(image from a series of parties in LA called 143)
From the beginning of our quarter together, I had a relatively strong idea of what my main focus points would be in our course, but I could not have expected the developments in opinions and thought processes surrounding them. As a DJ who plays music influenced by funk and hip-hop (among many other styles), I knew this would manifest in my relationship with the course and its material.
Of course, my more specific interests played out in my three blogs (even my presentation blog), as I discussed Mike Gao, a producer and sound designer in the hip-hop beat scene, our class session on hip-hop, and the new trend of independent hip-hop vocalist/producer collectives slowly dismantling genre. The entry discussing Mike Gao’s involvement in the hip-hop/beat making underground touched on responsible participation in hip-hop, interrogation of the model minority myth in music, and Fred Ho’s concept of kreolization. My presentation entry visited the dissociation between hip-hop and rap, personal relationships with the genre (and community), Nitasha Sharma’s idea of the genre as “multiracial production of Black popular culture,” and unity in the struggle against oppression. Lastly, the post on the trend of independent collectives discusses the lack of Asian American representation in hip-hop, my idea of the commercial underground, and the opportunities that a dissolution of genre can present.
As is likely clear through those descriptions, my major preoccupations have been the conceptualization of genre, Asian American participation/representation in hip-hop, and kreolization as defined by Fred Ho. After completing this course, I’ve gained the tools to compile these ideas into comprehensive thoughts on one of the music scenes I feel most connected to. I believe the motivation for these thoughts comes from a relatively recent but ongoing shift in overall musical culture. There is a slow shift in younger people away from the popular artists supported by major record labels and towards less popular, less monolithic independent artists and collectives.
The first major step in this shift for the hip-hop community was the success of rappers like Goldlink. He and artists like him leaned towards dance music in their instrumental choices, rather than more traditional head-nodding beats. By the time these lyricists started experiencing success, there were significant numbers of fans who had open definitions of hip-hop, allowing artists to be more genuine with the music they created. As the culture moved away from shunning aural difference and toward striving for musical inventiveness, there was also a decrease in the cultural and ethnic gatekeeping within the scene. These movements resulted in the (commercial) underground hip-hop and beat scene becoming more multiethnic, providing a space for Asian Americans to interact with the scene rather than simply observe/be observed.
Rather than abandon the (U.S.) history that created the music these artists draw from, they routinely pay homage to the icons of hip-hop and R&B, whether by remixing their songs or playing originals in DJ sets. This is a practice that cultural nationalists could learn from, as artists comprising this movement focus on connection to the genres’ histories but don’t look to simply recreate them. I imagine Fred Ho would be happy to see this scene, as it is a great example of creation at the margins (at least on lines of ethnicity and popularity), what he defines as kreolization.
The kreolization within this musical community is supported on numerous levels, as members mix ethnicities, classes, and genres within it. The mix of ethnicities is relatively obvious, as the scene is not meant for one specific background and even the music pulls from countless cultures. People of lower class status are typically able to participate fully in it, as most music from these artists can be found on free streaming sites (like SoundCloud or YouTube) and their performances typically cost $30 or less (most are free as the DJs from the community play at clubs). Regarding genre, it is only fitting that a scene such as the commercial underground in discussion is multi-faceted. Most members have a focus on hip-hop, house/dance, or both. This means that producers pull from the same parent genres of funk, soul, and disco. The result is songs that sound like multiple genres at once, begging the question of why we even categorize music so strictly. An example of this is the following song by Promnite, Mr. Carmack, Mike Gao, Mike Parvizi, and Paper Diamond. It also goes without saying that this movement encourages collaboration among creators, but it should be recognized that this collaboration is international (evidenced by this collaboration between Rhode Island rapper Khary and Seoul producer Slom).
As may be clear, I am extremely interested in discussing these new understandings that I’ve come to. This interest comes from being involved in this scene myself, as a music curator/DJ. I believe analyzing our own communities/scenes is important for discovering the most responsible and efficient ways to exercise our agency within them. As for this underground (although maybe not for long) scene dissolving traditional ideas of hip-hop, I believe it has a bright future of multiculturalism and authentic musical creation. With that being said, it only becomes more prime for cooptation by the hegemony. This calls for artists and fans within scenes such as these to continually analyze their own relationship with the music and space.