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Hip-Hop’s Fragile Symbiosis With Pop Culture

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 16, 2018

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For some reason, the only YouTube channels I subscribe to are about hip-hop (with one or two dead design vlogs thrown in), and most of the hip-hop reviews and discussion I consume happens there. Likewise, almost all the podcasts I listen to are about sports, and when I’m looking for sports content, I start with podcasts. Who knows how or why these things happen? When I was a media reporter, I’d have theories about these things. These days, I chalk most stuff up to contingency.

Anyways, a favorite show of mine is Dead End Hip Hop, or DEHH, which is a kind of Around the NBA-ish take on new and old music. It’s four guys, all about my age, who have musical touchstones in common with me and each other, who argue with each other about music. It’s brash and insider-y and a little hater-ish, and I love it.

In their latest episode, the DEHH crew and a couple of younger guests answer a reader question: What will hip-hop look like in twenty years? It turns into a thoughtful (and brash and insider-y and a little hater-ish) discussion of the history of popular music, generational change, the relationship between music, technology, and the broader culture, and the dangers of becoming too popular for too long:

The general consensus boils down to three things:

  1. Hip-hop has an unusually rich, symbiotic relationship with pop culture in a way other pop music forms just can’t match, with music and culture informing each other;
  2. The musical dominance of hip-hop has generally been bad for the quality of hip-hop, and the longer this dominance continues, the more degraded the music gets;
  3. There is no reason to expect this dominance to continue indefinitely, and every reason to expect it will be exchanged for another cultural form.

Now, hip-hop has some advantages. It’s unusually capacious, almost greedy, when it comes to culture. It’s not just music, but dance, fashion, slang, and visual art. Plus, when it comes to interacting with other forms of popular culture, you can pour almost anything into it and get hip-hop back out. (For instance, hip-hop was into superheroes before it was cool. And PS: superheroes’ days at the top are numbered, too.)

But is hip-hop really that much more resilient than jazz, or rock n’ roll, each of which had their turn leading the way before turning into something else besides the most popular music in the world? Seriously: jazz is looking at hip-hop with its eyes all the way to the side, along with boxing, musical theater, and smoking cigarettes.

The harder question to answer isn’t whether something will come next, but what it will look like. In the 90s, techno and dance music were legitimate heirs/threats to hip-hop; in comparison, EDM and what’s left of indie rock seem to be pretty insular corners rather than comers.

The coolest thing to imagine is the future evolution of hip-hop, even if it loses its spot on top of the music/culture heap, into a richer and more personal form of artistic expression. I hope we haven’t seen its full flourishing. But then again, I’m 39. That’s the kind of stuff I like. And the days of hip-hop caring about what guys my age like are waning, if not over.