Hip-hop culture, for better or worse, is always evolving. Cue the Last Poets, the fiery black revolutionaries whose spoken-word attacks forecasted the rise of hip-hop, and “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution”: “I love to see niggers go through changes.” It’s a primary reason why the art form remains a battleground of shit-stirring outlaws and provocateurs over four decades years after it emerged in South Bronx, New York.
But if there is one thing that never goes away, it’s the old heads railing against the new school, from Grandmaster Melle Mel dissing Run-DMC, to Ice-T hating on Soulja Boy, and Common clowning Drake. It’s so wearyingly familiar, in fact, that it’s not surprising when a new fault line emerges in this never-ending generation gap, most recently with the controversy over “mumble rap.”
Much like its predecessors such as “frat rap” and “swag rap,” mumble rap is an Internet-generated definition that doubles as an implicit critique. It’s being applied to a wave of rappers who freely mix hooky, off-key vocals with fragmented, barely-there lyrics like Lil Yachty, Young Dolph, Desiigner, Lil Uzi Vert, I Love Makonnen, Post Malone and too many others worth mentioning. The contreremps picked up steam when vaunted producer Pete Rock criticized Young Dolph for a video where Dolph hangs out with children while rocking “In My System” and its chorus, “I’ve got cocaine running through my system.” (Ironically, Pete Rock didn’t understand that it’s a rueful metaphor about how Dolph was born to crack-addicted parents.)
After subsequently throwing shots at Lil Yachty – the Atlanta vocalist behind “1 Night” who raised eyebrows when he admitted his ignorance of 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G’s catalog in an interview – Pete Rock defended himself on Instagram. “Cant understand the mumble rap shit da hell is that?” he wrote. “Make better music and write better lyrics.”
Pete Rock echoed thoughts expressed by Hot 97 radio programmer Ebro Darden (who consistently draws attention to himself with his “Old Man Ebro” jeremiads), Wiz Khalifa (of all people), Anderson .Paak and others. It’s partly rooted in the fear that the kids have little use for an irrelevant history lesson, and are more focused on who’s getting money right now. Their heroes are Kanye West and Lil Wayne, not EPMD. “Rap came as a way of innovation,” OG Maco told Hiphopdx.com.
The constant worry is that hip-hop has evolved to the point that it barely resembles its golden years. But fans that continue to use Pete Rock and DJ Premier’s boom-bap peak or Dr. Dre G-funk heyday as benchmarks for good hip-hop often forget that the early-to-mid 90s constitute a relatively small percentage of history. Besides, wack pop-rap has always percolated: for every Public Enemy, there was a K-9 Posse, and Snoop Dogg scored hits at the same time as Paperboy. Much of the discussion around mumble rap is just an allergic reaction to Lil Yachty and Desiigner’s heavy rotation dominance on urban radio, and doesn’t acknowledge the endless sonic variety the genre now encompasses. For many Kendrick Lamar Stans or clipping. followers, the only time they have to deal with Young Dolph is when they read about him on the Internet. “If [mumble rap] is all you see and that’s all you hear, it has a lot to do with where and why you’re getting your music,” Mick Jenkins told Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg.
As rappers increasingly emphasize vocal melodies over spoken verses, it seems like the “rap” in rapping is on the verge of extinction. After all, when Drake scores hits, it’s usually with pop/R&B escapades like “One Dance,” not tough-talking rhymes such as “Energy.”
But when I recently spoke with Souls of Mischief’s Tajai Massey for the Hiero Day festival, we noted that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 debut, The Message, not only features Promethean songs like the title track, but also winsome R&B ballads like “Dreamin’” and “You Are.” Of course, no one’s arguing that Melle Mel, Cowboy, Scorpio, Raheim and Kid Creole couldn’t spit bars.
Mixologi: It’s interesting how hip-hop has shifted back to how it was at the very beginning, when crews like Cold Crush Brothers would harmonize, then maybe sing a song, and then would rap. Half of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s 1982 debut The Message was R&B songs. It’s interesting how the music has made a 360-degree turn back to that era.
Tajai: And to me, it’s so funny how everyone’s acting, like, in their old-ass people lenses, the youth have gone wild, or doing something crazy or different. I’m like, this is exactly how it all started.
It’s almost a human trait to think that there’s some sort of entropy happening. If you believe in entropy, then you believe the subsequent generation is less awesome, a clone or copy, or watered down. Either that, or they think, “Oh, these people have gone wild. They’re coming from space, or out of nowhere.” And it’s like, everything that’s built is built from the tools of prior generations, and on the backs of that. So it’s funny how people talk about the style of dress, the style of music, or the vocal content, and act like it’s not, like you said, almost 360, like going back to the leather pants, and some harmonizing, you know?
Some, like Wiz Khalifa, argue that the true test of “mumble rappers” lies in their ability to craft lasting careers. It’s worth remembering that when Lil Wayne emerged from New Orleans on Cash Money bangers like “Bling Bling,” “Back Dat Azz Up,” and “The Block is Hot,” he claimed that he didn’t make hip-hop. Yet he grew into a spokesperson for the genre, and by 2007 he was rocking an “I Am Hip-Hop” T-shirt on the cover of XXL. As he grew older, he learned more about the music with which he has made his livelihood.
Our collective nostalgia is a powerful factor, too. Remember “ringtone rap,” the one-hit-wonder fad in the mid-2000s that not only brought Ice-T’s complaints about Soulja Boy, but Ghostface Killah’s pushback against D4L’s “Laffy Taffy”? It remains a topic of debate, with some critics praising its bubblegum delights, and others such as Nas ruing it as “pop-fluff.” Then there’s Nelly, the St. Louis rapper whose cheery tunes like “E.I.” and “Country Grammar” drew scorn from KRS-One (see the latter’s “Ova Here”). Once ridiculed as milkbox material, his name elicited warm memories and a peak in streams of “Hot In Herre” when news emerged that the IRS is pursuing a tax case against him.
“Black music is black music, and it’s all good,” Common once rapped on his revelatory chronicle of hip-hop’s ever-changing moods, “I Used to Love H.E.R.” It’s possible to acknowledge mumble rap’s place in the continuum without passing judgment on what may be just a passing phase, or a permanent shift. (It’s most likely the former.) Yes, folks will have opinions. For the record: I like Lil Uzi Vert, I ain’t feeling Desiigner, and I already forgot about I Love Makonnen. The jury’s out on Lil Yachty.
Back in 1995, 2Pac recorded “Old School,” one of his most underrated tracks from what’s arguably his best album, Me Against the World. Months later, he became the most dangerous rapper alive when he sparked a war of words against Bad Boy Records and, by proxy, the East Coast rap industry itself. After all, you can’t modernize a culture if you don’t change it first.