You can debate that last point all you want. You ain't gonna change my mind.
SCREWED AND CHOPPED
There's possibly nothing that more perfectly exemplifies the idiocy and ignorance of modern hip hop better than the "chopped and screwed" trend of the early 90s. In short, a DJ from Houston discovered a new and less-innovative remix method in which you slow down the rap recording to approximately 70 BPM and then "chop" up the recording by skipping and cutting the record in single-second increments which effectively made bad records even worse (editorial influence). DJ Screw contended that by slowing it down, it helped a listener ease into a more mellow state and then could more easily soak in the lyrics now being delivered at a punishingly slow and low tone. It was something that not only did I really fail to see the genius in it, I found it straight up comical. It sounded like something was terribly wrong with the record player (again, more editorial influence). Click here to get an idea. The DJ was named DJ Screw and, after making this "discovery," referred to the tapes as "screwed and chopped." Before long, it took massive hold over the southern sound and dudes were "screwing and chopping" up rap recordings from Houston to Memphis. It was said that the best way to enjoy these recordings was to listen to them while drinking "syrup" (also known as "drank" or "sizzurp"). And to take excessiveness and irresponsibility to new levels, DJ Screw, the genre's founder died of a lethal dose of "syrup" which was a potent combination of alcohol and cough syrup. The irony is almost too much to bear. That'd be like Charlton Heston getting fatally shot in some horrible hunting accident.
Now, I'm from Texas and I was selling records in East Texas when "screwed and chopped" (see also "slowed and throwed") was hitting its regional highmark. Nationally, it was still waiting to peak (and it never really did). Every stoplight, every fast food drive-thru, every basketball court, every mall parking lot...it was everywhere. How it caught on I'll never know. You ask others from deeper in the state and they'd say, "How could it not?" It has since died down in popularity and is likely to completely phase out in the next couple of years, but let's be real, it'll be back.
So why, you ask, would something so popular be considered amongst the worst developments in hip hop's history (according to The Root Down, of course)?
Firstly, in my humblest opinion, something that takes very little talent to create should have never left a city block, much less half of the nation. These crazes happen all the time. It's like the autotune in popular R&B music. Singers no longer need talent to carry a note. Autotune will do it for you. To call DJ Screw a "deejay" is a little far-stretched. Wouldn't you say? That practically makes me a DJ. I mean, I can put on a record. I can slow it down. I can chop it in Audacity. Hell, in two years, they'll probably have an iPhone app so you can screw and chop anything. By the simplest of means and least effort possible, cats thought, all of the sudden, that DJ's came out of a box like some Alphonso Ribero b-boy kit. It cheapened the game. It stunk up the DJ's claim. DJ's used to be all hip hop had. Rappers were just mouthy fools that would tell people to get off their asses and dance. But the DJs were the force. DJ Screw slowing down records so you can listen to them and enjoy them while drinking cough syrup? Why don't you just go by your birth name, bro. You ain't no DJ.
Sometimes the dumbest things actually stick. And when they do, everyone wants to do it. It's like that party that everyone within a five-mile radius goes to. And once they're there, you have to basically run out of beer or have the cops come in and break it up. That was screwed and chopped. We let too many morons into the game because someone left the back gate open. They came and drank all of our beer. Or sizzurp, if you prefer.
Secondly, I'm a little pissed that Houston's legacy is more screwed and chopped and not Geto Boys. Not Def IV. Rap-a-Lot. I was talking to someone a few weeks ago and they thought that the Geto Boys were from Los Angeles! I hated to react the way I did, but I bounced back, "Bro, Geto Boys are not only from Houston, they are Houston." I guess we all go through this as aging heads though. That argument of who was first. Who was better. The thought that the Geto Boys' lock on Houston has been erased by DJ Screw and Michael Watts is a depressing one. Signed "Sincerely, Crotchety Old Hip Hop Head"
I need to start a Hip Hop Preservation Society. Every art form and musical genre seems to have one.
NO LIMIT RECORDS (1997-1999)
Hip hop was on a pretty good roll going into 1997. 1996 brought us classics like Reasonable Doubt, Ironman, Stakes is High, ATLiens. But as the sun began to set on the "Golden Age," Jiggy was coming in. Collossal rap radio took form on hits like "The Crossroads," "Mo Money, Mo Problems," and Freak Nasty's "Da Dip." 1997 was the year of two labels. Bad Boy Records which brought us Ma$e, Puffy and, of course, Notorious' Life After Death in the same month he died. And No Limit Records which actually had been around since 1993. Master P and his camp were like a freaking record plant. They would record, produce, gloss and release records at a rate that would make the major labels' jaws drop. And they were rolling in it. I remember working in music retail these years and it seemed like anything these cats put out just flew off the shelves. And, lucky for us, they put out tonnage. Unfortunately for hip hop, though, they put out tonnage.
