To speak of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary this past Friday is to somewhat undersell the momentousness of this milestone. Hip-hop hasn’t simply endured for half a century, no—hip-hop has commercially grown bigger every decade, and in the past five years, it has eclipsed pop to become the most popular music genre in the U.S. This is a subculture that was once so small, so hyperlocal, so New York that we can trace its origin to a particular house party in the Bronx. And yet hip-hop quickly proliferated all across the country and claimed a few de facto capitals: originally NYC, but then also L.A., along with southern strongholds in Memphis, Houston, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and the current capital, Atlanta. Hip-hop is now perhaps better understood as a federation of regional scenes, some more renowned than others, but each at some point played a crucial role in the larger success story of the genre. This success story spans several formats—from vinyl to cassettes to CDs to downloads to streams—and multiple music industry transformations. Hip-hop has flourished, in large part, by adapting to these shifts more confidently and creatively than other genres. It’s become the great, global soundboard.
But what about the next 50 years of hip-hop? The Ringer spoke with Dr. A.D. Carson, an associate professor of hip-hop at the University of Virginia and a rapper in his own right, about the challenges facing hip-hop on its golden anniversary as rappers now seem to be losing their grip on the pop charts, streaming is weakening the whole notion of genre, and artificial intelligence is potentially rivaling artists.
We need a hip-hop state of the union. What’s your outlook? What are the next 50 years looking like?
I wrote and released this album that I put online last night called Illicit, and it’s really to try to talk about these exact things. On the one hand, hip-hop has survived for 50 years in the United States. However, all 50 of those years have featured folks—powerful institutions in the United States—surveilling, trying to contain and constrain, and sometimes just outright denigrating hip-hop and the people who make it. When we have this 50th commemoration, we also have to take into consideration that lots of the folks who are applauding and celebrating are folks who did everything they could to make sure that [hip-hop] didn’t make it 50 years or, before it even existed, everything that they could to create the conditions that brought about hip-hop’s inception in the first place.
I think that is a facet of American capitalism that gets overlooked. We might be able to say that the hip-hop culture is distinctly American, but when we call it distinctly American, we can’t do that while celebrating the fact that America’s creation of it wasn’t like, “We want to create this great thing that comes from these traditions of these brilliant people.” It was like, “We want to steal these people from where they come from and then bring them here and sell them as though they are cattle, currency, contraband, and force certain traditions onto them and force certain traditions out of them.” Despite that, something like hip-hop emerges, and then the country turns around and is like, “Yeah, let’s make stamps about that.”
I don’t know how much you followed the conversation earlier this summer about rap on the Billboard charts, with a lot of people wondering whether hip-hop is finally flagging. It’s funny to me because if you actually read between the lines of the big story from Billboard, you see that the real issue is that hip-hop is almost too successful—it’s influenced everything else on the chart, including all these singles and albums that are now outperforming it.
It’s America’s extractive relationship with Blackness and Black people on display, and the genres themselves in this country are not separate from our conversations about race. When Tyler, the Creator says “urban” sounds like a politically correct way to say the N-word, he’s not far off of what is historically accurate.
What you’re seeing is this ideological work in action. “Well, we can move hip-hop into the category of pop, so long as we are moving it away from the places and producers who pioneered those sounds.” And then, ultimately, what we have is this race-less whole of the thing.
Well, I will say, hip-hop is this music, this subculture that is in a lot of ways about playing with other sounds and other musical traditions and other voices and subsuming them. So there’s a bit of a back-and-forth here.
I believe that hip-hop is more methodological than it is any sort of product that gets made. That’s why you can hear whatever Iggy Azalea does and some folks will think, “Yeah, I hear what she’s doing, but that’s actually not the thing we call hip-hop.” A person can be rapping and still not really fall into acceptance in hip-hop culture; a person could do no rapping at all and yet be completely accepted as a hip-hop artist. Frank Ocean. In a lot of ways, Beyoncé, Anderson .Paak, Lauryn Hill.
All of these artists, what all of them have in common—even that Lauryn Hill album, the brilliant way that she takes Wu-Tang Clan lyrics and then makes them into a love song, it’s like, “How?” and maybe even “Why?” but also, “This makes sense.” It’s not just the song. It’s also a sonic signifying that we hear, like, “Oh, this? Yeah, this is making direct sonic reference to Wu-Tang.”
I think that these methodological approaches are, again—I think that they probably predate 1973. But when they’re being spoken about under this umbrella of what we call hip-hop, I think that another thing that gets left out is how whatever gets made gets made, not just what gets made. Looking at it that way would speak much more to this interplay with not just the pop charts of 1973 or histories of the 1800s or whatever. It’s also Saturday morning cartoons and slogans from cereal commercials.
All of those things become the building blocks for those things, as well as American domestic and foreign policy. All of these things become these building blocks, these tools that people are using. They become splotches on the palette that hip-hop uses to paint the world. Folks might call it painting the world alternatively, but really it’s painting the world in a more comprehensive manner, closer to the way that it appears for a lot of other folks whose voices aren’t represented in the painting that America paints of itself.
Let’s talk about that. There’s this increasingly dire sense about the lives that a lot of these younger stars live, and a lot of them are dying, or they end up tragically derailed in some other way.
The larger context is also a kind of media environment that is swept up by—and I don’t want to be too crude—Black snuff films: these videos of young Black people sometimes being harassed or being harmed but often being killed or they’re already dead bodies.
