What this A$AP Rocky and Travis Scott debate teaches us about "biting" in 2016.
“When I came out as a rapper, everyone had their own style. If you sounded like someone else, that word was called biting. ‘You biting my style, you biting my shit.’"
That's Snoop Dogg in an interview with Pigeons & Planes last year, describing the origins of swag-jacking in hip hop. He went on to explain the difference between paying homage (as he did to Slick Rick on "Lodi Dodi") and biting, which mostly boils down to crediting your predecessor:
"I’m gonna redo your song, get you paid all over again, and let everybody know it’s your shit, and put a twist on it for the new kids who don’t even know it exist. That’s a different way of showing love as opposed to everyone rapping the same style."
Whether it's a flow, a production sound, regional slang, or fashion, accusations of biting are still a fixture in the game -- perhaps even more so these days. Back when there were fewer rappers who could be considered "mainstream," trends were easy to trace to their origin -- Run DMC's shell-toed Adidas, LL Cool J's Kangol hats, Dr. Dre's G-funk synths -- but now that any unsigned rapper is accessible via Soundcloud, Drake could notice a style he likes, cop it, and make it his own with none of us being the wiser.
Regional divisions also played a larger role. If Brooklyn was dressing a certain way, L.A. definitely wasn't. If the South was making booty bass, no other region was. Today, we have a guy from the dead zone of Louisville, Kentucky saying that after first hearing his music, everyone initially assumed he was from Toronto or Houston. Toronto or Houston? Those cities are 1500 miles apart! Seven years after Drake sang about "HoustAtlantaVegas," that vision of shortening the distance between music hubs (or in that song's case, stripping hubs) is closer than ever to being reality.
That's why contemporary conversations about biting seem almost absurd if you view them regionally. Take this recent one where A$AP Mob is accusing Travi$ Scott of copying Rocky's style: A Harlem-based crew that came out sounding unmistakably like classic Houston rap is now claiming that a Houston rapper whose sound and collaborators largely come from Atlanta is biting off them. Somewhere, Snoop is laughing to himself about how convoluted this whole thing is.
Specifically in this case, it all comes down to visual style, namely the art direction, brands, and hairstyles that Rocky affiliate Ian Connor pointed out earlier this week. These are even more difficult to trace than stylistic cues in music; who's to say who made a particular brand "cool" or who wore their hair in a certain style of braids first? But for someone as notoriously trend-conscious as Rocky, staying fresh is a matter of moving a mile a minute through different brands, making sure to drop them when he no longer feels they're hot.
When explaining why he dissed a brand he used to rep, Hood By Air, on 2014's "Multiply," he claimed: "I birthed it, so I can kill it." It's certainly an arrogant statement when made by anyone other than the brand's actual founders or designers, but one that was echoed by Kanye on his recent track "FACTS": "I done wore designers I won't wear again."
Outside of fashion, the policing of "biting" in music seems to mimic this strict first-come-first-serve basis. In that same Snoop interview, he spoke of how increasingly difficult it is for him to pick out individual voices in songs: "I love Future, Migos, I love all them. Drake. They my n*ggas, but I don’t know who is who when the record is over." Although you could chalk some of this up to old age and weed brain, he has a point.
Cadences and timbres of modern rap voices can often be muddled to the untrained ear, which is why these debates about biting have become focused on such small, specific aspects of sound and style. Travi$ Scott went up an octave with his vocals on "Antidote," and people were quick to link his delivery to that of Swae Lee's. Scott's own flow on "Skyfall" is just a variation on the triplet-based one that's credited to Migos/Three 6 Mafia/Bone Thugs, though it has spawned clear imitations from Jeremih, Fabolous (below), Jazz Cartier, and even some French rapper named Summer Cem. It's splitting hairs, but after nearly four decades of spoken rhyming over beats, distancing yourself from the competition has become more of a game of inches than ever.
When copying a specific style is done to "show love," as Snoop said, it's still powerful as ever. With the breakdowns of regional barriers, some of the most exciting homages come from unexpected artists. YG usually works with producers from his native L.A., but on the two occasions that he's tapped ATL for beats, the results have hewn even closer to his city's classic sound, albeit with some new bells and whistles thrown in. Metro Boomin stepped out of his comfort zone for My Krazy Life's "1AM," bringing his horror-tinged sound to an interpolation of Dre and Snoop's "Next Episode." Even more so, London On Da Track blended the unique pacing of his beats with unmistakably G-funk synths and cinematic, Dre-style string flourishes on the recent "I Wanna Benz."
Nobody would accuse Metro and London of biting -- these beats are so obvious in their mining of decades-old sounds that no one would claim them to be groundbreaking or new in any way -- and so it's pretty clear that this debate is now limited to the intricacies of hip-hop that can, in one way or another, be regarded as cutting-edge." Travi$ Scott is always photographed in new garments and always collaborates with artists who are hot at the moment, so for him to be accused of following someone else's lead is much more damaging than it would be to someone with an established retro sound or style. Hip-hop's always been a young man's game, but staying ahead of the curve is more difficult than ever.
To be a tastemaker, or one step further than that, an innovator in 2016, you not only have to do things first -- you also have to know when to declare something dead and birth a new style. You have to be the coroner and the midwife.