I remember having a conversation years ago over lunch with a colleague, who remarked that Hip-Hop was "in a rut" because it lacked variety.
"It's not like rock," was the crux of the argument; as rock had broadened and diversified into various factions and disparate styles such as metal, punk and grunge over the course of its commercial history. I was struck by the observation because I felt that it couldn't be further from the truth: Hip-Hop has been as broad and expansive as rock, jazz or any other marketable genre of music. That the mainstream entertainment industry has rarely recognized it as such is what merits more scrutiny and criticism.
The year 1988 holds significant weight for many classic Hip-Hop fans; it's often treated like the epochal year of Hip-Hop's unofficial "Golden Age," that period between Hip-Hop's mid-80s mainstream explosion and it's late 90s hyper-commodification. It's a year when Yo! MTV Raps debuted and a year that saw the release of classic albums like Straight Outta Compton and Follow The Leader. But for me, 1988 is the year that Hip-Hop exploded out of any box the music industry had heretofore attempted to place it in.
1988 was the year that Hip-Hop reinvented itself, reimagined itself and reinvigorated itself. It was the year that so many varied lanes of Hip-Hop were thrust into the mainstream spotlight; whether it be the pop appeal and hooks of artists like Kid N Play and Salt-N-Pepa; whether it was the righteous political rage of acts like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions; whether it was the fatalistic street knowledge of N.W.A. and Ice-T; or the offbeat idiosyncrasies of The Jungle Brothers or Ultramagnetic MCs. Hip-Hop wasn't going to just be Adidas and track suits and fat gold chains; sometimes it might be nerdy; sometimes it might be gangsta. This rap shit was now and forever to be multitudinous.
But it didn't exactly get recognized that way.
There's been a tendency to look at Hip-Hop's history as if it all flows along one, neat timeline; as if, in the 40+ years since "Rapper's Delight," Hip-Hop's trajectory has been determined in a singular fashion. "After The Chronic, everything changed..." or "Public Enemy charted a new direction for Hip-Hop." Those statements aren't untrue, but aside from a handful of genre-shaping moments, Hip-Hop, as a genre of music, has rarely all moved one way. At the same time that Public Enemy was fighting the power, De La Soul was announcing the "D.A.I.S.Y. Age" and N.W.A. was pushing "the strength of street knowledge." These ideas weren't diametrically opposed at all, but they do represent a genre that was becoming more nuanced and diverse in sound, approach and aesthetic. Snoop and Dre were giving us "Nuthin' But A 'G' Thing" at the same time that Digable Planets dropped "Rebirth Of Slick."
Jazz constantly splintered and sought disparate paths, musically and aesthetically. The danceable sounds of big band and jump blues spawned a contrasting movement in hard bop . And smooth jazz like Earl Klugh sits at the opposite side of the musical spectrum from the progressive jazz stylings of John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Rap music is at least as varied as these other genres have been. However, distinctions like "pop rap," "alternative rap," "gangsta rap," can seem like minutiae; or like the efforts of outside interests to divide Hip-Hop based on surface aesthetics.
That skeptical or critical reaction to rap's subcategorization is warranted; Black art has often been divided based on its proximity to whiteness. It's understandable that one would be scornful of the idea of rap music being segmented and fragmented into sub-genres solely for the sake of commerce and audience. Part of the reason we're encouraged to view Hip-Hop in a monolithic way is because outside interests have often reshaped Black music for their own ends; and a unified front against that can be necessary. You will not elevate A Tribe Called Quest to the detriment of Spice 1. We ain't about that.
But there is something to be said for recognizing the diversity of this music and giving it all a lane in which to breathe; a space for that nuanced history to be embraced and elevated. It's all Hip-Hop, and Classic Hip-Hop isn't confined to any one distinction or approach; but when my Chicago-bred cousins reminisce about rap music of the mid-1990s, they're more likely to talk about Twista and Do or Die's "Po' Pimp" than they are "Ah Yeah" by KRS-One.
The playa-rific sound of Do Or Die was inescapable in certain corners; just as the grimy off-kilter epics of Wu-Tang Clan were inescapable in others.
