Behind Nirvana’s Rise: Hip Hop’s Rise and Rock’s Fall

This might seem an unusual topic but it does have a tangential relevance to Nirvana. Essentially music is motivated not just by twists in the tide of taste, nor only by specific outpourings of creativity, but by shifts in technology and economics. Examining music one hundred and fifty years ago, reproduction was purely via live performance meaning monetisation of music was channelled via the same route though printed scores and sheet music indeed turned a profit. The introduction of the means of recording and playing back music ushered in the modern age in two ways; firstly, the advance in technology created a different (and desirable) experience, secondly, it made music a different (and even more desirable) business opportunity. Instead of being bound by the limited capacity of a venue and by often, and where, an artist was willing to perform, the duplication and subsequent sale of a performance was a product limited by availability of raw materials, the outlets through which the product could be sold and the willingness of the public to pay. The move to digital in recent years has reduced (not eliminated) the importance of raw materials while expanding the accessibility of retail outlets, but also reduced the willingness of the public to pay — paying for a performance or paying for the recording medium possessed a tangible value beyond the music that digital reproduction doesn’t match.

Reproduction of classical performances, the sophisticated music of the elites, disguised and obscured the importance of self-taught musicians, amateur home performance or semi-professional/professional public performers in dancehalls, drinking establishments, street corners…Heck, Louis Armstrong started out in a brothel. Over the past hundred years the cost of recording music and reproducing it has declined significantly; its required significantly less complex equipment and manufacturing capacity; think of the shift from wax cylinder, to shellac, to vinyl, to eight tracks, cassettes and CDs — eight tracks were potentially a superior medium to cassettes in terms of lifespan and sound quality but they cost more and were less adaptable; eight tracks died, same as mini-discs which offered just as few advantages over a CD. This push has allowed more and more recordings of more and more artists, a vast democratisation. The simultaneous development allowing the capturing of performances in ever higher quality using ever less bulky and expensive equipment has run alongside the change in the recording medium.

Anyways, the previous paragraphs are almost a side-issue. At the core, music relies on the deliberate performance and labelling of sound. Two developments have taken place, one fairly linear, the other non-linear. Starting with the former, the cost of instruments declined as enterprising individuals found ways to manufacturer more of them at less cost. Trumpets, saxophones, drums, double-bass — these were dominant instruments for 30-40 years, essentially the jazz era’s peak was as long as that of rock and roll. The drive was still toward more, cheaper, easier; the guitar won out. In essence a guitar is a fairly simple instrument to get a tune from, to manipulate, easily electrified, readily replaceable, robust.

The other development has been generally a move toward smaller groupings of musicians. Remember the giant orchestras being the most respected form in classical music, then moving down to the big band era of swing jazz, then the standard guitar-led unit generally of three to five individuals. Solo artists have, of course, been woven in and out of that pattern.

Here’s the dilemma. Even in a stripped down format like a three piece rock band, there are still costs imposed by the format. These costs range from the transportation of equipment — the drum kit was possibly the most stable element of line-ups across the past hundred years — to the transportation of musicians, to the delays caused by health and personal matters increasing simply by the reality of dealing with three instead of one; it all adds up. When it comes to music as a business, the desire is to sell product; a group scenario requires the inspiration of three people to come together in a social musical setting — it doesn’t always happen and it does take time to create good group music, each element has to gel and there’s deeper criticism and disagreement with the positives and negatives that brings.

Hip hop was the obvious successor to rock because it chimed most fundamentally with the technological and the business trends of the past one hundred years. At its origins it featured the most simplistic instrumental set-up available; a record deck, drum machine and vocal. The equipment is low maintenance so long as it’s looked after, there’s no lengthy training required to create at least a basic arrangement. While synthesisers created new sounds, they also tried to mimic and reproduce old ones; drum machines developed similarly — in each case the desire with the technology was to package, as simply as possible, as many sounds and instruments and capabilities as possible. Suddenly the instrumental set-up didn’t rely on multiple people or coordination; the equipment existed to create without others. The guitar was already a compact robust instrument, the only place to go next was to merge many instruments into a single unit — a convergence made possible via technology. The move to computers has pushed this even further, ever more convenience at lowest cost required to produce the broadest range of sounds alongside other functions. For a commercial business this is a boon; ever more people able to do ever more things without being reliant on other people doing things — more product, more product.

