Thirty-five years after "Rappers Delight," there are still innovators and emulators. A look at what biting means in 2014.
Every day a new rapper pops up, only to be sucked into the endlessly churning machine that is the online hype cycle—a special place where amateurs enthuse about artists so that brands may swoop in and sponsor those artists with free T-shirts and eventual endorsement deals. Some will become famous. The vast majority—particularly those who rely entirely on the goodwill of a small population of press and media people, rather than connecting with fans through more organic means—will either eke out sponsored livings, or return promptly to the service industry.
One of the many recent voices to emerge into this crowd-sourced universe was a rapper by the name of Lil Silk. Although he's been written about quite a bit, very little has been said about him. He's an artist with a high-energy vocal style that sustains in the upper register, is from Atlanta (although he was born in Chicago), and fits in reasonably well with the sound of contemporary Atlanta rap music. He raps with liberated, loose-limbed exuberance, and like most of his current city, he breaks with traditional ideas of how rappers are supposed to deliver their words.
But the most striking characteristic of Lil Silk's music is that he sounds quite a bit like Young Thug. There's an uncanny valley effect in hearing his latest single, "Rapper," from his new debut mixtape Son of a Hustler:
This Young Thug comparison is inevitable, and one that's liable to frustrate him.
"It's similar," he admits when I spoke with him by phone earlier this week. "I can tell the difference and everyone that’s a big fan of his and that listens to my music can tell the difference. It’s just similar because I naturally have a high pitched voice when I rap and he naturally has his voice when he rap. It’s similar. It ain’t necessarily the same."
More then ever, ATL club rap sounds a world apart, even as it continues to dictate the future of radio rap's mainstream. The current Atlanta hothouse of styles, born under the heating lamps of the Wayne, Gucci, and Future triumvirate, make it easy for those not paying particular attention to hear all of these artists as an autotuned blur of lowbrow entertainment. Taking a step closer, though, and it becomes possible to see gradients and tiers, personalities that act as sources of originality, and those who ride the ripples in the pond.
Silk is signed to Archive Entertainment, which was also home to Young Thug early in his career. The two collaborated on the song "Time Of Ya Life," from Young Thug's I Came From Nothing 3. At that point, Lil Silk—whose verse comes in towards the end—didn't seem quite as indebted to Thug's explosive, unpredictable style, slotting instead into a familiar pattern. Ditto goes for his 2012 solo song "Goin' Off." At that point, his sound was closer to other post-Lil Wayne rappers like Shy Glizzy. For his part, at that point Young Thug actually sounded more "out there" than he does today, his brittle voice consistently cracked into shards, each song cheerily enthusiastic, testing the patience of his audience.
It was only after Young Thug tempered his style and found success that Silk dropped his debut Son of a Hustler. And it's on this record that Silk's similarity to his former labelmate emerged.
And Lebron James, as curator for the NBA 2K14 soundtrack, managed to slip his friend past the critical guard tower and into the game. Cotton has since signed a distribution deal with Sony.
The hits keep coming, so their imitators do too. Recently, a rapper named Kyle adopted everything about Drake, distorted through the funhouse mirror of his own narrow personality. An unintentional parody of Drake's temperament, Kyle retains the monosyllabic moniker, a similarly awkward lean into the n-bomb, and the rapper's overall sound circa Thank Me Later. Kyle even goes so far as to pre-emptively address the comparison in song ("They say that I sound like Drake/I don't") which is a noble attempt, but ultimately fruitless, an on-record attempt at suggesting we "don't think of an elephant."
Of course, this kind of emulation isn't new. Blatant swagger jacking has been a part of the genre as long as it's been around, going back 35 years to hip-hop's recorded year zero. "Rapper's Delight" was a bite; as legend has it, the song's verses were written by Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers, who were managed by Big Bank Hank. Joe Robinson of Sugar Hill Records heard Hank rapping along to Caz at a pizza parlor, and hired him to record the track. Hip-hop, an art poised in the balance between repetition and novelty, is really an oral tradition. The purpose of rhymes are to freeze that which is temporal and ephemeral, creating patterns and imprinting them in the cultural memory.
Perhaps the most notable after "Rappers Delight" was the output of Dana Dane, a rapper whose delivery owed everything to Slick Rick. But there were many others; Foundation 7, a group known only to record collectors focused on obscurity, starred a rapper who went by "Supreme Takim," and functioned as Rakim's echo. Jay Z initially sounded like Das EFX, then his mentor Jaz O, and was accused of ripping too many lines from Big. A number of rappers later popped who sounded like Jay Z, from Sacario to Byrd Gang affiliate NOE, who Jim Jones admitted he signed in part due to the similarity, simulacrum as subliminal (To quote Max B: "I even made the fake Jay Z nigga sound wavey.")
