Do you remember when everyone was banging on about hip hop officially dying? Backpackers and bitter 30-somethings would preach to anyone that would listen that nothing of worth had come out since 1998. They had watched in horror as Puffy, Lil Jon and then Soulja Boy had one by one taken hip hop and supposedly brutalised it. The genre, like some washed up Hollywood star, staggered on for a few years before being found dead in a shit hole motel in 2008 surrounded by Flo Rida singles.
I never subscribed to that idea but it did seem that rap was going through some major changes, and it was hard to judge what the outcome would be. What a shock then that only four years later we have had one of the most incredible years in hip hop history.
Here are 8 reasons why 2012 was so damn good:
Whatever hip hop tribe you pledge your allegiance to there was something for you.
If you like your good ol’ street rap there were guns, drugs and b*tches aplenty with Rick Ross and his MMG boys. Shout out to French Montana and Chief Keef too.
If you are a fan of the golden era, Kendrick Lamar provided you with a cracking debut album, Action Bronson continued his mixtape assault, Joey Bada$$ showed that the future is bright and Kanye and his GOOD Music gang flew the flag enthusiastically.
If you wanted some hip pop, Young Moolah (baaaaaby) dominated the charts with Nikki Minaj, Drake, Tyga and Weezy all making big contributions.
Even hip hop’s grown up cousin R&B had a renaissance with Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and Miguel finally doing what their talent suggested they might do. And that BET Awards performance by D'Angelo!!! Wow!
All sides of hip hop were repping hard. Every few days there were songs coming out that would blow you away. Who can forget that week in September when Lil Wayne, Big Sean, GunPlay & Talib Kweli all dropped free mixtapes?
The hardest part was keeping up with it.
Coast To Coast
If the early '90s belonged to the West Coast, the mid to late '90s had seen the power well and truly shift to the East, with New York big business taking over the industry. Not for long. Out of nowhere in the early 2000s the Dirty South snatched the crown and never looked like handing it back. With its animated style and bassy club-ready music, it offered something fresh and new that hadn't really been seen before; not a million miles away from the core characteristics of UK Garage.
By the late 2000s southern hip hop had become a parody of itself. The rest of the scene didn’t look too healthy either. Label politics and beef had meant that no one of significance had come out of the East Coast since 50 Cent. As for the West, apart from The Game there was a serious dearth of mainstream buzz. Knoc-Turn'Al anybody? Sure, North Cali had some cool stuff and Hyphy threatened to break nationally, but it seemed that the Death Row hangover had sucked all confidence and momentum from the sunny West.
2012 was the year that everything changed. We had high profile artists - new and old - making huge waves on the East, West and Dirty South. Every area had someone they could be proud of. This was unprecedented in hip hop history.
Hip hop is all about being the freshest so there is nothing more exciting as a rap fan than seeing new talent coming through and really making an impact. In 2012 we had A$AP Rocky, Action Bronson, Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown, 2Chainz, Future, Joey Bada$$, Mac Miller, French Montana, Chief Keef and many many more. Lots of them had been bubbling in the background for a few years (and some, such as Danny Brown and 2 Chainz, longer than they would like to admit) but 2012 was the year they stepped in the building and said, ‘I’m f*cking here! Pay attention!’.
When was the last time we had such a diverse group of personalities truly break through? Probably 1998, the last ‘great’ hip hop year.
It wasn’t just the new bucks; we also had legends smashing it without living off past glories. Jay Z and Kanye took over the world. Nas dropped one of his best bodies of work AND got mainstream attention. You had Ghost and Rae bumrushing the scene whenever they felt like it. Missy and Timbo decided enough was enough and got back in the lab. Big Boi's album, at time of writing, is hotly anticipated. Even the Wu and The Lox popped up with a collabo album. Who saw that coming?
Gone are the days where once you hit 35 you had to put the mic down. It seems if you don’t force it (LL... ahem) you can be mature and successful. It makes sense. Hip hop has been around over 40 years. Some of its audience has grown up. New rules are in place.
Crews! You don’t really see them in other genres. Yes, you get bands and groups but a hip hop crew is a different beast all together. It is power. It is momentum. It is influence. It is individuals coming together to create magic: collaborations, video appearances, surprise performances, joint mixtapes, cross promotion, etc.
