Sometimes, the sonic boundaries of "weirdo rap" are strikingly obvious. To use another example from this year's Summer Jam, compare Troy Ave's "Your Style" to an Action Bronson track that followed it shortly afterward onstage, "Pepe Lopez." The beat on Troy's song is classic in every way, from its cha-chinging cash register sounds to the disco-y guitar licks, while Bronson is rapping over the instrumental to The Champs' 1958 hit "Tequila." Both rappers abide by the same sampling-first aesthetic in most of their music (somewhat of a rarity in today's DJ Mustard-saturated market of electronically-generated beats), and have even appeared on tracks together, but the fact that Bronsalino decides to release such playful tracks somewhat separates him from more self-serious rappers like Troy Ave. It's not always this easy to locate "weirdos" though.
Take Kanye West, who has thrown the hip-hop world for a loop at several points in his career. His most recent "WTF"-bait was Yeezus, a polarizing album that saw him adopting an unprecedentedly abrasive aesthetic, and confused several more orthodox-leaning rappers. 50 Cent was one of them, famously saying "some of that shit is weird to me." He elaborated, "It doesn’t feel like hip-hop to me, it feels like a fusion of something else, like a weird combination of dance music sounds and stuff." In this case, Fif's beef with the music seems to be purely aesthetic -- none of his qualms here were with Kanye's lyrics, appearance or background -- and based on the mentality that hip-hop is usually free from fusions with other genres. While that's patently untrue (hip-hop was spawned from genres like disco, funk, and R&B, and has historically taken on the characteristics of prevailing trends in pop music), his tunnel vision view of hip-hop as a tree with no off-shooting branches is also echoed by Troy Ave.
When asked to define a "weirdo" in the context of hip-hop, Ave responded: "Weirdo is -- Right now, with social media and the internet there's a lot of different groups that are getting mixed and gelled into one. And it doesn't go like that. Like with rock music you have different genres of rock. You have classic rock. You have -- help me out here -- alternative rock. Now with rap music you can't just fuse all types of rap."
If Troy Ave is right about one thing, it's that the internet age has led to widespread genre cross-pollination that's unprecedented in music. Though the idea's mostly discussed in indie rock circles, it's very visible in hip-hop's flirtation with EDM and the breaking down of boundaries between regions that used to have wildly different sounds (more on that in the next section). What Troy is wildly off the mark about is assuming that hip-hop is immune to genre fusions, or that it's not flexible enough to sustain them. But for every money-grabbing, braindead crossover attempt ("Turn Down For What," "Timber") there are artists who base their careers off putting genres in meaningful conversation with one another.
While we're on the subject of EDM, take a look at AraabMuzik, a virtuosic producer who got his start making beats for Harlem's Dipset crew. After producing for Hell Rell and Cam'ron in the late '00s, he made his solo debut in 2011 with Electronic Dream, an album that melded his hard-hitting hip-hop chops with trance-influenced dance music, creating a wildly refreshing hybrid of styles. Though AraabMuzik went on to produce a track on Troy Ave's most recent album, he seems to function within the "fuse all types of rap" category that Troy spoke out against. He produces jacked-up boom-bap for rap classicists, bombastically warped trap for bugged-out oddballs like Nacho Picasso, and instrumental blends of rave and hip-hop in his solo work; AraabMuzik is the perfect portrait of a wholly 21st century hip-hop artist.
Other NYC artists like Roc Marciano, Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire, Harry Fraud and Bronson walk a similar tightrope between hip-hop purism and open-minded experimentation, but no one does that balancing act better than El-P, a veteran producer, rapper, record label founder and current member of Run The Jewels alongside Killer Mike. In his early days, El made distorted, experimental beats that satisfied the growing underground market, but he's now grown into a sound that simultaneously pulls from hip-hop's rich past and imagines its future. His 2007 album I'll Sleep While You're Dead featured contributions from rock musicians (members of Nine Inch Nails and The Mars Volta), but also sampled the same material that artists like MC Lyte, Boogie Down Productions, Notorious B.I.G. and Public Enemy had fifteen years prior. By creating a collage of sounds both familiar and foreign, El made music that bridged the gap between "underground" and "classic." With Run The Jewels, he's in even more palatable territory, sampling classic drum breaks and pulling the Run-DMC trick of trading off lines with Killer Mike. At New York's Governors Ball last weekend, the duo performed with DJ Trackstar and incorporated more scratching into their set than the entirety of Summer Jam could muster. Though they were playing a rock-centric festival, Run The Jewels came through with a performance that had more in common with classic hip-hop than the vast majority of artists who graced the mainstage at New York's premier hip-hop concert. Think about that for a minute.
What Troy Ave is noticing is a mainstream hip-hop market that suddenly has more in common sonically with dance music than it does with boom-bap. While I'll be the first to admit that there are now three more Waka Flocka Flame/EDM collaborations than the world really needed, a slew of bad, cheap radio hits is no reason to close off hip-hop's doors to outside influence. Going forward, there will inevitably be rappers whose work has nothing in common with that of Eric B & Rakim -- same with modern rock music and The Rolling Stones, modern R&B and Smokey Robinson, modern metal and Black Sabbath -- and there's nothing any one artist can do to ebb this move away from hip-hop's roots. Still, acknowledging those roots is just as important as evolution, and though there will be artists like AraabMuzik and El-P who manage to seamlessly do both, we still need artists to raise awareness of hip-hop's earliest stars. Troy Ave could be doing that, but he's too busy going after other artists for their "weirdo" deviances from "real rap."