Live and Otherwise: Crafting Contemporary Hip-Hop

The radio lies. When it spouts its musical literature through our speakers, we get a perspective on the state of popular music for our city. But sometimes it seems to be the only portrait we have of a particular genre for the masses (and ourselves) to compare. Unfortunately for hip-hop music this often leads to stereotypes and plenty of auto tune. Luckily, the true brilliance of hip-hop in its poetic rhythm and disposition cannot be tainted by the less talented but more widely approved discography. There will always be those nausea-inducing tracks that can be heard pouring from certain stations and nightclubs, but the underlying culture of underground hip-hop is more creative and diverse than ever.

The past year alone has brought some terrific artists to the fold, bringing with them a solid take on such a rich genre. Hip-hop has always been a medium for expression and social commentary, though more recently the mainstream babble has been aimed at materialistic endeavors. But there are a slew of better artists that offer creative rhymes with even more eclectic beats and musical stylings. One of the better ones (who is also coming to the Venue of Scottsdale on April 11) is the multi-talented (and Community cast member) Danny Glover a.k.a Childish Gambino. “Camp” released last November and contains quirky lyrics that reveal a new reference after every listen. Though the amount of album downloads (and having heard “Heartbeat“ on the radio) perhaps make him less underground, his actual music tends to have more in common with the creativity of the counter-mainstream culture of most underground rap. There are many gems on the album, but the best use of his talent shine through on tracks like “LES” and “That Power.”

Rock the Bells is an annual festival that celebrates underground and contemporary hip-hop. Photo by Gabby Marshall.

Memphis-bred Cities Aviv takes his music to an entirely new level. Upon first listen to his intricately layered tracks, I was sold. Coupled with memorable lyrics that cleverly reference with both humor and wit, it’s a nice thing to behold. Some of his more addictive tracks include “Coastin” and the familiar music sampled in “Float On.” His music is crafted with the insight of an artist, and the portraits he paints are both amusing and great to get lost in.

Brooklyn-based Das Racist, on the other hand, has concocted a visceral blend of hip-hop and electro sensibilities. Wikipedia describes them as alternative hip-hop (whatever that means) but their fresh take on the genre gives an unconventional perspective on somewhat-conventional subject matter. One of my favorite songs by them is simple (“Girl” is literally about an amazing girl, imagine that) but has such a great back beat and such cute lyrics that it borderlines on a joke. But the talent of this trio is legit. Even songs like “Booty in the Air” have a unique structure that makes it great listening.

The last two on my list (for spatial concerns) again stand apart, even from the ones already listed. The persona of Serengeti captures an interesting character. His music is steeped in his Chicago past, but what interest me the most are his crazy-weird (in the best way) beats. These tracks are like nothing I have heard, and his songs take you in unexpected directions. “Sunrise” (with Polyphonic) is the best example of his engaging repertoire at work. Then there is Quakers to contend with. Quakers is the hip-hop side project of Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, DJ Katalyst and Stuart Matthews. Though only one track has been released so far (the album is said to feature a multitude of veteran and contemporary emcees), its off to a great start.

The truth is rap is brimming with artists crafting engaging dialogues that actually tell a story. Though it takes the Internet to locate the real treasures, it’s worth the journey. Not to totally shut down what I hear on the radio (some of it is catchy as hell), and those artists had to have done something right to win the favor of so many. But this is not the only narrative in rap music. While this is only a very small perspective on the great institution of contemporary hip-hop, I only hope it proves that there is more in hip-hop’s philosophy then dreamt of by mainstream radio.