This year we had Kanye’s GOOD Music guys. Whether you like them or not, Young Money were once again a force. MMG and extended family (French, Ace Hood, DJ Khaled, etc) dominated commercial hip hop. You also had A$AP Mob and Black Hippy doing their respective underground thing.
Hip hop is all about b*lls out cockiness and confidence. When a rapper is part of a crew they feel empowered and that’s when the best music comes.
No one wants people getting shot, but at the same time no one wants everyone being BBFs; it’s fucking boring. There was a while there in hip hop where it was all one big love in…
‘Nah, I aint about no beef, I’m here to collab and make money’.
Hip hop’s roots are in beef or to put it another way, competition. DJs on the blocks in the '70s wanted to be baddest man in their ‘hood, so when they jumped on the mic they were there to smash their opponent. Plain and simple. That is hip hop.
Let’s be clear: cynical disses for attention around the time of record releases are lame! However we had some really interesting moments in 2012...
Drake vs Common... which then turned into Young money vs GOOD music. We had Hot97 radio personality Peter Rosenberg damn near causing a hip hop civil war in the summer. What on earth had he said? Only that no songs like Nicki Minaj 'Starships' would get played on the stage he was hosting at New York's Summer Jam concert. Despite a massive mountain being made out of a mole hill, the fallout was fascinating. We also had old beefs reignited: 50 vs Rick Ross, Jeezy vs Rick Ross and Gucci Mane vs Jeezy. Matter of fact, Gucci Mane went at pretty much everyone from Nas to Nicki to French Montana in October.
It seemed people all of a sudden had the confidence to speak their minds. If they weren't feeling your music or style, they would let you know. The way it should be. It was fun!
For me Pusha T ‘Exodus 23:1’ was 2012’s beef highlight. So so soooo cold.
Blurring Of Boundaries
Us hip hop fans can be huge snobs. It doesn’t stop there; our rappers can be huge snobs too. Outkast getting booed for winning Best Group at The Source Awards in 1995 showed this. Their crime: being southern hip hop, the supposed retard brother of real hip hop. In 2012 this snootiness disappeared and all kinds of boundaries and stereotypes were torn up. No one cared anymore. If people wanted to work with you, they would. If people wanted to make a certain kind of song, they did.
One of the highest grossing tours of 2012 in the US involved Waka Flocka, Drake, Meek Mill and J. Cole. In the past these guys wouldn’t have messed with each other because of label politics and stereotypes about each other’s sound.
Arguably the song of the year was ‘Hip Hop’ from DJ Khaled’s album Kiss the Ring. The track featured Nas, Scarface and DJ Premier. Would Nas have gone anywhere near a DJ Khaled project in the past? Unlikely.
This big shift had a bit to do with artists finally realising that we, the humble listener, don't listen to just one type of music or sub genre any more Thanks to the internet we try all sorts of stuff out that we’d never have dreamt of spending our hard earned money on a few years back.
More importantly, record labels no longer possess the power they once had. Yawn. Yeah, ok, this is old news. The crucial thing is that artists are now calling the shots more and more, and producing projects way closer to their vision than ever before.
Today if rapper X wants to do a song with rapper Y, they will. It’s that simple. Oh, the record labels involved won’t sanction it? Fine, we’ll just leak it online. Whoops. It should be no surprise that we’re repeatedly hearing mixtapes from our favourite rappers that are much better than their official albums. Why? Mixtapes have no label involvement, whereas albums always have too many cooks messing with them.
2012 showed rappers that they could get away with doing whatever the hell they liked. Not only that, but their fans loved this new found authenticity. What’s realer than a rapper making every decision rather than a mountain climbing, electric guitar playing A&R man?
The Right Stuff Selling
It has long been established that a song selling does not necessarily indicate quality or even reflect the state and sound of a music scene. However when we look back at the big singles of 2012 it makes excellent reading:
Clique. I Don't Like. N*ggas In Paris. Goldie. Stay Schemin. Motto. Rack City. Swimming Pools (Drank). Mercy.
