Over the past 10 years it has become a common assumption that the music industry is dying as a result of an increase in illegal downloading. Citing programmes such as Napster, Audiogalaxy and Kazaa, together with bitorrents and various other uploading sites, the internet’s technological developments has caused many to point out the defects of a phenomenon that has seen record sales plummet to levels previously unheard of. Emphasising the recent words of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, modern-day downloading and the subsequent gradual decadence of commercial sales will inevitably ensure that “the music business establishment completely folds.” Representing something of a modern-day philosophy, the fear echoing from many quarters symbolises the bewilderment facing this grotesque dilemma, namely how to convince today’s generation to pay inflated prices as opposed to downloading music for free.
Technological Shortcomings: The MP3 PLAYER
Upon considering the emergence of illegal downloading and the subsequent deflation of CD sales, it at first glance appears as though the loss of certain big corporations has been the gain of other similarly structured powerhouses. To elaborate, while 20 odd years ago the CD player was ultimately a sensation in full effect; the latest developments have seen it being ousted by the most recent phenomenon, the MP3. From Vinyl and Cassette to CD and MP3, the biggest problem currently facing the music industry is the fact that its new format has virtually become unmanageable. While acknowledging that CD players do continue to play a role in the average home, it is equally fair to assume that the MP3 players of Apple and Creative now churn out the majority of our music listening sessions. Taking such matters into account, the bitter reality suggests that once burned to iTunes, the CD’s use is reduced to being either placed in the trashcan or alternatively in the bottom of a disused drawer. Once it’s copied over as far as MP3 listening habits go the CD becomes expendable, a real dilemma that has ultimately seen the CD’s successor become the first real format to slip out of the greedy clutches of the notoriously ruthless record labels.
Apple’s Monopolization of the Digital Music Industry
Of course as many are aware Apple has looked to exploit the MP3 boom by setting up the iStore, a spot where you can practically buy any one MP3 song for 0.99. Functioning effectively through its simplicity and rapport with the conquering iPod, the online music business has become the number one vendor of music worldwide, replacing high street stores while existing as one of the last remaining collectors of income for global record labels. Conforming coherently with the new trend of internet shopping, the result has unfortunately marked the closure of pretty much all independent and even major music retailers. Cornering the market by exploiting the emerging trend of internet consumerism, Apple’s attempt to ignite profit-making activities out of the MP3 has saved record labels from bankruptcy, while simultaneously solidifying the death of music distribution in its physical form.
Succeeding the portable CD player and the lacklustre success of the minidisc, it was the MP3 player’s emergence that ultimately resulted in the beginnings of Apple’s monopolisation of the music market. Shrewd in its attempts, the iPod’s fairly rapid surpassing of its initial competitors saw it eventually become the iconic bench mark of MP3 technology. Dominating the marketplace, its convenient lack of versatility ensured that iTunes would become one of the world’s most used / downloaded programmes. Forcing all those buying MP3 players to use its software, the final piece of the jigsaw was the option to buy songs digitally via iTunes, an offer that not only proved cheaper than buying physical copies of CD, but also the most natural given that purchased songs would nonetheless be going straight onto the iPod.
For the majority of us who have now conformed to owning an iPod, Apple’s digital capitalisation of music technology has resulted more or less in a straight option for its users. Either we continue to contribute to record labels and to a lesser extent the artists by purchasing music via iTunes, or alternatively we can reject Apple by downloading the music directly from bitorrents and other sites. Given the simplicity in executing illegal downloading practices, much to the industries dismay the choice between paying or obtaining for free results in rather obvious consequences. Presenting a no brainer as far as I’m concerned, perhaps the music industry should be pointing the finger at Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Apple, the iPod and MP3 technology, as opposed to blaming decaying CD sales on us the general public.
Last-Ditch Tactics: Are we really the Thieves?
As corporate America fears for its future control of a music industry it once prospered from, the obvious strategy besides the impossible task of regulating downloading sites has been to inject fear into downloaders by labelling their art as theft. Declaring downloading to be an incriminating offence, the general echoes from the propaganda machine have been known to issue threats towards the monitoring of users’ online activity. Instilling fear and guilt into the people as a last-ditch attempt of desperation, the overall effects result in a large percentage fearing incrimination, lawsuits and the overall sensation of being watched. Incidentally allegations of stealing are to some extent contradictory, given the record industries reputation for robbing artists of their cut. Ultimately frustrated by the obstacles that have stagnated years of greed, many of these corporate hypocrites have now begun to label us thieves while seemingly turning a blind-eye to their own fraudulent activities. Nonetheless regardless of your thoughts on corporate America, it is true that the industry and the many jobs it creates is indeed suffering, a factor that has clearly provided a striking blow to a global economy already crippled by a decrease in consumerism.
Such reflections perhaps justify the reaction of many when asked if they download music. I for one have often found people to respond in a guilty fashion, pointing to the fact that they occasionally buy CDs while never really having the bottle to fully confess the levels of their downloading habits. As the general public download simply as a means of saving money, there is most definitely a feeling of guilt that such moves, while albeit incredibly tempting, do effectively contribute to the decay of an industry that these fans would be lost without.
Do the Artists really Suffer?
Upon closer reflection, this concept of struggling artists and a future in which young people will opt for other mediums of expression as a viable path seems just a little farfetched. After all anyone even slightly familiar with record label practices will undoubtedly be aware that artists on mainstream labels barely get a fraction of every CD sold. In fact as the majority of artists make their money by touring and merchandise; it would seem that music piracy to some extent helps the artist gain a great deal more exposure. While some artists tend to disagree, others such as Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy have revelled in its presence by confirming, “If people are downloading our music, they’re listening to it. The internet is like radio for us. “
Looking further into this concept of increased exposure, it is an indisputable fact that a fan downloading music is able to experiment more now that its cost is free. Eliminating the risk involved in wasting hard-earned money, now the consumer can quite simply delete the downloaded album without spending a penny, should he or she view its content as being sub-par. In this case with finances put to the side, we can now afford to experiment and listen to genres we previously may never have considered. Taking this argument into consideration, while a slip from $14.6 billion (1999) to $9 billion (2008) in theory may seem like a tragic fall, what we shouldn’t forget is just how much more music has been distributed since the beginning of the 21st century. Effectively reaching millions more people, the new risk free followers will perhaps, as a conclusion, opt to buy the merchandise and attend the concerts, therefore bolstering the revenue of the avenues where the artist truly prospers.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE: Changing the Hands of Power
Such statistics as the ones outlined above often point to false propaganda surrounding the demolition of the music industry. As such while the RIAA and others regularly upload statistics of annual illegal download levels, they fail to comprehend that these figures don’t necessarily correlate to a direct loss of CD sales. For example if you were to download 10 albums a week, would that mean that you would have previously spent those 7 days buying 10 albums? According to recent research undertook at both Harvard and North Carolina university, “”While downloads occur on a vast scale, most users are likely individuals who would not have bought the album even in the absence of file sharing.” Furthermore to add salt to the wounds of corporate scapegoaters, research has also revealed that it would take about 5,000 downloads to displace sales of just one physical CD, indicating that large-scale downloading only slightly affects the decline in album sales.
Any argument surrounding downloading as an experimental medium can furthermore be supported by a collective rebellion towards the mediocrity of recent album releases. With many arguing that CDs contain way too much filler material, fans these days take the opportunity to preview the music before investing. Similar but on a much more large-scale level to the appearance of music booths in record shops, the premise behind this preview is ultimately to reveal whether or not the CD is worth its designated retail price. This philosophy to an extent counteracts years of being ripped off, as we the consumers begin to demand value for our money in these times of economic turmoil.
Is There a Light at the End of the Tunnel?
While glad to see the shortcomings of large-scale corporations and an end to years of greed and hypocrisy, I do on the same hand feel sorry for the closure of many high-street independent retailers. As one of my previous dreams was to open up a record store, the current trends of the market have effectively put an end to any such fantasies becoming potentially viable. Furthermore while I do own an iPod due mainly to my lack of current stability and consequent need to travel lightly, I am sure that when I do settle down and begin to use a CD player, I will proceed to purchase CDs worth purchasing as opposed to caving into Apple’s digital revolution.
As far as the closure of high street retailers is concerned, the majority of the blame should surely be put on the doorstep of Apple and their monopolizing strategy. Freezing out the need for CDs by introducing the latest technological sensation, the iPod’s dominance together with the emergence of broadband has conveniently resulted in Apple’s iStore becoming the principal modern day music vendor. Resigning myself to the sorry state of internet consumerism and the subsequent elimination of independent retailers, it does seem odd that the music industry has simply resorted to sending threats to single mums and broke teens, rather than seriously seeking to confront the true perpetrators of this MP3 technological dilemma.
Overall despite subjectively defined statistics indicating the potential end of music distribution, after digesting the weight of this articles discussion I feel it is a fair assumption to presume that illegal downloading has to some extent enabled the music medium to flourish. With consumers expanding their music tastes and passion for the art form, it is time the industry got its act together before we the people revolutionise music distribution by cutting out those greedy middle men.
