2023 'Til Infinity
There's something fitting about the music of De La Soul finally hitting streaming platforms the year of hip-hop's 50th anniversary. The early De La albums were foundational to the genre during its golden age, especially their collage-like use of the art of sampling. But the issues that kept the group out of digital spaces for decades also happened to be microcosms of greater rap battlefronts: The language in the contracts wasn't prescient enough to predict a digital music economy, leaving the work stuck in physical limbo, and their label held the catalog hostage, refusing to clear the samples. A second label acquired the music and wouldn't give the group a fair split of the digital revenue. As a result, De La Soul didn't exist online, or, to put it another way, they didn't exist at all to younger generations of rap listeners. The entire ordeal seemed to demonstrate how much rap has moved in its run, and where it primarily lives now.
As we have noted this summer, all rap is local. But over time, as the internet has become an integral part of the distribution process, platforms along the web have become their own spaces. The online mixtape suppliers DatPiff and LiveMixtapes, along with their many imitators, quickly incentivized up-and-coming stars to display their skills for free, creating a competitive coliseum wherein the battler roots of the form were satiated, giving shelved prospects a second chance at viability and, ultimately, widening the talent pool for independent breakthroughs and for a major label arms race. With the rise of streaming giants like Spotify and Apple Music, the mixtape economy began to dissolve, and for a short time, the biggest rappers took on exclusive premieres with certain platforms, like high-profile directors seeking a studio for their next movie. Eventually, as the streaming model became dominant, the stream's inclusion in the broader calculus of music consumption led to a rap explosion on the charts, pushing past Top 40 gatekeepers. (It's worth noting that new technology often allows for this kind of adjusting of the till, with SoundScan's boost of '90s rap a clear precursor.)
In the meantime, smaller retailers like Bandcamp and SoundCloud took on their own personalities, and seemed to have their own scenes — the former an independent writerly utopia, the latter a lo-fi breeding ground for warbled autotune melody and distortion. Artists became associated with these digital brokers as if they were actual places, and the careful dissolution of genre borders made some risers first identifiable by their chosen platform. All the while, the most important space for rap has clearly been YouTube. Beyond its utility as the single greatest trove of hard-to-find rap records lost elsewhere online, it has been its own forum. Since Soulja Boy's revolutionary embrace of the platform mere months after it launched, rappers have treated it like its own haunt. Chicago rappers rallied around videographer DGainz, turning his page into a survey of the scene. WorldStarHipHop and Lyrical Lemonade soon turned their blogs into channels that similarly became homes for various subsets of rising rappers.
In the '10s and '20s, rappers have used these digital spaces to build community. The rappers of the YBN collective started in an Xbox Live party. Brockhampton was created in the KanyeToThe forum. GothBoiClique came together through Tumblr. Artists have turned IG into a place to field-test and tease unreleased music or soft-launch collaborations. TikTok, with its emphasis on sound as its own asset, has already led to dynamic forms of song-making thanks to its duet and stitch features.
Digital resonance has also furthered rap's global expansion. Sure, rap has been a major cultural export since early in its run, the seeds planted by international touring and overseas distribution and diligent superfans — streetwear icon Hiroshi Fujiwara, for instance, brought the first crates of rap LPs to Japan after a trip to New York in the '80s — but there is a reason we've seen significant surges from foreign scenes in the last 15 years. The internet has collapsed the distance of influence, and cities that once lagged behind the States are now communicating with American rap culture in real time. Just as the NBA has seen an influx of foreign talent as the popularity of the game has gone global, hip-hop culture's digital expansion has led to a rap boom on other continents.
The biggest rapper in the world is from Toronto, and he is a man of the world, drawing broadly from the flavor of other places. One scene into which he is particularly tapped is London, which has rapidly developed into a haven for rappers of the Black diaspora, as influenced by the music of Africa and the West Indies as by America. The second-biggest rapper in the world doesn't even perform in English. Though Bad Bunny has grown into a pop star, he broke through on Latin trap, and his melodic flows still distinctly point to his being part of the SoundCloud generation. In his home of Puerto Rico, the rap-influenced reggaeton of the early 2000s has filtered into the music of a contemporary wave of urbano stars. Through their many transformations, expansionists like Rauw Alejandro and Ozuna have never strayed far from hip-hop influence.
We see rap influence also taking root in South Korea, embedded in the DNA of its contemporary pop. SEO Taiji and Boys brought rap to pop music of the peninsula in the mid-'90s. One of the group's members founded one of the Big 3 labels, YG Entertainment, in 1997, and since then rap has been the underlying sound in K-pop, one furthered by the most popular acts, BTS and Blackpink, which are built entirely around rappers. But outside the agency machine there is also a scene of rapper's rappers tinkering more explicitly with the form — from groundbreakers like Drunken Tiger and Verbal Jint to crossover stars like Jay Park and ZICO to enthusiasts like pH-1 and Giriboy — becoming more and more competent with each new iteration.
In K-pop, we see the full extent of rap's globalization as a mass-market product. It isn't just that many of the songs have literal rap verses, or often pull from rap production; it's in the attempts to adopt the slang and swagger. It's in Red Bull hosting an international B-boy competition, in Pharrell becoming creative director at Louis Vuitton. Even with questions about its waning dominance in recent years — at the top of the charts and in terms of percentage of overall consumption (which, for the record, has been vastly overstated) — you can see how hip-hop's influence extends beyond rhymes and numbers. It is in the style, the sound, the attitude, oozing out of every crack in wider culture. The only real questions are: How can it sustain itself, and how can it get better?
