By Andréa Rojas
“It was all a dream.”
In 1994, these five words introduced the retrospective autobiography of a struggling drug dealer-cum-multiplatinum rap heavyweight who would come to be known as The Notorious B.I.G. For Christopher Wallace, a high-school dropout from a rough part of Brooklyn, becoming rich enough to be able to stop slinging cocaine to feed his daughter was all a dream– the dream, in fact.
Today, the dream is different– and so are the means of obtaining it.
Fast-forward to early 2012, where Gerald Gillum– who was five years old in 1994– has momentarily stepped away from visiting his grandmother at her house in Oakland, California to receive a phone call from Calgary.
“What? You’re breaking up. I didn’t hear anything after ‘snapback.’ Can we do this over iChat or something?”
Gillum, a New Orleans native and retro-hop blog darling who prefers the term “skinny white dude” to “gangsta rapper,” goes by the stage name G-Eazy. He is one of a swath of Generation-Y rappers who are in danger of being categorized under the budding genre of “frat rap.” The term, coined by music critics, identifies a brand of underground hip-hop created by tongue-in-cheek college-boy types and characterized by lyrical content that often fails to make it past weed, beer and female anatomy– Pittsburgh hip-pop wunderkind Mac Miller and Asher Roth’s “I Love College” are obvious examples. Understandably, it’s a label that Gillum and others are eager to reject.
“My biggest problem with frat rap is its lack of depth and authenticity,” says Gillum.
Steven Markowitz, otherwise known as New York rapper Hoodie Allen, goes so far as to criticize the very notion of frat rap, calling it a “faux idea of a genre.”
In the view of alternative rapper Geoff “OnCue” Sarubbi, “frat rap is just the offspring of white suburban America embracing and enjoying hip hop over the last two decades.”
Particularly offensive to Markowitz, however, are label-slapping assumptions. “When you blindly categorize artists based on background, it’s just as bad as the people who are making the terrible music to begin with.”
“I’m white, I’m from the northeast area, and I’m also 22 years old, so automatically I get grouped into that,” adds Sarubbi.
Although Markowitz and Sarubbi raise a valid point, the decline of gangsta rap and the increased presence of college-educated and affluent Caucasian men in hip hop is undeniable.
The socioeconomic background of these artists may range from the privileged (Markowitz is Ivy League-educated and worked for Google) to the modest-living (Gillum was raised by a single mother on an art teacher’s salary), but interestingly enough, none of them have been able to identify with the same struggle as their pre-College Dropout peers. Surviving isn’t just a dream for the new faces of underground hip hop – it’s a reality taken for granted, one that leads them to make music with the type of self-assurance that comes with privilege.
But does this make hip hop’s new narrative any less authentic? These alternative rappers born just shy of the ’90s may be far-removed from the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, but they have an understanding of why hip hop came to be in the first place– the presence of a human story and the need for a language with which to communicate it.
Skizzy Mars is the otherworldly moniker of 18-year-old Myles Mills, known in the blogosphere for ambient sampling and lyrical appraisals of success in terms of emotional feeling. Privately schooled in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and a former college philosophy major at New York’s Union College, Mills is an African-American whose personal experience doesn’t parallel that of “gangsta” rappers.
“There’s just one perspective [in hip hop], this kind of ‘American-Dream’ ideal where people come out of nothing and rap and make their way out of the ‘hood and support their families and tell about their struggle, whether it’s selling cocaine or whatever it may be,” he says.
“These guys are so dope, but their story is totally different than a lot of people’s stories, and you don’t have to live that life to be a rapper.”
Mills, like Markowitz, attributes this new trend in hip hop to the influence of Kanye West. “He inspired these kids, whether they’re white kids from suburban neighbourhoods or black kids like me who never really identified with ghetto gangster culture necessarily– just gave kids not only the confidence to rap but to listen to rap music.”
“Hip hop has reached a place where you don’t have to be a gangster or a movie character to sell albums,” says Sarubbi. “You can be yourself. [Kanye] showed how being yourself could be cool. He was artistic, and not a gangster.”
It’s the authenticity of personal experience that makes this new school of hip hop accessible. “I’m never going to rap about things that aren’t true or things I haven’t experienced,” Mills says.
Biggie dedicates a short monologue at the beginning of “Juicy” to thrust a lyrical middle finger at those who told him his story wasn’t worth telling. These four rappers do the same– maybe it’s through Tumblr accounts and mixtape-sharing sites instead of basement-recorded cassettes peddled on New York City subway platforms, but they present an alternative voice in the realm of silences presented by the discourse of hip hop.
After all, in the words of the great Western philosopher Christopher Wallace, “you know very well who you are.” What hip hop needs is for you to share it.