In the last post of this series we discussed the evolution of the rap from the 1980’s to the first part of the 1990’s. This period was widely known for the subgenre of hip-hop/rap called gangsta rap, which talked about the struggles of the inner city and was much harder than previous styles. We talked about the works and influence of artists like N.W.A., Dr. Dre, and the Wu-Tang Clan. This post will be dedicated to two of the rap giants during the 1990’s, 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G, while exploring the West vs. East rivalry.
Tupac Amaru Shakur often heralded as one, if not the greatest rapper of all time, rose to fame during the early 1990’s . His first album, 2Pacalylpse Now discussed the struggles of growing up, racism, police brutality, and urban life. This set the precedent for much of 2Pac’s subject matter for his career as he would speak on the harsh reality of the inner city and how things must change. The political voice associated with 2Pac’s works are reminiscent of those who came before him like Public Enemy. His second album though would be his breakout album as it got him national atention within the rap industry with songs like I Get A Round and Keep Ya Head Up. Keep Ya Head Up is definitely the more touching of the two as it speaks about how in recent years and in the rap game women have been pushed down. He gives insight into his childhood and what he saw growing up. More of his social commentary could be seen in the song dedicated to his mother on his third album, Me Against the World. The song Dear Mama talks about and is a heartfelt homage to his mother who worked so hard to try and raise him in a world of turmoil. This is considered one of his greatest songs and is even a work collected in the Library of Congress.
2Pac’s fourth album was All Eyez On Me and is considered his greatest production due to the medley of rap hits it gave like How Do You Want It and the famous California Love. This album was released in 1996 after he had joined Death Row Records with a bunch of other prominent West Coast rappers in 1995. This album would be one of the most influential rap albums of all time as it would inspire the next generation of artists that would come up in the 2000’s. His last album, The 7 Day Theory, was made in a relatively short time and would have massive success but unfortunately he didn’t live long enough to see it for himself. On September 7, 1996, Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas after a Mike Tyson fight as he was the victim of a shooting while he was in the passenger seat with his friend Suge Knight. On September 13th, 1996, he had died in the intensive care unit of internal bleeding from the gunshot wounds. Tupac Shakur is remembered as being one of the greatest artists of all time as he rapped about the struggles of life and the tragedies of the human condition. He also helped to bring rap and hip-hop to the mainstream public which made it more of an acceptable art form for young artists to express themselves.
The second rap giant that dominated the 1990’s was Christopher Wallace or better known as The Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls. Biggie grew up in New York City and helped to bring back rap music from the East Coast as previously the rap game was dominated by West Coast artists. He started rapping as a teenager on the streets of Brooklyn and one day he was heard by Sean Combs (now better known as P. Diddy) of Uptown Records. However, Combs would be fired from his position at Uptown and decided to start his own label called Bad Boy Records. He continued to get exposure from releasing remixes of popular songs until he was able to release his first studio album, Ready To Die, in 1994. He broke out as an artist with the song Juicy which had pop-like vocals and the album also had the synth heavy Big Poppa. Juicy told the story of him trying to make it as an artist and the struggle of growing up in Brooklyn as well as trying to adjust to his new lifestyle. It got strong, positive reviews and brought attention back to the East Coast.
Unfortunately, Biggie and 2Pac would be involved in a long lasting feud that started from a misunderstanding in 1994. 2Pac was shot and mugged while in Quad Studios. He would accuse Sean Combs and Biggie of being involved in setting it up despite them claiming to not being involved. This misunderstanding started the intense rivalry between the two artists and the two coasts of the nation. It was all about the West versus the East. Death Row Records was very vocal about how they felt about Bad Boy Records. The rivalry between the two record labels pushed their respective artists to make better music and it also spurred their fan bases to support. However with the shooting of Tupac 1996, it came to a realization that it had gone to far as Death Row was blaming the East for the incident. Biggie was very open about how Tupac’s loss was a tragedy and remembered the times when they were friends before the 1994 incident. However, Biggie while visiting California to support his new album Life After Death was murdered on March 9, 1997. The murders of Tupac and Biggie are still unsolved and there is still controversy about what just might have happened. Christopher Wallace is considered one of the greatest rappers ever and will forever be known as the King of New York as far as rap.
