One of the most enduring criticisms hurled at hip-hop culture from outsiders is a supposed lack of “true” musicianship, and while I could rattle off plenty of rappers and producers that utilize live instrumentation and have a vast knowledge of music beyond 808s and Logic Pro, there’s certainly a shift occurring in the way music is being made.
The guitars, drums and bass guitars that used to reign supreme in popular music have been replaced with Auto-Tune, MPC loops and iPad plug-ins, vastly deepening the pool of aspiring artists and flooding the world with their contributions. Purists and outsiders might see this as a dilution of music or a blasphemous reliance on technology, but these “shortcuts” have given anyone with access to the technology the ability to express themselves musically, and that’s a beautiful thing.
I recently read some comments made by Mike Caren, the CEO and founder of Artist Partners Group, that depicted a future in which the digital screens that purists look at with such contempt are made obsolete, replaced by little else than a commanding voice—but not in the way purists might have hoped.
“The screen is going to be secondary in 10 years,” wrote Caren in an email to music analyst Bob Lefsetz. "Siri, I want the drums to sound like this 'boom boom bop, boom ba doom boom bop.' Make it sound like the drums from 'when the levee breaks.' Now give me a guitar riff that goes 'chaka chaka chaka…' use the tone from XYZ."
Caren’s predictions on the future of music aren’t as much of a stretch as you might think, though. As we’ve already witnessed, algorithms can help create songs from scratch and Auto-Tune has turned tone-deaf rappers into ear-pleasing crooners.
“I'm not saying the above is going to be pro in 10 years, maybe that’s 20 years, but that's how it will be some day,” Caren explains. “Voice is going to be more efficient than having to figure out and hand/eye coordination on an instrument for most people.”
Hip-hop was born from the voices of those that invented it and whatever technology they had around them at the time. Vinyl records with soul, funk and jazz that raised hip-hop’s initial pioneers were warped, scratched and flipped into an entirely new genre that birthed a global phenomenon. Now, with the rapid evolution of technology, hip-hop could very well be returning to a modified version of its roots, the power of creation returning to any vocal cords willing to speak it so.
We’ve already seen the keyboard and MPC replace damn near every other instrument for a large portion of hip-hop’s contributors, and if Mike’s predictions are even half-true, we’ll soon live in an era of music where creating a beautiful song is as easy as knowing what to request from a computerized producer.
The technical qualifications for creating music are bottoming out, and once the technology we’re theorizing about becomes available to the general public, literally anyone will be able to create hip-hop. You think the industry is crowded now? Wait until every hip-hop fan with a smart device can ask it to make them a downtempo beat with trap drums and a sample from Nina Simone’s “Real, Real,” with nothing but an innate knowledge of the sounds they enjoy and how their music sounds in their head.
There will, of course, be—just as there is now—niche markets for the type of “old-school” human production we enjoy today, but by and large music will be created by anyone that has a tune in their head and a WiFi connection—assuming it’s not available globally and for free by then.
No longer will we look to a portion of the population that either by genetics or divine gifts bestowed with musical abilities, and with that shift in paradigm comes an upending of commercialized music so drastic I can’t wrap my head around it.
The list of ethical and commercial ramifications implied by this potential future is long enough for an entire series of articles, but if you’re asking me, music was never meant to be hoarded by a select few. Hip-hop has more than played its part in leveling the playing field of expression and has, in turn, provided us with countless voices we may never have squeaked through the standards of traditional music knowledge otherwise.
In the future, everyone will be able to contribute to a culture that was based on inclusion in the first place.
The only question is, what will we contribute?