As a result when contemplating Thom Yorke’s bleak sentiments for up and coming artists, it seems this fear of future creative stagnation is overshadowed by a greater corporate fear relating to liberal expression.To reinforce this point research suggests that new artists are in fact no longer at the mercy of record labels, as thanks to technological advancements today’s guerrilla bands or soloist no longer needs to compete with expensive studios and costly promotional campaigns. Reaching a state of autonomy as a result of inexpensive recording technology and the internet, the aspiring artist is now able to distribute high quality music to a worldwide audience at a relatively minimal cost. Consequentially liberating the artist from the shackles of corporate interest, surely such moves should be perceived as being a positive step for the future of music.
Among my principal music listening philosophies, I have always favoured the theory centring upon the concept of the music doing the talking. Much akin to the famous sentiment that ignorance is bliss; it is often the case that an artist despite making great music, undermines his or her talents by in reality being a complete and utter dickhead. Problematic but yet often unavoidable, it‘s quite simply impossible for us to expect that every music artist will follow the select traits that we subconsciously desire. Nonetheless whilst perhaps sounding borderline pathetic in theory, it changes the shape of things when discovering you’ve been putting money into the pocket of a complete cunt.
I guess the best way to compare it is by thinking to the countless number of film adaptations. Now whilst many have proved to be of great success in capturing and compressing the endless subplots of the literary versions, the reading of the book followed by the viewing of a film can often have disastrous effects. To elaborate, the book offers you the opportunity to envision, granting you an element of freedom that the film later robs from you. That is having created your own perception of the characters, the film give each one a face, that like interviews and biographies can just so easily wipe out any previous sense of ambiguity.
Music is powerful, so much so that many fans often relate to artists not only for their music, but also on a personal level as role models. As such our intense relationship with music often takes us further than just the record store, as we travel the country for gigs whilst obsessively seeking interviews and updates as a means of greatening our understanding into the artist’s lifestyle. Comprehending the artist, though in hindsight largely obsessive, has become part of the journey in eradicating the boundaries between the fan and musician. On the hunt for figures we can relate to, the artist all of a sudden not only has to contend with making good music, but furthermore must play out our desires in his or her private time.
Traditionally in terms of rock music the majority seem to subconsciously favour a controversial figure, which often includes heavy drug use, extrovert characteristics and elements of anti-conformism. Whilst the stereotypical archetypes of the rock world include the likes of Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison, there also exists a large number of contrasting rock groups that systematically live an often quiet uneventful life. The main factor behind such character assassinations is based upon the concept of authenticity and hypocrisy, as in all fairness if one’s music isn’t based upon anti-conformism then there’s no real need for them to project it within their private lives. Despite often being written in a drunken state, the artist’s lyrics become points of intense scrutiny, mapping out a characterization that must be upheld at all times. In this case should the artist not live the life to which he sings, his credibility is put into question, an effect that can have devastating consequences on his future ventures.
NEW TECHNOLOGY: The Internet Killed the Myth of the Rockstar
The internet has certainly played a key role in underlining the growing importance of an artist’s personal life. Increasing everyday surveillance, sites such as YouTube ensure that numerous interviews and public slip-ups are on display for all fans to access. From recorded beat downs to varied revelations of the true person behind the music, an artist’s career as a musician has become somewhat part of a 24/7 lifestyle, as technology as simple as your mobile phone now possesses the capacity to demolish any fabricated myth.
It’s not only video footage that is heightening the surveillance, but also blogs and sites such as Twitter, tools that enable us to keep up-to-date with an artist’s whereabouts 24/7. Catering to our obsessive needs, blogs and daily “twitting” ensure that the person behind the music is on full display, a factor that surely pays homage to the growing importance of a musician’s personality. Invasive in a big brother way, the stakes have been raised in personality contests, almost to the point whereby the music begins to play something of a secondary role.
Virtually every human being on earth possesses at least one attribute that pisses him off, with some common examples including: littering, certain accents, chaos, isolation and hypocrisy. The point is each one of us has what is commonly referred to as a “pet hate”, a characteristic that marks our fragility and lack of patience towards certain parts of life. Whilst I can admit to possessing perhaps an unhealthy number of “pet hates”, one of my principal irritations is that of snobbery and pretentiousness, characteristics that the music industry is unfortunately rife of.
In that case despite my strict self-imposed doctrine to ultimately suppress any desire to investigate a suspect artist’s history, Radiohead’s perceived status as public school boy toffs was glaringly on display before I even had a real chance to discover the core of their music. Having grown up in the days when Creep and OK Computer quite literally blew up, my familiarity with Radiohead on a music level never quite transpired into a desire to dig deeper. Associating their material with wet windy days and passing thoughts of suicide, the subsequent accolades and all round fascination the group garnered from various snob circles quite simply filled me with a desire to ignore the band and all its hype. To summarise my sentiments, the constant Radiohead obsession had the adverse effect on me, as rather than becoming more intrigued I began to want to fucking hate this group.
The more I ponder upon this unprovoked prejudice the more I begin to recall my reasoning’s for originally avoiding jumping on the bandwagon. Why I don’t know, but the gods and my destiny placed me on a path in which 80% of the dickheads I encountered seemed to coincidentally be among the bands cult followers. Merging these tainting experiences with the witnessing of various video clips of the group, my initial diagnosis was to classify Radiohead as being the ultimate snob band.
Among the groups extensive list of preachers was my brother, who in typical fashion made a habit of playing Radiohead at every given opportunity. Often using Kid A as the bait, my general lack of interest in electronica served to further distract my enthusiasm, as his rather aggressive tactics ended up with us arguing about petty bullshit. Whilst I never got into the post-grunge sound of Pablo Honey the chink in my armour was always Let Down, a Radiohead song that I instantly fell in love with. Nonetheless despite this slight glimpse of hope I remained evidently disinterested, granting him permission to upload Radiohead’s full catalogue onto my iPod only after signing a verbal contract that clearly stated an end to the constant harassment and stubborn attempts to seduce me.
This gesture of “goodwill” proved relatively useless until last April. Now whilst I can’t remember exactly how it went down, I do remember giving The Bends a listen whilst I was moving into my new apartment. Without money to buy new CDs and an internet connection for downloading purposes, I was left with no option but to listen to the scraps of music generously donated several years ago by my brother. In a period of desperate tiredness –I began working 6 nights a week as a security guard- the tide began to turn, as in my insomniac state of submission I finally began warming to the notion that perhaps such previous rejection could eventually blossom into a potential relationship. As is the case with many heart-warming Hollywood films, I eventually attempted to confront my fears, a move that served as a wakeup call regarding the obvious stumble blocks created by one generalizing.
GRADING AN ESSAY: The Brains Associating Process
This same emphasised necessity to focus solely on the music can also be expanded on a personal level towards other artists such as Jack White, James Keenan, Patrick Wolf and Billy Corgan, as whilst I like the majority of their music I have made a mental note to avoid any contact with interviews on YouTube. Exaggeration? I know it seems a little over the top, but as I like to enjoy their music to the maximum it is essential not to taint its pureness by acquainting myself with their often pretentious nature.
In an attempt to highlight the natural process of association, let’s take a moment to reflect on the job that college professors must fulfil several times a year. Now given that essay papers are not anonymous and do have your name clearly written on them, it would be natural to assume that such implications will have a bearing on what sort of grade you are likely to achieve. In the case of most colleges, this same teacher who grades your paper will be the same one who teaches you in class, signifying that you are already well acquainted and that opinions have already been made. Whether it’s positive or negative, the fact remains that this relationship at whatever level is bound to have a bearing on how he or she reads your work. To this extent despite seeming unreasonable, your personality does play a crucial role, a concept that can to some degree be compared to that of the music listener and the type of factors he takes into account when judging one’s work. Unable to block out previous encounters, in the case of Educational institutes and arguably music, this means that your essay/CD has effectively already been 50% graded, based on your name and the natural associations that it presents.
In terms of media scrutinization rap music can often be characterised as one of the most demanding of genres, with its narcissistic, macho identity ensuring that its players must at all time act out the tough guy persona. Spending years constructing a myth of immortality through violent lyrics and all-round arrogance, a simple case of “slippin” can have crippling effects on the future marketability of a rap artist. Whilst beat downs are becoming more and more common, the latest fashion seems to be the art of chain snatching, a trend that has already ridiculed the likes of Yukmouth, Ras Kass and Lil’ Wayne. Exercised by rappers such as Spider Loc and 40 Glocc, the jacking of one’s chain represents the ultimate form of disrespect, as it metaphorically belittles the symbol of one’s status, crew and acquired wealth.
This constant obligation to live the rap lifestyle also goes back further as witnesses of the 2001 Summer Jam will be able to testify. With beef simmering between Jay-Z and Mobb Deep, the former used an old ballet photo in order to get the upper hand. Ridiculing his foe by mocking his childhood hobby, Mobb Deep’s Prodigy up until this day has never quite regained the credibility he enjoyed in his early years. Furthermore anyone familiar with the story of the rapper Game will be more than conscious about the various rumours surrounding his previous personal life. As an alleged ex stripper, the rapper’s adversaries have never had to dig deep to ridicule the LA rapper, as his sordid past together with butterfly tattoos and an appearance on a chat show, have effectively demasculised his so-called gangster persona.
