Digitally Divided: Technology's Impact On Hip Hop Music & Culture

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Digitally Divided: Technology's Impact On Hip Hop Music & Culture

Big Daddy Kane, 9th Wonder, Needlz, Benzino, Statik Selektah and Adrian Younge weigh in on the role of technology in Hip Hop.

Hip Hop was essentially birthed with a heavy assist from technology, yet both artists and fans have been incredibly resistant to change at times.

The fact that the Sugarhill Gang was technically the first group to release a Hip Hop record speaks to this aversion. There were many other skilled emcees—most notably Grandmaster Caz, the original author of Wonder Mike’s “Rapper’s Delight” verses. But many of those emcees frowned at the thought of putting their rhymes on wax.

Through the years, we’ve seen vinyl give way to cassette tapes and the emergence of the compact disc. We’re 12-years deep into the Digital Era that was spawned by emerging mp3 and peer-to-peer technologies. And as we slowly segue into what appears to be an era of cloud-based, streaming music, both the R.I.A.A. and Billboard are reluctantly joining the party by recognizing YouTube views and digital streams as legitimate ways to legally interact with music. Additionally, social media such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter have become the new demo tape—even though most of the people that interact via the aforementioned social networks have no idea what an actual “tape” was.

But aside from just how we consume music and interact with each other, Hip Hop provides an interesting window into what technology is trending. On 2001’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” Jay-Z flaunted his social cache by unofficially endorsing the Motorola two-way pager. A Tribe Called Quest (“Skypager”) along with Missy Elliot and 702 (“Beep Me 911”) respectively dedicated whole songs to beepers. These days, unless you’re a doctor or someone waiting for a table at a busy restaurant, both of the above technologies are about as cutting-edge as two cans and some twine. For what it’s worth, even Rick Ross boasts of “sellin’ dope, straight off the iPhone,” on “9 Piece.” There’s no app for buying birds of the non-angry variety, but if you live in one of the nearly 18 states with legalized marijuana on the books, there are plenty of apps to show you where the nearest dispensary is located.

In light of all this change, we reached out to some of Hip Hop’s contributors to see what they thought were the most important technological innovations to impact the music and culture.

Reel-To-Real: The Advent Of Digital Recording & Sequencing

For many, one man served as the unofficial spokesman for the Belgian company, Image-Line’s signature product, Fruity Loops.

“When 9th Wonder came out, he was one of the first people that we actually respected that used Fruity Loops and programs,” offered Statik Selektah. In the analog days, Statik said he cut his teeth manually looping cassette tapes—or “pause tapes” as they were affectionately called before “pause” became a way to identify a homoerotic double entendre. “Before that you had to use an MPC or some kind of sampler. No one had used computer programs yet. 9th Wonder is the first one to come out and actually do it dope. Before that, people were doing it, but we all looked at it as corny. He was the first one to prove everybody wrong.”

In addition to providing the soundscape for Little Brother, 9th rose to prominence crafting bass-heavy works for Jay-Z, Murs, Destiny’s Child, Buckshot and unofficial remixes for the likes of Nas. Most fans would agree there was a science to making digital works sound analog.

“Even still, a lot of us in the game use a lot digital equipment,” 9th Wonder explained. “But at least some of us try to make it sound like it’s analog. What you can do is make things sound real, real dirty if you know the sound that you’re looking for and if you’re familiar with an analog sound. If you’re not familiar with an analog sound, then you don’t know what to go look for if you have digital equipment. I think going from analog to digital really changed a lot of things across the board. Not for just Hip Hop but for music period.”

Audiophiles cringe at the sound of a compressed mp3 file, but the counter argument is size and accessibility. While crates of vinyl and even compact discs are prone to physical damage and can literally fill up whole retail spaces, a 160-gigabyte iPod is roughly the size of the average person’s wallet.

“Either the MP3 or iTunes changed everything,” 9th added. “Past how music is made, what does the music end up being, and where does the music end up being? It ends up being an MP3 in your iTunes. That changed a lot of things. It helps us manage music way better than we ever had. Walking around with big CD cases full of CDs and big CD racks in your house. iTunes knocked all of that out. It eliminated all of that. That was huge. That changed everything.”

