This Music Is Too Mainstream


In order to be a great writer, you have to do a lot of reading. I don’t particularly claim to achieve either of these, but what I do know is that as a feature writer, you never know when inspiration is going to hit you. It’s actually been seven months since my last article. Yet before that, I churned out six in as many months by this time last year.

Hardly the cornerstone of consistency, I hear.

Although relentlessly keeping our ears to the ground for new music, and hence absorbing a magnitude of opinion, the daily hustle and bustle of content turnover at OTU means none of us really get time to kick back and put pen to paper, so to speak. And we’re not even content aggregators like most of the other hip-hop blogs out there. We pride ourselves on providing “engaging, articulate and unfiltered music reviews on all content” (© Ajay), and hence maintaining a high level of awesomeness takes up a lot of our time.

However, this isn’t a plug for this wonderful environment which we affectionately call OTU. There is a purpose to my ramblings. Those visiting the site in the past four days will have noticed, and maybe even read, the recent review I did on Reks’ excellent Rhythmatic Eternal King Supreme (I try steer clear of numerical ratings these days as they only lead to comparisons; which although something I find frustrating in hip-hop, as they are driven from the competitive nature of freestyling on the streets where the genre was born I find myself harnessing reluctant compliance). I never read a review before writing my own. It obscures judgement. But hell, I read a lot once I’ve published mine. Call it seeking social proof if you want, I don’t care. I write as I hear it. That’s what makes us awesome, and hence valued by artists. ‘Yes Men’ only stifle originality and creativity.

So here I am, reading through the comments on this other chap’s review on Reks’ new album – I always do this. I read page upon page of YouTube comments whilst the video loads. Note that this is perhaps the single most infuriating thing a hip-hop head can do; How Lil’ Wayne’s name manages to surface on even the most obscure hip-hop video, I’ll never know. So as usual there’s a lot of hate and a lot of love, but there’s this one guy who criticises the site’s rating system (holds the key to my heart probably) claiming Reks’ album is “light-years ahead of albums by Gucci Mane or Waka Flocka Flame” and that they need to have a rating system “much more representative” of this fact. “Yeah, good point”, I’m thinking, puffing out my chest and clenching my fists ready to back up my newfound neighbour of opinion. But it’s the next comment which got me my first-feature-article-in-seven-months-inspiration. I quote:

“I agree with you in the sense that it’s about time that commercial MC’s once again be judged and critiqued on their lyrical ability. And if it’s seriously lacking, get points knocked off by critics.

At the same time, it’s about time that underground MC’s get judged and critiqued on some of the areas that commercial MC’s get judged. Is there a single song on the album a female will enjoy? Is there a single song on the album that people can dance to? Because as much as a lot of heads want to forget it, the origins of hip-hop are based in dance music, and people getting down and having a good time.”

Cue Internet meltdown. The rest of the comments got a bit wild. I might have blacked out for a few minutes, but I’m sure there was some furious typing, broken keyboards, and perhaps someone, somewhere even created a meme to reflect this hip-hop blasphemy. Now, I’m not saying I agree with what “Matt” said, but at the same time I find myself struggling to outright disagree. I love what Reks does; his rapid-fire, razor-sharp double-time flow over epic boom-bap concoctions makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  I love underground hip-hop. I hate mainstream hip-hop. But hell does Matt have a point here.

Without delivering a tedious history lesson here, hip-hop began when, and I once again paraphrase: “DJ Kool Herc was the developer of break beat DJing where the breaks of funk songs—the part most suited to dance, usually percussion-based—were isolated and repeated for the purpose of all-night dance parties.” Emcees were born out of promoting their DJ’s, promoting other dance parties, taking jabs at other lyricists and providing commentary on relevant social issues: sounds a lot like Matt’s criteria to me.

Now this is a pretty controversial and contentious issue, for which my hip-hop credibility hangs dangerously in the balance, but this fire must be stoked some more.

So what about Illmatic, Enter The Wu-Tang, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx? Perhaps three of the East Coast’s most recognisable hip-hop titles; all void of Matt’s provocative criteria. Yet, without a moment’s hesitation all three considered top 20 hip-hop albums of all-time. Certainly, all three feature in mine.

I guess the underlying question here is (to refer back to Matt’s comment), why are some individuals ambivalent towards mainstream music, and why some venomously disengage with it in preference for underground acts? There is no definitive answer to the question I pose. Merely a Pandora’s box posing more questions.

The easy argument here is that people who listen to mainstream music are happy to be spoon-fed their music; the beats sound nice in their ears and the words are easy to understand. I refuse to believe it is possible to be passionate about mainstream music (You’re naive if you think radio DJ’s genuinely love every record they are paid to play). It’s like me ‘cooking’ beans on toast. It serves a purpose by feeding me. But as I’m not passionate about food, I’m quite content consuming it then carrying on with life. I’d take a pill if it suppressed my hunger, and supplied necessary nutrients. Cooking and food really doesn’t bother me. (Women asking: I can cook though). Some people’s passion is sport. For others, it’s films. You name it, someone’s passionate about it: Bird watching, Quantum-physics and flower-arranging all have their stout advocators (Bill Oddie, Stephen Hawking, Judith Blacklock if you were wondering).

Those passionate about music often want more than what the mainstream can offer them. In hip-hop, this includes a range of subject matter and versatile delivery of lyrics over a range of different production methods. But there is another, deeper underlying issue which is bigger than just music. It stems from this combination of passion and knowledge. Couple these and you become a person who knows something that other people don’t. An inherent desire that all humans endeavour to satisfy. We find these people all the time. Those people who have to be the first to tell you something, and those people who continue to tell you things long after you stopped caring. We all have this desire, it’s just we all use it in different ways: we use it with our different passions. Hence, it’s this love for knowing something other people don’t that forms a large part of why people love underground hip-hop. Now I’m going to listen to some Reks.

“Knowledge is Power”

Sir Francis Bacon (1597)

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