Hip-Hop’s Future Shock

Hua Hsu

By Hua Hsu

on 01.05.12 in Spotlights

Thumb-tacked to the wall of my room in my parents’ house is a list I printed out in the year 2000. Hiphopsite.com, an online hip-hop record store had produced a list of the 100 most anticipated releases for the upcoming year. I’ve left it on my wall partly out of laziness and partly because of how chastening it is to recall the days when an N.W.A. reunion album or a DJ Premier-produced Terror Squad album seemed a remote possibility, all of these monuments to what could have been. But as the years pass, the list takes on a new meaning. It seems strange to imagine that the coming year could be imagined so coherently — around release dates made and missed, known quantities, groomed up-and-comers (in this case, Last Emperor and Royce) and familiar labels.

This year: Lil B released a mixtape titled I’m Gay; the world beyond Oakland was introduced to the White Girl Mob; Mac Miller topped the Billboard charts; Das Racist was on the cover of Spin and brought a Michael Jackson impersonator with them to Conan. There has been something wildly unpredictable and genuinely weird about hip-hop in recent years, as though artists have finally grown uninterested in the identities and sounds traditionally available to them. Every year feels like the worse one yet for new music, at least for those of a certain age. But hip-hop has come to feel like an impossible thing to judge, since it mutates and adapts at such a frantic pace. Even Jay-Z and Kanye West’s triumphant Watch the Throne and Drake’s absorbing Take Care experimented with dubstep and James Blake-like minimalism, respectively.

At its best, this sense of play and the possibility of sharing half-finished work via the Internet allow us to listen along and share in another’s discoveries. Araabmuzik’s Electronic Dream was one of the year’s more engrossing turns. The Diplomats’ young, in-house producer — famed for his MPC practice clips on YouTube — released an entrancing collection of beats pieced together using the most aggressive of trance and electro club anthems. The results sound like a slasher on the loose in Ibiza, beats that alternate between twitchy, acid dread (“Underground Stream”) and moments of digital bliss (“Streets Tonight”).

There was a similar future-mindedness to Shabazz Palaces’ debut full-length, Black Up. The Seattle duo seemed self-conscious about separating itself from other leftfield rap, with its opaque lyrics, clunky, almost arrhythmic beats and wide-open spaces (the brilliant “Are You…Can You…Were You? [Felt]“). “A Treatease Dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)” has to be one of the stranger recollections of meeting a girl at the club; it sounds as though it was recorded underwater. What made Black Up particularly interesting was the way it seemed completely unconcerned with the past of its main member, Ishmael Butler, formerly Butterfly of Digable Planets.

Another unexpected reconfiguration of vaguely familiar faces was Exmilitary by Death Grips, an abrasive, Sacramento-based punk-rap group equal parts mid-’80s rock-box shout rap and Suicidal Tendencies. Featuring Zach Hill of Hella and a mysterious, over-enunciating ranter named MC Ride, Exmilitary could have easily felt like parody. But Ride is a commanding and disturbingly intense presence, and on tracks like the guitar jam “I Want It I Need It (Death Heated)” or the lo-fi earworm “Guillotine (It Goes Yah),” the unlikely collision of energies worked well. It was a different version of the same confrontational, all-subcultures-at-once ethos of Los Angeles’s Odd Future. The collective had a triumphant year, as their aggressive, fuck-everyone swagger went viral. Here was a crew whose tastes, personas and strategy had been shaped by hours spent online — they had built a cult following by giving away music for free and understanding the unceasing rhythms of the Internet. But despite their web-generosity, their attitude on record was nasty and total, as on “F666 the Police” (from Mellowhype’s Blackenedwhite) or Tyler, the Creator’s “Bastard” (off 12 Odd Future Songs).

Queens’s Das Racist managed to make it onto the cover of Spin and late-night television without a record deal; their debut full-length, the manically eclectic Relax, is the first release on their ambitious, free-thinking Greedhead label. Perhaps the dissolution of the traditional music industry is making it easier for outsiders to imagine success. No longer having to worry about chart success, for example, seems to have freed the Roots — their concept-driven Undun feels like a sequel to their classic Things Fall Apart, while the quietly prolific DJ Quik continues recording modest, excellent albums for his core fan-base (Book of David).

“Shots Fired,” the first track on G-Side’s The One…Cohesive, recounts the Alabama duo’s slow rise from the Huntsville underground. It’s rare that you hear a rapper remark that “the blogs be the modern-day tastemakers” but the song, as well as the rest of this confident, lush album, testifies to the possibilities of making and finding music in the digital age. There has always been an element of voyeurism to being a hip-hop fan. It is an intensely local music. As the world comes to seem smaller, that just means more locales to explore, more unusual styles that might one day seem mainstream, if such a concept still holds at all.