Changing Eras In Hip-Hop

Disclaimer: this article is about MCs not production styles.

by Luca Tiratelli

In a recent interview with FACTmagazine, Tim Westwood made some surprisingly insightful comments about the timeline of hip-hop, before reverting quickly to type by reminding everyone that he is the “king-pin of the car game”. According to the big-dwag, hip hop has been through the following stages: 1) the foundations in the Bronx, 2) “pro-black”/Public enemy, 3) gangsta rap and G Funk, 4) grimy New York/ Wu Tang Clan, 5) club music and “celebrating life” and finally 6) the current era. More interesting than this brief outline of over 30 years of history was his assertion that the changing of these eras come about as a result of one seminal record, which affects the whole scene for ever more. The example he used was Biggie’s ‘One More Chance” which he claimed bridged the gap between the hardcore New York rap of the early 90s, and the smoother club sounds of the end of that decade and the early 2000s. This seems like a lot of significance to place on one track, but if we reject this theory, how do we explain and pinpoint the reasons that one era ends and another starts?

One way would be to outright reject the notion of eras in hip-hop, and suggest that it is more the question of gradual evolution. Certainly you can make a case for that by looking at the metamorphosis that took us from Public Enemy leading the scene in the late 80s to a hyperbolic gangsta character like Snoop Dogg dropping his debut in 1993. Westwood’s theory would say we need to find that one record that made Public Enemy fade and G Funk rise, NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” perhaps. The reality is, in this case, that a small group of artists, who were simultaneously parts of both eras, bridged the gap over a number of years. Ice Cube is one example of a man who fits this bill (Ice Tea and Scarface are others). “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted” (1990) is clearly an album with a foot in both camps. Tracks like “Endangered Species” and the “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate” have lyrics that would have sounded just as believable in Chuck D’s powerful baritone. And yet there were also songs like “A Gansta’s Fairytale” which, whilst keeping that “pro-black” anger and Public Enemy-like rabble rousing, definitely also helped pave the way for a straight comedy gangsta like Eazy E to drop ‘Real Muthaphuckkin G’s” three years later. Cube was a hugely policital rapper, but he also like to paint portraits of reality as he saw it, rather than just issuing manifestos like Chuck D. This helped legitimize gangstarism in the music, and the playing of gangsta characters (like Cube did in Spike Lee’s film “Boyz in da hood”) blurred the line between describing pimps and hustlers, and actually being them. This art/reality line was blurred further when Snoop Dogg stood trial for murder. This completed the transition from Chuck D to Warren G. So in this case it seems quite clear that the transition from pro-black political rap to west coast gangstas was quite gradual and actually quite logical. Both eras of hip-hop were defined by an underlying aggression, it was a simple change in the way it was expressed that changed the eras, and this was caused by the gradual pushing of the boundaries by artists such as Ice Cube and Ice Tea.

Even if we examine the exact transition that Tim refers to in his interview, that from gritty New York underground sounds to silky smooth club raps, the argument that ‘One More Chance’ changed the game single handedly doesn’t really hold. Clearly, Westwood is right to point out that in that period, there was a major change. How else could we go from Mobb Deep’s “The Infamous” to Nelly’s debut in 5 short years? Well, it seems clear that it wasn’t anything Biggie recorded in the studio, but more what his legacy (and Tupac’s) did in death. The deaths of the two legends in 1996 and 1997 saw the realization that hip-hop’s life-imitating-art-imitating-life complex had gone too far. Not a single East-Coast diss record was released after these deaths. Tim Dog, the man who’s “Fuck Compton” record in 1991 had been one of the main causes of the rivalry that drove hip-hop into increasingly hard-core sounds, took a 7 year leave of absence. Suge Knight went to jail. The key players in the movement which drove hip hop into grittier and grittier areas were gone, and those who remained seemed almost scared of the consequences of competition and aggression in the music.

This led to hip hop being overall more positive (in a Crystal and “make it rain” kind of way), and more supportive of itself. With artists only willing to tackle more bland subject matters, club raps, ice raps and general “bitches ‘n bling” came to greater prominence. Nowhere is this clearer than in the difference between Big L’s debut album in 1995 and his second, posthumous, release in 1999. The former, “Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous”, is just about as grimy as hip-hop ever got, with spaced out, terrifying soundscapes like “Da Graveyard” exhibiting the most gangsta of gangsta lyrics. In sharp contrast “The Big Picture” is musically closer to Ja Rule than the RZA. Songs like “Flamboyant Entertainment” epitomize what Westwood called the “celebrating life” style of hip hop. So it seems in this case, rather than one key record, the driving force for the transformation of the game in the late 90s was a significant trauma, which still haunts rap.

Really, the best example that can be found for Westwood’s school of thought came in the early days. In a BBC documentary, Chuck D recalls how Public Enemy’s debut album “Yo! Bum Rush The Show” fell flat almost purely because of Eric B and Rakim’s 1986 single “Paid In Full”. That song (or maybe that album) revolutionized hip-hop, and in Chuck D’s words, from an era that was “a singles market” to something much “more aggressive and faster”. No longer were slow paced basic Run DMC rhymes acceptable (think “people in the world trying to make ends meat/You try to ride car, train, bus or feet” in terms of how slow a tempo we’re talking). The flows that have dominated hip hop ever since were born on that record.

However, even in this instance, the change was really one of technique and format, rather than actual change in era in hip-hop. Thus it seems that real changes of the guard can be caused by a small group of visionary artists pushing the boundaries over a number of albums and years, or by a single dramatic event, but rarely, if ever, by a single all conquering song alone.

2 Responses to “Changing Eras In Hip-Hop”
  1. Tom says:

    “hip-hop’s life-imitating-art-imitating-life complex” you could write a whole article about just that

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