Whilst some fans do actually prefer introvert mysterious musicians, the majority tend to favour those more outspoken and extrovert. In this case depending on the genre in question, those who choose to hide from the spotlight and reject entering into the music industries soap opera can also tend to suffer. Take for example one of hip hop’s greatest ever rappers Nas, an artist who has never quite received the credentials he deserves. Going against the grain of your typical extrovert rapper, his reserved nature has often seen him shunned in favour of more media friendly artists such as 50 Cent and Jay-Z.
Another controversial subject is that of Metallica, a group ostracized several years back for their stance on Napster. Having previously been well received within the metal scene, their rejection of music downloading has to some extent alienated themselves from many of their fans. Shocking the world when the seemingly “anti-conformist” rockers filed lawsuits against teenagers, the once “rebellious” leftist band lost their credibility by caving into corporate greed. Despite garnering less media attention and being somewhat different in circumstance, Rage Against the Machine have also been guilty of alienating their fans. Famed as a “political activist”, lead vocalist Zack de la Rocha recently attempted to illustrate his political expertise in the UK by slating the Prime Minister Tony Blair. Intending to demonstrate Rage’s iconic leftist anti-war sentiments, Rocha’s good intentions were overshadowed by his ignorance in failing to acknowledge the fact that Gordon Brown is and had been for one year the UK Prime Minister. Whilst seeming relatively harmless, such a simple error left many fans deluded, as a band once famed for being politically aware began to underline an element of ignorance that ultimately goes against their entire image.
In order to surpass the superficial stage of lukewarm affection, certain qualities must be affirmed to enable a band to firmly enter the majority of our hall of fame classifications. As is often the process between the fan and artist, if the CD is good the next phase is to get up close and personal at a concert. Does the artist’s stage presence fulfil our criteria? If yes or even no, thanks to the internet we can check interviews and personal clips that will confirm whether the artist is the “real deal” or a complete and utter cunt. Should authenticity be obtained after hours of trawling through stacks of evidence, the relationship could well blossom into something more concrete, a significant move that almost guarantees upcoming releases being viewed in a more favourable light. You can hold your head in shame or point-blank deny it, but whatever your verdict the fact is undeniably true that a dose of reality, of a revealing of character outside the music world, holds both the potential to taint and enhance the pureness of the music.
Many famous artists have acquired a ticket to fame based on their outside life and day-to-day activities. From Civil Rights activism –Bob Dylan and John Lennon- to revelling in controversy -The Rolling Stones- these artists’ “extracurricular” activities have helped cement their status as authentic icons of their generation. Enhancing their music, it is what they did in their personal time that effectively enabled them to transcend from forgettable artists into timeless icons. Whilst always playing a major factor, nowadays increasing everyday surveillance is escalating matters, as thanks to the internet artists can no long enjoy moments of privacy. Highlighting the underlining importance of an artist’s personal life, we have reached a stage to which good music alone is unable to grant an artist access to our hall of fames’. Reflecting our growing disdain towards hypocrisy -a gangster rapper who got his ass beat, an anti-corporate band filling lawsuits, a politically aware group vocalizing ignorant philosophies- such prejudices can also be expanded to our personal needs, in respect to those artists who inflame our pet hates and in general represent everything that we despise in society. Just as teachers do when marking an essay, whether intentional or not, ones work is judged not only on what is officially issued, but also consequentially on a range of other overshadowing external factors associated with one’s characters.
As a relatively new phenomenon, the genre coined “rap”, or if you prefer to use its cultural term “hip hop”, has been around now for some thirty years. Considered young by many, one of its core traits that has remained throughout its short lifespan has been its player’s big egos. Whilst socio-political commentary, materialism and race have equally played a key part of the genre’s themes, it is the obsession with self-promotion that has prominently surfaced throughout the years. Unlike other genres, where having a record deal is more than sufficient, the majority of rap stars strive for universal recognition, as their arrogant rap personas greedily seek confirmation as being the best in the business. Taking such matters into account, it should come as no surprise that one of the great debates at the forefront of the hip hop culture is the one in which fans and artists discuss “the greats”. Becoming something of a standard practicality, the term often used is “TOP 5 DEAD OR ALIVE”, a classification that often varies greatly depending on the voter.
Naturally, as with any form of classification, the results often differ. For example you have…
– “old-school heads“, whose romanticized bias for the innovators, often results in the refusal to account for anybody post 1993.
– “new-school fans“, most notably those lured in by the commercialization of the genre 10 or so years ago. As a consequence, given that the majority consider Jay-Z to be old school, these lists are often compiled of more contemporary rappers.
– “the dead artist cult“, a phenomenon recognised in all forms of music, whereby those artists dead – BIG, 2pac, Big L, Big Pun and Jam Master Jay – often find their credibility multiplying significantly.
Then, as is the complex issue with all musical classifications, there is the question of sub-genre favouritism which in terms of hip hop can often be categorized by regional influences. To note just a few divisions of style, these subgenres mainly include, “east coast”, “dirty south”, “gangsta rap”, “crunk”, “G-Funk”, “hip-pop” and “backpack”.
One could go on countlessly disputing issues of favouritism and the overall complications encountered when compiling such a list. With that said my own list attempts to evade personal preference, by taking an objective analysis into a range of crucially defining factors.
The Criteria (What makes a great artist? What makes this artist better than his/her peers?)
– CONSISTENCY – The ability to remain prolific whilst maintaining a high standard of quality
In order to make my top 5 list, I have created a rule in which the artist must have released at least 5 albums. My reasonings for this are that consistency holds the key in distinguishing the greats from the forgettables. After all, how many artists have released a classic only to flop as age catches up with them?
Furthermore one cannot grade the undeniable talent of the Notorious B.I.G., Big L and Big Pun for example, as they didn’t live long enough to truly endure perhaps one of the most difficult tests. That is demonstrating the ability to remain fresh and relevant once the money and the motivation begins to wane.
– TECHNICAL ABILITY – Flow, Lyrics and Wordplay
Being perhaps the most crucial factor of success, the manner in which an emcee rides the beat and demands attention is a mandatory requirement if one is to succeed in the rap game. The flow takes into account the voice and charisma, as the most effective of words can be easily wasted should the artist in possession not hold the ability to correctly express them. Just like any political speaker or salesman, the communication of material is everything in selling a product.
This fundamental ingredient must coincide with the all-important lyrics and wordplay, the second stage in making successful records. That is whilst the flow reels the listener in, after three or so listens it is the works soul, the substance that gives the product its longevity. For this alone, the choice of words separate the good storytellers from the bad.
– IMPACT AND INFLUENCE – The Timeless Aura
Ones impact on the industry has nothing to do with commercial success, as anyone with half a brain will be able to tell you that a good song doesn’t guarantee record sales. What I intend to define by impact and influence is the ability to leave a mark, change the game, and to ultimately raise its level. Innovators deserve accolades, as it is they who take risks in order to create a style for others to follow. Whilst of course this trend continues to be improved and evolved over time, this list attempts to take into account those who have had a crucial role in developing hip hop.
Finally I personally feel it is of great importance for an emcee to demonstrate a sense of versatility. This doesn’t necessarily have to be aesthetic, and is more concerned with those emcees who attempt to address an array of topics, rather than just sticking to a one dimensional formula.
1. RAKIM – “The God Emcee”
Despite hip hop’s notoriously bad habit of disregarding its legends, it should come as no surprise that Rakim often finds himself cited as one of the greats. Known for emphatically raising the bar of emceeing, his debut album with Eric B, Paid In Full (1987), forever revolutionised the face of hip hop. As pioneer of internal and multisyllabic rhymes, Rakim’s extensive vocabulary and playfulness with words brought with it a newfound credibility to hip hop as a respected art form. Becoming raps first authentic poet, before Rakim hip hops lyricism was less complex, with the “A-B-C rhyming” methods largely relying on improvisation and simplistic rhyming strategies. This minimalist style changed thanks to “The Gods” carefully crafted rhymes, which whilst being filled with a complexity unknown to hip hop, also had the benefit of being vocalised by Rakim’s articulate smooth flow. Introducing the use of similes, puns, metaphors and personification, the class of Melle Mel and Kurtis Blow suddenly became a thing of the past, as the rap we recognise today was born in the lab of the G.O.A.T.
22 years have passed since Paid In Full, yet Rakim continues to release fresh material. Whilst undoubtedly not as prolific as the Eric B days – the duo released four albums in five years – Rakim’s three solo projects have certainly illustrated a high level of continued consistency. Revealing no clear signs of fatigue or age-related shortcomings, he still boasts a remarkable ability to captivate listeners, commendable when considering how many of his peers have since fallen off. Re-birthing the genre by donating the wings it needed to soar, Rakim remains one of hip hops great godfathers, quoted by all those who followed as he forever changed the face of rap.
