Hip Hop's changing postmodernism

For such a vital and rapidly shifting art form, hip hop has been unusually self-aware of its past [1]. With founding production rooted in samples of funk and soul, the culture respects looking backwards to take things forward. Many of the MCs I grew up listening to had a rich and hyper-aware sense of the giants whose work had influenced them. Quoting verses from years gone by in a new rhyme acknowledged your influences and demonstrated how deep your love of hip hop culture went. Premo combined both, sampling past tracks to create new beats and past verses to create his legendary scratch choruses.

As a fan I remember the strange sense of nerdy achievement that came from understanding that an amazing line you had naively attributed to one artist was actually a hat tip to the inspiration a generation took from another. Cuts were like the wordsmiths version of samples. Breadcrumbs to relate the past to the present. If you don’t know, now you know. From Biggie back to Heavy D and Marley Marl in the same verse. That sense of joyful recognition those references trigger in you as a fan was captured perfectly in 8 Mile when ‘P Rabbit’ slipped in a line from the Shook Ones chorus in his closing freestyle over that classic Mobb Deep beat. Like they say – the crowd went wild.

It’s that self-awareness of its own history, along with that of broader culture, that leads people to describe hip hop as the most postmodern music form.

Take ‘Black on Both Sides’ by Mos Def, one of my favourite records of the ‘90s. If in The Wasteland T.S. Elliot packed in an impressive volume of historical shout outs, everyone from Baudelaire to Chaucer to Yeats, that’s nothing compared with the Mighty Mos. Across a lazy late night re-listen to the first few tracks of that record I counted references to over 10 ghosts from hip hop’s past from Rakim, Rap Attack, Tribe etc.

Well I’m not seeing that anymore. Yes there are pockets of Retromania that Noz chronicles hyper-eloquently in this Pitchfork piece, but to my ears they’re not the most exciting areas of rap right now. Everything I’m listening to sounds divorced from the ghosts of hip hop past. Take a listen to recent Future, Waka, Juicy J, Chief Keef, Earl Sweatshirt, Angel Haze etc. You’ll rarely hear a direct reference to a past MC. I’m more excited about where Chief Keef will go next, than being taken back to 1999 by Joey Bada$$.

I’m seeing the same thing from the still vital elder-statesmen of the game. Kanye and his clique are relentlessly looking inward. Have a listen to Mercy, Cold, or Ni**as in Paris. The sound is solipsistic, paranoid, icy, and fixed in the present. You’re more likely to get a reference to Prince William than Biggie. When there is a reference to past ages “I was born on the day that Fred Hampton died” it feels sharply disconnected from the present sentiment. Even those who were there in bygone eras avoid the past more than in their earlier records.

Assuming this is true, I’ve been wondering why that might be. My take on it is that it comes down to two things: 1. mainstream rap was fucking boring for much of the past decade presenting fewer canonical reference points, and 2. the internet has lead to a broadening of rap’s musical influences.

On the first point, to my ears there was an unbelievable drought from 2003 to 2008 relieved by occasional flashes of genius (Hell Hath No Fury, Boy in Da Corner, The Black Album, The Cool). Rap, to my ears, sounded staid, chasing it’s own tail and increasingly trapped by past sounds and themes. Maybe hip hop’s canon is less visible now partly because of this creative discontinuity. It feels like rap got restarted recently and most of pre 2000 rap is as disconnected from a track like ‘Don’t Like’ as early rap would have felt from disco. The contemporary equivalent of a scratch chorus is your own voice chopped Houston style into a ghostly sparring partner.

Historical references if they exist look backwards across a broader expanse of musical culture. I think this is the flipside of Simon Reynold’s brilliant thesis on Retromania. With everything available on YouTube, past and present separated by one click, rap’s base of influences has broadened. A Lil B verse on top of an Imogen Heap sample. The moment that hit me was listening to Blame Game by Kanye – a Chris Rock skit, an Aphex Twin sample, a John Legend chorus. And it felt of it’s era.

Overall I think the loss of self-awareness of hip hop’s pas is a positive shift - if only because it has accompanied the most fertile explosion of new voices in a while. I increasingly feel in the right place when a new track reminds me of precisely nothing.


[1] So I’ve written this piece with an expectation that you’ll take my opinions as that of a total amateur rap critic. I’m painfully aware of the bounds on my knowledge of rap, and the irony of trying to make any kind of commentary on whether hip hop is or isn’t getting less postmodern, without a Noz Scaggs level of scholarship. Unknown unknowns and all that. Anyway rather than continually caveat this post with self-evident disclaimers like 'to the best of my knowledge’ I’m stating what I observe to be true. If I’m straight up wrong about something - please let me know in the comments.