Theodore R. Griffiths
Art is forever changing, and that is especially true for the modern music industry. A woman who won six Grammys only a year ago may not even be mentioned this year due to a lack of new releases (I’m looking at you, Adele).
Musicians become comfortable and complacent, waiting years between mediocre records with one or two solid tracks on the entire album. The only genre that cares enough about their fans to give them consistent, nearly constant material is hip-hop, and that is the final nail in the coffin for the divas of the rock and pop scene (which are essentially one in the same).
Through the free mix tape, a rapper like Pusha T can stay relevant four years after a proper album, simply because he keeps his fans interested with free, yet album-worthy tracks. It is a fan service that is almost never done in the mainstream rock community, which looks like a middle-aged, bloated Elvis compared to the young, technological movement in hip-hop.
While some may see this as a result of the short attention span of the modern listener, I see it as an evolution of the listener. It is no longer acceptable for a band to make a great single, throw an album around it, then charge $15 or more for what is really a song surrounded by filler. This still goes on today whether it is with rock groups (nostalgia is great, but the new Soundgarden album is not), or pop artists like Katy Perry.
This is where hip-hop has an advantage over rock, pop, or any of these other names for the same music. The rapper or his record label can test the market before he releases anything, and gauge what people want to hear from him off of the tracks on the mix tape. This has become a common tactic in packaging great debut albums.
For instance, two relatively recent hip-hop debuts have been by Meek Mill and A$AP Rocky. Both made their name through the mix tape circuit, garnering their fair share of praise and criticisms along the way. This culminated in the development of balanced releases for both artists, showcasing what made them great on their mix tapes, but adding that extra shine that comes with a big budget from a proper record label. Once the public is ready for something new, they’ll releases new mix tapes and start the process all over again.
Some rock musicians may argue that they can’t keep up with that rate of production, and that they can release a single song early at the most. The argument typically leads to them referencing hip-hop as a lesser art, making some uninformed comment about the lack of instruments or the “ridiculous” lyrics.
I would counter that and call it only one thing: lazy. I have played in numerous rock bands throughout my life, participating in the writing and recording of countless EPs, demos, and albums. I have also participated in the creation of instrumentals for hip-hop songs (or “the beat” if you live in clubs), and the writing process that goes along with them. Hip-hop is just as difficult, if not more so.
Instead of repeating a chorus 14 times, then shouting four lines into a microphone for the verses, you actually have to write lyrics and fill up three or more minutes with your words, your opinions, your feelings. Also, to be honest, working with keyboards, synths, and drum machines to make a proper instrumental makes playing guitar look unfinished and unrefined. You’re actually crafting something in hip-hop, not just adding to what your other band mates have already produced.
If rock and pop music plans on sticking around through this next decade they must take a cue from hip-hop, and begin connecting with their fans on a more personal level. Mix tapes are a fan service, sometimes even labeled as a holdover for a delayed album (Lil Wayne’s “Sorry 4 the Wait” comes to mind). On the other hand, rock and pop artists seem to think that they’re doing their fans a favor by releasing anything at all.
When listening to a great hip-hop album you feel as though the artist crafted it for you, and are willing to wear their heart on their sleeve to tell you the story of their life. Rock has lost that luster, becoming nothing more than overproduced noise from a detached industry that values a hit single over a cohesive work of art.