2. BIG DADDY KANE – “The Prince of Darkness”
Following on from Rakim, Big Daddy Kane was another one of the godfathers of hip hop’s “golden era”. Being renowned as the lover man of the 80s, Kane’s jewellery, arrogance and swagger were reinforced by his rhyming technique which, even now 21 years later, never fails in making heads bop. Credited alongside Rakim as the pioneer of a more complex lyrical structure, Kane’s naturalisation of the metaphor, pun and simile in hip hop music presented the blueprint to a formula that continues to live on today. Influencing the likes of Eminem and ex-hype man Jay-Z, Kane’s technique was developed from hip hops battling culture, giving him a solid foundation that would ensure he could effortlessly shred any beat to bits.
This ferociousness together with one of the smoothest flows of all time, ensured that Kane received respect from his peers, as even now one can argue that the Big Daddy remains a daunting prospect on the battle field. Battle credentials aside, one shouldn’t overlook his development of the cocky bravado aspect to hip hop, as whilst LL Cool J helped pioneer it, the Kane solidified its future thanks to his wit and undeniable coolness. In fact despite many believing this to be his only topic of choice, Kane equally dabbled in more afrocentric themes that whilst being toned down in relation to Public Enemy, KRS-One and Ice Cube, still showed that the “Prince of Darkness” had more than one topic up his sleeve. Unfortunately for Kane however, the failure of his experimental effort Prince of Darkness saw him fall off the map, although ever since much like Rakim, he has been known to occasionally drop material of high merit. Mr charisma and the template to newcomers favourite Jay-Z, Kane’s remarkable presence on the mic still shits on material released 20 years later, as his timeless flow and wit cement his deserved status as number 2 on the list of all time greats.
3. KOOL G RAP – “Your Favourite Rapper’s Favourite Rapper”
Whilst Rakim and occasionally Big Daddy Kane have been known to make the general public’s list, my third choice Kool G Rap often falls completely off the radar. Being one of the most underrated emcees of all time, it is somewhat amazing that fans and artists often include Jadakiss, Big Pun, various members of the Wu Tang Clan and Big L in their list, without even mentioning the man who made it all possible. What Kool G Rap is ladies and gentlemen is the pioneer and master of “Mafioso rap”. That is whilst the likes of NWA and Ice-T brought gangster rap to our attention; it was G Rap whom provided the rapid fire modern blueprint to New York street commentary.
Building upon the new template laid down by Rakim, G Rap improved on the internal rhyming, with multisyllabic rhymes and a unique quick-fire lisp delivery that could be matched by no other. Think Big Pun / Capital Punishment ten years before its time and you will get a rough idea of how much of an impact the emcee donned “Giancana” had on his peers and the future of rap. With that digested, spare a moment to consider the mid 90s renaissance period, as Mobb Deep, Raekwon and many others dropped classic albums that capitalised on the great influence of G Rap’s vivid street narratives. This pinpointing of influence on other hip hop classics could go on and on as, like both Rakim and Big Daddy Kane, you will be hard stretched to find a rapper not influenced by at least one of the three godfathers of rap music.
4. NAS – “God’s Son”
With the top 3 being comprised of the modern day innovators of the “golden age”, we now move into the period dubbed by some as the “second golden age” of hip hop music. Dropping in 1994, Illmatic was said to be the second coming of Rakim, as Nas dropped one of hip hops all time classics. Elevating the standard of lyricism once again in a period of moderate deterioration, “God Son’s” cleverly crafted street rhymes arguably spawned a mid 90s renaissance period of other similarly themed classics. Illustrating a great talent for personification and storytelling, Nas is arguably one of the most three-dimensional emcees of all time, as his technical excellence and vast range of discourses pinpoint him as being the king of modern-day rap.
Some may argue that Nas has never lived up to the hype of post-Illmatic, and whilst this may be true to an extent, nobody can fault any of his albums as being weak. From “Nasty Nas” the street poet and “Escobar” the kingpin, to the more recent socio-political material, Nas’ wide range of topics and personas perfectly illustrate his ongoing relevance in today’s era. Taking on the mantle as Rakim’s disciple, Nas’ versatility, revitalising creativity and technical skill continue to play a key role in keeping the essence of real hip hop music alive. Ironically many claimed Nas as dead in 2001, when fellow rapper Jay-Z claimed himself to be the king of contemporary rap. With the public ignoring the potency of Ether and the gulf in skill, perhaps it was Jay-Z’s charisma and commercial success that saw him favoured as the future darling of rap. Whatever the case, the beef itself seemed to fuel Nas with the necessary motivation to re-elevate his game, re-establishing his presence as one of the greatest ever wordsmiths, while providing the contemporary hip hop world with a much-needed father figure.
5. ICE CUBE – “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate”
Whilst many associate Cube’s name with his somewhat ambiguous film career, those true hip hop heads will have no trouble remembering the impact he made in the “golden age”. Starting with NWA as principle ghostwriter to both Dr Dre and Eazy E, Ice Cube’s long-standing contribution to hip hop began with the hostile anti-Reagan creation of gangster rap. This anti-institutional street music became the springboard for his peak in the early 90s, as his solo work and position as overseer to Da Lench Mob brought substance to a pro-islamic commentary on a society in turmoil. For those whose history is a little rusty, the release of his solo classics AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate brought more substance to Cube’s angry rhymes, as “the nigga ya love to hate” became a source of political inspiration. Enforcing a verbal style that took the political raps of Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions to a new level, Cube managed to merge the anger of gangster rap with a conscious flavour.
With gangster rap generally being associated with minimal rhyming techniques, Cube’s ability to tell a story in such a mesmerizing fashion instantly capitulated audiences, as his aggressive technically sound flow solidified his status as “the big fish in a small pond”. In fact Cube’s only downfall was consistency, as since 1992′s The Predator his integration into Hollywood saw his occasional returns marred by more cliché driven rap music. From trend setter to follower, Lethal Injection together with the War and Peace series proved disappointing, as whilst his flow remained on point, his rhymes and credibility lost the substance of his prime years. For this reason Cube loses some of his clout, although his overall input, together with a recent comeback of more socio-political material, ensures that his legacy as raps true prophet of rage remains intact.
Michael Jackson was previously perceived as a hate figure before his recent death, with paedophilia and insanity charges consequently forcing him to adopt a reclusive lifestyle. Ostracised by the media, such an adverse image would go on to be miraculously revolutionised following his tragic death, as Jackson the once “irrelevant nutcase” can now in the afterlife be more favourably referred to as a “legend” and “pioneer” of pop music. With the world and his fellow peers now selectively choosing to bask in his glory days of the 1980s, it can be easy to forget just how differently he was perceived one year ago.
This absurd ability to change our perception of a person consequentially leads to positive posthumous promotion, a factor that naturally results in deceased artists often making a great deal more money. To emphasise this point, among its various money-orientated classifications, financial magazine Forbes has dedicated a list specifically focusing on the wealth of dead celebrities. Amazingly every year Forbes publishes a new list filled with music stars, with Elvis Presley this year taking No. 1 spot with estimated earnings of $52 million, an incredible feat for an artist who died 32 years ago.
When one thinks to examples of dead music artists financially prospering, “The King” is often one of the first names regularly mentioned. Evolving into a legend, Elvis earns about 20 times more what he did when he was alive, which besides album sales largely spawns from a whole range of merchandise. Underlining just how big the subculture of “The King” really is, 600,000 “pilgrims” flock to his ex residence “Graceland” every year, while his legacy has furthermore spawned numerous fan clubs, impersonators and organized religions. Worth an estimated $45 million a year, one has to wonder if the same would be true should Elvis still have been alive today.
Then there’s Ray Charles, pioneer of blues, country, jazz and soul, whom after years of success in the industry finally passed away in 2004. While Charles was undoubtedly a successful artist, his death nonetheless lead to his rebirth on the commercial scene, a process that commenced just 4 months after his demise with the release of the biopic film Ray. The success of the film followed by the release of the CD, Genius Love Company, saw Charles win Grammy awards and a place at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Cementing his posthumous status both financially and as a cultural icon, chart history strongly reinforces the notion that death reinvigorated the artists’ career. As a reminder of the incredible impact that Charles’ posthumous career displayed, just two years before his passing the artist’s final offering, Thanks for Bringing Love Around Again, failed to even chart.
This notion of exploiting the publicity that death brings has become over the years a standard record industry practice. With dedicational radio play at a high following the death, many CEOs and business-savvy PRs use the tragedy as a marketing tool to sell more records. Take the Notorious B.I.G. for example, an artist whom before his tragic death in March 1997 had only released one studio album. Shot to death while the media continued to stir the controversy of the infamous “East-West” hip hop beef, Sean Combs, the CEO of B.I.G.’s record label Bad Boy, released his second album immediately after his protégé’s demise. Immaculately timed given the circumstances and subsequent media buzz, Life After Death went on to cement B.I.G.’s status as one of hip hops great legends, as the album topped the charts by selling an incredible 10 million records. The great success of Life After Death was followed over the years by a number of other shrewd, Combs inspired, sewn together albums. Looking to exploit what meagre scraps remained, pasting old vocals over new beats while cramming albums full of guest appearances served well in maximising profit from an artist whom had previously recorded very little unreleased material. With each release nonetheless acquiring great commercial success, the tragic death and shrewd follow up release laid the foundations for a highly profitable posthumous career.