If you haven’t read The Evolution of Rap Part I, it basically describes the origins of rap up until the late 1980’s where rap became more politically charged with groups like Public Enemy. Much of rap from where we left off in the last post is rap going into two directions, one a new subgenere of gangsta rap and two rap begins its journey to making it to the mainstream audiences. The subject matter of rap also starts to shift over to the struggles of living in the inner city. I have decided to split up this time period into two separate post due to how I realized just how much this period covers as far as rap.
I have previously written about how I feel rap is the perfect example of the concept of remixing, taking existing material and using it to create something else. With the upsets that happened in the Rap categories in the Grammy’s, I have decided to dedicate a series of posts to the evolution of rap and its current state. This series will consist of three blog posts going from the origins/early days of rap, the introduction of rap to the mainstream, and where rap is today. Like every form of art, rap’s role in society and its subject matter has changed over the years and gone through different stages along with its contemporary society.
The origins of rap come from hip-hop which began its inception during the 1970’s in New York as people experimented with both technology and new styles. The basis of hip-hop came from samples from soul, funk, and disco music as DJ’s began to use the percussive beats from songs and looping them with new sound systems, like turntables. MC’s, or emcees, would incorporate rhythmic vocals much like spoken poetry along with the beats and eventually rhymes were added in an effort to differentiate from other people. Different styles and delivery methods developed as people would gather around in blocks and rap aloud to each other. The first hip-hop recording would come in 1979 from The Sugar Hill Gang using the beat from Chic.’s Good Times in the hip-hop classic Rapper’s Delight. The 1980’s wouldn’t just bring a new wave of music across America, but it would also introduce new elements to hip-hop/rap and bringing it more to the public eye.
The early 1980’s brought a new wave of elements like electronic sounds and more effects to recordings of hip-hop/rap. Lyrics were full of boasting about how great one was at spitting rhymes and it also became a new medium for expression for many artists. Artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Kurtis Blow early on started to use these new sounds and styles to enhance their records. New recording and sampling technology would help artists create their records and add piece together everything more efficiently than before. With these devices becoming more accessible, many groups emerged to try and make it big and in reality few did, this can be seen in the success of the group Run-DMC. This group formed in Queens, New York in 1981, becoming of the most influential groups in history as they would influence all other acts to come. They also demonstrated the importance of a healthy relationship between MC’s and DJ’s, helping each other to create the best work possible. One of the group’s greatest records was the perfect blend between rock and rap as they sampled Aerosmith’s Walk This Way to create their own version of the song. This song really represented what rap was about at the time, it was mainly seen as music for African Americans, and creating a song with Aerosmith, mainly popular with White America, would bring rap more to public eye as more than just music popular in the African American community.
The success of Run-DMC would give them the first Grammy nomination every by a rap group and would influence other artists like LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys. Before becoming an actor in detective shows, LL Cool J used to be the quintessential suave ladies man of hip-hop during the 1980’s, in fact his name stands for Ladies Love Cool James. When most people think of LL Cool J they think of muscles and a boom box, and LL Cool J got his start in the mid 80’s and would later make one of his most iconic songs in the 1990’s Mama Said Knock You Out. On the other hand, The Beastie Boys formed in the early 80’s as a punk rock group but later influenced by rappers at the time decided to rap while using rock beats and samples. They found success in across the demographics of those who enjoy rock and those who enjoyed rap with their debut album Licensed to Ill. This album would give them some of their greatest singles like No Sleep Til Brooklyn, Fight for your Right, and Brass Monkey.
This kind of rap would eventually give rise to a new stage or genre of rap, a kind that was more politically active, with groups like Public Enemy. Public Enemy is most famous for, aside from their hype man Flava Flav, their politically charged and influenced music which was a response for their feeling of oppression and misrepresentation of minorities in urban areas. Songs like Fight the Power and Can’t Truss It were songs against the Man and to bring the struggles of minorities to the forefront. These songs would have a huge influence over rap for decades to come as it would inspire rappers to talk about the struggles of the streets and inner city life. It would have direct influence over groups like N.W.A. and other groups which would define the next era of rap that would go through the 1990’s, Gangsta Rap.
