known as Katorah Marrero) has rap running through her veins. Beginning to rap as early as age 9, the 25-year-old has accomplished a lot in her short life thus far; she’s released more than a few viral tracks (“Brooklyn Chiraq,” “Body Bag”) and two mixtapes (Sleepwalkin’, Herstory,) and the latter two received critical acclaim. Her single “OOOUUU” has over 100 million streams on Spotify alone, and it was featured on basically every party playlist in the country for a few months. Her songs aren’t just mindless bangers, either; she also uses her music as an outlet to discuss social issues and her identity as a black lesbian woman.

KAMAIYAH
Called “Oakland’s Best New Rapper” by MTV, Kamaiyah is definitely one to watch. Her debut album A Good Night in the Ghetto is a cross-section of everything she represents as a rapper: confidence, clarity, and charisma. Her verses are sharp, but they’re also fun. Heavy bass lines and catchy hooks make the tracks perfect for parties without compromising who she is. She’s not a singer, she’s a rapper—and she’s not afraid to say it. If you’re still unconvinced that she’s the next big thing, just remember she also shared a feature with Drake on the YG track “Why You Always Hatin’” in 2016.

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Female Rappers on the Rise: Featured image courtesy of CardiB/Faceboook

Chance the Rapper Exceeds Expectations with ‘Coloring Book’ Mixtape

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The highly anticipated Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper dropped May 12 and proves to be a masterpiece that intertwines both smooth, imaginative hip-hop verses and soulful, heart-wrenching gospel sermons. In various interviews, Chance the Rapper has made many references about his religious background and how it has influenced and guided the independent rapper’s music ventures for his latest mixtape. Fans had a taste of Chance’s experimentation with blending hip-hop and gospel on his memorable verses on Kanye West’s latest album The Life of Pablo. On Kanye’s track “Ultralight Beam,” Chance steals the spotlight with his religious allusions as he croons along with a gospel choir and organ in the background. Teaming with Kirk Franklin, Chance delivers his own sermon in his third mixtape as the Chicago native masters a new sub-genre of hip-hop. 

Jumping right into the music with “All We Got,” listeners are introduced to the mixtape with Chance welcoming his fans as he familiarly chimes along with Kanye West. “No Problem” is heartfelt and cheerful with a gospel choir harmonizing in the background. The recent duo Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz, who earlier this year released ColleGrove, join Chance, each delivering bars–a powerful trio with credentials and influence in the rap game. In “Summer Friends”, Chance reminisces the simplicity of his childhood, the quick friends he made in the summer as he reiterated with regret, “summer friends don’t stick around,” and the adventures that speak for the artists’ nostalgia for the idleness of summer in his childhood.
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Even the title of the mixtape Coloring Book reflects a childlike yearning he has reflected in his music. The following three tracks “D.R.A.M. Sings Special,” “How Great,” and “Finish Line/ Drown” teleport us to Sunday morning at church. Humming along and introducing the harmony of a gospel choir, the songs are powerful and the church-gospel element interwoven throughout the mixtape is inviting rather than daunting. Chance shares a outlook in his personal life as he reveals how important and necessary religion and family is to him and his music.
In each of his 14 tracks, Chance welcomes us to a personal slice of his life and his internal and external struggles. In “Blessings,” Chance reveals his struggles with his, music, life, and family, yet he is hopeful because he is aware that God is blessing him and has a plan for him. “Same Drugs” is emotional as he mentions a nameless woman who has changed, repeating, “When did you change?” Chance is also frustrated because he misses the girl he once knew who did the “same drugs” as him. Pausing from his earlier religious references, Chance turns up the volume with the club-banger “Mixtapes” as he jams along with Young Thug and Lil Yatchy. A very uplifting and hopeful song, “Angels” has a fun beat as Chance refers to the angels watching over him and his family.

After his three-year lull, there were a lot of expectations for Chance to produce a mixtape that could top the success of Acid Rap. Coloring Book is a dedication to Chance’s faith, a mixtape that reveals his maturity through his soulful music that echoes with hope, benediction, and revival.
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