Illmatic's spring 1994 release was hotly anticipated; the run-up and aftermath of the debut album from Nas is often treated like a definitive flashpoint in 90s Hip-Hop. But, as historically significant as it inarguably is; Illmatic's initial impact was mostly felt on the East Coast; whereas in the Dirty South, OutKast's southernplayalisticadilalcmuzik debut was more of a watershed moment for an audience only marginally interested in NYC boom bap. And that regionalism obviously cut both ways, which is part of the reason why OutKast was famously booed at the Source Awards a year later.
Regionalism aside, Hip-Hop's broadness has been evident for decades. It should go without saying that there were many spaces embracing all that diversity; you could see Snoop Dogg hanging out with the Freestyle Fellowship at the Good Life Cafe in mid-1990s Los Angeles. This isn't about dividing Hip-Hop or elevating any singular sound or approach as more "pure" or more "real" or more "creative." It's about appreciating the vastness of a rap landscape that can yield a Jean Grae and a Trina and everyone in-between.
When I was younger, I would frequent video stores on the weekends for the latest box office hits. In a lot of mom 'n pop video stores, in particular, I'd notice there was an "African-American" movie section. In that section, you'd find everything from Black comedies to Black horror movies, but I'd often think "The only thing these films have in common is that they're Black. If this whole video store was Black, there'd be no need to push all of these different kinds of movies into one space. They'd be the whole store."
I think about Hip-Hop in that regard often. We still talk about it casually like it's just a neighborhood in the city of music; a close-knit block. But I see Hip-Hop as a borough like Brooklyn; and recognizing the vibes of Red Hook doesn't mean you have to elevate it over Williamsburg; understanding Bed-Stuy doesn't frame it against Bushwick or Flatbush. We sometimes still have a "Black movie section" mentality about a genre that's long been big enough to fill up the entire store.
One of my favorite acts of the mid-1990s was/is Boogiemonsters. A quirky quartet of New Yorkers who came together at NC State, I've often bemoaned the fact that their stellar debut album, (1995's Riders On the Storm: The Underwater Album) didn't blow up bigger.
I always attributed it to the fact that the G-Funk of Death Row Records and the radio hooks of Bad Boy Entertainment pushed a lot of quirky ("alternative?") rap off the public's radar. The same kinds of artists who were winning Grammys in 1993 (think Digable Planets, Arrested Development, and the more long-standing Native Tongues collective) were suddenly shunned by the radio in 1995.
I'd always chalked Boogiemonsters up as a casualty of that shift. But really, that shouldn't have been a shift. When terrestial radio was king, you could check the FM dial in virtually any major market, and you wouldn't just find a "rock station," you'd find a mainstream rock station, an alternative rock station, a college rock station, a heavy metal station, a classic rock station, and maybe more. Rock music, having been successfully co-opted and dominated by whiteness for decades following the dawn of rock & roll, was given ample mainstream space at its height. And as a result, the 1980s could see, for instance, thriving indie rock scenes and hardcore thrash scenes alongside the hair metal-dominated mainstream.
If in 1988/89, Public Enemy, N.W.A., and De La Soul could all see success, there was really no reason why Biggie, Snoop and Boogiemonsters couldn't have all had successful runs in 1994/95. The lanes had been carved and the paths had been blazed, but an industry suddenly seemed interested in narrowing the genre's approach and aesthetic. With all of Hip-Hop being pushed through one door or two doors, it's made for limited space for a genre that could full up an entire room with it's scope.
And in all those years since, we've looked back with that tiny lens. We have to recognize that Hip-Hop isn't traveling on a straight line, there are always lots of things happening at the same time. And that won't ever change.
Recently, Madlib made headlines for criticizing a lack of topicality in today's Hip-Hop.
“Rap music right now should be like Public Enemy stuff, but it’s just not there,” he says in an interview with The Guardian. “I wish it was more like how it was in the earlier days when I was coming up. My influences. Real music. Music can teach you … things not to do. Most of the music today is telling you bad things to do. My type of hip-hop can help you grow up.”
He's one of the most famed producers of all time, and he's not off in his take. But one thing we should all remember is that "Me So Horny" was out at the same time as Fear Of A Black Planet. And right now, there is just as much diversity in this rap shit. Maybe we should start demanding this music be given more lanes so that it can breathe. So that when you want topicality, there's a place for you to readily, easily and visibly find it. And when we look back, maybe we can remember that Hip-Hop always sat at so many tables. And let's embrace that.