In his landmark 2005 book, Can't Stop, Won't Stop, journalist and scholar Jeff Chang ascribes hip-hop's origins to a sequence of events that took place in '70s Bronx. In The Big Payback (2010), Dan Charnas takes a more propertarian point of view, pointing out that hip-hop (the business that we know today) began with the first $15 made by a rapping DJ in '70s Harlem. It doesn't matter whether you're for Harlem or the Bronx, the "five elements" of the culture or getting paid, hip-hop's been around for more than three decades and it's not going anywhere. Over that time it's been demonized, admonished, changed its look and been entirely co-opted, but 2012 felt like the year hip-hop settled into itself.
It's a funny argument to make, considering the dissemination of hip-hop culture into the most decidedly non-hip-hop settings (remember when "bling-bling" was inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary?). But aside from its commercial and comedic value, hip-hop has long existed outside of the rockist canon as a non-serious art form. That seems to finally be shifting, both within hip-hop and outside.
Most recently, Public Enemy became just the fourth rap act to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rappers who've been around since the early '90s, like Nas, El-P, Outkast's Big Boi and members of the Wu-Tang Clan, are releasing some of their best work in years. (Some members of the Wu, like Tarantino protégé, the RZA, are moving further afield into commercial films.) Other "golden age" hip-hop acts, like Camp Lo, Onyx and Digable Planets, are finding new life on the tour circuit. And Forbes-certified rappers Jay-Z, Kanye West and Dr. Dre dominate both musically and in terms of their business ventures, from investing in sports franchises to fashion to insanely popular headphones. In 2012, more than ever, old-guard rap acts resisted the call of youth, and like rockers before them, forced their way into the genre's public narrative.
Hip-hop production also elbowed its way into EDM culture, when mostly white, non-rap producers set off a massive rave craze for minimal, hi-hat-heavy, brittle-bottomed “trap” beats. Many have pointed out that this decontextualized lifting amounts to stealing from a production style that's been around longer than before Nicki Minaj's "Beez in tha Trap." What we can say is that while hip-hop’s always been an underrated influence amongst artists across genres, it’s now directly triggering trends further afield.
Styles from the past are also being retread by a generation of up-and-comers who've been listening to rap since they were in the womb. Joey Bada$$ is the most obvious example: a New York rapper who sounds liquid and raw, almost angling to be a replica of mid-'90s Nas. One of the most personally jarring, age-divide-illlustrating lines in rap this year came courtesy of NYC's Wiki, who is part of XL-signed backpacker crew RATKING: "Damn I feel like Jay-Z in '96/ Man I feel like ODB in '93/ Am I even an '04 'Ye?" Even Odd Future offshoots MellowHype and Earl Sweatshirt recall the best moments of hip-hop's past. The sparse, glossy, faux-Spanish-sample on "La Bonita" was MellowHype's most obvious nod to one of their primary influences: the Neptunes. And Earl Sweatshirt's wigged-out "Chum" resembles a pared-down MF Doom.
Though rapping women are marginalized, and often still condescendingly referred to as "femcees," 2012 was the year where they weren't burdened by the traditionally rigid and defensive confines of genre. Nicki Minaj, who can still flow better than most dudes out, went straight-up pop; Azealia Banks became an indie darling; Ke$ha repurposes rap flows for a pop setting. Within this context, their contemporaries, like Angel Haze, Dominique Young Unique, Lady Leshurr and Canada's Reema Major, are emerging on new, hopefully fairer ground.
What's most important about hip-hop's maturation in 2012 is that we can finally (hopefully) put arguments about "real hip-hop" to rest. A genre that's 30-plus years will obviously look much different from its origins, and while there is an important sociopolitical context — the music of marginalization — that is in very real danger of being lost, we can stay true to the genre's ethos by allowing for these splintered, multiple perspectives.
Perhaps the most enduring philosophy about hip-hop is that it's less a set of stylistic parameters, and more a mindset, a tool to explain the world. This year, hip-hop seemed comfortable enough with itself (and us, in turn, with it) to allow different voices to emerge and co-exist. This is why acts like Drake (who uses rap themes to write pop songs), Kendrick Lamar (who contemporizes the rap-as-life narrative trope) and Trinidad James (who — I don’t even know) can exist side-by-side.
Top 5 hip-hop albums of the year
The 5 best Ryan Hemsworth remixes of 2012
Drake, Cadence Weapon nominated, but can hip-hop win the Polaris Prize?
on Dec 14, 2012