All they needed was a hit to keep the cash flow up and they got it with "Make 'Em Say Uhhh!'" which came out in 1997 sending Master P's Ghetto D soaring. Once that cash started making its way back to the label, there was no stopping them. And if there's any label that perfectly hit on the "strike while the iron's hot" approach, it was No Limit. They weren't interested in longevity. It was strictly an I-gotta-get-mine operation.
This label (an indie, mind you) released an astounding 46 full length records. Master P, the label's founder released a solo record in each of these years along with running the label all while retiring and coming back from retirement. Problem with No Limit, though, was we're not necessarily talking about a Def Jam or Tommy Boy here. These guys weren't really that talented. So, in essence, you had a dominant label with very little talent at all split amongst it's stable of artists putting out more records than any one record store clerk could keep track of. And when the toilet backed up, shit went everywhere. They flooded the market and ruined it for everyone else.
These were formidable years for hip hop. You had the game shifting back to this capitalistic, short-term model where artist development was secondary to the quick buck. The game's veterans were going into other business ventures. And we left the control the Master P's of the world and they quickly took that crappy old mixer and beat machine and converted it to cold hard cash. Do I solely blame Master P for hip hop's demise? No. Absolutely not. Not solely. But for the volume of releases that this dude put out in the marketplace and not really a single classic record among them, it makes me truly ponder on what hip hop would've been like had he not shifted 30 million units of sub-par hip hop into the marketplace in three years. He owned the sound of 1997-1999. That's three years or 10% of hip hop's existence. You don't think that's not enough to change the taste of hip hop heads for years after? I don't know think we've yet recovered from those years. I liken this period to the steroids era of baseball. If you're wanting to put butts in the stadiums, hopping up hitters to crank 480-foot home runs every night is one way to do it. Not sure if the overall contribution to the game is healthy, but you can make some serious cash along the way. Another New Orleans label by the name of Cash Money Records rose to popularity at the same time on the strength of Juvenile's "Back That Azz Up" and, much like the No Limit model, they were quick to react putting out Hot Boys, Big Tymers, BG, another Juvenile record and Lil Wayne's first solo over the next three years. Ain't nobody in the game bigger than Lil Wayne and it's almost 2010. You have 1997 to thank.
*Big Bear neither a No Limit or Cash Money artist--just a notable Pen and Pixel gem.
It always seems to be the cats that are out to save the game that end up doing the most damage. The intentions of the "backpacker," I believe, were always good, but it always backfired and hip hop suffered because of it. The term "backpacker" is said to have a few different origins. Likely, though, it's origin was from graffiti writers who would tote paint, tapes, tips, a bag of weed, and whatever else around town as they'd be tagging different structures or trains. You were a self-reliant warrior going into battlegrounds and train yards to hone your craft. In the mid-to-late 90s, however, the backpack was part of a wardrobe, an accessory that was less functional and more an identifiable element of a "freedom fighter" for hip hop...the backpacker. What they wore or what they were called is really less important, it's what they stood for.
The backpacker, often times a late-adopting caucasian, felt that, firstly, garb and sneakers would give them an edge into the hip hop community and they would "dress the role" firstly and then modify their tastes and musical preferences to fit the mold of a hip hop fan with, of course, an "underground" hip hop lean. Their pants were baggy, usually rocked skate shoes or Adidas shell-toes with the loose laces and they had their backpacks doubled up on both shoulders and always rocked a lid to the side. What they were always carrying around in their backpacks, I'll never know. The backpack became this symbol, almost, of something that was part of their artillery. Like they were always ready for anything. I saw a dude at show, one time, hop out of his car and put on his backpack. Whatta nincompoop. That was like driving the skatepark.
There were two main arguments of the backpacker and they couldn't just help but get into it wherever they went. It was their never-wavering mission.
First, there's the "underground" vs. "mainstream" distinction that they always were preaching on to ensure that everyone knew how to identify all. And, in short, "underground" was the dopest hip hop out and "mainstream" represented the major label machine that was incapable of making good hip hop because it was played out on the radio and supported by BET and MTV. It was a position that was riddled with fallacies because any underground artist that wasn't trying to make it to a major label is either stupid or a liar. The upstreaming of an act from the minors to the majors is really all that independent artists want unless, of course, they can maintain their artistic vision and make dough at the same time. Those labels and/or artists represent the lucky miniority of the independent game. They have no interest in going to the major label. The argument that underground hip hop is inheritantly better because it's undiscovered is laughable. I would contend that underground hip hop has never really been any better than the "mainstream," there's only been more of it. 80% of the game is not on an independent label and out of that 80%, probably only 15% of it is close to meritable musically and artistically. The remaining 20% of the recordings come from the majors and only about 30% of it is close to meritable by the same definition. For the sake of my argument and nothing else, let's assume these numbers to be sound. Out of the 80 records that came from independent labels, 12 of them would represent some of the finest hip hop out that year. Out of the 20 records from the major labels, six of them would hit the same mark of artistic achievement. By the numbers, it would appears that independent hip hop doubled up the major labels, however, it took them 80 albums to do it. They're mainstream nemesis was batting .300--much better than the .150 of the independent labels. But it would appear to the backpacker, that the majority of the good records came from the independent sector. Incorrect, the overwhelming majority of the bad records came from the independent sector...68 to 14 to be exact.
