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Why Virginia is responsible for hip-hop's fixation with originality

Trey Alston

 // May 24, 2018

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Somewhere between playing Digimon World 3's opening hours countless times on end and battling a perpetual brain freeze garnered from slurping down endless Wild Cherry Slurpee's with reckless abandon, I became enamored with hip-hop music as a child. There was something spectacular about its fantastically grim production and outlandish lyricism unlike, let's say, Frankie Beverly or any of the former generation's mainstays that comprise disco and R&B's Mount Rushmore. Eminem's nasally voice and comedic delivery painted him as rap's court jester, him being an outlier to the boom-bap sound that was rapidly evolving. What came next was much more varied, yet constrained in the foibles of the traditional sound of the Golden Era. The early 2000s gave birth to future stars like 50 Cent, Ludacris, and Nelly, adorning the radio frequently with rap sounding unlike anything that came before it. I greedily consumed the art form, perhaps out of a mission dedicated to anarchy — my parents didn't like me exposed to the filth that accompanied adolescent understanding of sex and drug savvy lyrics.

From 2001–2003, the radio was the place to be. I remember Z104 was the station that played all of hip-hop's best music from start to finish, every day, all day. I was afraid of a certain sound sequence in Digimon World 3 so, after completing the intro, I would mute the television and turn the radio up. I didn't have a memory card because I couldn't afford one — hey, back then, they were extremely expensive — so I didn't really pay attention to the scores of dialogue that I had to sit through every day. A majority of my time was dedicated to sifting through the radio's rapidly revolving collection of rap and taking detailed mental notes of the lyrics to recite later. Every couple of songs, there'd be one washout that caused me to switch the channel temporarily.

Pharrell's "Frontin" seemed too off-kilter for me, ingrained in saccharine funk sounds but too new-age to be anything other than an off-brand imitation. Missy Elliott's "Get Your Freak On" was repetitive shock music — the soulless refrain struck me as overtly vulgar, and the video's involvement of crudely CGI-d saliva flinging between mouths made me detest everything about it. Clipse's "Grindin" had Pharrell's fingerprints all over it; maybe that's why I couldn't get into its pubescent production that became a fixation for any sub-16-year-old within a three-foot radius of a wooden lunch room table.

These three records were the most conspicuous of the time period. I didn't quite understand them, so I abhorred them. Over time, my enmity turned into curiosity, then obsession. What was it about these records that intrigued me so? Perhaps it was the sound that was drastically different than anything I'd ever heard. A commonality emerged between these cuts, along with the productions of Timbaland that I'd discovered by prying into the history of the music I'd begin to love — good ole' Virginia roots.

Virginia, the homeland. Our country started here, in the midst of rolling plains and crab-infested waters by the Tidewater Bay. Over time, what began as the center of a rising country, settled into the shadows next to more prominent settlements. While the country expanded and altered its central focus areas, the bold spirit of discovery that inspired the settling of the country in the first place splintered into invisible fragments and showered throughout the dominion. Over time, these seeds would come to define some of the state's most important denizens.

Pharrell, Missy, The Clipse, Timbaland; each of the game's iconoclasts had come from the state. You wouldn't be able to tell from sonic observation — they sounded otherworldly, alien, even. It gave their records timeless feels, works that, even today, still sound unlike anything you've ever heard. Nearly two decades later, each of the four are revered as one of hip-hop's most esteemed acts. With success of this magnitude, it makes Virginia look like a state that houses a brand of creativity that's hardly seen, an offshoot of the Neptune-era zaniness that presented an unpredictable factor when accounting for new music from the big four.

1520 Sedgwick Avenue. To the casual American, that's nothing but a random address to plug into Google Maps. To the initiated, it's the rumored birthplace of hip-hop. Post-industrial South Bronx was a breeding ground for furtive youth's expression of the changing world that they perceived. DJ Kool Herc was an 18-year-old Jamaican immigrant at the time, an entertainer and disc jockey that wanted to break the mold at his sister's back to school function. He tried something new; he extended a beat that was playing through the speakers and began speaking over it. What started as a simple party trick would be replicated before exploding through the neighborhoods and back alleys of New York. It became a beast of its own, combined with the growing advents of breakdancing and graffiti being embossed on nearby buildings, there was a culture being created right under the country's nose.

Hip-hop became the "thing" for anyone looking to go against the grain. Being that its inception was so organic, groundbreaking creativity was a tenant of its foundation that characterized the music and culture that came afterwards. The high-top fades, dookie chains, and fuzzy Kangol hats that comprised 80s rapper sheen defined a generation eager to break the mold set by mainstream America.