Guitar music had already been following similar trajectories in terms of sound; the percussive qualities of the guitar won out over the variety offered by wind instruments, electrification deepened the sound that could be created, rhythm became the dominant element within music — guitar music moved ever more in tune with dance music. Hip hop took the trend to its logical conclusion but it wasn’t a vast step in terms of emphasis. The vocal performance mimicked that motion too; while usually far more densely worded, hip hop has a highly simplified mode of expression — this isn’t a criticism — far closer to spoken word, far more within the reach of the masses, reliant simply on a basic grasp of rhythm. Again, more people can master it, quicker, meaning there’s a deeper pool of talent from which to select — it’s a perfect commercial move.

The same motion occurred in terms of content too. Hip hop devolved into hash-tag rap in which entire songs are made up of thoughts lasting no longer than a line, an entire verse, let alone an entire song on a single theme or idea is increasingly hard to come by in the mainstream. The soul of pop music has always been about finding new ways of stating universals, hip hop is nothing but universal statements around a reduced set of topics — a trend accelerated by Southern hip hop and trap-rap in recent years. Again, it’s an efficiency measure within the means of production; it’s easier to write a lot of rhyming couplets that can be pieced together than a whole song, it’s easier to write variations on (a) sexual boasting (b) insults (c) financial/material boasting (d) brand names (e) empowerment slogans (f) realness (g) death wish — all highly sellable across demographics — than to weave an entire song as coherent (if not intelligent) as Lil Wayne’s Georgia Bush.

In the Eighties hip hop groups were a dominant force — Run-DMC, NWA, Public Enemy and so forth — while solo stars existed, a lot of attention still focused on the idea of a group. But, as the elements within a group like Public Enemy do not have such a high degree of synchronicity, unlike a guitar-drums-bass-vocals live rock band set-up, the music is more tolerant of error and the different individuals can be separated. That’s been the trend in hip hop, and in a very short space of time. The nineties saw the heyday of record label based identities — Death Row Records, Bad Boy Entertainment, No Limits — under which multiple artists shared a ‘stable’ of producers meaning that, so long as people were writing, the quantity of product that could be created was vast. It was an updating of the pop model developed by Motown or Phil Spektor in the Sixties and as a concept it still worked perfectly. Sub Pop had a similar ‘stable’ concept; shared tours, shared studio and producer, shared visual aesthetic — it worked for grunge same as it did for Motown or for gangsta rap.

The recording technology also meant that collaborations were simpler to arrange, the discreet elements could be brought together without the individuals involved needing to be there at the same time. This still meant there was a certain creativity co-dependency between those artists on the label though which could interrupt the flow of product to market. If a producer dropped out, relationships with colleagues collapsed, personal problems prevented an individual from performing, those around them on the label had to either do more work to continue to pump out manufactured articles, or the label simply released less, or had to rely more on archive material that was behind the cutting edge.

The result was readily found as the competition created by the mass availability of synthesisers and drum machines made reliance on an in-house provider of music unnecessary. As you no longer needed a group, you could retain the identity, shared credibility, shared audiences, resulting from some kind of united presence (Brick Squad, Young Money, Def Jux) without any artist on the label or within the scene being dependent on another. The price of producing music was now so low, the number of producers so high, that it was now relatively simple for artists to buy one another’s product — whether musical or vocal. The business change has been helped by the reality of a musical form that has become so reduced that, so long as there’s a beat, any artist can rap over a piece, or any producer can lay a song under a vocal; the elements share only the rhythmic component and that limitation increases the ease of reproduction.

The other piece that the new model provides is that the reduced investment needed to launch an artist or producer also translates to a reduced loss on investment if that artist or producer fails or declines. By comparison to the endless flogging of aging rock stars, hip hop drops stars all the time — the business model had made individuals increasingly expendable. Again, just like mass production made the role of individual artisans less and less significant when it came to the creation of product, the arrival of the equivalent of mass production in music makes the identity and talent of the creator less relevant within it. That means fans can develop an allegiance to a particular individual, no problem, follow their work, but the overall market can keep moving, finding new buzzes, the ‘cult of the new’ rolls on with the next novelty arising and then the consolidation phase, genre tag, then on.