You couldn't convince these kids, though. Their tendency to enter arguments with unrivaled bias was expected. Mos Def was their king. Jermaine Dupri was the enemy. Jay-Z had some respect, but only for his early recordings. Once a dude sold a million records, it took you off the cool list. When Eminem came out, it really rattled the backpacker's argument because here was a cat with legitimate talent, but he was building his success on mega-producer Dr. Dre and super-major Interscope. In response, they hailed white emcees Slug and Eyedea from Rhymesayers camp as their response to Em's successes. We've got talented white emcees too. Slug's actually only part caucasian. His father was part Native American, part African American, but visibly he appears white. White enough to a backpacker. Such arguments are silly, I know, but these come from actual run-ins I've had over the years. Wonder what those same cats are saying now as they're taking a smoke break from dropping frozen french fries into a hot friolator at Sonic when the talk about Mos Def and Talib Kweli who, both individually, got upstreamed to major labels. Jean Grae's been dying to get picked up. Warner Bros blew that chance. She's blowing up the blogs now saying that the independent game just doesn't make ends meet. It's like backpackers almsot want their heroes to suffer, live poor lives as independent artists. It's like some sort of weird martyrdom. So there's the "underground vs. mainstream" battle and then there's the even more dreaded "hip hop vs. rap" argument.
In short, the two names became almost commentary on the quality of the music. Hip hop had the "emcee" and rap had "rappers." Rappers were less introspective. They talked about guns, women, cars. Rappers were incapable of being political or sparking social change. They were just thugs with mics. Emcees, however, were truly more invested in the game. They were lyrically gifted. They possessed an uncanny ability to "battle" or "freestyle." Rappers didn't even write their own material so they'd never be able to "battle." It is by that distinction that would set Eminem apart--an emcee in the mainstream game. A rare breed, indeed. The sounds of rap music would make a backpacker's ears bleed. The harsh sounds of a rapper stinking up the mic, talking about weed, drive-bys, the ghetto. The only exception was that you could get grandfathered in. Ice Cube was safe. Although, his current recordings would be measured on the same level. His first four records were safe, though. The backpackers thinking was anything old could be good. Anything new, had to come from this pocket of independent labels or else it was considered to be below the level of listenability. They had a preference for the Golden Era. Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, all Native Tongues, EPMD, etc. 2Pac wasn't assumed though. He was a little too thug for most backpackers. Eazy E, maybe.
The grand fallacy in this thinking is that, inevitably, it only prides itself on the past and doesn't embrace current artists. It's hung on nostalgia and anything from a certain era is automatic. Anything past a certain era is suspect. I don't mind the notion that anything from, say, 1992 or 1993 was dope because, largely, it was. Things were good back then. But to suggest it's impossible for good hip hop to come out in 2009 or 2010 is a little lame. In my most restrospective moments, I've said things like this. I guess to know a backpacker's thinking is to kinda be one yourself. But I denounce their presumptions. They write the rules and hold everyone to them. There's no fairness in their thinking. They can argue against everything. Like James Brown said, "Your talking loud, but ain't saying nothing." It's argument for argument's sake. The noise that these fools created over about a five to seven year period in their circles, their forums, their threads on their websites just played the whole game out with their fingerpointing, their accusations and their crucifixions. It's because of these dudes that I kinda fell out of love with hip hop. Every show I went to was littered with them. Every independent record store I went to was infested by these chumps. I felt like to like hip hop, I was somehow one in the same with them. They wrote too many rules. They preached this elitist bullshit which was coded with something so cryptic that no one could make sense of it. And they held everyone to it. And, worst of all, they preyed on the weakest of hip hop's fans so their army grew to a size which was unstoppable and it just kids who thought they knew, but in the end had very little clue. Hell, most of them weren't even born when Raising Hell came out. What do you really know, son?