With posthumous releases equally proving beneficial for many other well known artists such as Nirvana and Janis Joplin, Jeff Buckley was still relatively unknown to the world when he drowned in 1997. Like Sean Combs, Buckley’s mother intelligently sought to exploit what little material her son had recorded, acknowledging above all that as a dead artist his stock had greatly risen. Releasing an incomplete Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, three versions of his debut album Grace, together with a greatest hits LP, it is somewhat astounding that so many posthumous releases exist from an artist whom had only released one studio album. Turning scraps into critically defined masterpieces, Jeff Buckley is now world-renowned as one of the greatest artists of his generation.
With record sales being a key indicator of this phenomenon, in regards to the many young artists who died before their time, it is the subsequent promotion to cultural icons that often garners the majority of media interest. Much akin to Michael Jackson’s character metamorphosis, nostalgic romanticism often results in favourable viewings of artists that were previously misunderstood as loose cannons. Following in the path as predecessors to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, thanks to their “live hard, die young” perceived lifestyles, Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur have become icons of the rock and roll cliché. Much in the vein of Che Guevara’s iconic resurrection, the marketing of t-shirts, books and films tends to hype up their legacy, transforming them from relatively successful artists into voices and symbols of their generation.
This remarketing and newfound appreciation is astutely developed, flooding the world with whatever “fresh” material may exist while working overtime on each deceased characters’ PR. As the examples already show, besides the rare case of Tupac, there are few artists who left an archive of unreleased material before their death. Nevertheless posthumous LPs still flood the record stores, from live albums, greatest hits and tribute songs, to shelved material and the remains of demo tracks. Ultimately reflecting public demand for posthumous music, regardless of the quality, their overall sales together with re-charting previous releases speak loudly in conveying the fact that deceased artists are incredibly profitable.
But it’s not just the buzz that causes CEOs to exploit money making exploits; it’s also the fact that these artists become almost timeless, particularly in the case of those passing away at a young age. Evading the possibility of “selling out” and losing their sense of youthful “coolness”, from a marketing perspective they obtain a perfect sense of flexibility, while the world, or at least the majority, find it difficult to slate them. Whether this stems from some sense of karma, it has become almost blasphemous to talk ill of the dead, a bizarre but consistent fact that the marketing teams have and continue to use as further ammunition.
Karma aside, in the case of rock and roll music the principal focus regards marketing an artist who lives the life he sings. The drugs, sex, violence and women are all part of the attraction, meaning once death is achieved from such causes the artist pretty much becomes self-marketable. Shooting down any potential claims of fraud these artists become identified as “the real deal”, a factor that reinforces their status as icons of the rock and roll culture. For the most extreme example of this one needn’t look further than the remarkable story of the Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious. Ironically while Vicious failed to contribute anything to any of the albums from a creative standpoint, it was also said that his inability to play bass coincidentally resulted in his amps being turned off at concerts. From such little responsibility, it is somewhat ridiculous that he remains the most famous member of the band, a status earned following his “rock and roll” overdose death at the age of 21.
So whether it’s a case of living hard and dying young, nobody can dispute the fact that these music artists are continuing to sell records and receive plaudits. From loose cannons and insanity claims to icons of their generation, the combination of business savvy marketing teams, sacks of publicity and a fear of bad karma are repeatedly validating the myth that artists are better off dead. With John Lennon ironically predicting this sentiment years before, it comes as no surprise to see the quoted victim gaining further success in the afterlife. Transforming himself from a successful artist into a martyr, Lennon’s status as a civil rights activist has seen him unconsciously develop into a counterculture icon, with children’s toys, plays and even an airport being named after him. While it may be too soon to predict, one shouldn’t be surprised if Michael Jackson, hate figure of the last 10 years, goes on to achieve such similar accolades.
“A good song should make you wanna tap your feet and get with your girl. A great song should destroy cops and set fire to the suburbs. I’m only interested in writing great songs” Tom Morello…
Whilst it of course all comes down to a matter of personal choice, hearing Tom Morello and his new Nightwatchman project, I can’t help but feel a sense of wastefulness, such as the pain a parent suffers when discovering their talented child no longer wants to play football. Admittedly I have always enjoyed listening to a little folk music and as a result ultimately respect Morello for trying to break new ground. That said however, I just can’t quite envision how folk music of all genres really presents him with the platform to successfully preach his political stance. That’s no knock on folk music, but rather the agonising result of an artist stripped of his specific tool of strength. For example, take a moment to contemplate Tom Waits’ vocals without the booze and cigarettes, or the likes of Jim Morrison, David Bowie and Lou Reed without drugs. The electric guitar is Tom Morello’s forte, his strength, his “heroin”, and as a subsequent result I find it hard to envision how he can maintain his powerful presence in this warfield without the artillery that has served him so well before.
Now when one thinks to Rage Against the Machine or even Audioslave, “the real” Tom Morello instantly comes to mind. That is above all his ability to make a jam rock, to make you want to start a riot whilst simultaneously dancing your ass off. In fact, his strong presence within an industry where the vocalist usually takes lead role is paramount, as Morello has often displayed his ability to save a track and give it a whole new meaning. For examples of such dictatorship, one need not look further than some of Audioslave’s more mediocre tracks, with songs such as “Moth” clearly exemplifying his ability to save Chris Cornell from moments of complete embarrassment. In fact one of my favourite Audioslave tracks, “Number One Zero”, is a consequence of Morello’s solos, as whilst Cornell does well to vocally express his sufferings, it is Morello who truly makes the song cry. Yes I like Audioslave and Cornell, but without Tom Morello in the fold I honestly believe the results could well have been disastrous.
Now I don’t wish to mock Morello as a vocal entity, as I realise he is an intelligent man with a lot to say. For a politically active artist, it must have been frustrating continuously taking on something of a secondary role, which in itself makes this solo project an entirely understandable conclusion. Despite Zack de la Rocha writing the majority of Rage Against the Machine songs, at least in the case of Rage, there was the argument that de la Rocha at least lyrically held a similar mind state to Morello. Known for their political rallying, Morello clearly found himself at home here, being presented with the tools that not only rocked the shit out of every track, but equally displayed his unique ability to add potency to such aggressive lyrics.
Audioslave paints a rather different picture however, as lead song writer Chris Cornell has never been renowned for his political commentary. In fact it wasn’t really until their third release that Audioslave began to really delve into political discourse, with songs such as “Wide Awake” beginning to indicate the growing influence of the Rage Against the Machine’s instrumental support cast. This growing influence however is slightly undermined by the fact that Cornell had already at this point decided to pursue a solo career, a factor which perhaps indicates his detachment from the final Audioslave record.
After years of service to other bands, Morello certainly deserved this opportunity to pursue a solo career. Whilst undoubtedly his electric guitar riffs were just as potent as any lyric, it was natural that eventually he would desire 100% creative control of his material. The result has above all marked the switching of roles, with the vocals being placed at the forefront of his newly acquired and silently weeping acoustic guitar. Now whilst it was certainly interesting to hear Morello’s lyrics, the absence of the electric guitar proves too much of a blow and ultimately provides a rough reminder of where his true talents lie. Fully respecting this desire to branch out, experiment and do his own thing, one cannot deny the huge void left empty in his absence, as the hard rock/metal scene continues to come to terms with Morello’s decision to go acoustic.
Interestingly enough, it does actually seem that the Nightwatchman project has been generally well received by the public, at least proving that Morello’s continuation of the Bob Dylan political-folk legacy is creating some sense of noise. However without trying to come across as being two-dimensional, Bob Dylan is folk and Tom Morello is hard rock. That’s how I see it and whilst I can’t begrudge an artist for wanting to experiment, I truly believe that Morello’s gift with the electric guitar needs to be fully utilized. I mean could you imagine if Michael Jordan had stuck to baseball, or if Jimi Hendrix had gone acoustic?
My sentiments, at least from a personal standpoint, are echoed by the newly released Street Sweeper Social Club LP, an effort that once again boldly illustrates Morello’s ability to orchestrate the direction of a song via his electric guitar chords. Prevailing throughout the albums duration with vigour, the guitarist yet again manages to steal the show from the vocalist, as Boots Riley, despite displaying great ability, is arguably outshone by the in form Morello. Nonetheless whilst it takes quite a vocalist to outboss Zack de la Rocha, Riley does deserve his props for his verbal swagger, which by harmoniously coinciding alongside Morello’s chords, serves up a tasty appetiser for what’s potentially still yet to come.
So what is this article if not just a personal rant of seeing talent go to waste? Sure, Tom Morello has a great deal to bring to the music industry as a vocal entity, only I do hope the future will pave the way for Morello to return to his roots, as i truly believe that his political campaign will penetrate that much more deeper should his newly acquired acoustic guitar be once again replaced by the electric one gathering dust.
