Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Here at The Root Down, as many of you know, we're a hip hop friendly environ in which discussions or simple declarations are often made about it's greatness or failures. We critique, we praise, we question and we clarify. Because we proclaim to be friendly to hip hop, much in the way that sometimes being a "true friend" or a friend of notable awareness and honesty might require someone to confront a friend in their asinine behavior or otherwise erred perspectives, we too feel like we were granted the license to do the same to hip hop. Maybe only because of our investment in it as consumers, but nonetheless, even if not performers...we all critics, homie.
This is not to be an argument of who's realer or who's the realest. This is not to pin underground against mainstream. East against west. This is just a brainstorm I had when jogging the other night and thinking (as my brain was light on oxygen, admittedly) what were the splits, the events or the eras in hip hop that did more harm than good in the long run? Where did hip hop go wrong and play itself? What created this creative sinkhole that dominates the game right now? We have to be able to trace it back to something right? Man, I love italics.

This ain't in chronological order. In fact, it's in absolutely no logical order at all. Chrono or otherwise. I'm a big fan of hip hop history, though. If I could somehow draw it out on paper, I would. Maybe I will one day. I've had interest in dropping everything and becoming a film maker and doing a huge 20-part series on hip hop from the beginning to the end like Ken Burns. That'll be after I do this marathon. It's true, though. Like in religion or politics. You can look back in the church and it branches, breaks off and creates new denominations as a result of a disagreement, a fundamental argument, how worship is conducted, etc. Hip hop kinda did that as well. There's all these splits, sub-genres, movements, regional sounds and trends, but let's be real, it's all just hip hop. Politics are politics. Beliefs differ, but there's consistent underlying themes that perpetuate it from generation to generation. But for hip hop (and all popular music, jazz, blues, reggae, country, punk, etc) it was in this constant mutative state for about 20 years until it basically mutated to nothing. What are we left with today? I would contend that 90% of the hip hop out there now (as opposed to about 40% about ten years ago) is like the waste product of a pop factory that is simply broken. It's uninspired. It's dry and, unfortunately for its listeners, it's barely waned in popularity. It still remains as the most vital cultural impact of the last 30 years even though it's last ten years has been riddled and marked by a definitively miserable output.

You can debate that last point all you want. You ain't gonna change my mind.
Ah, my very favorite of the ambiguous and sometimes completely undefinable sub-genres to come out of the late 90s. Let's be real, though, there's always been acts that many would attempt to classify as "conscious" hip hop from the very beginning. It's been how hip hop has tried to correct itself by saying there's an alternative to, basically, everything else and that is this weird and peculiar presumption of "consciousness." Identifiable by cats who carry themselves as educated, esteemed and enlightened as if there's a jet stream of consciousness that they coasted in on that's going to settle hip hop's score and bring thought and context to what is otherwise an unconscious state. It was really heightened by the surge of Christian hip hop acts that were reversing many of hip hop's sins of the past with clean, scripture-based prose that essentially washed the blood off of hip hop's hands in the eyes of the popular media. It gave families a safe alternative to the edgier acts on the market. While this rise in Christian hip hop was happening, Common Sense dropped the "Sense" but actually upped his consciousness from his earlier recordings. Rappers started donning sweater vests and collared shirts. They dropped the thuggery for a new costume that was visibly more affluent. Lyrically, they shed their references to all things "street" unless they were talking about the traps of the streetlife and how to avoid them. I mean, let's keep it positive. Kids are listening.
C'mon. Be real now. What this unfortunate fabrication would suggest is that hip hop, up to this point, was not conscious. That 2Pac and Biggie were just thuggery and not capable of speaking on a conscious level. It's like Tipper Gore got her way. Like government-approved hip hop. That's not to say these self-proclaimed "conscious rappers" were not indeed talented and genuine in what they were doing and rapping about, but making the distinction that this was conscious would suggest that everything else was less or not at all. My suggestion would be that all hip hop is in one way or another conscious not just that which is defined as conscious. NWA was pretty conscious. Public Enemy was definitely conscious. So was Mos Def. So was Ice Cube. De La. Geto Boys. Yes, 2Pac. You bet. These small and insignificant splits in the genre are really no splits at all because they all reconnect to the main highway just over the hill. It just gives a fan a piece to grab onto during a transitional period in their life. Whether it was created by a bank of writers, Tipper Gore, All Music, the fans or the artists themselves, such splits in hip hop are futile. They're truly silly. And, in most cases, they're created by those who have the least invested in it. In protest, I always wanted to listen to the most unconscious hip hop...reckless, irresponsible, socially damaging, violent, obscene and altogether wretched hip hop with no regret. I turned out alright.

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?

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.


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.

Recognize, son.


The Root Down.


dj santschi said...

Yup, I'm guilty of a couple of these points. I lean towards the 'backpacker'... but I'll blame you for when you worked in Tyler. Also, I laughed at the first ICP album I heard (for 1 day).

sarahsmile3 said...

Your description of the ICP fans/phenomenon is great. I'll never forget the first year of my little sister's marriage. I asked her what music her husband (a dude in his early 20's) was into because I wanted to buy him a t-shirt or something for Christmas. She said, "he really likes ICP." I found a stupid shirt at Hot Topic (of course) and after some soul searching, decided that I could not bring myself to buy the thing. No way.

scumdog steev said...

Is this the seventh worst development in hip hop's history?


Eric said...

re: Live Instrumentation

Don't forget about Schooly D who always went out live with a real band way before this phenomenon.

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