INSANE CLOWN POSSE/PSYCHOPATHIC
It's like Krush Groove meets the trailer park meets thousands of soda-guzzling carnies meets Hot Topic meets the WWE meets every junior high school's remedial math class meets the Kiss Army meets the Wal-Mart pregnancy test aisle meets the Wal-Mart break room meets the Wal-Mart smoker's lounge meets the tractor pull meets the meth lab meets the Cheetos aisle at Wal-Mart meets the furthest place from a treadmill meets every failed gimmick to sell a hip hop record meets every knuckle-dragging primate who thought he/she knew what hip hop was the first time he/she heard The Slim Shady LP.
The biggest problem is that they sell like crazy.
Not that I'm fair of judging off looks alone, but damn, now I know why they wear facepaint. Don't know I would've picked the Insane Clown Posse to outlast most of the other groups from the early 90s. It's definitely a statement on the brain cell count of their average fan that this same gimmick wouldn't get old after 17 years. That's a freaking lifetime. I'm thinking back to 17 years ago. I was 15 years old. I thought I'd marry my first girlfriend, play in the NBA (even though I hadn't notched one minute on the A-team) and enjoy my offseason in my cabin up near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Well, I'm 32 and none of panned out for me. And I didn't just realize that wasn't going to happen yesterday. I realized that about, uh, 16 years ago. The typical ICP fan (and yes, I intend on generalizing), still lives like they're in high school (or junior high if they're now in college). They're consumption of recreational drugs, video games, caffeine and ICP's music has stunted not only their behavioral development but also their potential as contributing members of society.
Yes, that's a mattress and a garage door. These are your juggalos--the affectionate name given to ICP fans and faithful followers. As much as I hate elitist pricks that make rules and say things like "they suck" or "that ain't hip hop."
They suck and that ain't hip hop.
THE LIVE INSTRUMENTATION PHENOMENON
Back in 1991, MTV "Unplugged" hosted their first ever rap-only "unplugged" performance featuring among others De La Soul, Tribe and Mr. Deodarant Balls--LL Cool J. If you remember the performance, you know what I'm talking about. Featuring a supposed "electric unplugged" performance of "Mama Said Knock You Out" by LL, we all knew it was only a matter of time before live instruments replaced the drum machine or more sample-based hip hop. Samples were expensive. Drum machines sometimes were quite dry and lacked any heart. Live instruments had the ability to bring soul back to the music. To give the music another dimension not yet realized. Plus, it would make dreadlocked morons dance like hippie chicks.
What bringing in live instrumentation into the game, hip hop began to cross over to cats who had always denounced hip hop because it lacked any significant musical accomplishment. It didn't require it's participants to do anything other than rap and, we all know, that takes no talent at all. It also relieved the stigma that rappers and, moreover, the DJs/producers were thieves of previously recorded music. By performing live the breaks instead of sampling them, it gave credibility to the music because, let's be real, if you're performing it live, it's not really stealing. Right?
What really happened with live hip hop is that it opened it up to a larger audience that really had no appreciation for hip hop's core. And it always seemed to be bigger in the Mountain states: Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Montana. One could only guess it's because of the large contingency of jam band fans in the mountains. In Houston, hip hop's best enjoyed in their car, rocking the trunk and absolutely annihilating the eardrums in every car at the intersection. Once you dip into the mountains, it's like hip hop's best enjoyed on bongos and an acoustic guitar.
It's not unusual to find that these peripheral fans of hip hop truly enjoy the live performance, but find very little takeaway from the actual recordings of those performances. As great as that night's performance was, that elation only lasts as long as their buzz. When they wake up in the morning, they take off their hip hop hat and are back to their lives. Ask one of these cats about Kool G. Rap. The Beatnuts. They wouldn't have a clue what you were talking about. Go save a whale, duke.
The whole live hip hop game is played. It's tired. It's not this new revolution that's going to save hip hop. Simply because the excitement is only in the performance. The recordings don't translate. And it's the recordings that will act as hip hop's archive for future generations. The immediacy of live hip hop quickly expires. It's like milk in that way. KMD's Mr. Hood is like raw honey...it never spoils. Live hip hop is too gimmicky. It relies on too many conditions to be consumed. And I don't care how good your drummer is, they can't replace Clyde Stubblefield on vinyl so don't go into no "Funky Drummer" because I don't wanna hear it. Give me the original.
Look at the best in the genre: The Roots. These dudes have been doing it for years and there's certainly something to be said for being first. However, every record they release, they sell less and less, but they have no problem selling out shows wherever they go. Less "fans" and concert goers are concerned about their records. They just wanna see them jam live which they've proven reliable for. Here you have one of the most talented crews in the game whose albums are actually getting better, it seems, with every release, but no one would know because no one buys them. They'd be the best selling crew out they had the same ratio of record-buyer to concert-goer as, say, Insane Clown Posse.
The Root Down.