The more famous the rapper, the greater his number of admirers. Biggie begot Shyne, although the baritone Bad Boys sounded nothing alike when compared with later swagger jacker Guerilla Black. That rapper added a grotesque twist by claiming Compton while emulating the greatest rapper to emerge from Bed-Stuy.
Perhaps the most emulated rapper of all time was Tupac Shakur, who is not only responsible for being a subtle inspiration to successful artists who did develop their own voices, but became the archetype for...well, everyone and anyone. There's an entire cottage industry of fake 2Pacs, but perhaps none more stunningly deluded than West Coast rapper (we know, because he poses holding up the 'W') Tha Realest. Tha Realest's song "Fuck Hollywood" manages to capture everything that made 2Pac 2Pac, except the person who is at its center:
It's all there: the empathic vocalizations, the truth-to-power rhetorical style, the righteous anger. Of course, there are all the little ways in which he can't help but come up short in comparison to the original, but that's hardly the point. "Fuck Hollywood" is a bigoted, homophobic screed, a crime against humanity and aesthetics at once. It's not just morally repellent, but locates its only original contribution to Pac's formula in its cliched propaganda. It's not an exercise in style; like all blatant biters, it's pure mannerism, a withered parody. What is the purpose of this project? Why does this need to exist? This is the question all imitators must face.
Tha Realest, though, is an extreme wing; not all emulation is completely pointless. After all, skimming for originality isn't the main reason we listen to music, even if that ingredient does function as the genre's spine. The reason we listen to music is that we like the songs, and some of our most important songwriters have been notorious trend-hoppers and swagger jackers.
Locating originality in a rap style isn't always the point. From Master P to Jermaine Dupri, their art is one of mercenary hitmaking. Dupri's been behind more smash singles and musical memories than almost any producer in hip-hop history, from the early '90s through the mid-'00s. Sometimes, a swift variation on a familiar template can be refreshing, and work commercially. Does Jermaine Dupri have a style of his own? Surely—but it's one that is elusive, has more to do with an instinctual sense for popular appeal. In his case, an act's style is pure branding, innovation an overvalued commodity—Da Brat as female Snoop Dogg. This is more adaptive and open, a more "pop" approach, to record-making: each trend becomes a way to dress up his true talents in new clothes. But on the other hand, his use of others as raw material and inspiration for him to re-purpose is ultimately a very hip-hop strategy.
But if we look past the impresarios that keep the world turning and dollars flowing, even rappers who show a heavy outside influence can still produce great work. Think: Domino or Da Brat's Snoop Dogg impersonations. Neither came across as photocopies, but they also couldn't transcend their status as aftershocks of Doggystyle's earthquake. A more modern example might come from Lil Silk's home of Atlanta, where the best Future song of 2013 was actually by Rich Homie Quan. Que made a similar argument. Of course, Future remains a center of impact in a way those artists haven't touched, whatever "Type of Way"'s summer jam status. Was it last year's "Ghetto Jam"?
The famous Japanese potter Shoji Hamada was once asked if he was bothered by copycat artists..."In a hundred years or more," he was quoted as saying, "All their best pieces will be taken for mine, and my failures will be taken for theirs."
The famous Japanese potter Shoji Hamada was once asked if he was bothered by copycat artists. He was unconcerned. "In a hundred years or more," he was quoted as saying, "All their best pieces will be taken for mine, and my failures will be taken for theirs." Of course, pottery doesn't work quite like music; Hamada was notorious for not signing his work ("My work itself is my best signature," he said). But my Domino_Sweet_Potato_Pie.mp3 has its ID3 tag. That said, it still speaks to the way that success and originality are in a codependent dance. Domino's career is rightly celebrated, in its way, but he will never be considered on the level of Snoop Dogg. Flattery is a part of this relationship. A sign that an artist has a truly distinct, original style, one that can't be easily compared with anyone else, is that he will inspire imitators.
But surely Snoop himself was influenced? His creative spark did not flash in a vacuum. In fact, he foregrounds it on his debut, covering Slick Rick's "La Di Da Di." So how does an artist escape the onerous burden of their own influences? How did Snoop become Snoop, and not remain Dana Dane?
This question has been discussed for years, and goes well beyond hip-hop. There's an entire subset of writing about the relationship between artists and their influences. Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence is one of the most widely known of these texts. It argued that the only way an artist—in his case, he was speaking about poetry—could escape the shadows of his idols was what he called creative misprision—intentional misreading. A failure to recognize the importance of the intentional misread means the poet ends up in that uncanny valley of imitation. Successful misprision means that the poet might end up with a "Ghetto Jam" of their own. Or it could even mean eclipsing their primary influence, making it so the father becomes spoken of only in relation to his son.
