Here's Santiago with his guest spot on the HHK blog...
HHK as a Vehicle to Discover Unsigned Rappers?
In the world of vocalists / singers, the way to introduce the public to unsigned recording artists is through performances of recognized material. For example, American Idol, P Diddy’s Star Maker, and X-Factor all revolve around vocalists performing songs of well-established artists whose material is known to the public. It is an artist’s mastery of existing material that often endears them to the masses (think Kelly Clarkson’s cover of Aretha Franklin). If unsigned vocalists are successful in resonating with audiences by virtue of their unique renditions of cover songs, then they are given the opportunity to go on to impress the public with their own original material. But this is only after having proven themselves with the classics.
While covering vocal tracks by singers is standard industry practice, there is yet to be widespread acceptance of new hip-hop artists / MCs / rappers gaining respect and notoriety for performing classic hip-hop songs as a way to gain introduction into the music industry. This dynamic is likely because the art of rhyming is based on individual persona and, unlike singers, the success of a rapper often hinges on personal background / life story. In the traditional sense, covering another rapper’s lyrics is considered “biting”, about the lowest form of expropriation in the culture of hip-hop (exceptions are made if established rappers cover well-known songs, like on the VH1 Hip-Hop honors). One of the most important characteristics of a successful MC, particularly during the Golden Age, was a unique, idiosyncratic style and form of expression. Thus, the thought of a new hip-hop artist covering another rapper’s lyrics to gain respect and admiration was not even in consideration.
But now, thirty-six years into the creation of hip-hop music, there are songs that are considered incontrovertible classics that rank in the same field as songs by the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, or Marvin Gaye. These songs have stood the test of time. From Rakim to Run DMC, A Tribe Called Quest to Mobb Deep, Biggie Smalls to Pharcyde, many rap songs have become to rappers what Beethoven symphonies have become to pianists: indispensable material that must be learned and mastered. As time progresses, I wonder whether the rap industry might begin to mirror the R&B/vocalist industry and demand that unsigned talent demonstrate a command of classic material in order to be taken seriously. And if that ever comes to pass, isn’t it conceivable that HHK could become a vehicle to discover unsigned rappers?
Granted, just because a performer can nail down a classic hip-hop song doesn’t necessarily make them an MC or lyricist capable of writing their own rhymes, freestyling, or expressing a relevant and creative viewpoint. But, on the flipside, if you can’t hold down the classics, then your skills as a true MC must be called into question. If, as an aspiring rapper, you cannot captivate an audience with a song that everybody already knows, what chance do you have to impress with your original material?
While longstanding Hip-Hop events such as “Lyricist Lounge,” “End of the Weak”, “Show and Prove” and “Faces in the Crowd” – all of which are unsigned artist showcases based in NYC through which rappers develop their style and break into the competitive New York music industry – continue to draw crowds, none of these events currently attract as large or as enthusiastic crowds as HHK. Certainly, none of these unsigned artist showcases could sell out a venue like Irving Plaza. What this says to me is this: hip-hop audiences in NYC prefer to see unsigned rappers perform recognized material. And as a hip-hop fan, once I see a performer like RDJ, Keith, Chef or Damali tear down a classic, I can’t help but imagine what their original material might be like . . .
[Footnote: At my age, I don’t view HHK as a vehicle to get a record deal, it’s more about living out a fantasy of what it would be like to have a record deal. :) My above meditation on HHK’s potential impact on aspiring rappers is really more applicable to the under 25 set - and I think we have a few in the finals, so A&Rs take note]