Mainstream hip hop has been left with all the dignity of a crack addict at Mardi Gras. After deciding that he’s had enough girls Jay-Z has become a family man; being on the wrong side of 40, Dre is in no position to even consider talking about his or anyone else’s “hood” and Eminem has doddered to the fag-end-of-his-career slump.
When hip hop is at its best; before the press training, before the scandals, before the beefs; is when it is underground, but with the rise of the internet that’s now seldom a possibility so we’re going to roll with ‘pre-mainstream’ – what we define (loosely, mind) as the period between the first album or mixtape and a sophomore effort.
If you have the honour of having a few trendy friends that will happily compare Dalston to NYC’s East Village then you will know hip hop has experienced a resurgence among white, middle-class kids, who have been the traditional target market for Sigur Ros and bands whose singers had beards. Gone are the days of parkas and brogues – the oversized, faux-gold chain is now king. These kids can be gangsta, albeit gangstas with trust funds.
There is, however, some kind of merit to their ironic deifying of the hip-hop stars of yore – it has harvested and encouraged a wealth of new talent, and forced the spotlight onto those that would’ve have been largely ignored during the halcyon days of 50 Cent and, er, The Game.
First on our 2012 honour roll is a man that has the flow skills to become one of the finest - we’d say illest but we’re white, it’s not allowed – MCs off all time: Earl Sweatshirt. Having been interned in a Samoan finishing school due to “some bad shit” and being largely overshadowed by Odd Future (OFWGTMA, Golf Wang, Wolf Gang – take your pick!) bandmate Tyler the Creator – more on him later – Earl emerged just in time to cut a verse on the final track of Odd Future’s second, officially released, effort.
Despite doing hard time, of sorts, Earl has shown his caustic wit and vitriolic delivery are still intact on ‘Oldie’. The fact his voice has gained a bit of bass is not a caveat worth ignoring, it lends a more mature air to his rhymes. Interestingly Earl, whose real name is Thebe Kgositsile, is the grandson of celebrated anti-apartheid activist and poet Keorapetse Kgositsile. Whether or not that connection will have a bearing, although arguably it already has, on the 17-year-old going forward remains to be seen.
Before the record labels the rap collective released both individual efforts and collaborative mixtapes from various Tumblr accounts. Earl’s own release can be found here.
While there is an element of goofiness relating to the skateboarding crew Odd Future, A$AP Rocky is an entirely different proposal. Rocky very much picks up where the Biggie left off, but crucially without ringing out any semblance of creativity that has blighted gangsta rap for the best part of a decade. Rocky has never led a privileged existence; his father was sent to jail when he was a child, his brother was killed close to the family home and he lived in a shelter with his mother for a period of time; he is all that is great about hip hop – he is the manifestation of the underdog story. Some more unscrupulous types have tried to re-ignite the old west coast/east coast rivalry by pitting Rocky and his crew against Odd Future, but a re-occurrence of the bragging war that claimed two of hip hop’s most prodigious talents in Notorious BIG and Tupac is unlikely.
Das Racist released their debut album, ‘Relax’, last September and the LP would go on to feature heavily in the annual ‘best of’ across the board in the US music press. They’re yet to reach those modest heights on this side of the water but it won’t be long before the subversive rhymes of Kool AD and co. are employed to establish themselves in Europe. Das Racist have been wrote off in some quarters as America’s answer to Goldie Lookin’ Chain, which is an undue slight on the Brooklyn collective. They offer some clever referencing of scientific theory, commentary on race (obviously) and more nods to pop culture than The Simpsons in its heyday. That being said, their Kool AD moonlights as the frontman of the altogether less palatable, neigh, shite Boy Crisis.
Death Grips aren’t a shy bunch, and don’t shirk their reputation for propagating a brand of dark and slightly disorientating hip hop. Led by Stefan Burnett, Death Grips release their highly-anticipated debut album later this month. It’s possible they have taken what Odd Future do and made it better but they also operate on a level that the more pretentious may conclude is avant garde. They are one of the most promising acts in hip hop today and there can be little doubt that Dalston will soon ruin them for everybody.