Should Artists Know Their History
“staying true to their artistic roots have provided a sense of identity in an oversaturated market.”
I remember moments when my obsession with music first started. The Alternative genre got my attention early on, thanks to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” music video incorporating video games into it. I was in the 5th grade when I bought my first record, Blink 182’s live album. I was always around it, but I didn’t consistently get into rap music until Kanye West released “The College Dropout.” It’s needless to point out how much this album changed music, but it also introduced me to the art of sampling. However, more than the actual process of sampling, I fell in love with wealth and history of music. Sampling sent me down musical rabbit holes, feverishly researching the artists responsible for inspiring songs made by my favorite rappers. I learned so much not only historically, but stylistically as well, by connecting and dissecting the soul of rap music.
But nowadays, the idea behind appreciating old music is foreign to most of the culture. Their minds are fully occupied with the current state of pop culture and social media, there’s no need to seek other sources of entertainment. And inspiration has become so much of a personal thing, it’s rare to see a current, musical, trend that references to anything in the past. Which begins to ask the question, is it necessary for artists to know the history behind the type of art they produce?
I say that the answer is two-fold, and it depends on what an artist’s goals are. One truth everyone can agree on is that the music industry’s explosion from technological advances has changed the motives behind artists and executives. An average artist’s lifespan is consistently dropping to the point that both the art and the business have created avenues to maximize returns on investments. A slew of methods, strategies, and skills have been developed in order for individuals to play what they perceive as their part. And while you have those that have embraced adaptation, there is another group that abhors it, maintaining that artistic integrity is the chief priority. These creators have adapted to industry changes, though, even if it’s been in their own way.
For these individuals, staying true to their artistic roots have provided a sense of identity in an oversaturated market. Joey Bada$$, as an example, popped off of boom bap freestyles he would post from his mother’s house. That initial energy hasn’t changed and has been one of the leading forces behind his brand, arguably making him the face of the younger generation of “real hip hop heads.” But this mentality stretches far beyond rap music and is actually stronger outside of it.
Although I wouldn’t go as far as to say it doesn’t exist, indie rap music has been tapped and transformed into another source of pop music. Because rap music is the mainstay of today’s modern pop music, the amount of money and opportunity has changed the culture and energy responsible for the genre. The energy that exists within the underground rap community would be more organic, similar to that of indie rock, R&B, and even pop. It’s much easier to draw from different, seemingly mismatched inspiration for artists of these genres because there is no propped up status quo they are forced to compete with.
If your intentions are to become someone that garners critical acclaim, your approach to your artistry is similar no matter what genre your music falls. But why do certain artists remain relevant their entire careers while others flop, even if they are pushed by the same machine? We have to enjoy their music, for one. But beyond the music is a quality that is consistent among capable artists. They are students of their crafts. They find value in the art that came before them. Inspiration is extremely subjective, and while certain artists of this group may shy away from being “inspired” by the past, legendary artists are acutely aware of the past. This is in large part because their peers are exactly those that came before them. Contrary to what people might think, just because an artist’s buzz dies, doesn’t mean the people themselves does. Many artists are ever present in the scene even though they may not produce the same type of content as they once did. This, in a way, incentives artists to become acquainted with the past, as it is a reflection of their future.
As I mentioned earlier, though, another group of creators has no real sense of legacy, other than the amount of zeros in their bank accounts. Acknowledging the past is almost counter-intuitive, especially this day in age for these artists. The more exciting and new the product, the more attention it garners, almost guaranteeing marketability. And when a product becomes marketable, larger entities approach in order to input their resources, creating an even more profitable output. Unless you are somehow relating it back to the present, drawing from the past for content is useless in the pursuit of profit. The name of this game is to focus on personal perception so that the most original version of a product is reached. Pioneering new sounds may seem miraculous. But at the root, its only reached by an individual passionately following their own impressions, disregarding other opinions about them without relent.
Both approaches to stardom require a stoic mindset. But saying that artists should be aware of the craft’s past is a blanket statement that clearly fails at considering what the goal of an artist is. The fact is that art has been corporatized long before pop stars and mumble rappers. At the top of the industry, music is a business that supplies generational wealth. And unfortunately, as small a group they are, hold much of the influence among the public. The good news is that there still are seeds of sincere originality meant to push minds in benevolent directions. The industry machine may not be behind them, but because the people are, there will always be artists that choose to take the torch being passed, even if they may not hold it the same way.