If hip-hop was originally (ideally) about giving the marginalized a voice and about speaking truth to power, then its next 50 years should build upon those lessons toward a more intersectional future. In an interview with NPR's Louder Than a Riot, the rapper Saucy Santana stated outright his ideal vision for what rap could be: "gay as f***." It would certainly be progress for hip-hop to become a more open and inclusive space, but why stop there — any image of its transformation and growth should more broadly reevaluate the limits of its industry and consider a more egalitarian way.
Rap is a genre of contradictions but none is more apparent than this: The culture is, all at once, both in opposition to the white supremacist framework and still deeply beholden to capitalist patriarchy. As the writer and activist Kevin Powell explained, in a 2001 essay called "Confessions of a Recovering Misogynist," hip-hop has largely been a domain for Black men to have a go as the beneficiaries of androcentrism, without feeling bound (or indebted) to their white counterparts. "While I do not think hip-hop is any more sexist or misogynist than other forms of American culture, I do think it is the most explicit form of misogyny around today," he wrote. "What folks don't understand is that hip-hop was created on the heels of the civil rights era by impoverished black men and Latinos, who literally made something out of nothing. But in making that something out of nothing, many of us men of color have held tightly to white patriarchal notions of manhood — that is, the way to be a man is to have power. ... Patriarchy, as manifest in hip-hop, is where we can have our version of power within this very oppressive society."
That version of rap must collapse if it is to meaningfully evolve. The genre should always reflect the reality of those making it, and never more so than when holding a magnifying glass to social ills. But art as advocacy — especially around the themes of institutional violence and sexism and scarcity, topics hip-hop has often handled messily — must advocate for all. That must first mean standing for and representing the most marginalized among us, forcing out transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia and chauvinism. It means reorienting the music toward something beyond the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality, something that does not ultimately conform to the ideals of the very system trying to destroy its people.
In We Real Cool, bell hooks outlined her path forward for what she called the hip-hop generation: "When hip-hop culture provides a blueprint for black male salvation we can value it as many of us value civil rights struggle. Hip-hop culture has created some fun subcultural playgrounds, some decent sounds and great grooves, but it has yet to 'keep it real' by interfacing with the world beyond the sub-culture and mainstream commodification of blackness in a way that deadens to truly offer black males, young and old, blueprints for liberation, healing, a return to soul, wholeness." Rap can never truly be a liberatory art unless it reckons with its own exploitation. The implication of a "subcultural playground" is that it exists in isolation, detached from the real world.
Within its bounds, a distinct few get to have fun for a while, but it is a controlled ecosystem, and outside its enclosure is a society from which it has disengaged. Even as artists like Jay-Z, Diddy and Dr. Dre became moguls, on the backs of successful rap careers, they simply assimilated into the billionaire class. Tidal, which Jay-Z presented as a streaming co-op for artist ownership, only ever had superstar stakeholders.
The art itself suffers too. When only certain people get to play the game, their conception of fun rules. hooks argued that "patriarchal notions of cool" had limited Black male creativity and contained or crushed the Black male imagination. Additionally, she wrote that those who listened to rap didn't want to hear vulnerability. Her conception of rap was narrow but not without insight; rappers were presenting themselves as bulletproof and often still do. The strides made toward greater emotional complexity have been significant but there is still much further to go, as artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole have demonstrated — the former on his tangled album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, the latter in a well-meaning but ultimately foolish tone-policing of the poet and rapper Noname. There needs to be continued self-scrutiny and social reconditioning. And only once we extend beyond the dimensions of the male ego can we truly tap into the full spectrum of rap expression, which includes voices long suppressed by the status quo, voices like Santana's, like Backxwash's, like Chika's.
Of course, that shouldn't also simply mean diversifying the small pool of one-percenter artists, and it shouldn't mean inclusion that merely reinforces class hierarchies. The answer isn't tokenism, elevating a select few women rappers to Jay-Z status, or simply picking out a queer rapper to run Def Jam; it's actually realizing the promise of a democratized internet, paying regular artists enough to live to reach whatever pocket of listeners they can wherever they may be, giving artists the freedom to pursue any sound they want, to create and collaborate on their own terms. Doing so can only be a boon for rap originality, ingenuity and artistry, sustaining it through whatever sonic variations the next generations feel fit to foist upon their predecessors.
Giving rap the future it deserves means smashing the rap music infrastructure as it is. It means no more opportunity-hungry young people dancing before vultures on tables at corporate offices; no more streaming playlists as major-label vendors; no more treating songs and catalogs like venture capital. Only so much can be done in our mass-market model, or even in its margins. If I had to imagine the hip-hop dystopia, I see a culture that is primarily fodder for platforms: a flattened, formulaic sound appealing to conveyor-belt consumption, an overreliance on reproduction and not reinvention, rap "media" redpilling young fans and AI voice models and deepfakes disrupting an already fragile and surreal environment for both listeners and creators. But knowing where some of the battle lines are drawn makes it a bit easier to defend, and I'm more than encouraged to see what's next because of artists who tease just how much further rap can go. I see Earl Sweatshirt's sagely wisdom, Tierra Whack's audiovisual balance, pink siifu's everlasting soul, Moor Mother's witchy experiments, Rema's diasporic fusions, Little Simz's casual elasticity, and on and on, artists keenly aware of rap's history using that knowledge to challenge its outermost limits. The list is endless, and nearly boundless, sprawling deep into the rap future of our wildest, brightest dreams.
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