In the midst of everyone’s declarations that “Hip Hop is Dead” we somehow forgot the slow death that is spreading across all aspects of “urban” music, as the legacy of Soul and its close cousins has devolved into a writhing mass of commercialism, homogenization, thuggification and overall laziness. Now, in no particular order, we present to you the “25 Things That Killed (and are Still Killing) Urban Music” because you love lists and SoulBounce isn’t afraid to say what you’re thinking. Keep in mind that there will be some overlap, as certain items gave way to others that deserve their own spanking.
1. The End of the “Event” Album: There was a time when albums encompassed an era that included a look, a feel, and a style that informed an artist’s videos and live performances for as long as they (or the label) could squeeze revenue from a project by releasing singles. The “event” album can chiefly be credited to Jacksons Michael and Janet, who have entire timelines built around the idea of a “Thriller Era” or a “Rhythm Nation Era.” Nowadays, instead of treating albums as what they are (a collection of songs with one unifying theme) artists are more likely to seek out the most ubiquitous Hip Hop beatmakers of the moment and record over a hundred songs from which to “pick” singles. Also, when you have artists that are too scared to release music with a healthy 3-5 year gap in between, the lines to between albums begin to blur, and the eras become indistinguishable, rendering them null.
2. Big Name Hip Hop Producers: With respect due to the beatmakers that introduce a track with the name of their production imprint, ad-lib all over it, and insert themselves as guest rappers 50% of the time, they overshadow the actual vocalist of a song. We certainly don’t begrudge any of them the right to employment, but when an artist has to do an inventory of who produced her project to qualifiy it instead of telling us what the album is about, we have to take exception. Reality check: If you’re trying to goad me into a purchasing your album because you have a Pharrell beat on it and I’m a Pharrell fan, then that’s the only song I’m buying. Your album has to have legs of its own.
3. Deaths of The Notorious B.I.G. & 2Pac: You can probably draw a direct line from the deaths of Biggie and ‘Pac to the current state of Hip Hop. The two of them cultivated a style that even a decade later is re- and misappropriated to the nth. Perhaps if they were still alive, they’d have pushed the genre forward. Or maybe they’d be wack and irrelevant. Hey, at least they died while they were still good.
4. “Neo-Soul”: We understand the emergence of the “neo-soul” genre as a response to the growing commercialization of modern R&B. But even the artists lumped into this category began to the see that the term was as much a marketing ploy as the very things they eschewed. The language used to describe these artists ranged from “organic” to “avant garde” and any press materials would claim that he/she looks up to Stevie, Marvin and Donny. And don’t stand too close to the stage lest you get burned by the candles and frankencense! Before long, the audience would be fooled and we would either grow to love or loathe this music, defending the art of its purveyors and loudly wondering why they couldn’t move as many units as their mainstream counterparts. Simply put, “neo-soul” has become a term used by people to describe music they respect but would never buy.
5. Reality TV: Aside from the manufactured Pop idols that are struggling to stay signed within their prize contracts, we have to question the motives of Sean Combs, Robin Antin and Missy Elliott, who have all aped the reality television format to generate acts for their own stable of artists. To be sure, reality TV has replaced proper Artist Development as a means for these entrepreneurs to cash in, stroke their egos and embarrass people who, 9 times out of 10, deserve it. Speaking of which, what’s O’so Krispie doing?
6. Lazy A&R Departments: Did you know that A&R people are also responsible for Artist Development? Probably not, since these days a newly-signed artist is more likely to be stripped of their identity and given one that falls in step with what’s popular or, even worse, none at all. Take Cheri Dennis, for example. While her album has a respectable amount of solid R&B tracks, we still don’t know who Cheri Dennis is, what sets her apart from everyone else or even what she sounds like. But, she has earned the distinction of being signed to her label for nearly a decade with no album to speak of. Did the A&R department utilize that time by playing Spades? Probably.