Following my own personal disappointment at seeing Dizzee Rascal betray his grime roots in favour of becoming a marketable pop icon, the appearance of Kano’s new song “Rock n Roller” has done little to reassure me of the state of UK Hip Hop, (UKHH). In contrast to the US where rappers tend to stick to their styles whilst gaining commercial support, UKHH continuously plagues itself by giving into the record executives and as a consequence losing a sense of its roots.
In the case of Dizzee Rascal, both “Maths + English” and the newly released “Tongue N’ Cheek“, make interesting case studies of an artist “going pop”, as previous commercial success seemingly already indicated that there is indeed a market for underground hip hop/grime within the UK. With such factors being consequently ignored, we will once again have to get used to more Lily Allen guest appearances, dance music and everything else that goes completely against the blueprint of grime.
These episodes of “selling-out” can furthermore be attributed to non-grime acts such as the Mitchell Brothers. Now anyone familiar with their debut album, “A Breath of Fresh Attire“, will be able to recognise the fresh originality credited to this release, which above all represented a massive breakthrough on the UK scene as it helped spawn a sub-genre of humorous urban commentary. Largely influenced by the Street’s front man Mike Skinner, their second album followed in disastrous fashion, as the group suddenly parted with their trademark style in favour of adapting a more “accessible” level of music.
Whilst it of course depends entirely on personal preference, for me Kano’s “140 Grime Street” was one of the greatest releases last year, easily outshining both “London Town” and “Home Sweet Home” as the world was once again reintroduced to THE REAL KANO. Going back to his roots after significant failure in the mainstream, Kano ripped each beat to shreds with a thunderous display of hunger and lyrical prowess. Like any master of art returning to his natural terrain, the results clearly exemplified Kano’s comfort within the grime movement and the ultimate need for him to continue on this prosperous journey.
With hope restored I began to eagerly anticipate the follow-up release, a fantasy recently demolished once discovering “Rock n Roller”. Quite frankly to summarise my thoughts on this new promo single is to speak on everything that’s wrong with Hip Hop music in the UK, as its tacky desperation prioritises airplay over any sense of artistic integrity. Incidentally borrowing from the trend of rnb music, it seems that once again Kano’s grime days are numbered, as like Dizzee he appears remarketed into some type of dance/hip-pop artist.
In fact I can now already begin to imagine the track listing for Kano’s new LP, which will surely feature Lily Allen/Kate Nash and an assortment of teenage indie collaborators. On this depressing note, rather than just go on a rampage of complaining, I will attempt to diagnose why each up and coming UKHH artist is being continuously diluted and marketed to fit the latest music trend.
Borrowing trends from commercial US urban music and indie in the UK, it seems that the antidote for major labels here in the UK is to cater to “mass alternative” audiences, instead of enabling UKHH to develop as its own force. With this continuing to be the case, it is perhaps no surprise to see UKHH often being belittled on a universal scale, as home-grown artists are unable to blossom into their own respective styles. This for one marks the crucial difference between Hip Hop music in the US, where there exists a number of markets to exploit. This of course includes the rapid growth in the early 90s of independent labels such as Bad Boy, Loud and Deathrow, whom ultimately received major label distribution and the consequential benefits of complete creative freedom together with promotional funding. This difference is fundamental, as whilst the CEO of these labels knew the ins and outs of Hip Hop music, the CEOs of the UK majors classify grime and Hip Hop as alternative and thus instantly put it in the same bracket as indie music, their only real point of “alternative” expertise. As a result the music is consequently left in the wrong hands, hence the disastrous results.
This question of a UK “alternative market” can also be attributed to music magazines, as the major publications here are NME, Q and Kerrang. This sole focus on rock music simultaneously pressurizes record execs to market UKHH artists as indie, as collaborations with the likes of the Artic Monkeys ultimately guarantee more press publicity. Compare this example with the more developed Hip Hop market in the US and you will see that across the pond exists at least two major urban music publications.
Like the US did before, It is of the utmost importance to capture the sound of the streets in its natural form without attempting to smother it and place it in the wrong hands, i.e., A&R’s who when thinking of Hip Hop simultaneously think to Kayne West and Rihanna. On this note until we learn to embrace new styles from the underground instead of trying to manipulate them into what already commercially exists, UKHH will always continue to play second fiddle to its North American counterparts.
Pastor Betha aka Ma$e aka Murda… The alter-egos of raps king of controversy Mason Betha.
It was April 4th 1999 when Ma$e first retired from the world of rap music. Opting to leave the “the devil’s work” behind, this onetime arrogant, money chasing rap star, shocked the world by giving his life up to God. Fast forward 10 years and the rapper turned pastor is on the brink of making his second comeback, the first being a short-lived two year return left marred and overshadowed by the controversy of his affiliation with G-Unit and stories of transsexual prostitutes in ATL. With three more relatively silent years passing, it perhaps comes as no surprise to once again see the world debating the contradictory nature of raps new self-proclaimed king of controversy, as he falls once more into the commercial spotlight of the music industry.
WELCOME BACK “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Pastor Mason Betha, Light After Lime.
Ma$e’s first comeback, though slightly taking the world by surprise, was seen as possible so long as he stayed true to his life as a pastor. Of course gospel rap doesn’t sell records, which consequently had the world debating which Mason we were about to see, a debate that continued up until the summer of 2004 when Ma$e’s third album Welcome Back was released. Although a change was slightly evident, Ma$e’s new “bad boy gone clean” persona still resembled his previous signature style, most notably the lazy flow and obsession with material possessions, all fundamental blueprints of the post-Biggie Bad Boy era. Now whilst the return of the $ in Mase and flaunting of materialism may seem relatively harmless, anyone familiar with Pastor Betha’s book release Light After Lime will be able to point out the contradictions of Ma$e once again indulging in capitalism, that is after previously dismissing it as the root of all evil.
However there are positive points to draw on here, as not only is Welcome Back curse free, but furthermore it references in true pastor fashion Ma$e’s love for God. Now despite not being a regular church-goer, I do consider myself a spiritual person and as such was taken in by the concept of God using Ma$e as a cool modern day type of role model. I mean one could go on for days debating the lack of accessibility within the church and its ageing practices, meaning that if Ma$e could use his status as a speaker for kids and popular culture in general, it is entirely possible that he could potentially put the cool back into the church.
On this note despite the general scepticism of lyrical content, I for one could comprehend this method of mixing the signature style with christian themes. The key word here is ACCESSIBILITY, as rap ultimately presents the key to popular culture and thus the potential to preach a message to the masses. With this in mind, Ma$e would arguably need to avoid alienating his original target audience, using the signature style as the bait whilst subtly sprinkling the words of god. After all if this comeback was to succeed in converting the masses, it was of the utmost importance not to preach too hard, with patience and careful consideration being the required tools essential for such a large scale project of conversion.
Crucified for the Hood “in order to get people where I’m at, I have to go back to where I once was.” Pastor Betha’s own justification of the G-Unit Era
With the character analysis’ ongoing, Ma$e’s position as rapper-pastor was to take a new turn after news broke of his affiliation with the G-Unit camp. Lining himself up alongside studio and self-professed gangsters, those who originally were behind the pastors comeback could not be faulted for feeling a little sceptical about where this new path may lead. This scepticism in fact was not aided by Ma$e’s controversial comments on fathering rappers and ghost-writing for the late great Big L, statements that subsequently threw the rapper back into the centre of media spotlight. This new-found sense of aggression led ultimately to the return of Mason’s alter-ego “Murda”, the gangster who would feature prominently on his G-Unit mixtape debut, Crucified for the Hood.
Now from a totally subjective standpoint I’d have to admit that Crucified for the Hood shows Ma$e at his best, with the change in style and label bringing a raw sense of hunger reminiscent of the Children of the Corn era. However with personal tastes aside, it is also worth mentioning that the mixtape perfectly defines the term blasphemy. Full of gunshots, profanities and misogyny, Crucified for the Hood officially marks the re-birth of “Murda” Ma$e, with gangster music being the preferred medium in contrast to the bubble-gum rap/rnb of the Welcome Back era.
Just to highlight this point, one needn’t look further than the first song, “Ten Years of Hate”, to understand the general direction that the mixtape takes….
see you in the drop and pop pop like Kennedy
The church aint big enough to buy what im buying
References to murder, and even more at the forefront the belittling of the church, makes this release seem almost like some type of April fool’s joke. In fact as a Ma$e fan, I have attempted to justify this stint on G-Unit in as many ways as possible, but the truth is there are no real justifications. This whole concept of accessible music, of going to the gutter in order to convert, has now been totally exaggerated and as far as im concerned been little more than an excuse to validate Ma$e’s tempations to once again dance with the devil.