I don't expect you to like all of these songs but if you are a hip hop fan, one or more of these was your jam for some time in 2012.
Were these cynically made club tracks created for the ladies? Did these songs sound like anything before? Were these cookie-cutter hip hop singles with RnB singers on the hook, the likes of which plagued the early 2000's?
They were necessary, boombastic, ear-catching, organic, powerful rap tracks. There was no pretence. They were created out of a love of hip hop. Sure it was each artist's take on whatever hip hop means to them, but they were real songs. Take 'Mercy' as an example. What f*cking planet did that come from?
In an era where fans now choose what becomes a single we’re no longer having to settle for what a label wants to force feed us.
Take a look back to the big singles of 2008. Yes 'A Mili' was a banger of epic proportions but outside of that we had Flo Rida ‘Low’, Lil Wayne ‘Lollipop’ and T.I. ‘Whatever you Like’.
Don’t get me wrong, I danced my b*lls off to all these in clubs at the time BUT 2012's hits were serious!
2012 was the year hip hop got its... dare I say it... swag back.
But what had gone so drastically wrong in the first place?
As we entered the new millennium hip hop was the highest selling genre in the world. Rappers didn't know what to do with all the money that was coming in. CDs were selling. Brands couldn't get enough of these walking talking conduits to the lucrative teen market. Sponsorship deals. Clothing deals. Film deals. Drink deals. Hotel deals. I make it rain on these hoes!!!
Then all of a sudden as we know CDs stopped selling. Oh fuck!!!
So long used to spunking cash willy nilly it made sense that the bloated hip hop industry would be hardest hit when it all came crumbling down. Being broke and scruffy as a rocker is kind of cool and sexy. Being broke and scruffy as a rapper is like coming out: hip hop won't accept it.
Despite money disappearing quicker than a Mase comeback, rappers needed to keep up their image. Some continued the charade and went further and further into debt, while others decided to switch up their hustle. We had Ring Tone rap. Dance Move rap. Rappers MCing over house. Wherever the money was you were sure to find a 1,000 MCs shamelessly band-wagonning. The smarter rappers retired; realising that there was more money to be made using their star power elsewhere, such as TV or Film.
Hip hop had well and truly lost its way.
But just like the hustlers and go getters that founded the genre in the first place, it was remiss of us to assume Hip Hop would never drag itself back from oblivion.
As the recession gobbled us all up towards the end of the noughties, rappers began to realise that talking about billions would no longer cut it and, worse still, could damage your career. Talking about real life and problems became rap’s M.O.
A few big selling mainstream albums in 2010 and 2011, such as Kanye’s melancholy ‘My Dark Twisted Fantasy’ and Drake’s dingy and introspective ‘Take Care’ further solidified this.
Yes, some people railed against their rappers going ‘soft’ but importantly it sent out a message to the whole of hip hop: you could make an impact and be successful without totally sacrificing artistic integrity.
Simultaneously Twitter's rapid uptake from 2010 onwards cannot be underestimated. All of a sudden great music could spread like wild fire regardless of label backing. Whatever your rap style, if you were good enough you could find an audience and engage with them. Shout out to Mac Millar and Macklemore.
These factors began to reintroduce hip hop's age old key recipe: confidence. Other genres celebrate mystery, aloofness and a sense of unease. Hip hop has never tolerated that. It is all about confidence and being yourself. As this self-belief grew throughout 2010 and 2011, rappers began taking bigger and bigger risks, thus getting closer and closer to the pure form of hip hop we all fell in love with.
Forget getting its swag back... 2012 was the year hip hop became real again.
Us rap fans can be an antagonistic bunch. Hip hop’s roots in posturing and posing has made our genre the most divisive and polarising in music. We fight and argue about our favourite rappers like sports’ fans do about their favourite teams. Our rappers compound this uber-competitive spirit too, littering their verses with reams of sports’ metaphors. Taking this analogy on, just like football fans at the end of the season or after a big competition put their differences aside and simply bask in how much they love the game itself, let’s sit back and enjoy everything Hip Hop has given us in 2012.
Whether you were a Gucci Mane groupie or a Lupe Fiasco lover, it’s been one hell of a year!
Follow Rory on Twitter: @RoryJumPup