If you’ve ever seen Jonathan Levine’s 2008 film The Wackness, it’s both comical and sorta sad how easy it is to create an aesthetic representative of the 1990s, at least in a hip hop sense. The coming of age story followed Luke, a marijuana dealer, as he spent the summer after graduating high school pursuing the girl of his dreams, dealing with his family’s financial troubles, and consulting with his psychiatrist/customer, Dr. Squires, about his growing depression and malaise towards his place in life.
Luke, like most NYC kids in those days, was also a huge hip hop head, and the movie’s depiction of the blistering heat of NY combined with Luke’s disenchantment used staple ’90s hip hop as the backdrop for Luke’s journey from isolated desperation to hopeful strength. And weirdly, the music used in the movie, from the emergence of Notorious B.I.G.’s defiant statement of desperation, Ready to Die, to Luke’s dormant idealism shining through in his touting of acts like The Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest, sorta makes sense. The journey of hip hop, coming off of the golden age of the late ’80s and early ’90s, was one of triumphalism in its newfound commercial success, as much as it was a reaction to the reality of what that success would bring. You need look no further than 1997 to see the reality that the culture’s success had wrought, in the deaths of two greats and the ushering in of a new era that would change not only the public’s perception of hip hop in the popular sense, but also in the way that artists and industry professionals saw themselves.
Watching The Wackness (which in my personal opinion is a good and highly recommended, but undeniably flawed movie) made me think what the musical aesthetic of the 2000s would be, when we finally look back and see our culture for what it really was. Being that 2010 marks the end of the decade (semantic arguments about when the decade actually starts/stops aside), we must first examine where hip hop was when the decade actually began. I’ve spoken about the state of mainstream rap, but on the other side of the genre, the independent movement was coming into a more stable, and economically viable state with bigger, more powerful indie houses like Rhymesayers (1995), Rakwus (1996), Stones Throw (1996), and later Definitive Jux (1999) all coming into their own towards the end of the decade.
The most lasting result of hip hop’s commercial success was the clear delineation of indie vs. major label stylings, as the early 2000s brought the mp3 digital revolution, giving widespread access to all acts without the need for major label marketing or corporate-backed PR exposure. The early glut of independent acts that could consistently release a high-quality product was bolstered by the rise of the Internet, allowing smaller acts to find a wider audience; and more importantly, allowing smaller acts to earn a living based solely around touring and the development of indie scenes in almost every major or college city.
As the 2000s dawned, major labels were still pushing big event albums in pursuit of what was still a very emergent Billboard rap single hit. The early 2000s saw the release of Outkast’s Stankonia (2000), Jay-Z’s Blueprint (2001), Eminem’s The Eminem Show (2002), 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003), and Kanye West’s College Dropout (2004). Stepping away from the loop-sampled bedrock style production of the ’90s by acts like DJ Premier and Easy Mo Bee, hip hop’s general aesthetic seeemed to be progressing in two directions those days: either the sped-up vocal sample over soulful funk tapestries made famous by Mr. West himself, but also 9th Wonder, Madlib, and Jay Dee; or the drum-machine heavy, bouncey style influenced mainly by the rise of the Southern rap movement that ushered in an era of crunk, Lil’ Jon, and the continued success of acts like Mannie Fresh, DJ Paul, Jermaine Dupri and other southern producers whose sound would become a premium in the years to come.
In the same way that the late ’80s/early ’90s hip hop culture documented its representative youth culture so accurately, the ’00s hip hop continued the tradition, but was now speaking on behalf of a completely changed youth fanbase. Having grown up with rap, many kids had foregone the drumkit or electric guitar in place of turntables and a vinyl colleciton. The rise of crate-digging DJs as a kind of withdrawn, isolated existence of DIY savants would come to influence wide-ranging acts from Jay-Z and Linkin Park to bands like Grizzly Bear or XX. The early ’00s saw the rise of DJs in a way that no one could have really predicted, with a new focus on vinyl preservation and treasuring hunting for the perfect jazz samples to not only use in live performance, but also to create complex, sample-heavy musical compositions in the vein of DJ Shadow, Madlib, or RJD2. It was unclear where hip hop’s general sound would eventually end up, with acts incorporating everything from Casio keyboards to live instrumentation; and there was something satisfying about seeing the artists who grew up on the building blocks of rap’s history to create a new pastiche of ambient, acid jazz influenced soundscapes, which would eventually become the basis for not only indie hip hop, but also non-rap indie acts in general.
At the same time, the youth generational culture was living in the mire of the Bush years not long removed from the tragedy of 9/11, still reeling from the delay of forming a cultural identity to deal with national tragedy. The general malaise of the ’90s gave way to a sort of motivated apathy, a pro-active need to simply do something, as meaningless as it may have seemed. As a result, many younger artists and producers simply set out to party. In a way, it was only appropriate that party music’s first big shot came out of the South, a region that was removed from the national spotlight of 2001′s tragedy and further unmoved by the coming economic crisis, as many of its areas remained economically depressed through the ’90s and into the ’00s.
What resulted was an aggressive, loud, and largely glossed-over version of the grittier, sloppier ’90s version of Southern rap, only this time helmed by artists who had cut their teeth on rap music that begged for more than just a banging beat and an easy hook. Gone were the lazy pop-funk samples or militaristic Bomb Squad-style beats restricted by what was already there on the record; in their place stood musicians who grew up in an age where everyone seemed to know how to play a musical instrument, backed by advances in musical technology that allowed the music to match the imagination.
It’s hard to know where all of it came to a head, resembling some form of musical identity. Maybe it was Jay-Z’s comeback in 2006, maybe it was Kanye’s collaboration with Jon Brion for Late Registration in 2005, the rise of acts like M.I.A. and the reggaeton/dancehall craze that took root in or about 2007. But towards the end of the decade, hip hop opened up to a bigger, broader sound. The Southern craze had died down to a large degree, leaving behind a non-regional, almost non-subgenre-specific style of hip hop further muddied by the mash-up craze that had taken the nation by storm. Here was a genre that was not only trying to party, but was making music in a hip hop aesthetic, only using non-hip hop elements, such as classic rock, soul, and modern day electronica.
Strangely, hip hop’s in kind of a reset mode as we head into 2010. The underground is still bubbling, but gone are the blow-up successes that marked the early decade with major crossover appeal. The mainstream is still bending to the whims of hip hop’s latest trend (no one can deny that the bulk of non-band based pop stars make music that is largely influenced, if not directly made by hip hop producers), but strangely missing from that music is the rapper. And unlike The Wackness, we can’t necessarily point to seminal releases like a Ready to Die that would evoke an entire aesthetic.
I do know that in my opinion, the most appropriate and timely addition to the 2000s canon is Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” It’s an anthemic stadium song, built upon a history steeped in hip hop tradition, elevated by a young, virtuosic artist whose sensibility is a callback to the old soul songs of yesteryear. It’s a song that’s best played at a party, not because you want to party to forget, but you want to celebrate to remember. And it’s a love letter to the city that suffered the most this decade in a way that affected all of us, as we all look to the future ready to have a good time, but this time, in a more exciting, and perhaps more meaningful way.