“We culture. Rap is the new rock n’ roll. We the rock stars.” — Kanye West
Right before Thanksgiving, New York Times pop-music critic Jon Caramanica released an article titled, “Rappers Are Singers Now. Thank Drake.” Caramanica begins in 2009, contrasting the Jay-Z and Alicia Keys collab “Empire State of Mind” and hip-hop’s “two-plus decades” of rapper-singer collaborations with the release of Drake’s debut mixtape, So Far Gone.
He says the mixtape “marked the arrival of a new path: singing as rapping, rapping as singing, singing and rapping all woven together into one holistic whole. Drake exploded the notion that those component parts had to be delivered by two different people, and also deconstructed what was expected from each of them. His hip-hop was fluid, not dogmatic.”
As concisely well-framed as the argument was, it wasn’t without criticism. On Twitter, many of the 700+ commenters noted the dismissal of not only seminal works like 808s & Heartbreak  and Rappa Ternt Sanga  but also specific artists who had similar stylings.
Simplifying hip-hop’s evolution to a general “no one was doing this, then Drake showed up” makes for a better story. It’s how we create legends. We eliminate other contributors and exaggerate the totality of an individual entity’s impact. In most biopics that claim to be the “true story” of something — whether it's Facebook, the Oakland Athletics, NASA launches, or Chernobyl — there’s always one character who is the “composite” of many. Fact + Fiction = Legend. And if there’s one thing history’s taught us: Legends are popular, powerful, and they endure. They play a critical role in shaping culture.
Despite the criticisms, Caramanica’s “legend of Drake” does help streamline a decade’s worth of confluence, allowing us some perspective on a significant stylistic shift in hip-hop. It also brings to mind the powerful fact that hip-hop continues to be an evolutionary force, never stagnant.
What legend will emerge in the next decade? Early signs point to production, specifically the collision of hip-hop’s historic practices with an influx of live instrumentation.
Evolve, then evolve more
A single person playing piano and singing, no matter how energetic he or she is, probably won’t be classified as a rock musician. Not until you add in drums, bass, and the licks of a guitar.
Jazz music is created through polyrhythms and notes pitched non-standard. A heavy dose of brass instruments — trumpets, saxophones, and trombones — creates a big swing sound, while the dominance of guitar, bass, and keys yields blues.
One of the great secrets about hip-hop is that it’s not defined by instrumentation and tone the way other popular music genres are. What makes the average listener go, “Oh, this is hip-hop,” is when he hears rapping. That could be rapping over a sample. Over an original production of synths and computer-created bass lines. Or, anything, really. And that’s what makes hip-hop so special. You can rap on top of whatever you want. From country music to rock to classical to turntable creations to utter and complete silence.
Because of this seeming infinite degree of adaptivity, the soundscape of hip-hop has changed greatly in the last 50 years. In the '70s, it was DJ-driven and drew from Jamaican and disco soundscapes. The '80s introduced paradigm-shifting equipment — programmable drum machines and improvements in sampling processes meant songs became far more dynamic and layered. Mix in popular influences from rock and the plethora of stories rappers had to tell, and hip-hop had all the ingredients necessary for mainstream ascendency.
The '90s showcased the impact of geography on style: East Coast vs. West Coast approaches. Those measured against the sound out of Atlanta. Out of Houston. Out of Chicago. New Orleans.
The 2000s replaced the dominant alpha-male attitude of 2pac and Biggie with the creative-kid energy of Kanye West and OutKast. This was reflected in the change in sound from the biggest rapper of the decade, Jay-Z, and his transition from Biggie’s protégé to Kanye’s benefactor. Just compare Jay’s 2001 album, The Dynasty, to 2009’s The Blueprint 3. The former emphasizes sparse beats that rely on one or two key elements, maximizing the presence of the rapper — while the latter’s loud, layered, and dreamy, and the rapper has to fit himself or herself into the composition.