When the person is a well-known rapper, there’s a feeding frenzy. Some rappers might only achieve stardom, might only sell a bunch of records after they’ve died or something awful has happened to them. That really isn’t an indictment of rap. That’s an indictment of us as fans, the fact that that’s the thing—the headline, the carnage—that’s the thing that we show up for, and then we support any number of rappers after we find that they’ve passed away.
We’re talking about the next 50 years. The advent of AI and whatever else is on the horizon makes me really think name and likeness rights of living rappers will be an issue. Drake and the Weeknd might have to worry about people making parody songs using their voices while they’re alive, but what happens after a rapper has been killed or after the rapper is gone or tragically passed away in some other way, and then the record company says, “Well, we had them under contract; therefore, we can continue making music—not music that they made, but we can continue making music using their likeness and using their voice”?
But that’s basically the same as all those posthumous 2Pac records. Sometimes hip-hop is better than everything at engaging with the thing that seems scary about technology or the world. But you’re right—I don’t love the thought of AI Pop Smoke. That sounds horrible to me. But the way that hip-hop often runs headfirst into those tensions is fascinating to me.
We’re not too far off from a future where you might be able to have a tour with holograms of all of your favorite rappers, dead and living: living rappers opening up for rappers who are dead. That’s not a technophobic take. That’s me thinking hip-hop artists are going to continue to brave all of the frontiers of technology because that’s where all of the other shifts have come. We should prepare for some hip-hop artist to use AI in ways that we would never have imagined it being used, the same way that T-Pain used Auto-Tune or Grand Wizzard Theodore used a record player.
I share a similar outlook. It’s easy to worry, “What if AI kills art?” but I think back to the origins of hip-hop, and it’s sort of a technological triumph in itself. I think about all the rappers who responded to the rise of the internet with the mixtape format. Hip-hop is the music of survivalists. “We will figure this shit out.”
When I wrote my dissertation—a rap album—part of the reason that it’s a rap album was precisely this technological reason. If Black folks are viewed or seen or used as technology, what if I were to appropriate my own voice and then let it do the kind of thing that somebody else might do on my behalf if I weren’t here? When people are talking about rap, they’re not saying the rappers themselves are smart. They’re trying to make smart arguments with what rappers have made.
I recently watched a documentary where Christian Scott expresses a very similar sentiment but about jazz. The idea that the thing is sophisticated, but the Black people who make it aren’t sophisticated themselves.
The PhD is not the thing that’s going to make you think rappers are smart. If you don’t think rappers are smart, you’ve been successfully conditioned into the way of ordering things so that when folks get exploited or when people die or get duped or done in or whatever, you think, “They deserved that. They weren’t smart,” or “Yeah, they aren’t the people who are supposed to be benefiting from this; smarter people are the ones who are supposed to be benefiting from it.”
One last thing this anniversary has got me thinking about is the diminished status of the hip-hop gatekeeper. Would you agree it’s diminished?
Yes. I believe that social media and the internet have democratized … well, even though it’s not fully democratic—
Yes. And the traditional gatekeepers have definitely been playing catch-up for probably about 20 years.
There’s a trade-off here. Hip-hop expanded its reach, but to do that, it had to shake off a lot of norms and gatekeepers who might’ve enforced, you know, certain conventions of taste or morality. Were these trade-offs worth it?
The great majority of hip-hop artists are not famous and won’t ever be famous. Hip-hop culture doesn’t necessitate an artist desiring to be at the top of Billboard or to win a Grammy. That fact is so elusive when we think about hip-hop’s prominence. We’re thinking about it through capitalistic terms and on the terms of influential institutions that might be able to say that hip-hop has arrived because they recognized it.
[The internet] created a way for some of those people who may have never been famous given the traditional ways that hip-hop came into our lives. It gave those people opportunities to submit their work straight to audiences rather than an A&R or the check of whatever label executives who believe they can sell it in a particular way.
There are artists who are just like, “I’m going to put this online,” and it’s a song that doesn’t make any sense. It’s not even attempting to do anything. It doesn’t have a particular agenda—and then it just pops off. That, I think, creates more pathways for success. What we get right now is like, “Well, how spreadable is it?” Spreadability seems to be a far bigger and more difficult to capture phenomenon than selling. I don’t have to want to buy a song to use it as background music for an Instagram video or something. It could just be something that’s funny. It could just be something that’s useful. It could be something that’s just signifying. It’s really like our habits of listening, our habits of assembling, our habits of making. All of those things have changed along with the technology that has changed, and I think that hip-hop has been incredibly adaptable to those changing habits.
That proliferation of hip-hop around the globe—it’s a free-for-all where you now literally have white grievance rappers.
Worst thing on YouTube, man.
“I experienced racism around a whole bunch of Black people, and they all looked at me strange and told me I shouldn’t rap.” I mean, that is a new genre of rap. That’s super unique. You have been served.
If somebody says, “Well, you should look at the history of hip-hop,” and that person is like, “I don’t have to do that. I totally don’t owe it to anybody to go back and find out who Kool Herc or Melle Mel was. I feel these ways, and I’m going to rap to do it,” that person can feel totally justified being dislocated from the history of the genre that he’s participating in.
You don’t have to study in order to learn how to use the technology and share it, and I think that, in that way, rap has become a kind of technology that is being used along with all of these other tools that people are using to communicate with each other and about themselves and to animate their avatars online.