All In: How Technology Changed The Entry Point For Emcees

With the science of sound no longer a “black art” practiced in basements, bedrooms and studios of those who could scrounge up the thousands necessary for an Akai MPC sequencer, keyboard or the vaunted E-Mu SP1200, what would prevent the home enthusiast from joining the fray?

“Digital synthesizing and recording has changed everything,” explained Adrian Younge. “It allowed people that would not have otherwise been producers to come and produce and make good music.”

Of course, the downside to all of this technology would arguably be the oversaturation of the market. The same peer-to-peer technology that allows music to be illegally downloaded can be used to swipe a copy of Fruity Loops, Ableton Live, Apple’s Garageband and any other digital sequencing program. And the prevailing logic is that just because technology makes it possible for someone to put out product, they may not always have the talent to match those aspirations.

“The only drawback to computers is that it makes people’s lives easy, and they don’t have to study shit,” Adrian Younge pointed out. Technology allowed him to collaborate with Ghostface Killah on Twelve Reasons To Die without having physically met Ghost; the two corresponded via e-mail and RZA-facilitated recording sessions. Of course, prior to his unofficial Wu-Tang co-sign, Younge was an active musician with the original score and soundtrack to 2009’s Black Dynamite among his credits. “It allows the standard of music to become diminished because people start accepting whatever after a while,” he noted. “That’s the only problem I see with [technology].”

While the benefits of any emerging technology always have to be weighed against the negatives, Younge’s observation points to another question. Is technology inherently bad for the culture of Hip Hop?

“I really think a lot of the new technology has hurt Hip Hop,” Big Daddy Kane observed. “Because it’s a situation where your project will come out that Tuesday for [legal digital] downloads and somebody will have it up on their site for free, and it’s available—not just in [one] state, but it’s available worldwide, for free—and you’re losin’ a whole lot of sales. Technology really hurt Hip Hop, even radio. The way the same 10 goddamn songs play, all day. And there’s no diversity. Newer technology hurt Hip Hop more than helped it, in my opinion.”

Much like Kane, rapper, producer (and now reality TV star) Benzino also points to how technology has eliminated part of the apprenticeship factor from Hip Hop. Benzino also points to a lost labor cost factored into the learning process.

“Maybe technology helped the deejays as far as Serato,” Benzino pointed out. “You don’t have to carry around big crates of records. But carrying those crates showed the hard work, effort, love and tenacity you had. I think that’s what’s missing these days.”

Would we have a Kanye West today if he didn’t pay his dues as a “ghost producer” for Deric D-Dot Angelettie? How many deejays careers were jump-started by carrying crates under the tutelage of a fellow turntablist? These are questions with no quantifiable answers. The mere fact that these questions are being asked via an online publication instead of a print magazine speaks to how technology has changed the way we interact with Hip Hop music and culture. Inevitably, the ability for readers to interact via comments and social media (or start their own websites and/or blogs) possibly means the main takeaway is the elimination of having one all-consuming medium disseminate information to the masses. While technology unfortunately allows any no-talent enthusiast to flex like a pro, it also renders many overrated, self-indulgent, so-called “gate keepers” obsolete. Maybe there’s a proverbial silver lining in the iCloud.

“There are people who may not have had a chance,” Needlz said. “On the good side of things, I would say for me, there’s a lot of hybrid, new machines. It gives you a tangible feel of making music but has all the advantages of software and the power that a computer brings. I would say a hybrid instrument, there’s a new MPC that has a hybrid software thing.”

If we’re being candid, none of these opinions are going to stop technological advancements from impacting Hip Hop. The recent decisions to factor YouTube views and digital streams into an artist’s respective RIAA and Billboard chart numbers may arguably be the biggest technological advancements to hit Hip Hop since ringtones. And as the careers of both Soulja Boy and Lil B (among others) prove, sometimes the medium is indeed the message. Maybe it’s way too late to ask if technology is hurting or helping Hip Hop, as things will keep advancing at a faster pace. Perhaps, in light of these non-stop innovations, we should be asking ourselves how to actively participate and remain true to the essence of the culture.

RELATED: Technologically Speaking: Masta Ace Talks The Evolution From Fanmail To Followers [2012 EDITORIAL]

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