7. Scarface and The Untouchables: Okay, rapper, we get it, Scarface and The Untouchables are the greatest movies ever made; your life in celluloid, even. But, if you look close enough, you’ll come to learn that you are neither Pacino or De Niro and should stop emulating them by using audio clips from the films in your interludes and the script in your lyrics. Too many of you are still doing this after all these years. Also, tell members of your crew to stop calling themselves “Ness” and “Nitti.” Just, please, cut it out. Thank you.
8. Thugs: Not only do we have “Studio Thugs” that use de Palma films to inform their image (see above) but there’s the “Corporate Thug” (robs an artist of his publishing and signs him to a hellified contract he could never fulfill) and the questionable “R&B Thug,” which happened somewhere between R. Kelly and Jodeci and continues to this day. Along the way, labels got the bright idea that the way to a woman’s heart was by selling drugs and beating up people. Sexy! This trend has also given rise to something else we’ll never understand: “R&B Beef,” in which two singers talk trash about each other to the media. Unfortunately, this doesn’t result in a “sing-off” but pretty much makes everyone involved look kind of retarded.
9. Crime: Between violating probation, not paying child support, being pulled over and caught with an ounce of weed or cocaine, assaulting nail technicians, shooting people, tossing concertgoers off the stage, committing perjury, tax evasion, and urinating on minors, we have to wonder if being a good artist means being a bad citizen.
10. Ringtones: “Real Music Ringtones” were created as a way to distinguish your ringing cellular from someone else’s while also bringing you closer to your favorite artist. Unfortunately, the labels realized this was the only way to generate revenue and started making music for the sole purpose of selling ringtones. Now, we have stripped-down keyboard beats and grunts and “yaahhs” instead of lyrics. Is that my cellphone ringing or yours? We’ll never know, because we both downloaded Soulja Boy.
11. Lack of Music Programs in Schools: Programs like GarageBand have not only made producers lazy, but undercut the importance of immersing young would-be musicians in music history as well as basic composition. Unless a popular musician was trained in the church, they probably lucked into a contract without knowing how to write, play an instrument, or worse, sing a note.
12. BET (and by extension its corporate owner) is on a mission to not only destroy urban music, but poison the perception of Black people in the process. If we were to use this network as a guide (and people unfortunately do), we would believe that “drug dealer > rapper > pimp” is a logical career path, alcoholic beverages can be used as bodysplash, women of exotic or indeterminate race are the standard of beauty, darker-skinned women are only valuable if they have a big ass and a tiny waist, a person’s worth can only be determined by what they drive and what they wear, you ain’t sh*t if you’re over 30, and a week’s worth of debauchery and decadence can be undone with a Sunday marathon of religious programming. It’s funny because it’s true.
13. The Radio: Used to be, you would turn on the radio and hear a variety of artists with a variety of sounds. But due to the “Clear Channeling” of Urban Radio, you’ll hear a T-Pain song followed by 15 minutes of commercials, followed by a song featuring T-Pain, some shucking and jiving by unbearable radio personalities for five minutes, then something that resembles a T-Pain song, but isn’t because just about everyone sounds like T-Pain now. And it’s probably a commercial.
14. Spineless Club DJs: If you’re going out to a club, you might as well sit in the house and blast the radio instead of paying the inflated cover charge. Once upon a time, DJs were tastemakers, but now so many of them are afraid they’ll clear the floor by spinning something new that they just play album versions of songs people are tired of but are too drunk to notice. Then, they add insult to injury by showing off their “skills” with poorly-timed scratches, blends that don’t line up and screaming over the music. And consider yourself lucky if you happen upon a DJ with ACTUAL! VINYL! RECORDS!
15. Mainstream Hip Hop Publications: Back in the ’90s, holding one of these rags in your hands was like holding a monthly Bible to all things Hip Hop and R&B. Now, they’ve all been relegated to chasing blogs and reiterating things we already knew weeks ahead instead of properly utilizing the print medium to do something unique. Changes in personnel and ownership aside, they were already marching towards irrelevance. Even the covers suck now, but you probably won’t get the damn thing delivered on time in order to find out.