By the 90s, rap began to adhere to a shape, a formula and mold that made it much easier to categorize and identify artists. Over here, you'd find your "gangster" rappers, relaying the horrors of the street life in gruesome detail, often fetishized by a suburban population eager to relive experiences that they'd never come to face. Next, the "conscious" rappers, providing social commentary for those unable to speak on their conditions, were everywhere. They played a large part in the development of hip-hop's "Golden Era," with their observations of the workings of the world providing the necessary insight to incite change on a global scale. The last group were lifestyle rappers that just rapped about what surrounded them, often taking cues from both "gangster" and "conscious" guys. Whether it was blazing the finest weed or murdering would-be robbers after a bad situation turns worse, these guys were the cream of the crop.

More or less, all three groups shared a similar sound. Purposefully lackadaisical bass that featured excessive drum kicks, a protruding melody that served as the crux to shape the beat around, and a general vibe that what listeners were getting was unfinished. The genre strove for that organic feeling and did anything to keep it. Soul samples and other conventions permeated the genre but this style, this boom-bap sound that could be easily replicated, became hip-hop's saving face. This era would go on to be considered the best in rap's history, with boom-bap being the pinnacle of rap's ever-changing sound.

Of course, this zeitgeist would have to dissipate. But if you look at 90s hip-hop's uniform structure and compare it to the zoo-like nature of 2000s rap, the style didn't just evaporate slowly, it completely vanished. For that to happen, something serious had to have come in and removed all traces of the previous era. Around the time that boom-bap was coming to a close, Pharrell, Missy, The Clipse, and Timbaland came into prominence.

It'd be hogwash to say that Virginian artists are solely responsible for the expressive nature of rap music as we know it, but there certainly is reason to say that they are the main reason. The tenants of rap music — creativity, originality, and audaciousness — were exemplified by these four, ultimately leading the culture in a bold new direction.

Pharrell's blending of music's lines made his emerging catalog freakier than anything that fans of the culture had been exposed to. His appearance also offset traditional fans' expectations — he looked young enough to wonder if he had a license. The large, drug-dealer aesthetic that dominated the culture, he eschewed in favor of a cleaner, preppy-like look that was all but a figment of imagination before he came out. Missy Elliott's weirdness was her selling point, with Timbaland's voltaic productions that sounded like apocalyptic musings from a computer unlocking the full scope of what she could do as an artist. The Clipse redefined "gangsta" rap and made it a repentance for drug dealers, their steely calm deliveries bedazzling anyone brave enough to listen; collaborating with Pharrell disclosed the outré that would go on to make them the go-to kingpins in the game. Each of these artists gave something to the culture that grew to define it and change everything we knew about what hip-hop was.

Their relevance transcends what they did for the death of boom-bap rap; they're largely responsible for the meta of today's game. No matter where you look, the influence of Virginia's elite can be seen. Artists like Lil Uzi Vert are the modern-day iterations of Pharrell — they embody the same cataclysmic feel for genre mainstays, pushing a unique style that isn't readily accepted or understood by mainstream media. Missy Elliott's smart, but not overt, embracement of her sexuality as it coincides with oddball creativity can be found in Nicki Minaj and Asian Doll, two rappers that revel in craziness for the sake of being the most controversial in the room. Timbaland's still out here working the circuit like a mad man, putting on new artists and serving as one of the game's biggest tastemakers. The Clipse are separated, but still doing their thing. Pusha T, in particular, finds new ways to stoke his snowy empire and eviscerate the parameters of mainstream rap. They've paved the way for other Virginia artists too such as Masego, a saxophonist and rapper that's captivated everyone's attention from Stevie Wonder to Quincy Jones; DRAM, the rapper-singer amalgamation that's a millennial recalculation of Pharrell with more of a rough side; and, none other than soon-to-be legend Chris Brown, whose R&B and rap records have undoubtedly been inspired by Timbaland's exotic beat selection in some facets.

Coming to terms with the impact of Virginia in the rap game means that you understand the ebb and flow of the culture and how its changed over the years. For the longest, I didn't see it; the works of Pharrell, Missy, The Clipse, and Timbaland were inconsequential to me. As I grew up, I began to appreciate and admire the groundbreaking nature of their work and how it melded the creative expression of today's generation of artists. Without Virginia, rap wouldn't exist how we know it. Creativity wouldn't be as rewarded, and boom-bap could actually still be the number one thing circulating around the world.

With DRAM and Masego leading the new school charge for Virginian creatives, the enduring impact of the aforementioned four will continue to become ingrained in the culture. Decades ago, they came into the music industry with the sole agenda being to express their unorthodox creativity. In hip-hop no one truly fades out of existence; their memory becomes preserved in their works. Their memory will live on, not just through their catalogs, but the countless conventions they've created and eviscerated, along with the people they've inspired along the way. Through their work, the "Old Dominion" state and its legacy for churning out once-in-a-lifetime talent will continue to live on.


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