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."
Though sound is the most immediate factor in who is and isn't a "weirdo," an artist's origins can also attract ire from their more traditional peers. As evidenced by Nas' "I only love niggas that come from the hood" comment, hip-hop's roots are most assuredly in the decrepit housing projects of the NYC metropolitan area, and the genre itself is often viewed as a means to escape "the hood." As this country's poor are often barred from living anywhere but the projects, it may seem like a bit of sweet role-reversal to bar members of other income brackets from hip-hop, but that's not possible in the internet age.
The buzz and promotional cycles have moved from the streets and the offices of The Source and XXL to Twitter and savvy music blogs, which means that, according to Slate's Jonah Weiner, "the barrier to entry for new artists is low and the absence of commercial stakes means tried-and-true formulas can be gleefully dispensed with." Whereas you used to need an entire hometown following behind you, and buzz drummed up by radio, New York-based publications and word-of-mouth, now Drake can say "got rich off a mixtape" and mean it. As evidenced by the astronomical success of So Far Gone, along with countless other free releases, if you can infiltrate the headphones of America's youth by whatever means necessary, you're in. That's it. They don't need to know your backstory, what set you rep, or what block you grew up on, as long as the music is nice.
That's how we end up with someone like Chance The Rapper coming out of Chicago, though the city is dominated by a drill scene that runs completely opposite of the path he's carved out for himself. In the past, Chance's wide-eyed, independent approach to music may have been silenced by the violent, trap-indebted prevailing scene, but in the free-for-all that is the online hip-hop world, there's room enough for both. Troy Ave doesn't think so, though. "If you from Chicago, and you don't look like the people of Chicago," he said in an interview with thisis50.com, "You don't reflect those people, you don't talk like those people, you either a fraud or a weirdo." This type of mentality also led Troy to say, with the air of someone ordering a drink "shaken, not stirred," "I like my L.A. rappers gang-affiliated," in response to a question about Kendrick Lamar.
While claiming loyalty to a currently or formerly gang-affiliated rapper is fine, saying shit like that sends a completely wrong message to aspiring MCs and and kids. By telling the world that the only hip-hop worth listening to is by artists with gang connections, you're inspiring kids, not to overcome the circumstances they've been handed, but to actively seek out lives of violence and crime. If Troy really wanted to support artists who come from troubled backgrounds, he'd be out there paying for their studio time and starting after-school music programs, not egging on others to adopt the gang lifestyle in order to make him like them.
Still, there's something to be said for rappers who bring attention to the turmoil on their home turf. Lil Bibby and Lil Herb, two products of the aforementioned drill scene, make similar music to their peers, but with a more cautionary tone. Unlike Chief Keef, who glorifies gun violence like it's a sport, Herb's gun references always speak to the feeling of being trapped in his neighborhood -- that this is the life he was handed, not the one he grabbed up willingly. He and Bibby are by no means "weirdos," and their music is by no means parent-friendly, but they offer a documentary-style counterpoint to drill's action movie thrills.
Bibby recently graced the cover of XXL along with Chance (and Troy, for that matter), and that, more than anything, is a sign of where we're headed. Two rappers from the same city, both with completely different sounds and fanbases, neither speaking out against the other in headline-baiting attempts to squash the other's rep. If Bibby and Chance can sit alongside each other and provide intelligent, "alternative" versions of Chicago's prevailing sound, the future is looking bright for a more diverse playing field in hip-hop.
Another complaint often lobbed at "weirdos" is their affinity for drugs. While there are many exceptions, a recent study I did showed that, without a doubt, drug references are increasing in hip-hop, and it's usually alt-rappers who are the biggest perpetrators. Defender of hip-hop normalcy, Troy Ave, has also weighed in on this issue (of course). "That shit is backwards... Would you rather your kids be strung out on drugs or dealing drugs?", he replied incredulously to a question in the same thisis50 interview. As long as those drugs aren't crack or heroin (which are by no means popular to rap about these days), I'd go on the record saying that dealing drugs has more potential for danger than doing drugs.
To revisit Chicago for a moment, Keef frequently raps about robbing other crews' stash houses, whereas Chance is content tripping "acid in the rain." Contrary to popular belief, LSD is just about as dangerous as alcohol, and taking it occasionally will land you in a lot less hot water than running into a heavily-armed house while brandishing guns and demanding drugs and/or money probably will. Though potential for danger probably wasn't a factor in Troy Ave's response, he framed it from the perspective of a parent ("Would you rather your kids..."), so for all the parents out there, I'm telling you that if done responsibly, most drugs are much less dangerous than dealing them is.
