Should Hip-Hop Have Subgenres?

In doing some research for the Mic Tyson review I found the Dead-End Hip-Hop guys. I haven’t checked their website yet, but on YouTube they do album reviews and in-depth discussions of music issues. So far I’ve found them to be very articulate and intelligent, two traits that aren’t often exhibited in hip-hop journalism.

Last week they dealt with the merit of subgenre classification in hip-hop. There are worse ways to spend ~50 minutes than watching this interesting and funny conversation:

My own verdict on subgenres is that they’re a good thing to have but they have some inevitable drawbacks:

  1. Some artists will always disagree with their placement.
  2. There will always be some artists whose material overlaps boundaries or switches subgenres as time goes on.
  3. There will never be a perfect consensus on which subgenres to use and who fits into each one.
  4. People will use them to display their elitist attitudes.

There’s really nothing that can be done about any of these problems. A few artists will defy any classification you throw at them. The existence of these few doesn’t break the system because the vast majority of their peers can be classified pretty easily. These subgenre-benders and some pretentious others will hate being put into subgenres. In their discussion the guys talk about Tyler, The Creator’s disdain for being called horrorcore. Tough shit for him. Stop making music that sounds like a horror movie soundtrack and then you can complain. The result of the first two issues, along with a healthy helping of people just can’t agree on anything, is number 3. But subgenres don’t need full genre-wide consensus to be effective for the people who agree to use them.

Number 4 is about the “real hip-hop” people. They’re better than you because they listen to KRS-One and not Young Jeezy. You listen to rap, they live hip-hop. There were jerks before hip-hop subgenres existed and there will continue to be long after hip-hop is played only on oldies stations. Trying to design a subgenre system that can’t be used for asshattery would be a fruitless effort. So we’ll just call these cats douche-bags and move on.

Despite these problems, subgenres can be useful because they allow everyone to have a common vocabulary for describing the music. Someone can proclaim a love for southern hip-hop and everyone listening understands that booming bass, slower BPMs, and simple, straightforward lyrics are some things that that person likely appreciates. A rapper can say that he’s influenced by East coast music and you know to expect some lyricism and boom-bap beats.

But for subgenres to be useful, they have to follow these rules:

  1. They have to be pretty broad, otherwise there would be hundreds of them and the system would be too complicated to be useful. “Poetic rap by white kids from the suburbs of the Midwest” is too narrow. Meanwhile East coast hip-hop describes a lot of music while still excluding a lot of stuff, making it effective. Related to this is…
  2. Topic-based subgenres are too broad, for hip-hop at least. The subgenres should describe the sound of the music more than what’s being said. All mainstream and most underground rappers are hitting the same topics for the most part, on the same damn album even. Subgenres based on lyrics would have 90% of rappers in the same “average hip-hop topics” category.
  3. The subgenres have to describe the music, not the person who made it. Too Short is from Oakland but doesn’t make West coast (gangsta) music, neither does Kendrick Lamar who’s from Compton. Also, lots of New York rappers have been making southern music lately. What the artist does is much more important than where they’re from or who they claim to be influenced by.

Regardless of how anyone feels about the usage of subgenres, everyone should appreciate the debate, because it’s evidence that our artform has grown tremendously and become inclusive of many types of people and the styles that they use. The fact that we need subgenres is a testament to the evolution of the music.

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