This temptation in fact to join G-Unit and indulge in gangster rap is down to Ma$e’s ego coming back into play, as whilst not really existing on Bad Boy, G-Unit offered Ma$e protection, and thus the ability to diss rappers without feeling alone and vulnerable. In this light one could argue that as soon as Ma$e re-entered the rap world; he lost a sense of his responsibility within the church and was inevitably led astray within his personal rap beefs. This ultimately led to his affiliation with G-Unit, a label that gave Ma$e the platform to act wild whilst simultaneously watching his back. In fact for evidence of this theory, go listen to track 4, “Check Cleared”, in which at the end Spider-Loc and other G-Unit affiliates threaten to shoot anybody that gets in Ma$e’s way. With the warning in place, “Murda” goes on to mock his adversaries and bask in this sense of immortal power.
Now interestingly this public display of Ma$e betraying the church can be linked to the end of his first tenure in rap, in which his calling to enter the world of God was ironically overshadowed by speculation of prostitution and being chased out of New York. Thus the question needs to be asked, did Ma$e really leave rap for God, or was he pushed out by his inability to deal with the dark side of fame and fortune? This echoing question can be further emphasised by the fact that Ma$e’s second disappearance from the world of rap come spontaneously and without media attention, after news broke of him trailing the curbs of Atlanta brothels looking for transvestites.
Furthermore it is somewhat ironic that Ma$e’s recent second comeback comes at a time when the transsexual questionings have been swept away out the spotlight. Whilst people may think that Ma$e left G-Unit and rap music solely to return to God, one must remember that G-Unit ultimately refused to buy Ma$e out of his contract with Bad Boy Records. In this case contemplating for a moment the possibility that a contract had been signed, would we have seen more Ma$e/G-Unit collaborations of a similar note? And if yes, how long would the church have waited before accepting the inevitable factor that pastors shouldn’t glorify adultery, killing and other themes that are part and parcel of the G-Unit Empire.
This overall damage of credibility has undoubtedly crippled Ma$e’s presence in the industry, as our unforgiving nature and constant inability to disregard mistakes often overshadows his unquestionable ability on the mic. Whilst in our everyday lives mistakes are permitted and often washed aside, the music industry and the subsequent spotlight ensures that errors of action are forever remembered and exaggerated to the point where it becomes something of a miracle to repurify oneself. Choosing to forget that Ma$e undoubtedly created the blueprint of prosperity for the likes of Kayne West, it is fair to say that Mason has a long journey ahead of him if he is to reclaim a sense of universal respect. With this in mind, whilst a part of me selfishly longs to hear the return of “Murda”, I hope for his own sake and self-respect that we will instead be graced with the more watered-down alter-ego Mase. If this is indeed possible, with personal temptations this time put to the side, I may be alone in thinking that Mason still has the ability to use the medium of rap as a means of remarketing the accessibility of the church.
-Concept Based as opposed to a range of random subjects?
-Lyrical depth? Substance and reflection?
These are just some of the factors pinpointed as the making of a“classic“, but can an album really be defined as universally good? In certain cases there does appear to be a universal respect towards particular albums, but is this out of a natural instinct or from years of musical brainwashing? After all taking into account the fact that we all have our own individual tastes, it seems almost an impossible mission to create an album adored by every single person on earth.
When contemplating this subject, I often recall a conversation with this guy I used to know at school. Now whilst we couldn’t be classed as friends, between us we at least found each other sharing one thing in common: an intense passion for music. This one day we had a debate about what defines great music, to which I debated the all importance of lyrical content, of reaching the audience and speaking for the people of that moment. Being 18 at the time, I held pretty stubbornly to this idea and found myself shocked that he didn’t even like music with vocals, preferring drum and bass and instrumental songs.
Isn’t that the point though? After all like all leisure activities, we choose to listen to music in order to cater to our own individual desires. Whether this is to be reflective, to enhance a philosophical outlook to life’s hurdles and joys, or contrarily as a means of escapism, like going to a nightclub after a hard weeks work to dance away your worries.
This question of personal taste can be emphasised by thinking to some of your favourite groups and then thinking to your favourite of all their albums. To drop a quick example, I have always held a soft spot for the Babyshambles Down in Albion, despite it getting more or less critically slated. Whether or not this is down to me playing it regularly throughout one of the finest moments of life, this sense of nostalgia that the album brings makes it to me a classic and thus superior to their second effort Shotters Nation, the release that incidentally garnered more positive feedback.
This concept of an album that speaks for the moment also proves interesting, as whilst a “universal classic” would naturally need to speak for the masses, as a music fan it is something quite special when you pick up an album and find it almost directly reflecting your own particular current life status. Whilst not as devastating as world poverty, I will always remember the moment when my ex girlfriend decided to call it a day. Feeling at an all time low, and suffering from the regular post-breakup syndromes of insomnia and insecurity, I found a surprising friend in Under the Iron Sea, the second major album from a group I previously found myself despising. Somewhat amazingly this album from Keane seemed to touch on my mind state of the moment, becoming a source of strength and inspiration as I battled through that dark summer of 2006.
In regards to this eerie telepathic rapport between my own life story and that of the band, I even attempted to re-listen to their 1st release and most recent album, but ultimately discovered on a personal level that this once fruitful relationship had no possibilities of continuing. On this note whilst Under the Iron Sea will now remain for my entire life as part of my story, I can’t help but think that under different circumstances this same album would never have captured my affections.
With all this considered it is fair to suggest that music is down to personal taste, and as such whilst we continuously attempt to resolve the eternal question of what makes a good album, we must remind ourselves that the answer is really down to personal opinion. Whilst each music publication has its own review methods based on a criteria of important factors, we too have our own sense of what constitutes a “classic”.
I really can’t stand museums. In fact as far as I’m concerned they stink of pretentiousness, highlighted by the fact that at least 80% of their clients walk around like they’re a superior race, despite often being little more than sheep eagerly awaiting some form of acceptance into the “high world” of society. However despite this rather somewhat strong statement, thanks to my relationships over the years with the opposite sex, I too have been on one or two excursions to the homes of “high culture”. In particular I remember my first and last trip to the Tate museum as if it was yesterday. To get to the point, among its many rooms of art there was this “composition” of chairs stacked together on the floor. No I’m not exaggerating, this “piece of art” was on display and ironically being swarmed by a gormless group, whom upon receiving some sort of telepathic green light between themselves, began to awe in its magical presence. In fact whilst these wannabee connoisseurs were appreciating its artistic beauty, I myself was eying the nearest exit, simultaneously asking myself how the fuck can this be the best there is. I mean just 5 minutes ago I was in the street observing people painting much more creative pieces, whilst these same people were instantly dismissing anything outside the museum walls as inferior and irrelevant.
Now I don’t consider myself a connoisseur of art, but really who decides what is worthy? In fact I’m beginning to think that with a bribe or contacts you could take a shit in the Tate and soon find yourself being called an artistic genius. It’s almost as if a little money could turn a shit into a bold artistic expression of modern times, such is the fickle and easily swayed nature of mankind. Makes you think about the corrupt history of the world of art right?
Whether you wish to be believe it or not, whilst maybe not so extreme, music as an art is of the same nature. After all you just have to look at the major music publications to find a list of what you should listen to, what is cool etc. In fact to recount a personal story related to musical elitism, my college years provided an insightful glance into the easily swayed nature of my peers. You see in those years I found myself around many pretentious people, who despite being relatively likeable were above all drawn into this world of artistic snobbery. Given that in this period I was very much into hip hop music and the likes of Bad Boy records, my music tastes didn’t sit too well with my peers, who incidentally favoured anything underground and slightly obscure. Ironically my peers all seemed to like the exact same type of music, a factor which irritated me to the point where I eventually lost contact with each and every one of them. Whilst I have nothing against a group of people liking the same music, it was the narrow-mindedness, the refusal to listen to anything in the music charts or anything “non-intellectual”. In fact in response to my hip hop phase, the only artists given the “thumbs-up” were Mos Def, Jurassic 5, RJD2 and any other artist viewed as “alternative” and “intelligent”. This continued into my metal phase, as despite not even listening to metal, I often found my peers belittling it as awful.
The point is this kind of music elitism exists everywhere in society, swaying the majority to manipulate their music tastes rather than accepting it as a natural process. Sure if you listen to an album 100 times I’m sure eventually you will begin to warm to it in some way, but really it just goes to show how pathetic the nature of our generation is when it comes to betraying your tastes to fit in.
Thankfully at university I managed to find a group of much more open minded people, although even then there was the occasional moment of similar absurdities. For example I remember hearing a story about one guy who upon meeting his new housemates, claimed that his favourite music artists were Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix. Incidentally however upon further questioning this same guy folded to the fact that he couldn’t even name one song from either of the two. In fact just to highlight the nature of this guy, I later discovered when living with him that he had been buying the NME top albums of the year as the blueprint to his album purchases.
This isn’t to say I’m against album reviews and top music publications as quite frankly being an aspiring music journalist I would love one day to be paid to write about music. In fact I often read reviews and find the music lists interesting, only I stress the necessity to keep an open mind and ultimately not to believe everything you read. Of course the media will simplify things into groups etc, as quite frankly it’s impossible to communicate individually to a universal market. However the point remains that we all each have individual tastes, experiences and aspirations, meaning it is an impossible concept to believe that we should all have the exact same musical tastes. It all comes down to the argument that what may please one person may simultaneously provide the opposite effect to others. On this note I can’t help but feel that society’s snobby nature is causing people to continuously suppress desire in favour of being viewed as favourable. This question of “fitting-in” can be related to all forms of life, from what car you drive to the furniture in your house, with the majority seemingly favouring the opinion of others over personal comfort.
