The Combat Jack show has grown from a podcast to something more like a hip-hop Rosetta Stone, a catalog of hip-hop culture that future generations will be able to use as a guide to the past. And so of course I listened to Combat's new episode with the legendary hip-hop radio duo Stretch and Bobbito, and in the course of their conversation it was this quote that really struck me:
"When you think of classic hip-hop, which is made from sampled beats and mining old records, that is really almost a different genre from what they call hip-hop now. Stylistically, it's so different. Right now, all of the hot rappers -- their records are four minutes of hooks. That's it, there's no lyricism." - The Combat Jack Show, The Stretch & Bobbito Episode
I have no real interest in playing the old guys vs. young guys game, that's more tired than ScHoolboy Q listening to Kendrick freestyle. Stretch, Bob and Combat are making an observation more than a judgement, they address much of this in the full interview, but regardless, it's every teenager's job to create a new culture their parents don't understand and don't like. That's the cultural circle of life that's been in place for centuries and that life cycle's working just fine. Far beyond this conversation, in the age of the internet some young folks will go out of their way to provoke older heads, some older heads will go out of their way to smack down younger folks, but the vast majority of us are perfectly capable of taking the good with the bad without over-reacting either way.
No, I'm far more interested in asking questions here than pointing fingers. Are they right? If so, why?
First, it is true that in terms of song structure, songs have far more hooks than ever before. And as always, we can blame the internet. When most music is being consumed via YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify, etc., you just have a few seconds to capture someone's attention before they click away. We're living in an attention based economy, where songs aren't just competing with other songs, they're competing with viral Vine videos and memes.
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So now successful songs start with the hook; the first "verse" on "Panda" doesn't even come until two minutes into the song. Before that, it's all hook, and the more hooks, pre-hooks and post hooks you can build into a song, the better chance you have. That's true in hip-hop, and it's true in indie folk rock. I see that less as any statement on the music getting better or worse and more of an evolution in the literal definition of that word, an adaption to a new environment.
Similarly, it's just flat our harder for producers to sample than in the "classic hip-hop" days. The Grand Upright decision in 1991 opened the door for the music industry to treat sampling more like a crime than the art it is, and so of course a lot of producers decided they'd rather just hunker down with some 808s than try to navigate the extraordinarily complex, convoluted and expensive sample clearance system.
Add those two forces together, throw in the explosion of festivals that reward artists with big hooks thousands of people can sing along to, mix in a bunch of other cultural factors and what do you get? You get four minute songs packed with hooks over sample-free beats.
In that sense Stretch and Bobbito are absolutely right, stylistically the times have changed, but it's that "all" word in "all of the hot rappers" that rings false to me. A lot of artists are making music like I've described above, but certainly not all, and in fact you could more accurately say that "all of the most popular rappers" are actually making heavily sampled, heavily lyrical hip-hop. The best selling albums of the last two years from younger artists have come from the likes of J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Meek Mill and Big Sean, all of whom rely heavily on samples and writing. And while Drake's certainly no stranger to hooks, even his albums are packed with samples and four-minute, hook free songs. While the big singles may be more "shallow" and grab the most attention, overall I think hip-hop's actually going through one of the more lyrically-driven periods of the last few years.
Cultural changes, music changes, hip-hop changes. Change is the only constant. So it was, so it is, and so it always will be.