Joey Bada$$ and Rap’s Second Generation, or The Mixtape Conundrum
My friends and I used to laugh at the image of us sitting around as old men, grandkids bouncing on our laps, bumping “A Bitch Iz a Bitch” loud enough for the neighborhood to hear. By that point, hip hop will be four generations old; or in other words, Ghostface Killah might get radio play on the Oldies station.
I haven’t envisioned getting down in high-waisted shorts and top-siders for a while, but 1999, the debut mixtape by Joey Bada$$, did get me thinking about the generations of hip hop again.
Bada$$, the 17-year-old phenom, is a second-generation rapper, born in Brooklyn in 1995 at a time when hip hop had already bloomed. While Snoop and Dre grew up listening to P-Funk, absorbing the intergalactic funkmanship and fusing it with velvety pimpish flow, Joey Bada$$ grew up listening to Nas, Wu-Tang and Biggy Smalls; He was still in middle school when MIMS dropped “This is Why I’m Hot.”
This may not seem like a big deal, but believe me, it is. So much of hip hop is about stylistic alchemy — DJ Premier welding Bird onto bass and drums; RZA mixing Barbara Streisand and Samurai swords — that one would have to assume that the game will change once second-generation DJs and rappers start looking primarily to early rap for influence.
We’ve already seen the beginning of this shift — beat borrowing mixtapes have become the standard entryway into the rap game. Nas dropped Illmatic and shocked the world — the beats were original and the flow was smooth, yet affecting. Few have the good fortune to have Primo, Pete Rock and Q-Tip make beats on a debut album, but the new system means that MCs do not even attempt original composition.
What is so intriguing about Joey Bada$$ is that his mixtape might just mark the moment when the second-generation starts to understand their advantage.
It does no good to reboot mainstream hits, because most MCs can’t out-rap a legend on a track constructed specifically for his style. Instead, Bada$$ has scoured the underground for great beats by rappers with vastly different flows than his own. He has managed to truly make each track his own, while also placing himself within a tradition of game-changing hip hoppers.
On “Righteous Minds”, Bada$$ places his silky flow over the Beatnuts “Hit Me With That”, morphing the aggressive, bouncing track into a mellow, “back-in-the-day” lament. On “Hardknock”, Bada$$ grabs a gorgeous composition by underground legend Lewis Parker and uses it to create a mainstream-friendly single that knowingly winks at the underground.
But one track, “World Domination”, shows the most intriguing and puzzling fact about Bada$$: his breadth of knowledge of the middle-90s world he never consciously inhabited.
The track begins with a Pinky and the Brain vocal sample, a show that stopped airing when Bada$$ was still just 3-years-old. Then comes the hook, rebooted for this version, but taken from Eminem’s first album, Infinite, released a year after Bada$$ was born. Yet, despite the distance between Bada$$ and his samples, the track does not feel forced or put-on; Bada$$ manages to mesh the hook perfectly with the beat while giving a gracious nod to a world his listeners knew better than him.
The beat itself is a tremendous feat in deep-underground digging. Presumably stumbled upon while listening to MF Doom’s 2004 album MM.. FOOD, the beat is actually originally employed by an even-deeper underground DJ, Kid Koala, on a track released in 2003. Both Doom and Koala possess impressive non-mainstream chops — Doom plays three characters, each crazier than the other, and Koala had a hand in the legendary album Deltron 3030 — and to reference both or either elevates Bada$$ in underground fans’ eyes. Yet, the true genius of the choice of beat is that neither MF Doom nor Kid Koala recorded rap over the track: Doom samples a scene from Fat Albert while Koala uses vocals from a nature video over the melodious beat. Thus, Bada$$’s version is both absolutely original and steeped in underground tradition.
There is no shame in working in a tradition, but it takes true innovators to create original art from reproductions. All art exists within tradition, but only great art can recontextualize that which was made before it.
Bob Dylan’s first album is nothing more than a collection of folk covers, yet it helped elevate the young singer to stardom. In many ways, the current mixtape world follows the young Dylan’s rationale: sure they know the song, but they’ve never heard it like this before. Everyone was familiar with the tunes on Dylan’s debut album, but his ashy, razor-blade voice made them seem so captivating and new.
One of the few originals, “Song to Woody”, borrows the beat and melody from Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre”, accidently creating the mixtape movement a half-century before it truly resurfaced. On the track, Dylan demonstrates the advantage of being from the second generation of recorded American folk music. He manages to place himself beside Guthrie and lyrically lament a time that passed him by, while all the while demonstrating his own immense talent for heart-wrenching odes. He shows that originality can come in the form of a remake and that a cover song can be much more than just a new rendition of an old tune. While the “Song to Woody” mode of covering never caught in Rock music, it has become the standard practice in the hip-hop world.
And that’s the thing: though the obvious complaint about the mixtape generation is that originality in hip hop has died, the truth is that hip hop has always been a collection of remakes and renditions. Snoop was already covering rap tracks in ’93, every great beat takes from one influence or another. The real issue is not the fact that beats are borrowed nowadays, it’s that they aren’t borrowed in an imaginative way.
So perhaps as the grandkids play catch with their iPad 50, I’ll crank up the volume for a moment and put “World Domination” on the jambox. And maybe, just maybe, Joey Bada$$ will be remembered then, when our hindsight is a half-century wider and wiser, as the man who showed us all how to make a mixtape — new and old and fully your own.
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