When I worked on my ill-fated project compiling the top 100 hip-hop albums of the 2000s, I learned a valuable lesson: Contemporary history is difficult to quantify. We often make judgments on what we think will have lasting value, but only the passage of time determines that.
Still, good music is good music – or is it? This year brought quite a few albums that divided audiences and critics. They made us question what makes up quality hip-hop, and whether that term exists in a classical sense anymore. Is it B.o.B and his overly determined forays into big-tent arena rap? Or is it the bloviating Rick Ross and his fatuous tales of Mafia-like dominion? As rap fans with a jaundiced version of reality, we’re supposed to venerate the latter and condemn B.o.B’s crossover strategies. Street rap signifies the underground, keeping it hardcore, and staying true.
However, there wasn’t much actual underground music in 2010, or at least little of it that made an impact. We all know what happened to Definitive Jux. Even Fat Beats, which closed its remaining stores in New York and Los Angeles to focus on online retail and an independent label, needed Decon Records and E1 Music to get Black Milk’s Album of the Year in stores. With the notable exceptions of Stones Throw and Duck Down Records, surviving indie labels such as Mello Music Group, Interdependent Media, Tres Records, Galapagos4, Doomtree Records, Fake Four, Inc. and many others drew cursory attention.
To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention, either. The action was with the majors such as Def Jam, which brought Curren$y (albeit via a distribution deal with Damon Dash and DD172), the Roots, Big Boi, and Kanye West. These were the albums I repeatedly listened to, wrote about, praised, criticized, and generally wrestled with.
Let me return to Definitive Jux for a moment. When El-P established the label ten years ago (after cropping up on late-period Company Flow releases such as Little Johnny from the Hospitul) with the classic Company Flow/Cannibal Ox double 12-inch single “D.P.A. (As Heard on TV)”/”Iron Galaxy,” he joined a scene that prided itself on creating a sound unheard on the radio, and unseen on BET. I’m not the only one who found irony in the fact that criminally underrated artist Tim “Sole” Holland left his Anticon start-up around the same time that El-P put Definitive Jux on hiatus. Though rivals, both exemplified a mood of wild (and often undisciplined) experimentation that has since receded. In its place has risen old-school revivalism, an ethos carried from the college dorms to the streets, and often accompanied by a moralistic, finger-wagging dismissal of post-Golden Age rap.
Nostalgia may fuel online repositories of boom bap and Dirty South. But when indulged too often, it can lead to a culture’s death. No one wants hip-hop to become the post-modern equivalent of jazz. As much as I loved it, I certainly don’t want to return to the summer of 2001, and The Cold Vein and cLOUDDEAD. I also don’t hold illusions that indie hip-hop is ideologically or musically better than mainstream, major label-backed rap. 2010 exposed the lie to that myth.
Besides, this was a great year for hip-hop. While I focused on crossover epics and, to a lesser extent, the international beats ‘n’ bass scene, others found pleasure in the many excellent mixtapes that hit the Internets. In short, there was a little something for everybody.
However, no epoch is all-inclusive, and I missed the sundry underground innovators of years past. Where are you at, my friends? It’s time to step your game up.