isn’t it ironic: indie sensibilities and the rise of hip hop

date header separator

Saturday, June 13th, 2009

isn’t it ironic: indie sensibilities and the rise of hip hop

isn’t it ironic? coincidentally (i swear i didn’t plan this…), 14 years ago today, alanis morissette released her breakthrough (and still amazing) album jagged little pill and, of course, posed this very question. further, of course, we all know that absolutely nothing in that great song was actually ironic. strangely coincidental, but certainly not ironic.

so, again, i pose the question, isn’t it ironic?, not in reference to the scenarios she posed, but to the very unlikely scenario that merely 30 years into this “new” music style called rap, hip hop has not only become definitionally mainstream, but has also slowly crept into indie music sensibilities.
of course, it isn’t as much about posing the question, isn’t it ironic? as much as it’s about the irony itself that leads to answers. after having just blogged about the idea of paradox, irony fits squarely within the postmodern/indie realm of paradoxical reality. one of the indie hallmarks is irony. it’s basically the idea of taking seemlingly dissonant trends and cultural artifacts and embracing them. look no further than the mustache. and you could make a very strong argument for beards. such things as trucker hats have come and gone (gone being the very fortunate operative word), tapered jeans, cheesy sweaters and i’ve even very awesomely witnessed an attempt at the fanny pack (i think this one is a must-have indie trend). now, because i’m too fat and too arkansan, i don’t personally rock many of these trends, but nevertheless, they certainly represent the idea of indie irony.

any proper indie conversation cannot deal solely with fashion trends, but must address, of course, music. a casual perusing of one of the regular music blogs i read—pretty much amazing—actually led to this blog post. pma reviews a lot of indie music and posts a lot of really amazing remixes, covers and mashups. though they don’t strictly stick to the “classic” definitions of indie music, i’ll put it this way: they go so deep and obscure in the indie scene that i literally have never heard of probably half the bands they review/reference. so, it was when i came across the post concerning the recently leaked jay-z track, d.o.a. (death of autotune) (listen here) that i began thinking about the blending of the indie and hip hop worlds.
not only does a high-ish profile indie music blog write about jay-z, but i would say that jay-z—despite the fact that he’s zillionaire, creates music that seems to have little to do with indie sensibilities and owns his own record label—is an artist that a lot of indie people like. not only is there a certain irony inherent in the indie realm, but i think, ultimately, indie is a response to “bad” culture and bad art. in this sense, i think jay-z, along with more and more rappers, make good art that transcends categories.
there’s a list of other rappers that fit within this same category. on one hand, you’ve got rappers like snoop dogg, outkast , lil’ wayne (blah…), nas, public enemy, n.e.r.d., ghostface killah , raekwon and the entire wu-tang clan, for that matter, who completely defy the indie odds, so to speak, in the style of music they create. my personal favorite rapper, snoop dogg, creates music about bitches and cadillacs and droppin’ it like it’s hot, but i’ve yet to find an indie hipster type who doesn’t like snoop. part irony. part great music.
on the other hand, there’s a breed of rappers that have risen over the last 5 to 10 years or so. these are rappers that don’t fall in the ironic category as much as they do just plain good art and subject matter that translates to indie sensibilities. prominent names in this camp are kanye west, m.i.a., the roots, the cool kids, lupe fiasco, beastie boys and santogold. kanye west is one of the best examples. despite his utter douchebaggery, his unparalleled hip hop creativity, lyrics and fashion sense has put him at the forefront of indie conversations.
examples of this phenomenon can be found all over the place:
i recently saw that the co-headliners for a prominent music festival are snoop dogg and death cab for cutie.
in paste magazine’s an indie alphabet book (which i just blogged about), the letter ‘r’ is the roots. not only that, but who would have thought 10 years ago that the house band on a late night talk show on nbc would be a hip hop group?
by far, one of the best mashup albums i’ve heard since dangermouse’s the grey album was the jay-z/radiohead mashup, jaydiohead. whereas it was very well-produced, it was also simply a great musical fit. jay-z’s flow was a perfect fit for radiohead’s indie sound.
the ultimate testament may be from the ultimate synomyn for indie music: pitchfork magazine. indie and pitchfork could be pretty much swapped out and on pitchfork’s best albums of 2008 list, 4 hip hop albums are included. that may not sound like a lot, but to consider, again, that pitchfork is deeply obscure in their indie-ness, that says a lot. even further than those 4 albums, over the last 3 years, pitchfork has included 20 (!) hip hop albums on their best of lists, including artists such as ghostface killah, kanye west, lil’ wayne, wu-tang clan, jay-z, m.i.a., lupe fiasco and even t.i.
while there’s certainly still plenty of bling and boody in rap, hip hop is certainly making long strides in not only mainstream culture, but also the indie subcultures. we’ll continue to see, i imagine, many hip hop artists that blur the lines and appeal more and more to indie sensibilities.
now, if only we can get jay-z to grow out an ironic mustache and sport a goodwill sweater…