In the 2010s, hip-hop has been Pandora’s box. The digital age means that if you have a computer, you can produce, record, and internationally release music. Websites like Datpiff and SoundCloud have made entire careers, as it has allowed artists with no industry connections to build audiences. They level up to popularity on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube. Then it’s a record deal and worldwide acclaim. One day you’re Austin Richard Post. The next you’re Post Malone.
A consequence of this democratization has been a boom in hip-hop’s diversity. It’s the age of the hybrid. Scroll through Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart and it feels like no two joints are alike. “Roxanne” by Arizona Zervas is very different from “Truth Hurts” by Lizzo. Neither of those are like “BOP” by DaBaby. And none are similar to Lil Nas X’s “Panini.”
Lil Nas X’s career started with a controversy about classification.
If you listened to the radio at all in 2019, odds are you heard the song “Old Town Road.” The track released in December 2018 and grew in prominence. Nas X explained to TIME: “I promoted the song as a meme for months until it caught on to TikTok and it became way bigger … . I should be paying TikTok. They really boosted the song. It was getting to the point that it was almost stagnant. When TikTok hit it, almost every day since that, the streams have been up.”
“Old Town Road,” thanks to the breakthrough on TikTok, simultaneously appeared on the Billboard Hot 100, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, and Hot Country Songs charts.
The controversy occurred when Billboard announced that “upon review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard’s country charts. When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
When TIME asked Nas X about it, he said, “The song is country trap. It’s not one, it’s not the other. It’s both. It should be on both.”
As we head into the next decade of hip-hop, classification will be a crucial part of the conversation. The music is bound to continue to amalgamate aspects of other genres, extending its borders each and every time. For example, just look at the New York City-based production duo Take A Daytrip.
Take A Daytrip is the working name of David Biral and Denzel Baptiste. The Big Bang of their mainstream career occurred in 2017, when a studio session with Sheck Wes and 16yrold led to the creation of “Mo Bamba.” A year later, “Mo Bamba,” much like “Old Town Road,” broke out in a big way, eventually landing on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s crossed the 3-million-equivalent-units-sold threshold, earning a 3x-Platinum certification from the RIAA.
Launched into significance, Baptiste and Biral have capitalized on their opportunity, producing other recent hits like Juice WRLD’s “Legends,” the Vince Staples track “Home” for the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse movie, Big Sean’s “Single Again,” and a pair of collaborations with Lil Nas X.
Biral told Forbes: “I was classically trained for about seven, eight years. Jazz trained for about four years. You play drums in church, keys in church. We both come from very musical backgrounds … . My parents made efforts to keep me at the piano every day, to practice my scales and things like that.”
Baptiste told DJ Booth: “I started making music growing up in the church. I would go on YouTube and watch tutorials about making other producer’s beats. I used that as my submission to NYU for production and engineering. Then I went to NYU and met David [Biral], who had already been DJing, and we’d already both played in jazz bands.”
Take A Daytrip often merges the digital with the tangible. Where the familiar image of a music producer is at the boards, chopping, cutting, twisting mysterious knob after mysterious knob — you can find Baptiste and Biral with a guitar, at the keys.
Baptiste: In terms of hip-hop, specifically in this era where most things are played-in through MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface] and just completely existing on the computer and quantized — there’s a level of perfection that you won’t be able to achieve with the guitar. Using the guitar, instead, you’ll never have things line up 100%. Because of the strings and the tuning on it, and it’s played by hand. So even in quantizing, it won’t make it absolutely perfect. But I think that imperfection, especially when it’s a live guitar and not a MIDI guitar, just has a human element that’s not super prevalent in this era of hip-hop.
I think most of the time when we’re working with other producers, they like that we play instruments because a lot of people in the hip-hop space don’t. I feel like our approach is a combination of roles. In hip-hop right now it’s kind of like two different types of producers collaborating. It’ll be an instrumentalist who plays things in and creates a sample. Or several people play together and create a sample. Then the other producer curates which samples to choose and finishes that idea and brings it to the artists. We’re combining those two, doing both sides, and then adding in other people to the production process.