Recently I have watched a video series called Everything is a Remix, and it got me thinking about the idea of reframing/remixing ideas. The video explained how today’s world is greatly built on the ideas and thoughts of our predecessors. In addition, new ideas and creations are made by the transformation of these ideas. While watching the video, I immediately thought how hip-hop/rap music perfectly embodies this idea. Since the earliest days of rap music, the idea of sampling beats or instrumentals was prevalent. For example, The Sugarhill Gang used a piece of the beat from Chic’s Good Times in order to create the classic Rapper’s Delight. The Sugarhill Gang didn’t flat out copy Chic’s song, they just used one component from the song, a part of the instrumental, and built their beat around it so they could musically innovate.
Sampling is an essential part of rap music, its not only a way for artists to pay homage to those that came before them but it allows a starting point for creation. It is very rare that a rapper has never sampled somebody else in the slightest way, whether it be a part of the beat or background vocals. For example, Drake has always been influenced by the music of Aaliyah and Whitney Houston so he pays homage to them by sampling them. One critical, often overlooked, aspect of rap music is the beat because in the end of the day it’s not all just about the lyrics. The beat adds a lot to a song; it adds rhythm, tone, mood, and atmosphere. Thus, often rappers wish they could use a particular sound to add to what they are trying to convey with their music and if they really want to include it they can sample it. In rap, there are two types of sampling: authorized and unauthorized. Authorized sampling comes when the parties directly involved, as in those that own the sound being sampled, are in agreement with the person wanting to sample it. For example, after the death of Biggie Small’s, P. Diddy (or Puff Daddy at the time) sampled the instrumental from The Police’s song Every Breath you Take to create the tribute song I’ll Be Missing You. On the other hand, unauthorized sampling is where an artist will try to sneak in a sample and hope they don’t get in legal trouble. One of the more notable examples is Vanilla Ice’s hit Ice Ice Baby which wrongly used the bass line from Queen’s Under Pressure.
The rap game is very competitive and with modern culture it is much more interconnected with technology and social media. As mentioned there are different kinds of sampling, but there is a gray area when it comes to the legality of sampling in one scenario, mixtapes. Mixtapes are a collection of songs established or aspiring artists make and distribute freely, usually by the internet these days. As long as the artists aren’t making money from this they usual sample freely and it allows these artists to build off something and create their own songs. An example of this is Drake’s third mixtape Sooner than Later which sampled some artists and it helped him get the attention of the music industry while also being Grammy nominated for just that mixtape. In addition, artists often freestyle over the beats of other artists to make their own version or to send a message to that artist. Now, these freestyles are never released as official songs in order to avoid legal trouble. An example of this is when various artists covered Drake’s ballad Marvin’s Room.
I recently watched one of my favorite musical turned movies, Les Miserables, with my other favorite being The Phantom of the Opera. Upon watching Les Miserables, I noticed there were two scenes very similar to that of Hamlet, which I happen to be reading as of this moment. These two works both have the motifs of revenge and serious contemplation. Hamlet is bent on revenge for his father’s death through killing Claudius, while the revenge in Les Miserables comes from how Javert is obsessed with catching Jean Valjean. However, the scenes of serious contemplation really intrigue me.
There are two scenes in the beginning of the movie that are central to setting up how the audience views Jean Valjean. The first one is immediately after the police come to the church where Jean Valjean is staying and are about to arrest him for stealing but the priest clears his name. Realizing how the priest saved him from going back to jail, he has a soliloquy where he contemplates what he is doing with his life and his character. Now, it isn’t of the same subject matter of whether he should commit suicide or not, but this scene is important as it leads to the all important question of the movie in the next song. The next more comparable scene is the scene where Jean Valjean has heard how an innocent man will be tried for being mistaken to be him, and he must make a decision: take action or don’t. If he takes action he risks his life, but if he doesn’t he has the guilt of a man’s life over him. He asks the question that will continue to echo through the play/movie: Who am I?
Toward’s the end of the movie, the scene I am about to discuss takes place, and note if you haven’t seen the movie/play I am warning you this is a spoiler. Now, if you recall the end of the movie has the scene where Javert has failed to catch Jean Valjean ater he just watches him walk away from the sewer exit. The next scene the audience finds Javert on top of a bridge walking on the edge. He then continues to sing the song titled “Javert’s Suicide” where he decides what to do with his life after failing at his really own purpose for living, justice. He believes he has failed and contemplates whether to live or die. This is very similar to Hamlet in the “To be or not to be..” soliloquy as he too contemplates suicide. The only difference between the two is that Javert takes his own life and Hamlet instead takes a different action, deciding to carry out revenge.