16. Bloggers: Guilty as charged! Trifle few of us are qualified to be writing about music with any authority, especially since most of the people behind blogs haven’t been alive long enough to have a healthy perspective on the subject. Although it can be argued that record companies rely on blogs for buzz, most of the music championed by popular websites is the same music that would’ve gotten attention anyway. Also, we have to point out that the commenting system has turned discussions about music into an unholy war of “haters” versus “stans,” where everyone is an expert on what they hate or love, but have no concept of anything else including real life. Oh, and providing your readers with the URL to full album leaks doesn’t “help” the artist.
17. YouTube & MySpace: On the Internet, everyone is a star (thank you, thank you). But while sites like MySpace and YouTube can provide mainstream and indie musicians with a means of cultivating and connecting with an audience, it becomes a chore to sort through the muck of people with a webcam and a login classifying themselves as “artists.” And damn you all to Hell for having the crap you made in Grandma’s basement on auto-play.
18. Singing Rappers, Acting Rappers & Rapping Athletes: We’ll keep this short. Every now and then you’ll happen upon someone that has been able to organically transition from one career to another. Will and Latifah come to mind. To everyone else (coughCurtiscough), stay in your lane. Again, we don’t begrudge anyone the chance to make some extra ends; it just shouldn’t be at the expense of the audience.
19. The End of Real Singing Groups: Once upon a time, you not only had singing groups that weren’t put together by a reality show, but wherein each member contributed a distinct voice or purpose to the group. Sometimes they had members that barely sang a note, but who actually produced or wrote the song. Point is, throwing a bunch of strangers in a house with one phone and giving them makeovers doesn’t create synergy. Also, name a recent singing group that wasn’t created for a television show or for the purpose of launching someone’s solo career. Exactly.
20. “Kanyitis” is a temporary, yet frequent, illness that afflicts singers and rappers alike, wherein an artist waits until the precise moment they are in front of a camera, microphone or reporter to say something shocking and stupid, which will then be quoted by bloggers and searched on YouTube ad nauseum. Then the artist has to explain what they “really” meant, but by that time everyone already thinks they’re nuts and doesn’t care about a retraction.
21. Death of Aaliyah: Not that Aaliyah took an entire genre of music with her to the grave, but it can be argued that her passing made way for a wave of young, pretty dancers with okay voices and no personality. Only difference between them and Aaliyah is, Aaliyah had personality along with talent, ideas and a willingness to experiment. Also, she wasn’t so full of herself.
22. Money: Even worse than artists releasing garbage because they know it sells is the audience’s obsession with how much an artist makes. Unfortunately, we’ve given lack of artistry a pass because someone’s “making that paper,” which totally undermines the hard work of true creative talents that are constantly writing, recording, and performing. When I buy an album I don’t want to hear an entrepreneur, which brings us to–
23. Products & Brands: Whether rappers and singers are inserting the names of designer alcoholic beverages into their lyrics or cable companies are inserting rappers and singers in their ad campaigns, things come to a point where we need to start realizing how owned these artists are. There’s a thin line between businessperson and corporate slave. We’d also like to reiterate a fact that has been pointed out time and time again over the past 10 years: If you can’t pronounce it, why should we care that you’re wearing it, driving it, or drinking it?
24. People That Aren’t in Any Way Associated with Music: Opportunities in the industry are built on connections and there’s almost never been a time when someone didn’t rise to stardom on someone else’s coattails. But now, things have gotten way out of hand. Why be an actual artist when you can be someone that danced in videos, screwed a bunch of rappers and got a book deal? Or, you can be a butler or Executive In Charge of Umbrella-Carrying? Or, worse, be the “Fifth Mic” guy on stage and reliable instigator? Who needs a recording studio?
25. Teenagers: Young people have always had the power to determine trends in all genres of music, which is why corporations defer to them. However, today’s teenagers seem to be slightly more insipid than they were in previous generations and definitely have a shorter attention span. Whether it’s the teens themselves driving the garbage labels are releasing, or the labels that are leading teens down a path of ignorance, is totally up for debate. It’s the chicken/egg question in its purest form.