Biral: For us, finding that one sound that sticks out is sometimes just 90% of the record. You think about “Mo Bamba,” you think about that dah-dah-dah dah-dah. You think about “Panini,” it’s buh-duh-dum, buh-duh-dum, buh-duh-dum, and that whistle sound at the beginning. So every single time we create something new we’re trying to f--- with sounds or affect them in different ways and make everything as unique as possible. We’re creating almost like a band, but every single piece that’s coming in, we’re able to edit afterwards and kind of re-sample, and f---ing around with it. So even when Russ is giving us things to work with or any other collaborators, we might go in after the fact and affect something they did.
The “Russ” referred to by Biral is Russ Chell, a musician and producer who is part of Daytrip’s No Idle collective. Chell had been a stage presence in his own right, playing lead guitar for years in a rock band born in Brooklyn called The Skins. In the summer fo 2019, Guitar Magazine wrote about him, with the headline, “Russ Chell Is Bridging The Worlds Of Rock And Rap.”
Fittingly, that article began with these words by author Karen Gwee: “It’s 2019, and genres are more porous than ever before.”
Chell: When I was really young, I went to this thing called ‘School of Rock,’ which is nationwide now. It was an after-school music program. But it’s become very corporatized. But when I was going to it, there were like 10 schools, if that. And there was one 20 minutes from where I lived. One in Philly. One in New York. And it was run by this dude, Paul Green. I thought a lot about live performance and whatnot. When I was old enough, I got a job there, teaching.
It shaped the early part of my music career. When you go from being a live performer into production, there’s not many similarities other than understanding that, “Okay, this song needs to translate live, somehow.” I guess I had a good feel for that because I played in bands for so long. That’s all I did for three or four years. That’s actually how I met Daytrip, is through the band because they ended up producing our first major label project.
When I first started working with Daytrip, they said, “Literally, just do anything. Like, whatever you want, and we can try to make beats out of it.” And that’s such a change of pace from being in a pop-rock act where everything has to be so prim and proper, this type of specific way, very constraining. And that’s the whole fun of hip-hop. That’s always run through hip-hop. Like with sampling, just taking from different genres and making it a completely new thing. But I think right now it’s even more extreme in the sense that people are bending and bending and bending and doing whatever they want, making cool music.
Biral: A lot of the types of melodies and influences that are coming from these new rappers tie back to bands like Green Day and Blink 182 and things like that. And a lot of these guys are late teenagers and early twenties. So it does make sense where some of their influences are coming from, especially that day and age of music when they were growing up, where music was starting to become a little more open, in terms of people discovering more than something that might only be stereotyped to their neighborhoods or their environments. I think we’re really seeing the outbreak of that.
There’s definitely an interesting thing going on with the musicality in rap music where it’s more than just an eight-bar loop. It’s about how you introduce as many cool things as possible in a tasteful way. You have “Old Town Road” literally become the biggest song in the history of music, and it’s a black kid from Atlanta who also grew up on hip-hop.
Epilogue: a sign of what’s to come?
The Grammys nominated Lil Nas X’s debut EP, 7, for album of the year.
Overall, Take A Daytrip received four Grammy nominations: 7 (album of the year), The Lost Boy (best rap album), “Panini” (best rap/sung performance), and Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse Soundtrack (best compilation soundtrack for visual media).
Russ Chell received two nominations having worked with Daytrip on 7 and The Lost Boy.
The content featured on https://entertainment.directv.com/ is editorial content brought to you by AT&T. While some of the programming discussed may now or in the future be available by our or our affiliates distribution services, the companies and persons discussed and depicted, and the authors and publishers of licensed content, are not necessarily associated with and do not necessarily endorse AT&T. When you click on ads on this site you may be taken to AT&T marketing pages that display advertising content. Content sponsored or co-created by programmers is identified as "Sponsored Content" or "Promoted Content."