But no one's ever gotten into a hip-hop track for how "safe" it sounds or how parent-friendly it is. The drug dealing narratives popularized by T.I., Jay Z, Clipse and others often make for very enjoyable tracks, and Troy Ave is seeing a move away from that to the more addled sounds of the people that buy drugs -- the Danny Browns, Chances, and Flatbush Zombies of the world. While that's true to some extent, 2014 in particular has seen some rappers deftly blend addled rapping with drug-peddling narratives. Two artists in particular, ScHoolboy Q and Freddie Gibbs, fully embraced weird characteristics on their recent releases, Gibbs in the form of zonked-out Madlib beats and Q in the form of well... his own signature array of oddball deliveries and noises. Still, both of them talked pimping and pushing, with Q's gleeful "I just stopped selling crack today" specifically recalling a classic style that the thisis50 interviewer mentioned in relation to Troy Ave: the "ex-drug dealing street rappers of old." Q's story in particular, that of a dealer who became addicted to the drugs he was selling, is innovative and soul-baring in a way that very few of his peers have managed to replicate.
Hip-hop fans have never been the type to place value in the safety of hip-hop stars (the two most popular rappers of the '90s were both embroiled in an East-West war for the majority of their short careers, after all), and while Troy Ave comes at it from a parental standpoint, it's probably not safety he's really concerned with either. The two main targets of his "weirdo" tirade on thisis50 were Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, neither of whom consume or sell drugs, so his point rings kind of hollow (especially after Kendrick hilariously said that he "never really focused" on Troy's music). Either way, hip-hop has room for all sorts of narratives -- drug dealing, drug taking, drug abstinence -- and this diversity in relationships to drugs is refreshing because the age-old "I smoke weed and sell crack" rap story now has competition. No one has told Troy Ave that he can't rap about selling drugs and no one has criticized him for not taking drugs, both of which may have happened back in the day, so he needs to embrace the laissez-faire outlook on drugs that hip-hop has taken on recently, and stop calling out others for being allegedly "strung out."
Though it's totally possible to make strange and unique music while staying within hip-hop's strict dress code -- Hip-hop historian Dante Ross once called Ghostface Killah "the only weirdo in a triple-X shirt" -- venturing outside the safe confines of baggy, sports-related attire will almost certainly earn you some scorn from rap's weirdo police. The Awl's Dave Bry gave a much more eloquent explanation of this phenomenon in a 2011 article: "Rap is one of the most conservative forms of popular music going. Generally, rap artists break codes of dress, behavior and subject matter at the peril of their commercial viability."
Seeing "rap" and "conservative" appear in the same sentence is a little jarring due to the fact that most conservatives in America think hip-hop is morally reprehensible, but in terms of clothing and sexual orientation, hip-hop is one of the most right wing, old-school arenas in a country that is rapidly moving toward acceptance of same-sex marriage. Even rappers who have no history of non-straight relationships now face "weirdo" labels and the disdain of fans, simply because of how they present themselves in the public eye.
Every time an article about Atlanta rapper Young Thug gets published on HNHH, two things happen. The first is the inevitable string of comments that call him "gay" and a "faggot" and the second is an article appearing in the "You May Also Like..." section entitled "Is Young Thug The First Gay Thug Rapper?" Yes, Thugger has been photographed once wearing a dress, but he's never come out as homosexual, he raps about sleeping with women A TON, and he's one of many rappers to recently experiment with traditionally feminine clothing, including A$AP Rocky, Kanye West, Kid Cudi, Lil B and even Jay Z. To me, it seems like most of the homophobic comments thrown his way are just easy ways to dismiss his music. Young Thug is arguably even more controversial for his music, which usually garners as much hate as it does love on this site, and while it's fine to say "I'm not feeling this" or even "This is trash," gay slurs just come off as uninformed and irrelevant to the dude's music.
But beyond this misplaced hate, what damage do queer rappers really do to hip-hop? For the most part, vocally gay or transgender rappers like Le1f, Mykki Blanco and Cakes Da Killa are more underground and certainly not chart-topping at this point, so why are they considered threatening? It's not like the first gay rapper created a domino effect that led to all rappers wearing effeminate clothing, vogueing and rapping about having sex with men -- not by a long shot.
In a recent, article published by Noisey, writer Drew Millard calls Troy Ave the "Rap Game George W. Bush," and while his tone throughout the piece is a little harsh, he really does have a solid point connecting Ave's aversion to "weirdos" to the country's last conservative president. Just like the Republican Party's continued protection of the traditional family unit (whatever that means) and longing for a "simpler, more idyllic time," Ave is showing his fear for what the future holds in his campaign against "weirdos."
Hip-hop is looking weirder than ever, and the future is looking brighter than ever for people who couldn't give two shits about conventions or traditions. Hip-hop needs people to keep making classic-sounding records, but it doesn't need a "Team America: World Police"-style gang of vigilantes patrolling hip-hop for all that is weird, unique or different from the norm. The internet is a vast free-for-all that allows for artists of all sounds, backgrounds, styles and appearances to connect with different subsets of fans while coexisting alongside artists who are wildly different from each other, and it's a truly awesome thing to behold.
