One of the underlying civil wars of hip-hop since it’s the early 90’s has been ‘Mainstream vs. Underground’. Each side has validity as to why they should feel a sense of entitlement of being responsible for the growth of hip-hop as genre. But I’m here to tell you that the almighty self-righteousness that comes from the underground side reeks of pretentiousness. The seed that underground cults plant about mainstream rap lacking: creativity, emotion, lyricism, and intelligence are a slap in the face to mainstream artists that sacrifice time and energy into a project hoping to make a difference in the culture.
Program director at the infamous New York hip-hop radio station, Ebro Darden, said in an interview earlier this year that the division in hip-hop can be classified as “Major League Vs. Minor League”, and I couldn’t agree with those sentiments more. Listen, I enjoy underground music as much as your traditional hip-hop enthusiast, but there’s a reason why most underground artists never get the “attention” that their fan base who was lucky enough to stumble upon bellows. Your normal lyrical-miracle should be able to understand why you hear artists like Future and Drake every other song on the radio and why it omits artists like Action Bronson and Slaughterhouse. Choosing to focus on the complexity of stacked metaphors, second tier artists fail to acknowledge song structure. This structure entails complete hooks and bridges that are vital when attracting listeners.
Widely considered “The Golden Era” of hip-hop, the 90’s could possibly be the biggest detriment of the progression of the genre. Being a fairly new genre, listeners of hip-hop haven’t had many definitions of what is considered “good.” Artists such as Nas, Outkast, and Wu-Tang made music they liked with the intentions of being remembered essentially forever. Nothing disappoints me more than when a rapper models their album after a classic album. THERE IS ONE ILLMATIC, ONE REASONABLE DOUBT, ONE READY TO DIE, and chances are a listener’s nostalgia will never let your rendition top the original. You know why an underground artist that refuses to let go of 90’s production and rhyme schemes is far worse for hip-hop than French Montana or Migos echoing a chorus? Because it keeps the genre at a stand still and refuses to define a sound for 2013.
I know what you backpackers are thinking, “But you can’t possibly think Future is a better rapper than Ab-Soul,” and of course not—well, at least when it comes to lyricism. At the origin of hip-hop, the focus of the artist was to make you dance, not to impress you with lyrical content. In this day and age, lyrics aren’t everything in rap, and honestly, I don’t even think it’s the most important aspect of it any more. There’s something about the emotion of a hip-hop song that is able to translate to listeners unlike any other genre. The same amount of emotion that exists in Ab-Soul’s “Book of Soul” exists in Future’s “You Deserve It.” Now it may not be as eloquently stated as a traditional underground lyricist, but there are kids in Chicago, New Orleans, and Atlanta who relate to every word of that trap song you seem to hate so much, but happen to know all the words to. That same amount of creativity placed into metaphors is now conveyed into hooks, melodies, and statements within the verse that garner emotion through listeners, who form a connection with the artist.
One thing that always disappoints me about hip-hop is the classism that exists with the listeners. It’s as if listeners aren’t able to accept the fact that someone who may not be as intelligent as them, or from a similar upbringing, is capable of making a hell of a song. Thus, they brush it off and label it as “ignorant.” This classism problem falls on the shoulders of both sides of the genre, but far more evident with the underground camp who will criticize an artist like Chief Keef, but support the imitation ignorance from an artist like Travis Scott due to his affiliations with other influential artists. Yes, part of being a fan of an artist is relatability, but why knock a rapper because their path in life was different than yours thus making their reality different than yours? Give that artist a chance to create imagery giving you a better sense of where they come from and the message they want to deliver.
I’ve always found humor in the mainstream playing the role of the underdog when it comes to the division of hip-hop. Underground music has always had this sense of self-entitlement that the music they’ve produced is better strictly off the foolish merit that more listeners equals dumbing down for an audience. Elite, up-and-coming artist such as Drake, J. Cole and Wale have bubbled from the underground to significant radio dominance only for a majority of their day one fans to turn fickle and endorse someone else. The current generation of hip-hop artists have taken pride in the creativity of music with hopes of progressing the culture, and we should do the same. Being a better listener means understanding that you aren’t the only listener. Just like you want mainstream fans to be open to the concepts and ideas that an underground artist presents, underground listeners should be open to the happy-go-lucky turn up records that a mainstream artist releases, essentially bringing unity within the genre that completes the spectrum.
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