Since hip-hop emerged in the slums of the South Bronx in the 1970s, geography has often defined rap artists. It has informed their slang and explained their sound. It has been a source of pride and a source of authenticity. So it was telling several weeks ago that the second single released from Jay-Z’s upcoming album has the geographically ambiguous title, “We Run This Town.”
Its sound—a melancholy arrangement of piano keys, electric guitar licks and heavy snares—is indistinct. And Jay-Z, aka Shawn Carter, a New York-native, collaborated on the song with Rihanna, an R&B singer from Barbados, as well as Kanye West, a rapper from Chicago. So which town are they running anyway? Is it New York? Chicago? Do they think Barbados is a town?
Jay-Z is approaching 40 and has never been shy about his Brooklyn roots, and the ambiguity of the the town referred to in his song is perhaps a product of universal marketing. Yet it speaks to something larger that’s taken place in hip-hop: Where you’re from just isn’t that important anymore. Indeed, once dominated by cities and regions where idiosyncrasies reigned, the epicenter of hip-hop has shifted to the Internet over the past five years. That, in turn, has changed the economics of the industry and altered the sound of the music.
The Web, of course, has transformed music across all genres, yet for hip-hop the change has been especially profound. Compared with other forms of music, rap has always been more closely associated with an artist’s physical space. As Adam Bradley, a literature professor at Claremont McKenna College in California explains in Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop, rock musicians go on stage and tell you where you are from (“Hello Ohio!”). But rap artists tell you where they are from (“Where Brooklyn at?”).
The reason, according to Bradley, is that hip-hop’s physical space—largely urban America—has been plagued by drugs, poverty and despair. Instead of giving people extreme shame, in hip-hop a connection to the slums has become a source of pride.
Fans who grew up on hip-hop in the 1990s remember that Snoop Dogg is from Long Beach and that Outkast is from Atlanta. They even know that Nas grew up in the Queensbridge Housing Projects in New York. These artists represented their cities. And their music is layered with regional influences: from the way they rapped, to the beats they chose—even their slang.
Trace the history and evolution of hip-hop’s sound and it’s clear that place has always played a central role. Hip-hop from Los Angeles—with its laid-back vocals, gang-related lyrics and funk-heavy backdrops—bears the imprint of its violent and sunny environs. Rap from New York—think minimalist, drum-heavy beats, turntable scratching and aggressive braggadocio—carries the mark of the city’s bleak and unvarying housing projects.
This is no accident. For more than three decades, hip-hop music has been nourished by something definitively local. Record shops, concert venues and radio stations—whether in the neighborhood or across the state—have all served as the creative cauldrons for aspiring emcees. Generations of rappers followed the established model of how to make it in hip-hop: earn a name for yourself locally, then expand outward.
Today, some local scenes remain vibrant, especially in cities like Atlanta and Miami. But they no longer hold the importance they once did. Today’s emcees can eschew them or at least take advantage of them selectively.
With the rise of YouTube, Facebook and other content-sharing websites, artists have realized that it is far cheaper to put their music online than to hustle records across town, across the state or across the region. Whereas older generations of rappers formed partnerships with friends on their block, this generation of rap artists can download a beat from a friend in Paris, record a verse from their home in Minnesota and send it to another friend to mix in Halifax. They can then release and promote their music online for free. MySpace has become the new chitlin’ circuit, Twitter the new street team.
Record companies have even signed some of today’s up-and-coming stars such as Asher Roth and Soulja Boy Tell’em after discovering them on MySpace. And where these rappers are from is far less important—and less memorable—compared with the generation of rappers who preceded them.
The Internet has also helped dissolve some of the regional fingerprints that once distinguished rap music. From more established artists like Lil’ Wayne to up-and-coming emcees like Kid Cudi, artists now cast their net of influences farther and wider than ever before.
“Before all you really knew—especially in the Houston scene—was the Texas sound,” said Chamillionaire, a Grammy-award winning rapper from Houston. “Now with the Internet, it’s a vacation. You can be influenced by so many different types of music.”
In the past, those regional fingerprints tended to divide hip-hop’s fan base. You either liked East Coast rap or you liked West Coast rap; you either liked Southern hip-hop or thought it was inauthentic.
Today, hip-hop is more easily distinguished by subject matter than by regional idiosyncrasies. There is crunk rap and video game rap, punk rock rap and rap for people who got dumped by their girlfriend. There is rap for everyone because the Internet has made it so that anyone can be a rapper. Anyone can have an audience.
The emergence of these sub-genres has made it easier for artists to bypass labels and still reach a viable fan base. And while this has been true for the music industry in general, it has been especially true for hip-hop, which has long embraced the underground mix tape, long glorified the entrepreneurial spirit.
Yet as the barriers to entry have fallen, the hustle has grown more crowded, more intense. Hip-hop today is far more fragmented, and in some cases, far less professional. All at a time when the music industry is struggling; all at a time when the old arbiters of taste (publications like the now defunct Vibe magazine) are going the way of the Discman.
Competition for fans’ attention has increased to such an extent that many artists have begun to release a bevy of free material to rise above the noise—thereby creating more noise in the process. They’ve turned to ring tones, blogs and social networking sites. They now give fans an all access look into their lives—or at least their carefully manufactured brands.
“Artists spend as much time building their websites and shooting vlogs as they do in the studio trying to write hit material,” said Elliott Wilson, the founder of RapRadar.com, a hip-hop site.
In that sense, hip-hop has become more about the image of the artist than his or her music. Still, the fall of regionalism and the rise of the Internet aren’t all bad. As Talib Kweli, a Brooklyn-born rapper, said at a show last October, “Now that it’s based on the Internet, you can be more creative.”
And he’s right. The labels have less power and less influence and the artists can more easily find a niche fan base. In turn, they have more freedom to make the music they love, to experiment and come up with the next new sound.
Even on the mainstream level, hip-hop has seen some fantastic bursts of experimentation. Last fall, Kanye West released a break-up record replete with lovably cheesy ’80s keyboard music. Later this year, Lil’ Wayne is supposed to come out with a rock album.
In 2009, regionalism in rap is rapidly becoming an artifact of the past, but hip-hop—whether it’s a new freestyle on MySpace or the latest single by Jay-Z—is still doing what it always has: manipulating something old to create something new.