In light of this I think the internet is a fantastic medium in today’s age, given us the music fans the right to each stress our own opinions rather than leaving it solely to “the music hierarchy”. In fact for this music itself is fantastic as unlike most art, music publications often give the “intellectual scrutiny” reserved previously solely for “high culture”, to all forms of music including the most recent chart topping hit. Unfortunately however despite this sense of optimism, the music “elitists” continue to lurk and spread their “superior knowledge”, systemically deciding which song/album has the credentials to enter the musical equivalent of the Tate modern. On this note whilst my words may not even touch the surface of modern day sociological debate, I myself needed to get this shit of my chest if only to be just another person pointing out the absurdities of the pretentious nature that overshadows the arts.
I can still vividly remember the day when I read online that Chris Cornell’s next album would be produced by Timberland. Being a fan of the former throughout the Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog and Audioslave years, my initial reaction was to put it mildly one of great disappointment. In fact the first two phrases that popped into my head in that particular moment were “sell out” and “mid-life crisis”, two clichés we often use to describe in musical terms an artist who loses a sense of his roots. Of course anyone who listens to the radio from time to time knows that in music’s current climate Timbaland almost guarantees radio play and commercial viability. His production is admittedly catchy and effective within the realm of hip hop and rnb music, which is arguably the reason why he has sustained such a successful career since his work in the 90s with Aliyah and Missy Elliot.
So first of all before jumping to any conclusion, let’s attempt to define exactly what is meant by “SELLING-OUT”. According to freedictionary.com, selling out is “to betray one’s cause or colleagues”, whilst in a similar light dictionary.com states that the art of selling out is to “sacrifice public for private interest”. So in light of these two definitions we can assume that selling out signifies above all an element of greed and betrayal. In the case of Chris Cornell, this greed can be supported by the fact that he chooses to work with arguably the most commercial producer of the past year, thus almost guaranteeing airplay and record sales. And the betrayal? Well arguably greed and betrayal are two traits that go hand in hand, as by thinking to ones wallet, the artist alienates his core fan-base -those who ultimately got him to this level of success by continuously buying his records. In fact for examples of this sense of “betrayal”, one doesn’t have to look too far to realize that my own sentiments of shock and disappointment were equally echoed among at least 90% of Cornell’s fanbase.
In fact this discussion on selling out also brings me to reminisce on a conversation I once had with a dear friend and aspiring rock musician. To cut a long story short this friend is desperate to make it into the music industry, even at the cost of selling his soul and making music that doesn’t necessarily appeal to him. For him the main goal is to get a deal, with the hope that this will one day enable him to acquire the artistic freedom necessary in order to make a truly personal piece music. Of course for my friend as well as for millions of other aspiring music artists, one must remember that the music industry, or at least the major record labels, are largely conservative within their approach and thus prefer to generally stick to their tried and tested formulas of success. After all one doesn’t have to look hard to find stories of new artists signed to majors, complaining of the artistic restraint and basic inability to record anything personal and a little out of the ordinary.
This slight topical diversion now takes me back to the argument of Chris Cornell, as this method of selling out hardly reflects his status when considering how his success levels have already granted him a significant amount of control over his material. In fact it’s hard to believe that he would sacrifice his rock credibility to do a commercial project with Timberland, as he already has a strong enough fan base to continue making and even experimenting within the rather flexible boundaries of the rock genre.
Perhaps it’s a case of boredom, a case of wanting to do something completely out of the ordinary. This can be backed up by Cornell´s own words in an interview he did with bullz-eye.com, in which he declares that he did this project for “fun”, before going onto to discuss how he “had been kind of thinking of doing different collaborations“. Sound like a midlife crisis to you? Ok maybe I’m being a little over cynical, but it is potentially an argument that holds weight, given that Cornell is currently 44 and thus within the period when such breakdowns take place.
However after digesting the news of this new release and then admittedly re-checking to make sure it wasn’t some type of cruel joke, I decided nevertheless to keep an open mind and ultimately check out the album upon its release. I mean one should not judge before hearing the evidence and well who knows you can call him a sell out or whatever, but this move can simultaneously be viewed as gutsy, a move of an artist that listens to his heart and not to fears of what the media may say about him. Whilst it was perhaps a difficult thing to believe, there was still hope at this moment that perhaps this new material would mark a genuine attempt at artistic experimentation, almost like Run DMC’s work with Aerosmith, which in the 80s was seen as a crucial development in the evolution of hip hop music and the blurring of genres. Anyone who is familiar with the work of Chris Cornell will know that his powerful, zeppelin-esque vocals embody an element of modern day post-grunge rock, and with this in mind perhaps there is a possibility that these vocals over Timbaland drum beats will systematically break new ground in the relations between rock and hip hop music.
Fast forward to March 10th and the controversial release date of SCREAM. Before even having the chance to listen to it I have already been witness to a large number of negative reviews, which generally within the conventional 5 star review system see the album receive at best a meagre 2. However I still remain upbeat about at least giving the album an opportunity to impress me, as in all honesty the negative reviews don’t surprise me and have done little to dissuade me from keeping an open mind.
This positive thinking however soon transcended into a bitter desire to instantly throw the CD out of the window after only one listen. Yes, normally I am more patient with CDs and wait a little before passing judgement, but here I can honestly say that it was almost unbearable. Perhaps if I wasn’t previously a fan without expectations I could warm to it, but after witnessing Cornell’s vocal strength when paired with the excellent support cast of Soundgarden and Audioslave, the lack of chemistry on Scream echoed the words of allmusic.com reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine, when indicating that “Scream never seems like a collaboration, it seems like it was assembled by committee, discussed in boardrooms, farmed out to contract players and stitched together on computer”. Incidentally Erlewine gave the album a flattering score of 1 ½ stars, proclaiming this potential “masterpiece” as “a bizarre shared middle-age crisis”.
Unfortunately my general dislike of the current rnb fad does not help but overshadow matters, with Timbaland being an artist that I admittedly have never warmed too. Within the realm of hip hop and rnb, I find his work to be incredibly repetitive and certainly not on the level of other top hip hop producers such as Pete Rock, Large Professor or DJ Premier. Furthermore, whilst I’ve always preferred Cornell’s collaborative work to his solo material –Euphoria Morning (1997) was ok at times whilst Carry On (2008) in all fairness began to pinpoint his demise- Scream by all accounts makes me feel a shocking sense of nostalgia towards the Cornell of old. Incidentally Billie Jean, the somewhat experimental Michael Jackson cover that appears on Carry On, was one of my favourites from an otherwise dour album. Ironically in fact it is the Billie Jean cover that seemingly emphasized Cornell’s fascination with the realm of rnb music and thus led to him collaborating this time around with Timbaland.
So did it pay off? Ironically this dangerous step towards the comfort zone of commercial viability has spawned interesting results all round, as the album has not only been critically slayed, a factor which is not in fact at all surprising, but also perhaps more alarmingly suffered poor album sales – 26,000 copies in the first week according to Wikipedia. Perhaps you could argue that these are natural figures given the current climate of the music industry. However when considering Timbaland’s Multi-Platinum CV, together with the fact that Scream has spawned five singles and thus has been promoted to more than an adequate level, the album can almost be described as an all round failure.
Despite these somewhat negative words, I would however like to declare from a personal standpoint that whilst my faith has been slightly damaged by the experience of Scream, I will certainly be interestingly observing where his next project lies. As far as I’m concerned the Cliché “selling out”, is far too overused between critics and fans, in a record industry where at least within the majors, there is little room for creativity and personal touch. To summarise this point in regards to Chris Cornell, why would he need to sell-out? Surely his cult following and success level would suggest that this decision was made purely from an artistic stand point, rather than from potential financial concerns, or greed as the definition put it.
So what does this leave for the future of Chris Cornell? A valuable lesson in how to not betray your loyal fanbase? In sticking to your strengths and music roots? One could sense throughout Carry On that Cornell was already seemingly losing a sense of inspiration, and thus a dramatic change such as the one he took when collaborating with Timberland on Scream, was perhaps natural and even therapeutic in rediscovering himself on a music level. After all 25 years in the music business is a very long time, illustrated by the fact that many long lasting artists have often evolved and changed styles in order to stay fresh and creatively motivated.
Who knows maybe it could have worked out, maybe the results could have been different. However putting the maybes aside, the overriding question that hangs in the balance is that of Chris Cornell’s future and the next step in this musical adventure. Whilst many fans would love to see Soundgarden back together, it seems highly unlikely as Cornell seems to favour the creative control afforded to solo artists. However whilst this may be all well and good in theory, the question that comes echoing from this latest flop is just how long the loyal fan base will hang around should Scream be an indicator of what’s to come.