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Hip hop, long an outsider, is now part of the pop culture mainstream

Great recordings aside, hip hop's most notable development has been its assimilation intothe pop mainstream,writesKieran Yates

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 4:14pm

Hip hop, like any genre, has its great periods and its fallow ones. For old heads, the golden age was the late 1980s, maybe into the early '90s. But you don't need to go back in history to pinpoint one of hip hop's greatest years. Just take 2013.

The year saw albums by hip hop titans, including Jay-Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail, A$AP Rocky's Long Live A$AP, Kanye West's Yeezus, Drake's Nothing Was the Same and Eminem's Marshall Mathers LP 2.

People are now considering hip hop as just music, where before it was treated as this very strange thing
DJ The last skeptik

Beneath the superstar level, too, there were great recordings: Earl Sweatshirt, the youngest Odd Future member, offered a more muted brand of nihilism last year with his album Doris; New York's big man Action Bronson and his ferocious Strictly 4 My Jeeps single showed him as a force to be reckoned with in his hometown, and went viral after he performed the song at St Hilda's community centre for a group of pensioners in London; eccentric Detroit rapper Danny Brown's acclaimed album Old was a return to his maniacal raps, shrill giggles and boom-bap beats; and Pusha T's extraordinary My Name is My Name included appearances from Kendrick Lamar, Rick Ross and many others. Among the women, singles from Angel Haze, Iggy Azalea and Nicki Minaj continued to make mainstream radio playlists.

But the most exciting has to be the way hip hop has stormed into any area it fancies over the past year. While rap and rock have been cross-fertilising since Run-DMC and Aerosmith teamed up for Walk This Way in 1986, 2013 saw hip hop's biggest names taking the music in all directions. "Borders and barriers just aren't there," says hip hop producer and DJ The Last Skeptik. " Yeezus is experimental in a lot of ways and it's exciting that it's allowed to be. People are now considering hip hop as just music, where before it was treated as this very strange thing that a lot of people didn't give a s*** about. This year it's everywhere."

It was impossible to talk about popular culture without also talking about hip hop last year: if Miley Cyrus' twerking at the MTV Video Music Awards became one of the most discussed moments of the year, one of the reasons it went viral was that it took from hip hop and stirred up a debate about cultural appropriation.

Although the appropriation of rap styles and cultures by the white mainstream has long existed, the presence of instant news and comment via the web meant it was now a common talking point, rather than just within the hip hop world.

Rap is being deconstructed more than ever, from questions of whether Jay-Z is bolstering a new kind of black identity by going vegan (albeit temporarily), to whether feminists can enjoy the genre, or how dangerous the commodity fetishism rife within the culture is.

The latter was a theme taken up by non-hip hop artists, such as Lorde, prompting comments that there had long been rappers aware of this issue, and maybe someone should have noticed them in the first place.

This was the first time hip hop dominated the pop culture headlines since the moral panic around gangster rap in the late 1980s and early '90s - but this time the headlines were more sympathetic to the rappers.

Hip hop's co-opting of brands reached new heights when Jay-Z signed his US$20 million deal with Samsung, which saw Magna Carta Holy Grail made available first to users of Samsung devices. The difference was that it wasn't just the rappers celebrating the brands, but the brands who wanted the rappers. Ace Hood's Bugatti, Migos' Versace and Jay-Z's Tom Ford were among the year's biggest songs but the Samsung deal was more important than any of them.

It's a long way from Kurtis Blow becoming the first hip hop artist to appear in a TV advertisement when he signed a deal with Sprite in the '80s, and the ambivalence displayed by Timberland and Cristal when their products were adopted by hip hop artists and fans, fearful they would lose ground in their preferred demographics.

Jay-Z's Samsung deal proved hip hop was now a coveted sales vehicle for non-musical brands, not least because it was the only music whose reach was genuinely worldwide.

Even hip hop's fashions reflected a scene confidently expressing its individuality. Where the hyper-masculine era of 50 Cent and Jay-Z was dominated by baggy trousered prison gear and Rocawear, now the influences were coming from the likes of Schoolboy Q of Black Hippy and his bucket hats, and from Odd Future's Supreme beanies. As DJ Snips, a Kiss FM DJ and part of the Livin' Proof collective, says: "In clubs you just see more diversity than you have in a while, in terms of people aligning themselves with different hip hop tribes. You get Flatbush Zombies fans dressed as hippies in tie-dye, Meek Mill fans in Gucci, and A$AP fans in leather shirts and goth T-shirts.

"And it all seems acceptable for each sub-group to like each other's music. This isn't the first time that this has happened, but it feels like it's coming back around."

So what about outside the club? While the internet atomised hip hop, it also helped nurture a true underground culture online. Vine, the mini video-sharing app, might not have been as globe-conquering as was predicted when it launched, but it was still crucial to the spread of underground hip hop.

The World Star Hip Hop platform featured weekly Vine compilations, including YG's My Nigga and Migos' Hannah Montana, and revived such releases as J Dash and Flo Rida's contagious 2011 twerking anthem Wop, and Don't Drop That Thun Thun by Finnaticz.

But the main thing, according to Jo Fuertes-Knight of Vice's music site Noisey, was that 2013 was the year everyone talked about hip hop. "For me, in terms of the press and its flirting with hip hop, this year has been amazing. Everyone from the Daily Mail to indie fans were talking about people like Kanye and Jay-Z. Jay-Z's album wasn't even very good, but people were talking about it," says Fuertes-Knight.

"Rihanna was making s*** electronica in 2012, but in 2013 she was making trap tunes. Juicy J and 2 Chainz have had these genuine revivals of Atlanta music, because of Miley Cyrus shedding light on a scene."

And now the question is: what happens in 2014?

Guardian News & Media



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