“I listen to Sade and a lot of trap shit. That’s pretty much it. I listen to way more trap music than shit that I would make. Like J. Cole and shit like that, I would never listen to [laughs].” — Saba
Artists only listening to like-minded artists is the biggest misconception in music, second only to the notion that your favorite rapper’s freestyles are off the dome and not pre-written verses that you’ll probably hear on their album six months later.
I couldn’t even tell you how it became a thing (“There’ll always be haters, that’s the way it is”) or why it’s still a thing (“Hater n*ggas marry hater bitches and have hater kids”). But it’s a painfully naïve and narrow-minded way of looking at music, especially when there are examples of unexpected influences almost everywhere you look.
You’ve got rappers who listen to left-of-center stuff that clearly informs their own music: Lil Uzi Vert wears his Marilyn Manson fandom on his chest (literally), one of Kid Cudi’s best songs is a Band of Horses remake (“The Prayer”), and Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures not only inspired Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 album cover but was his “personal soundtrack at a very low point in [his] life.”
And then you’ve got rappers whose tastes and influences don’t necessarily reflect their own music: Isaiah Rashad was “only bumping that Yachty” during the making of The Sun’s Tirade, Mos Def and Common got turnt up on stage with Waka Flocka Flame during a show in 2012, and Chance The Rapper made a whole thread gushing over Migos’ Oscar-worthy “T-Shirt” video earlier this year.
It’s not like “ignorant” rap is just a guilty pleasure of “lyrical” artists, though. Lil Yachty cites Coldplay as one of his favorite groups (and might just be Kendrick’s biggest fan right now), Future came up under the Dungeon Family—home to OutKast and Goodie Mob—and Desiigner, whose grandfather is the famous blues musician Sidney Selby, was exposed to reggae, funk and Kanye West as a kid.
There are a few rock legends who might surprise you, too. Sir Elton John loves Young Thug so much he compared him to John Lennon while the free-flowing jazz-funk of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly inspired the late David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar.
Breaking news: famous artists are just like us—they like all kinds of music! That’s the short version. But here at DJBooth, we don’t do short versions, so excuse us as we go deep to dispel this stupid myth that artists should only listen to like-minded artists.
For starters, soaking up different styles and sounds—particularly those that are contemporary—is just natural. The internet has allowed us to immerse ourselves in the music we enjoy, but even the most stubborn indie rap fan faces a daily challenge to avoid Drake on the radio, Future in the club or Kanye everywhere else. “We’re 21, so there’s no way that we’re going to escape that because that’s the music of our generation, and we’re influenced by that music,” Thandi, one-half of the R&B duo OSHUN, told The FADER. “Lil Uzi Vert, Drake, even Lil Yachty. You will catch us spitting Kodak Black on any given Tuesday. We are reflecting our times.”
Who says hip-hop needs to be divided up and bordered off anyway? Hip-hop is everything: it’s the boom bap beats and storytelling rhymes, the 808 drums and catchy hooks, the brutal portrayals of reality and buoyant party anthems. All these different shades only enhance the beauty and complexion of the culture. “This is where people get it most misconstrued: it’s all hip-hop. You can’t say that just what I do is hip-hop, because hip-hop is all energies. James Brown can get on the track and mumble all day. But guess what: You felt his soul on those records.” And that’s coming from the greatest rapper alive.
This argument isn’t just about good hip-hop, though—it’s about good music, which is a slippery concept itself. Most people would agree that D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Biggie’s Ready to Die are inherently brilliant, but how “good” is “The Line” in the club? How “good” is “Suicidal Thoughts” when you’re trying to set the mood for that hot date? A song is only as good as the environment in which it’s a played. As humans, we’re complicated creatures who deal with all kinds of different surroundings and moods and emotions, so why would anyone limit themselves to just one genre (or even subgenre)?
“We’ve been told that identities need to be singular and we are this or the other, and things are not really able to coexist, and that’s just absolutely not the case,” reads another great quote from OSHUN’s other half, Niambi. “We are multifaceted beings, and we have layers upon layers upon layers that make us individual. So why would we not indulge in those layers that create us and form who we are?”
Without diving too deep down this rabbit hole, there’s also a bit of science behind our musical tastes. How we define “good music” depends on what we were exposed to growing up, the memories—both good and bad—linked to that music, and our personalities: if you’re thoughtful and introverted, you might prefer Miles Davis to Migos. If you’re loud and extroverted, it might be the opposite. Then again, rap music has been enjoyed vicariously in the suburbs for decades. Point is, you shouldn’t impose your own biases on your favorite artists like these Instagram users did when Chance The Rapper posted a picture of himself and Future.
“No talent beside talent.” “How would a collab actually sound? Not good, I expect.” “Please dnt do a song with that coon ass n*gga. You’re better than that chance.”
Bet they loved “Smoke Break.”
Although Chance hasn’t responded to the backlash from his recent collaborations with the likes of Future, Young Thug and Lil Yachty (because it’s fucking dumb and he doesn’t need to ), those comments represent the stubborn elitism from fans that has plagued artists long before him. “Yeah, it’s like, ‘we don’t want any kind of part of anything [else].’ I get that from all these underground purist nuts that are like, ‘I can’t believe that you would do that.’ They got all these guidelines and rules,” Mos Def vented during an interview with David Bowie for Complex in 2003. “If you wanted to have a job where you did what other people told you to do, why would you pick this job?”
There should be no rules that dictate what music artists can make or enjoy. What keeps hip-hop, in particular, exciting is how artists spin seemingly incongruous sounds and styles into something new and beautiful: Pharrell and Chad turning N.O.R.E. into a super thug who'll steal your girl with zero consequences; Kanye bridging the gap between Rawkus and Roc-A-Fella; Vince Staples and James Blake finding that sweet spot between Long Beach and London that nobody knew existed.
The only label, if any, we should use to differentiate music is “real”—does it come from a genuine place? How authentic is that an expression of the artist? Can you feel the sincerity in the song? It’s a concept not every artist—and certainly not every fan—has fully grasped. But those that do are often the ones making the most exciting music.
“Put it like this: you could say my music is real, but what if I’m lying? What if I made all this up? Then what? If I made all this up, it’s not real. ‘Urban’ and ‘aggressive’ — is that we mean by real?” Vince once asked. “Your life is your life and no matter what it is, I think that’s what your music should be about.”