This paper will be examining Hip-Hop/Rap music up close in the context of how it moved from a very edgy genre of music with a small target audience to a dominating genre which can be consumed as Pop Culture. This phenomenon will be examined using Adorno’s On Popular Music to explain how Hip-Hop/Rap has become standardized to be safe an appeal to the general population. In complementary form to this theory, the Relations of productions portion of Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding model will be used to detail how the genre contradicts itself in its production to only reinforce it becoming pop culture. I will be using two examples from the genre to examine, Logic, and Lil Pump. Logic has moved from a hungry performer in the genre to an artist who distributes music now on a much more safe agenda. Lil Pump is one artist of a very saturated area of the genre which manufactures similar music all packaged with a similar looking artist. This paper will argue that Hip-Hop/Rap has become pop culture and has lost some of its authenticity that made it so unique in its earlier life.
Keywords: Hip-Hop, Rap, Adorno, Hall, Pop Culture
From the Notorious B.I.G., Common, Wu-Tang Clan, to Kanye West, J. Cole, Logic, and Lil Pump hip-hop has an expansive array of sounds. Now a days hip-hop makes up the majority of the top rotation on spotify in the country. The genre was not always like this however, it used to have a much smaller audience. How has Hip-Hop become popular culture?
To understand this one must first understand Hip-Hops beginnings. Its exact roots are debatable. The widely-accepted belief is that during a party DJ Kool Herc scratched the record in order to extend the length of the song. This allowed people to dance longer to the music. This caught on quickly and people began to create their own turntables and create their own mixes. MC’s or rappers then began to rap over the mixes. Once the Mc’s added their lyrics, it officially became Hip-Hop
The content of original Hip-Hop represented much of what life was like in Harlem and the South Bronx in the 70’s. The lyrics contained testimonials of violence, poverty, police brutality, failing economies and government corruption. The streets of Upper Manhattan and Lower Bronx were harsh and the music allowed the people of these communities to vent and spread their thoughts.
So how does a genre that started out of the streets of Harlem move into being one of the largest genres in the United States? Is it because of the simplicity of the music’s sound, or better musical equipment or maybe even better MC’s? According to Adorno, it comes down to standardization. Adorno argues that Pop Music is popular because it will produce the same effect on consumers. The composition hears for the listener. This is how popular music divests the listener of his spontaneity and promotes conditioned reflexes, says Adorno (Adorno, 1941, 16). It needs to be easy to listen to and understand by large amounts of people. In other words, the consumer should relate to the music, not feel confused by the content, and follow a safe pattern.
How does Hip-Hop become popular culture then? You strip Hip-Hop of what made it so distinct in the first place. You need to make it easily digestible for the masses. Hip-Hop contains testimonials of issues faced by people who are marginalized. These need to be removed and be made safe in order to be mass produced. Rapping about the daily struggles in Harlem is not going to be listened to and enjoyed by the masses around the country. In order to make this genre a form of popular culture then the content must be pre-digested.
Here in turn lies the irony of Hip-Hop as a popular culture. Every artist in rap at one point or another struggled to get where they are today. Before Logic was world renowned he was handing out mixtapes on the streets. His content was unique, and detailed the struggles of his life in poverty. But in order to make it further in the industry, one must make music which goes against the founding cores of Hip-Hop.
Hip-Hops standardization can also be looked at with Stuart Hall’s Encoding-Decoding model. The model’s relations of productions are very prominent when it comes to Hip-Hops creative field. Artist that make it big in Hip-Hop often create labels to sign other artist. Creating an organization that will then mass produce music which the label approves of. This minimizes the channels at which a small artist can get their music spread. In order to push music through a label, you need to fit into what they believe is ideal and safe to produce. An example of this is the rapper Lil Pump.
Lil Pump produces a subgenre of Hip-Hop titled Lean Rap and it is exactly what it sounds like. The content often contains references of drug abuse in a positive light, often times lean, marijuana, or pills. The method at which this music is exported is often similar too, in the way the artist appears. Many of these rappers often have facial tattoos, colorful hair, and a large presence on social media. This image is easily exportable to young masses who can relate to the music. Teenagers or young adults who experiment with drugs and want to rebel from the norm find the content and the rapper easily digestible.