Anxiety of Influence, to my mind, sounds awfully prescriptive. History doesn't always work in this way. We don't know for a fact that Domino's style was Snoop-derivative (or at least, I don't). He may have had similar influences, but by unfortunate coincidence, arrived just in the wake of the '90s biggest rap star. Bloom's thesis when applied to hip-hop is also presumptuous about motive; a rapper is not necessarily cognizant of his intention to become a distinctive stylist.
A common driving force is economic. Hip-hop is a business in a way that poetry could never be. But music in the modern era has always been a business. And biters have been a problem in that business for a long time. Charles Mingus once titled a song, "If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats." He wasn't the only one.
"Thelonius Monk and some of the cleverest of the young musicians used to complain, 'We'll never get credit for what we're doing.' They had reason to say it," says jazz composer Mary Lou Williams, as quoted in the book Hear Me Talkin' To Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told By the Men Who Made It, originally published in 1955.
In the music business, the going is tough for original talent. Everybody is being exploited through paid-for publicity, and most anybody can become a great name if he can afford enough of it. In the end, the public believes what it reads. So it is often difficult for the real talent to break through. Anyway, Monk said, 'We are going to get a big band started. We're going to create something that they can't steal because they can't play it.' So the boppers worked out a music that was hard to steal.
Aside from recognizing that this could have been written yesterday, it's interesting to note how the development of bebop—an increasingly stylized, abstract, complex musical form—was economically motivated. The jazz artist's quest to be recognized for his originality is a noble-sounding motivation. But it's also easy to flip this idea on its head, to realize this was about financial self-preservation. When there are lots of artists, and the barrier for entry is low, abstraction and difficulty become a way of filtering out competition, to force those artists without a deep understanding off the bandstand.
What was the "Rapper's Delight"? Grandmaster Caz-via-Big Bank Hank wanted to make you move your feet. But he also dreamed of "more money than a sucker could ever spend."
What was the "Rapper's Delight"? Grandmaster Caz-via-Big Bank Hank wanted to make you move your feet. But he also dreamed of "more money than a sucker could ever spend." Selling records for Sugar Hill was a part of the plan—although no doubt they never realized thow many they'd sell. At the same time that rappers police biting, they surely must recognize the fruitlessness of the cause, as they shovel away sand with a sieve. There is an inherent schizophrenia in trying to monetize something un-graspable, to claim sovereignty. As students of this oral tradition, by definition, those rappers were once biters themselves.
For his part, Lil Silk seems aware of his dilemma, but doesn't take it too seriously. "[Rich Homie] Quan first came out and everybody said, 'Quan sounds like Future.' Now Quan established his name and nobody really cares about that no more. When Thug first came out, 'Thug sounds like Wayne.' Nobody says that anymore. They see he opened a path for himself. Now they say I sound like Thug. But once I make that path for myself and make it without no Thug or this and that, guess what they going to say? 'Okay, Silk got his own style.' Everybody in the rap game sounds like somebody else."
Lil Wayne, after all, was his initial influence. And he's thinking of the ways he'll differentiate himself. "The ad-libs. The whole style. Trying to do stuff that I don’t think nobody would do. I try to do stuff that’s off the wall. I’ve got a rock song, a real rock song. It’s crazy. But imagine it’s a rock song by me? It’s for a multi-cultural [fanbase]. And then it’s still with my fun ad-libs, doing what I want to do. I record for myself. I don’t record for anybody else or to make anybody else happy. I make music I like myself."
It makes sense for Lil Silk to find comfort in Thugger's arc. Listening to I Came From Nothing—Young Thug's first release—the traces of Lil Wayne are still strong, particularly in the way that he twists his vocals at the end of each line, grinning at his punchlines. Today, Thug no longer sounds Wayne-redundant; Wayne's mannerisms have disappeared in his work, leaving only the slightest evidence of their earlier imprint.
"What is jazz? What makes a great jazzman is experience. Unless you've had experience and lived, what could you have to say on your instrument except copy off records? A person has to have lived to play great jazz or else he'll be a copy.
It's like the story of the young guy who was copying this fine modern jazzman. He copied him note for note, phrase for phrase. One night he went down to hear his idol at Birdland. And this copier was real high. Well, the man he had copied all this time wasn't up to par on that night. So the copier went right up to him on the stand and said, "Man, you ain't you, I'm you!" —Milt Hinton, Hear Me Talkin' To Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It, 1955