From Behind the Boards: A DJ’s View of the Evolution of the Past Decade of Rap Music
Five years ago, Joey Bada$$ wasn’t old enough to drive a car. These days, he’s one of the Internet’s most talked about rappers working. The reason? Well, it seems like — to put a big, sweeping, generalized statement on it — “rap is back.”
That’s not to say the genre ever left, but in the past few years, there’s been a quiet reemergence of the scene and many point to New York as leaders of the shift. Led by hip-hop collectives like the A$AP Mob and Pro Era, the Big Apple has found itself in the national rap conversation in a way that it hasn’t been relevant since 50 Cent released his first record. Even when Cam’ron was making phone calls on his pink cell phone, there was still a lack of popularity on a national scale, probably due to kids loving Radiohead a bit too much.
Skinny Friedman has worked professionally as a DJ in New York City for about seven years, focusing mainly on mixing rap music. He’s released countless EPs and mixes online, spun on Sway in the Morning, and has toured across the country. Obviously, he’s been heavily involved in the scene, and has watched the genre slowly evolve and shift into what it is today. But because people still aren’t quite sure what exactly “it” is today, we decided to talk to him and see what sort of commentary he could give, and see just where he thinks the genre will go from here.
How have you seen the rap and hip-hop scene in New York evolve during your time as a DJ?
On the whole, I think people kind of lost interest in rap from 2007 to 2010. It was this weird cycle and I think it’s happened everywhere. But when the Internet hit [in the early ‘00s], it really changed people because it gave all this visibility to rappers and artists in general who didn’t have a way to get their stuff out of a small area. And all of the sudden, now, this stuff is super visible.
From 2003 to 2005, rappers who were huge in their respective local communities were suddenly getting shined on on a national scale. You especially saw this with Texas where you could go platinum in your city or your state, and no one on the outside would even notice. So that sort of stuff, all these little micro-scenes, blew up around then. And it was cool to see Pall Wall on MTV. But then what happened, I think, is that things got kind of generic. Once people realized they could get the attention of the whole country, they stopped focusing on what was hot in the city, which tended to be weirder because smaller scenes tend to produce micro-trends. At the same time, people were exposed to new stuff. A lot of people in hip-hop were like, “Oh, there’s all this other stuff going on so I’m going to mess with this for awhile.” That’s how you ended up with the whole Daft Punk thing or producers working with different genres like EDM. I mean, people were making rap and people were making good rap, but there wasn’t the attention that there had been.
Why did the scene shift again, then?
Well, I’m theorizing here, but I think people reached a point where a generation turned over, between 2003 and 2007. People got out there and were experimenting, and in a way, rediscovered rap. Rap also has a tendency to rejuvenate itself. Every generation has a legion of quote-unquote “real hip-hop” kids who want to fly the flag for keeping it true, but what it means is they’re just making music that sounds like 1994 in New York. That is cool, and has a place, but with that, a purist and elitist attitude comes as well, like, “What we’re doing is the right thing.” And it sometimes serves in opposition to what’s creative and weird out there. But it’s also good because it brings people back to the roots, where people can be like, “Yo, I’m going to focus on rapping my butt off,” and if you can get a movement behind that, that’s something pretty cool.
If you look at the current scene, like Pro Era for example, it’s a generation of kids who came up listening to everything — their parents were into rap, all their friends were into rap, rap’s in their DNA — and so they were going to make rap. For some reason, when these kids grew up and had all these different genres flung on them by the Internet, it turned into a bunch of people who grew up with everything, but still knew that rap was at the heart of what they were going to try to make. I mean, as a DJ, this is all total speculation, but that’s how the progression of hip-hop in the past decade makes sense to me.
During that lull period of 2007 to 2010, as a DJ, it started being harder to pick out hits and pick out what people were playing. You had certain artists like Gucci Mane who were poppin’, but these guys weren’t making hits. They were just releasing a tape like every two months, if not more. Tons of music. It was more about product than any sort of strategy, so it was hard to keep with it as a DJ. These weren’t dudes with singles, just dudes putting out hella product. As a rap DJ, I went back to playing older stuff because it was like, “I don’t know what you want to hear.”
Something that people like to talk about how now is that there is a “New New York” renaissance. Others say it never stopped and people just started paying attention again. As someone who’s been involved in the scene for so long, what do you think?
I think there’s definitely one. I mean, look, nobody ever stopped rapping. All the rappers that I loved in 1999, 2000 and 2001 when the backpack was popping off and you wanted to hear someone rap their butt off, that never stopped. But people stopped caring. I outgrew it, to be honest. People change. People grow up. People’s tastes change, and you can’t expect people to like the same things forever. But, that said, things are cyclical. Rapping is a skill, and when you’re really good at rapping, that doesn’t stop happening.
New York’s always leaned on its own exceptionalism, and there’s the idea that things that happen in New York matter a little bit more than things happening elsewhere. Right or wrong, that attitude drives a lot of what goes on in the scene. So when you have a dude like Action Bronson, who’s the best example of a megastar who has come from this “New New York” scene, it’s good when you can make a star like that. He’s a guy who’s acceptable, people like him, he raps really well, he says funny things, but he comes from a tradition of dudes rapping like they’re from New York, or even further — he raps like he comes from Queens. And that type of stuff never stopped, but like I said, things are cyclical, and things come back, and it’s happening right now for a reason.
Why do you think rap music as a whole — outside of New York — seems to be more popular now than it’s ever been? Do you agree?
I mean. People love rap music. People love it. They like other stuff, but people love rap music. And there was this thing that happened in the mid-2000s. You can talk bad about Will.i.am all you want, but Will.i.am is a good producer and engineer and knows how to make good sounds. He’s a cornball, but he’s a talented guy. And his story was that he went to Europe and he was like, “Nobody here cares about our music, so what are we doing wrong?” And he came back and he was like, “Whatever, we’re making pop music,” and so you get all this weird intersection of genres, like Nicki Minaj working with David Guetta. To paint with a really, really broad brush, Americans weren’t really paying attention to dance music. Whether they were paying attention to rock music because they were white kids, or they were paying attention to rap music because they were black kids, the bottom line is that dance music wasn’t really a factor. And then all of a sudden, there was just this flood of dance music into America, partly due to the Internet, and it just took over, and brought other genres it was intersecting with — specifically, rap music — into the popular sphere.
That’s why it came back. Things equalized. People love rap music. People love making rap music. People are going to make rap music. And there was this weird imbalance where everyone was exposed to this entirely new genre on a pop level that they had never had the chance to interact with before because it had been written off.
How has everything we’ve addressed affected the way you’ve approached DJing?
I mean, honestly, I’m back to a point where I can play a lot of rap music. The movement has been good to me. I’m not a dance DJ. I never went to raves. I’m a rap dude through and through. I made my way during that time, but I was struggling. But the movement’s been able to put me back in the conversation, which I’m thankful for. Rap is finding its place in the EDM-driven world, and the smart people are finding a way to capitalize on it. And as a DJ, it has meant that people care about rap again.