Hip-Hop has stayed culturally relevant throughout the years by either glorifying a life that the general population does not live, or by expressing struggles that people can relate to. Hip-Hop had been dying out as a genre in the 2000’s but was revived with the 2008 Recession. The recession left many people feeling frustrated and untrusting of their government. Hip-Hop being controversial was a way to express that distrust with the status quo. No longer was the typical consumer of Hip-Hop someone who lived the lifestyle that it wrote about. Instead you see the rise of consumers of all demographics listening to Hip-Hop. This is very important because it changes the content that must be made in order to capture more of this market.
In what follows I will discuss Hip-Hop artists Logic and Lil Pump and how they are products of a standardized genre. The artists are fragmented to appear different but their content is still predigested. Ultimately, this discussion will frame Logic and Lil Pump from a popular culture theory and how they fit that mold.
Logic is a rapper of controversy, not because of his material being dangerous or defying but rather his material being too soft. His raps often include topics of social justice issues such as poverty, gang violence, low wages, and suicide.
Perhaps his most well known song is 1-800-273-8255. This is the number for the Suicide Prevention Hotline. In this song he raps from both the perspective of the person who wants to commit suicide and the hotline operator who is defusing the situation. The song was critically acclaimed but also received very poorly by many in the Hip-Hop community.
The song receives much negative attention because it comes across as a very predigested song. The song itself appears to be very different and challenging. In the chorus Logic states, I don’t wanna be alive, I don’t wanna be alive,I just wanna die today, I just wanna die (Logic 2017). Reading these lyrics can be very harsh, and create a sense of sadness and mortality in the consumer. This appears to stand out from the rest of Hip-Hop but in relationship to Adorno, the song really is predigested. The song can’t make the listener upset because it wouldn’t be easy listening music then. The song still contains many of the same aspects that popular culture Hip-Hop has. The song is presented to be emotional but still contains a very recitable set of lyrics which make it easy for the song to be sung by the consumers. In one of the lines of the chorus Logic states, Who can relate, (Woo!) (Logic, 2017). This line continues to show how the song is really not any different from the rest of Hip-Hop. In a song that seems to be discussing a serious topic you have a lyric which includes an sound affect and adlib.
This song is also easy listening music. It appears to tackle a serious subject matter, but yet it can be played without fully listening to. One does not need to listen to the entirety of the album or the song in order to understand the message of the material. The song has a very predictable pattern in its flow and notes. One can easily strip the song of its lyrics and the song can still be easily identified by its instrumentals.
Logic is also a predigested entity in himself. According to Stuart Hall, Relations of Production is defined as The organisation and combination of practices within media apparatuses (Hall, 1973, p. 508). Logic is signed to the label Def Jam. Def Jam is a major player in the Hip-Hop world as it has been around since 1984. Def Jam ushered in may popular artists such as LL Cool J, Big Sean , and the Beastie Boys. The record has a set strategy when it comes to producing popular music as it has done so since the 80’s. It’s because of this relations of productions between Logic and Def Jam that his music must not challenge their beliefs and must fit into their brand. LL Cool J was originally denied by Warner Bros because he didn’t fit with their brand. It was too raw, minimalist and different, said Chris Bolman. It wouldn’t appeal to mainstream tastes (Bolman, 2017). Def Jam also uses producers such as NO ID who has produced for other popular rappers in the industry. This creates a type of rap instrumental that may sound similar even with different subject matter.
This song is one way Logic’s music is shown to be popular culture. His music is standardized and utilizes methods in Hip-Hop which are known to be successful. His subject matter is very relatable to the new consumer of Hip-Hop, and he is signed by a major record label which enforces Stuart Hall’s Relations of Production.