By the time of Nirvana’s rise, the background wasn’t so much the decline of rock as it was the rising dominance of hip hop artists. The success of Nirvana relied on their merging the last fresh outburst in rock, punk, with the already accepted modes of mainstream rock. This had to occur because the wild activity occurring in the increasingly sub-divided and stratified rock community meant that despite a lot of creativity going on, rock was losing the mass audience. Jazz did the same thing; the acceptable core of jazz became fossilised while the creativity, fresh, new ideas were hard to incorporate into the original mass conceptualisation of what jazz was. Hip hop, however, has the virtue that it can change its sound to keep up with technology in a way that music dependent on particular instrumental tones cannot. As the only core feature of hip hop is rhythm, everything else can be altered while remaining acceptable — rock and jazz were both fixated on a particular set-up of instruments and specific sounds in a way that this new music is not.

The ability of hip hop to change faster, to incorporate more elements without losing its identity or becoming ‘something else’; these give it a survivability lacking in rock. Rock musicians can only incorporate so many other musical genres before becoming that genre or having to accept a change to the instrumental line-up that pushes the guitar off centre stage and morphs the music into another genre. Hip hop doesn’t do that. Hip hop has changed repeatedly; it adapted quickly to the emergence of indigestible 70 minute CD length albums, it was able to merge with modern R n’B to create a hybrid more marketable across genders with the result that most essential hip hop artists are now also dance artists, pop artists, gangstas, romantics, all at once — the individuals have fragmented their identities to match market niches…Or they stay on the margins and let the mainstream play.

The mixtape was the next level, prior to electronic distribution; an opportunity to build an audience without being reliant on physical performance — again, a business advantage over a rock band. Hip hop increasingly doesn’t ‘live’ in a corporeal, real world, sense; it was built initially on manipulation of the medium of reproduction and increasingly lives only within the modern media outside of the smallest micro-communities. Hip hop as a mass market phenomenon is a music of files, recordings, webcasts, downloads, CD-Rs, vinyl with only token gestures in the live touring arena. While rock artists are ever more dependent on live touring (live shows are the rock mixtape) hip hop artists are ever more dependent on building and then maintaining a core audience with an endless sea of downloaded or on disc product, free or otherwise, so there’s never a gap in service, unlike the few years that could elapse between rock band forays.

Mixtapes don’t really work in the world of rock; firstly street-level music distribution isn’t an accepted channel (for a comparison mixtapes never really took off in the U.K., there isn’t a big enough audience to make standing on a street corner or at a market justifiable), secondly the effort required to create the music is too heavy (the combined effort of X people working simultaneously) to sustain substantial give-aways, thirdly the ability to drag in up-and-coming performers to fill space cheaply is much lower. A band with an archive as deep as Sonic Youth can run short mixtapes via their website but they’re reliant on old demos and old live performances — the creation of high quality output cheaply at high speed isn’t an option.

Hip hop was, therefore, the end result of a thinning of performance ensembles across a lengthy period of time; the result of a musical reductionism that led to rhythm becoming the dominant feature which allowed a musical form to evolve that floated free of any particular instrumental line-up, tone or timbre with a vocal style that similarly devolved down to rhythm uber alles; the result of technological evolutions that created instruments ever more cheaply then merged the number of potential ‘instruments’ available into smaller, portable converged tools; the result of good quality recording technology and manufacturing technology being ever easier to access meaning more people could create quicker; an economic model in which people understandably wanted to sell more cheaper and easier; a market in which tastes do change rapidly therefore a music form in which investments can be more readily deleted is desirable. The world’s first million selling music release was Enrico Caruso’s Vesti La Giubba in 1907. In the one hundred years since, we’ve come a long way.

Rap is essentially musical capitalism, an omnivorous force able to ingest whatever it touches, incorporate it and churn it back out in a marketable form for whichever audience demographic they wish to target with it. A lot of capitalists like to claim that capitalism is a representation of nature, a Darwinian force ruined only by the interventions of outside forces that prevent it working smoothly and create the conditions under which corruption and inefficiency occurs. I’d argue that being a human being means imposing self-analysis and self-will on the Darwinian animal component of a person — that what distinguishes us from animals is standing above the pure force of nature. That’s my main objection to untrammelled capitalism; the economic system should serve the vision we have, we should reduce our vision and bring it down and down until it aligns with base functioning. What makes us human, higher beings, is choice and striving to rise above. Don’t mistake nature for a moral good or righteousness.


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