I believe music is a universal language, a medium in which artists can convey their emotions. Music has unlimited potential as every note, instrumental, beat, and vocal tells a story. I listen to various types of music: rock, pop, r&b, and hip-hop/rap to name a few. However, today I will be focusing more on the last two with one of my favorite artists, Drake.
I know there are many who groan and say, “Oh, Drake is so mainstream! All he raps about is YOLO and other typical rap stuff. He never started from the bottom,” and to those individuals I would like to apologize for them not having heard Drake’s music in entirety. I have been a fan of Drake since around 2008, when he first started making music but was the definition of an underground artist. People only knew him from his days of playing Jimmy Brooks on the show Degrassi: The Next Generation. Little did everybody know that he was an aspiring musician at the time and desperately wanted to escape his role on TV for the chance to make his music dreams come true. Granted, he had to support his family, as his mom was ill and his dad lived in Memphis while he lived in Toronto (his parents divorced when he was 6). By no means am I saying Drake had it harder than other rappers like Eminem, I am just simply stating the conditions he grew up in. Drake had no clout when he started to make music as his reputation was just that of a Canadian teen actor. However, Drake didn’t see it like that and he continued to try and make music. He released two mixtapes (a free collection of songs distributed through the internet), Room for Improvement and Comeback Season, in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Those who listened to his music at the first glimpse at a new type of hip-hop/rap which infused r&b. This new “genre” mixed rap and melody together along with new beats/instrumentals which created a much more introspective experience. Drake rapped about his struggles and about life in general, while being completely open and honest. His life would change in the year of 2008, being discovered by Lil Wayne.
In 2008, Lil Wayne happened to get a hold of some of Drake’s music and he fell in love with it. At the time, Drake was in the process of making his third mixtape, So Far Gone. It released in 2009, in my opinion it is the best of all his mixtapes as it is the most introspective and has calming instrumentals. The cover of the mixtape was symbolic to how he keeps climbing and reaching to obtain his goals and that perhaps they were out of his reach but he would still try desperately. In fact, this mixtape was so well received and critically acclaimed that it got him a Grammy Nomination. That’s right, his mixtape got him two Grammy nominations, and Drake was suddenly put into the spotlight. Lil Wayne then signed him to Young Money and now Drake had a record deal, proceeding to release his first album, Thank Me Later. Now more in the limelight, Drake continued to make songs that were uniquely him, integrating introspective lyrics into a sing-song rap style. His love songs quickly got him the reputation of being a sensitive, soft rapper which would later shape his music (this album would get him more Grammy nominations). In 2011, after his smash hit album he released his sophomore album, Take Care. This album pushed Drake to overtake Jay-Z in the charts as Drake became the artist with the most #1 hits in the Hip-Hop/R&B charts. His second album would also give him his first Grammy for Rap Album of the Year. At this point in his career he has two 2x Platinum albums and 1 platinum mixtape and he would proceed to make his third album. Nothing Was the Same came out on September 24th of this year and is already platinum, selling over 600,000 albums the first week. This creation was heavily influenced by his producer since day one, 40. It has been interesting to see how Drake’s music has grown and how he has grown as an artist. Even his cover art for Nothing Was the Same shows his introspective nature, his present self stares into his younger self and he sees where he started from.
Drake’s music is something I can relate to deeply, because he speaks of life and the human experience. His songs about relationships and interacting with people are profound and deep. Sure, he does have some more typical rap songs but those are the mainstream radio songs that are overplayed. The fact these songs are the radio immediately give people the wrong misconception of his music and as a fan it is really frustrating. Drake is the type of artist that wears his heart on his sleeve and on his journey to fame he has not changed as a person. He puts his family first and makes sure that the people who helped along the way get as much of the credit as he does. His music was a gamble, before him a rapper who also sung was unheard of. Especially in an era where rappers are from the projects and shy away from the topics of love and other emotional aspects of life. The vocals and lyrics in his songs are full of emotion and the piano clad instrumental only enhances that effect. His experimentation with sound and creativity and how he has shared it has landed him to be the rapper to bring true hip/hop back to the time where rap was about life and deeper matters.