Lil Pump is another rapper who has recently came into the Hip-Hop community very quickly. His music is a subgenre of Hip-Hop which currently can be best classified as lean rap. The genre of rap is exactly what it sounds like, with lyrics often containing content that glorifies lean and pills. The artist are often viewed as being unlyrical by other rappers due to the simplicity of the bars.
Perhaps Lil Pump’s most popular song is Gucci Gang. The song has become popular for its simple repetitive bass heavy beat and simple lyrics which glorify an expensive lavish lifestyle. The song is a prime example of popular music according to Adorno. According to Adorno, The beginning of the chorus is replaceable by the beginning of innumerable other choruses. The interrelationship among the elements or the relationship of the elements to the whole would be unaffected. When looking closer at the chorus of Lil Pump’s Gucci Gang, you can see how the chorus can easily be replaced by another set of lyrics and the entirety of the song would be unchanged. The chorus goes as:
Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang
Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang (Gucci gang!)
Spend ten racks on a new chain
My girl love do cocaine, ooh
I got a girl, I forgot her name
I can’t buy a girl no wedding ring
Rather go and buy Balmains
Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang (Gucci gang!)
Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang
Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang (Gucci gang!) (Lil Pump, 2017)
The song still exists in an easily understandable format without the chorus. The song itself also utilizes the repetitive format of lyrics which helps make the song easy to remember and listen to. Gucci Gang is repeated numerous times throughout the entirety of the song. The song actually only has 106 unique words out of the total 361, and can be listened to from start to finish in just two minutes and four seconds. This shows how the song can be fragmented very easily and is extremely easy to digest for consumers, making it a safe option for radio stations to play.
In addition to this simplicity, the channel of which Lil Pump and his music have traveled to make it to popular culture only enforces the theory of how this music is popular culture even though it tries to show it’s not. Lil Pump was a XXL freshman. XXL is a magazine and website which specializes in Hip-Hop. Every year the organization selects 10 freshman who are up and coming artists in the genre who it believes are going to be popular. The irony of XXL is it seems to selects artist who are not widely known and are different than the rest. When examining the recent 2018 XXL Freshman list however you can see something that actually shows no uniqueness. The majority of the artists in the 2018 freshman list have facial tattoos, similar haircuts, and produce music which can either be considered lean rap or is closely related. XXL helps bring artists into the spotlight but only artist which they deem safe and digestible. This coincides with Stuart Hall’s Relations of Production. All of the artist are given the opportunity to work with popular DJs who will help them create music. In turn however, the result is a similar sounding song due to the fact that the artist are similar and the production is similar.
Lil Pump looks to be unique at first because of his multi-colored hair, and his facial tattoos. When looked at in a closer context however one can see how his music is actually the same as other popular culture rappers through its ability to be fragmented and easily digestible. His music is also produced by a set of producers who produce other popular music in the genre, therefore limiting the amount of uniqueness, which in turn makes him a safe and pre-digested artist in Hip-Hop.
Hip-Hop was once a genre of music which was listened to only by the few who understood the lifestyle. The quality of music was considered much more authentic because it told stories which were a true testimony to an underprivileged lifestyle and was very hard to digest by people outside of the Hip-Hop community. Hip-Hop however has transitioned over time and become a genre which can be considered popular music according to Adorno.
Through artist such as Logic we can see how music which tries to prove itself as serious subject matter is produced in formats which are easily digestible by consumers. The music is easy to chop up and fragment and consists of musical adlibs which do little to challenge the norms of popular culture. His music is also produced by DJs who produce a large selection of other popular rappers music.
Lil Pump shows us another perspective of how rap tries to present itself as being different by presenting himself as being rebellious through drug use and different haircuts which are often multicolored. His music does little to challenge the listener as the songs are short, have little unique and difficult words, and often repeats the same lyrics over and over.
Hip-Hop has become a very large genre bringing in over $10 billion in revenue last year alone according to ABC. The industry did not get that big from producing music which did not conform to the rest of popular music. Hip-Hop tries to present itself as a challenging and different genre of music from the rest but in turn still plays to the same tune as other forms of music.
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