Of my mum’s primary complaints about rap, number one is that it’s repetitive and all sounds the same. Wrong, Mum. Wrong.
Sure, there are bad rappers or a particular flow could become all the rage (the flow popularised by Migos in ‘Versace’ is the most recent example), but hip hop – like any other music – has a wide variety of genres and sub-genres.
These days, styles tend to be divorced from their geographic source, but in the ’90s East and West Coast hip hop were stylistically apart. While East Coast beats were dominated by jazz samples, producers in the West favoured funk loops – a trend popularised by Dr Dre after N.W.A split up. Even Biggie saw the wave and included Dre-inspired G-funk beats in his later work.
The laid back delivery perfected by Snoop is typical of the West, and follows a trend started by Tupac in his final album: when not highlighting injustice, it’s important to celebrate the finer things in life. This relaxed style stood in contrast to the typical snarl and rat-a-tat flow on the other side of the country, a reflection of the region from which the styles were born: the beautiful weather and sprawling cities of the West versus the bitter winters and grey metropolises of the East.
New York City is the spiritual home of East Coast rap and hip hop more broadly, and each of its five boroughs have produced their own hip hop royalty. The Bronx produced one of the founding fathers in KRS-One, as well as Big Pun and Fat Joe a little later on. Queens has its fair share of hip-hop sensei with Rakim, Run DMC and A Tribe Called Quest running the game in the 1980s, before the rasping poetry of Nas and Fiddy’s massive bangers (and questionable fashion sense) set the world alight in the decades following.
Head to Shaolin (Staten Island) and you’ll find the Wu Tang Clan, whose unique combination of kung fu themes and inner city folklore has won them a vast cult following. Even Manhattan (Harlem) produced some icons in their own right with Puff Daddy (richest rapper ever), dip-set pioneer Cam’ron, and the late great Big L.
But when you talk hip hop in the East, two names stand above all: The Notorious B.I.G. (R.I.P) and his protégé and current King of New York: Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. Both from Brooklyn, their flow, wit and genius wordplay make them inseparable as the East Coast’s best ever.
But for every Biggie, there is an equal and opposite Machiavelli. It would be remiss of me not to mention the God King of the West Coast, Tupac Shakur, who’s kind of like the founder of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung: they both remain official heads of state despite having died in the ’90s.
The undisputed Godfathers of West Coast and gangsta rap more broadly are N.W.A., and their legendary producer Dr Dre is still the most sought after beatmaker in Cali. However, when NWA was in decline, Tupac picked up the mantle and rapped about social injustice with a rawness and aggression to which a candle hasn’t since been put.
‘Changes’, released posthumously a full six years after its recording in 1992, blew up the charts, and remains relevant in its treatment of racial profiling, poverty, and the willingness of young black men to destroy their own community through murder and drug trafficking.
Dr Dre recently crowned Compton-born and bred Kendrick Lamar the King of the West and de facto successor to Tupac’s legacy. Kendrick’s mind-bending flows and clever interplay with the same themes Machiavelli was rapping about 20 years earlier have led to vast popular appeal and widespread critical acclaim.
Let’s head down South now, where the party’s at. Over the past decade, the Dirty South has settled on a recipe that’s taken over mainstream hip hop: a southern drawl (usually half or double time), some heavy bass, and the distinctive sound of a Roland TR-808 drum machine.
In terms of the innovators, it was 2 Live Crew out of Miami, the Geto Boys and DJ Screw from Texas, and Three 6 Mafia of Memphis who introduced South to North. Outkast is a different kettle of fish entirely, with the idiosyncratic player/poet personalities of Big Boi and Andre 3000 resulting in a thoroughly unique sound. However, the twang of their Atlanta accents remains a constant to the present day.
In the early-mid 2000s, the South took over the Billboard charts and hasn’t relinquished control since. T.I., Ludacris, Lil John and Young Jeezy from the ATL were the first to pop, then Lil Wayne put New Orleans on the map before going full cray cray. Miami’s Rick Ross had a few years of plenty in the 2010s, rapping simple, catchy thoughts over massive productions.
Nowadays, it’s folk like Young Thug and his yelping Atlanta accent and Travi$ Scott out of Houston who are repping the South and dragging rap (kicking and screaming) into a new and more creative dawn.
This is by no means an exhaustive taxonomy of rap in the United States. What of the soulful sounds of Kanye and Common coming out of Chicago? Mos Def and Talib Kweli and their backpack-adorned followers? Atmosphere and Brother Ali exporting conscious rap from the Mid-West? The transcendent production of J Dilla and Madlib?
Books can and have been written about rap’s many faces, and they barely scratch the surface of a genre that’s now bigger than The Beatles, and nowhere near as repetitive.