Published Nov 01, 2002Since hip-hop broke wide in the mid-80s, the form's sonic evolution has typically progressed from the bottom up. The underground has traditionally created a new sound, and the mainstream has rushed to incorporate it. While leftfield beat-makers have been frustrated to see their groundbreaking ideas co-opted by corporations, it's possible to view the appropriation cycle in a positive light, because it has always forced the next shit operators to keep moving. An innovator is only an innovator if he keeps at it. If the progression stops, so does the music, dead in its tracks.
But since the late 90s, the tables of sonic progression have been turned. Led by digi-funk deities like Timbaland and the Neptunes, mainstream rap and R&B has produced the new millennium's bravest aural inventions. Where the traditional paradigm of urban influence saw the underground acting and the mainstream reacting, 21st century hip-hop has seen its script flipped. That flip comes with a twist, though, because while the mainstream previously had no qualms pilfering the underground's ideas, contemporary non-commercial beat-makers are hesitant to let "corporate" innovation influence their sound. Hemmed in by the face-saving need to "keep it real," the underground is trapped in an insular feedback loop of its own making.
Will Ashon is the head of Big Dada, the hip-hop subsidiary of England's Ninja Tune label. "I actually think that mainstream rap is more interesting than the underground," he says. "Most of the underground stuff is just people looping old jazz breaks and sticking the same old boom-bap beat underneath like they're DJ Premier. They're rhyming about the four elements over top of it, which makes for some sort of circular museum piece where people are rhyming about what people are rhyming about.
"Whereas, you look at Outkast, Timbaland or the Neptunes production-wise, they're just shitting all over independent hip-hop. That's partly because they've got the resources to do it properly, but it's also because they don't give a shit and they're not concerned about keeping it real.' They're just like, This is what we want to do, and if the heads don't think it's real, fuck em.'"
With the exception of people like El-P, Hi-Tek and Jay Dee, non-commercial producers have been pulled into oblivion by the anti-jiggy rhetoric of hip-hop's pseudo-intellectual gatekeepers. Because dinosaurs like KRS-One would rather diss Nelly than write a good song, they're robbing emergent underground artists of the leadership they purport to provide.
So what's wrong with the gatekeepers? According to Juice Aleem, of British dancehall-rappers New Flesh, the old guard's afraid to dance. "There's a hardcore mentality that's set in, where you're not allowed to dance or have fun. I think at one point in the early 90s, hip-hop had become an anti-music, a reaction to white music. It was like, You've got harmonies? We haven't. You've got chords? We haven't. You've got melody? We haven't.' Everything was coming out of drum machines, rat-a-tat-tat percussion and that was it. Some people are still trapped in that hardcore, we don't dance mentality."
While non-commercial music has traditionally been served by its boundary-breaking perspective, what's killing the urban underground is the emergence of an aesthetic framework as conservative as anything in the Top 40 world. Indeed, it's ironic that the people doing the most damage to the underground are the very heads entrusted with its protection. Among this group, bouncy beats are mistrusted; sing-song choruses are a no-go; slick melodies are a betrayal. Groups attempting to incorporate these elements into their beatscapes risk the wrath of their underground constituents just ask Swollen Members.
So, what's a leftfield hip-hopper to do in this treacherous age? If you're Priest of New York City's Antipop Consortium, you transcend the underground/mainstream divide by obsessing over sound, and nothing else. "I don't really have a romance with underground hip-hop," he says. "When you put backpack stuff to the test, it doesn't stand up in a sonic sense. It's one thing to be outside the corporate infrastructure, but you still have to be competitive on the sonic level."
APC's 2002 release, Arrhythmia, finds the group applying digital polish to its off-kilter beatscapes, thus fusing the slick and the abstract to compelling ends. Arrhythmia is a truly contemporary album, one which reflects the era's top-down flow of hip-hop influence. Still, there's little doubt that the underground will eventually retake its rightful place at the forefront of innovation. But if there's a lesson to be learned from the current malaise, it's that the underground should open the shutters and bask in the warmth of mainstream influence.