A divide is growing in hip-hop between genre traditionalists and the artists many of them call "weirdo rappers." In this editorial, we examine the various differences between the two camps, and explain why they're both vital to the future of hip-hop.
50 Cent and G-Unit made headlines following this year's Summer Jam for a very visible fight that took place in front of 50,000 viewers (70,000 if you count those online) on the event's mainstage. But outside of that seconds-long scuffle, there was a bigger, albeit more subterranean, conflict going on throughout the daylong event. It may not have been apparent to all those in attendance, but this year's Summer Jam saw some passive-aggressive head-butting between two camps that have been growing in the past few years: hip-hop traditionalists and the new-school artists who some have deemed "weirdo rappers."
Kicking off on the mainstage, the main perpetrator of those "weirdo rap" comments, Troy Ave, was taking shots before he even stepped onstage. Airing a promotional video in which he defined his own legacy ("It goes Big, Jay, then Troy Ave"), the Crown Heights, Brooklyn MC also threw up a picture of Trinidad James and sneeringly said, "Trinidad James -- that's just a weirdo rapper," as if that was reason enough for any sane hip-hop fan to write him off.
Between sets, a whole host of Hot 97 DJs spun short snippets of tracks to keep the crowd amped. Though they interspersed classics with more modern turn up anthems, every smidgen of old-school was seemingly introduced with the signifier that it was "real rap" or "real hip-hop." "This is what real hip-hop sounded like before it went ratchet," said DJ Mister Cee numerous times, before throwing on "Lunchini," or "Shook Ones Pt. II" or "Let Me Clear My Throat," or any number of other songs in the Hot 97-approved NYC hip-hop canon. As Rolling Stone put it, "The disappointment in [Mister Cee's] voice was audible as he longed for a time before hip-hop decentralized."
Then came Nas, whose Illmatic 20th anniversary set was cut short by a pair of younger rappers: Meek Mill and French Montana. Introducing the former, Nas got passionate when he yelled: "I only love niggas that come from the hood. That's all I fucking love!" Perhaps speaking out against Summer Jam artists like Iggy Azalea, Childish Gambino, Wiz Khalifa, Jhené Aiko and Questlove, who all come from less impoverished backgrounds, the former Queensbridge Houses resident made his point clear: the hood is where hip-hop started, and that's where it should stay.
All three of those shots took aim at a different aspect of the new generation of rappers -- Troy Ave's at their style and appearance, DJ Mister Cee's at their sound, and Nas' at their social and economic background -- so clearly we need to investigate this divide more closely. Of course, not all of these complaints were necessarily directed at cut-and-dry "weirdo rappers," all of them stemmed from a widening gap between artists who follow the classic hip-hop path to success, and those whose fame is a product of a new era of hip-hop. 20 years ago, someone who looked like Trinidad James, incorporated electronic music into their beats, and hailed from the suburbs would not have made it as a rapper. Straight up. All you need to do to spot this is look at past Summer Jam lineups.
- In 1994, the concert's first year, the street-hardened Wu-Tang Clan shared the stage with more socially conscious artists like Arrested Development and A Tribe Called Quest, but apart from all-girl R&B group SWV, there wasn't huge variation between the sounds of all artists present.
- Fifteen years ago, Q-Tip and DMX represented the two contrasting poles of Summer Jam, with "One Love"-style optimism meeting "It's Dark and Hell is Hot"-style ferocity. But beyond that, both came from NYC outskirts and both went on to work with Jay Z -- even though they sounded worlds apart, they ran within the same circles.
- Ten years ago, the Kanye West/50 Cent rivalry that later went on to fuel an album-selling competition represented the yin and yang of that particular Summer Jam, but again, the differences in sound were minimal. Fiddy rose to fame with a roster of Dr. Dre beats at his disposal, and Kanye was riding high off a debut album that had Dre's "Xxplosive" to thank for most of its drum tracks.
- In 2009, the "weirdo" had just begun its rise, with Asher Roth (who was more of a "frat rapper" than a "weirdo" at the time, but he was getting there) hitting the Festival Stage, and this year, Gambino, Action Bronson, Young Thug and A$AP Ferg all showed up, with their alternative stylings letting the world know that hip-hop was changing.
Variation, in terms of sound, style and background, has increased in hip-hop in the past 20 years (as can be said for almost any genre of music in a 20-year period), but where exactly do these new artists diverge from the tried-and-true model of old-school hip-hop? Beyond that, are their various forms of rule-breaking dangerous to the genre?
By breaking down the concept of the "weirdo" into four categories: sound, social/economic/regional, drugs and appearance/sexual orientation, we'll unpack this question. Read on by clicking on images in the galleries above.