As seen on RepPGHHipHop.com
In the never ending battle of “which decade was the best for hip hop” the general consensus seems to be that the 90s were the “golden age” and that nothing in the last 10 years has been worthy of putting up on the same pedestal that we place Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt, The Infamous and The Chronic. While there is no doubt that hip hop delivered an epic amount of classics during the 90s, let’s not write off the last decade as being a total descent into watered-down music. From the evolution of new styles, to southern rap’s rise, to the resurgence of mixtapes, to the rise of the internet and indie labels, this past decade has been quite important for our culture. Let’s take a look at why the 2000s were so essential and only further elevated hip hop into the mainstream culture in positive ways.
We might as well begin with everyone’s favorite topic to hate on, southern rap. Before 2000, southern rap was limited to independent labels more focused on promoting their brand than pushing the content of their music (No Limit and Cash Money), and beyond that you had Outkast and Scarface. While most would put 3 Stacks, Big Boi and Scarface on the list of legends, the southern rap that emerged in this past decade has made many hip hop fans cringe at the subject matter and seemingly simpleness of the beats and rhymes. It’s true that not every southern rapper brought quality to the table but it’s not like every New York rapper had something to say either and especially West Coast rappers who have always had a history of placing low-riding beats above the need to spread a worthwhile message. However the south has brought us future legends that, without the Mike Jones’s and Dem Franchise Boyz’s, may not have had the ability to rise up and claim their place at the top of the hip hop throne. Look at Young Jeezy and T.I., both unique artists who brought an original style to the game as well as providing an introspective look where they came from and what defined them. While T.I. took a little time to develop, Jeezy’s mainstream debut Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 was nothing short of a classic, with his unapologetic look at the streets infused with knowledge for the kids and proof that dreams can become reality. Add to that a selection of hot beats and a brand new flow and you have everything that hip hop purists look for. As far as T.I. goes, whether or not you felt his earlier work, Paper Trail was one of the greatest albums of this decade, as he gave everything to people in the form of regrets, explanations, and a real desire to make a change that would better himself and his world. He poured his heart out on that album and proved that substance is definitely present in southern rap. Beyond that we have Jay Electronica, who, although has been compared to Nas, is still from the south and has even further proved that the south doesn’t have one distinct sound, just like New York has various styles, and that we’ve only begun to see the potential of southern MC’s.
Speaking of various styles, every good thing has to grow and develop, and hip hop is no different. Whether or not you like southern rap, or “snap rap”, or “emo rap”, or “hipster rap”, it’s inviting to see the different interpretations of the music we love so much. In the 80s “boom bap” hadn’t come into form and gangsta rap was limited to Ice-T and N.W.A. Yet when the 90s rolled around we welcomed these forms of hip hop, especially the blunted styles of New York, the city that started this whole thing. The branching out into different areas is only further proof that hip hop is evolving and growing, which is better than it going the way that most assumed it would (we all remember the days of “this rap thing is a fad, it won’t last). So rather than discredit these new ideas as invasive to the culture, why not embrace them as an ability to see how inspiration can come from all over and not just classic soul records or a well-known rock riff, and that it doesn’t have to be limited to an MPC. Youngsters like Kid Cudi, Wale and Kidz in the Hall have all given us their own 90s-influenced interpretations of hip hop and the result has been some incredible music, if only people would open their minds and give them a chance then they could be the next Gang Starr’s or Mobb Deep’s. And for those hating on their “electro rap” style, have we all forgotten that in the 80s electro rap was HUGE alongside Run-DMC and LL Cool J? This is nothing new, it’s just more polished this time around.
As we completely left behind the cassette era, the mixtape became something of the past. Short of DJ Clue’s The Professional series, mixtapes weren’t the source of new material that they used to be. As the internet started to grow few people saw the need to hit the swap shop to cop the newest mixtape to hear what street anthems were blowing up. But with all technology, the more that comes, the cheaper the old stuff gets and with that, CD burners became a staple in all computers, as well as Photoshop, making the ability to mass produce mix CDs a fairly easy task. So cassettes were replaced with CDs and groups like The Diplomats took attention to this, releasing new material in the form of street mix CDs and essentially building a career off that. Someone else who was no stranger to the mixtape game (and who also owes his career to it) is 50 Cent, who, after 3 mixtapes caught the attention of a small label called Shady/Aftermath which just happened to be the home of one of the greatest producers of all time who turned 50 Cent from a failed street rapper into a household name. And the most recent artist to rise from the mixtape circuit has been Drake, who even managed to secure a Grammy nomination off the strength of a mixtape, something that we would have never seen in the 90s.
Getting back to the internet for a second, the 2000s marked the explosion of the internet, going from dial-up connections to always-on cable lines that allowed for integrated video and highly advanced websites. Social networking also became the norm as people turned to MySpace to promote themselves as the next big rapper. Where as one time you could only get signed if you happened to secure a meeting with an executive, or were lucky enough to have a rapper wander into your show, there was now a worldwide arena for you to put your music out there and get one step closer to being able to get somewhere in this hip hop game. While that has certainly oversaturated rap with countless garbage MCs, it’s also allowed up and comers who do have talent to get their music heard by more than just their circle of friends. Even more important are the blog sites that have established the new medium for hip hop news, rumors, and are replacing such staples as The Source and XXL for all things hip hop. With these blogs run by hip hop fans for hip hop fans, artists now have the chance to speak directly with someone who can help promote their music and help them rise without the need for some 40 year old in a shirt and tie to tell them to “make something more universally appealing”. This has opened the doors for a multitude of talented MCs and there’s nothing better than hip hop heads assisting in bringing up the next generation of rappers.
Finally you have the indie labels, once a death trap for any MC that wanted success as the market covered was minimal due to the lack of development and ability to promote a product to the masses in the Tower Records world. Due to all the above mentioned aspects of the 2000s, from mixtapes to the internet, indie labels have seen huge successes in this decade, from Rhyme Sayers to Def Jux to Stones Throw and even to Koch, the label that many once forgotten artists used in order to regain the fans that thought they all but faded away. These labels are doing great things for their artists and for hip hop in general, but not simply paying an advance for the next big single but by developing talent and maintaining this group dynamic that creates strong units of MCs, producers, and A&R’s. Instead of negotiating with major labels for distribution, these independents have been able to handle everything in house which gives them more control in promoting their artists and packaging the best product for their fans.
While reminiscing on the glory days of rap, it’s important to realize that the steps we’ve taken in the past decade have only furthered the growth of our culture and are paving the way for the next generation. Purists will always be around complaining of the lack of substance or “boom bap”, unable to appreciate the use of real instruments that allow for full, almost symphonic, productions that push the boundaries of what was once nothing more than a break and one MC spitting for 5 minutes straight. The mainstreaming of hip hop is a good thing because it makes hip hop more accessible to everyone involved, from the big acts you love to hate, to the minor acts who now can promote themselves without being told “yeah well we don’t know how long this hip hop thing is gonna last so we’re not sure we can work with you”. In short, hip hop grew in the 2000s and that growth should be appreciated as it’s done a lot of good for all of us involved.
Select artists whose careers started this decade – Kanye West, 50 Cent, Fabolous, Young Jeezy, T.I., Joe Budden, Clipse, Little Brother, Ludacris
Selected future “classic” albums from this decade – The Black Album (Jay-Z), Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (50 Cent), The College Dropout (Kanye West), The Unseen (Quasimoto aka Madlib), Quality (Talib Kweli), The Fix (Scarface), Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Outkast), Be (Common), The Documentary (The Game), Paper Trail (T.I.), Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 (Young Jeezy)