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Greetings From The Beast Coast: Why The Past May Point To Hip Hop's Future

Thursday, 29 January 2015 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

Hip hop isn’t dead. It’s bored. Dramatic as the statement sounds, it’s more accurate than the oft-repeated mantra of old-school heads: that rap has lost its essence.

Type the words “hip hop” and “dead” into Google and you’ll be greeted with about six different articles on the reasons for its untimely demise. One of the publications even has “hip hop” in its title. Hip hop as an art form is in its fifth decade and, as a result, it’s no wonder the purists have gotten a little precious. But the reason rappers don’t rap like it’s 1995 anymore is because it’s not 1995 anymore.

The game has changed. If emcees are obsessed with material possessions and social media, then it’s probably because that’s what society is obsessed with. Capitalism’s appropriation of what hip hop should be is not defined by a particular sound, as some revisionists seem to believe.

It has, lamentably, led to a watering down in content, but that hasn’t stopped genuinely talented artists like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West making incredible records over the past few years. If anything, hip hop is just going through a bit of a mid-life crisis, wrestling with how to deliver marketable but lyrical material.

Ironically, ‘90s-influenced boom bap revivalists may dictate the terms of the genre’s future and, in the process, demonstrate that a return to hip hop’s roots is actually an exciting proposition.

‘B4.DA.$$’, the recently-released, very promising debut LP from New York’s Joey Bada$$, boasts throwback production from DJ Premier, J Dilla and the Roots. His flow is reminiscent of Nas and Big L, his lyrics touch upon the 5% nation and social issues, and the album is stacked with lengthy verses rather than hooks and features. Regardless of these barriers, or maybe because of them, the album has been one of the most successful rap releases in the early stages of this year. In a mainstream climate saturated with swag rappers and R&B hooks, would Joey Bada$$ even have got signed six or seven years ago?

The video for Waves, from the ‘1999’ mixtape he released aged 17, is a good example of why the young emcee has such a significant appeal. Here is a kid from Brooklyn smoothly rapping over a wistful Gang Starr-style beat about his dreams and aspirations. The song isn’t just a throwback, it’s pure nostalgia, and yet it’s coming from a teenager who spends more time skating with his friends than trapping on a street corner.

He comes across as genuine in a field characterised by self-glorification. Yes, he might be dipping into the past for his sound, but it is the values of yesteryear are being emulated more than anything. On the ‘Summer Knights’ mixtape, he raps: “Sweet dreams, stuck in the ‘90s, ‘90s babies it’s a matter of timing.” Though even his newest project has that classic sound, there is a sense the golden era is a thing of the past and that his generation will control the future.

The Pro Era crew share the same goals and, after years of southern and west coast dominance, the beast coast is making its mark. More widely, the various Brooklyn cliques involved - The Underachievers, Flatbush Zombies, Phony Ppl - are bringing back a sense of community.

Recently, the hugely successful A$AP Mob even recruited Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man for Trillmatic, in just one example of New York emcees using the boom bap sound but modernising it through their thematic content and updated technology. Whether this revival will continue is yet to be seen, but in an era when fans (and Kendrick Lamar) are demanding that big artists to step up their game, we’re starting to see a new generation do it before they can react. Head below for some good starting points.

Action Bronson – Dr. Lecter

He flows like Ghostface Killah, he looks like Ill Bill and he sounds like Big Pun. There is no denying Action Bronson’s credentials, but it’s still impressive just how effortlessly he captures a particular gangster New York vibe.

Joey Bada$$ - 1999

‘B4.DA.$$’ is the most thorough project he’s released to date, but this free mixtape is where you should go if you’re looking to hear more. Though it is slightly more derivative, his flow sounds undeniably nice on Dilla and MF Doom instrumentals.

Pro Era – PEEP: The aPROcalypse

The best of the bunch. Though they use laid back, jazzy beats, the whole crew are full of fire and energy with every single emcee holding their own. Everything about this is fun and the hooks are remarkable considering their age. Last Cypher is a good example – eight minutes of flows, beats and rhymes, and yet it still captures a type of youthful spirit.

The Underachievers – Indigoism

Though they overuse the third eye imagery, this psychedelic duo are making truly alternative hip hop music with a big emphasis on flow and delivery. They’re more party-friendly than their beast coast associates but they also sound entirely distinct from trap-influenced rappers.

Capital STEEZ – AmeriKKKan Korruption

His most famous verse is on the Joey Bada$$’s Survival Tactics, but the late Pro Era founder also dropped his own mixtape shortly after. In terms of rapping ability, STEEZ was arguably the most talented of the whole crew. He will be remembered as a big influence on the now substantial east coast hip hop scene.

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