The stereo in my car has been slowly deteriorating. First the CD player, then the tape deck, now all I’m left with is the radio. I happened to be listening to Hot 97, the rap station in New York and they were doing a half hour of what they were calling throwback songs. I kept waiting to hear Kurtis Blow, or Public Enemy, or at least a little Wutang but none of the songs that came on were released before 2003. The rap scene moves so fast that if you’re not keeping up it’ll take no time at all to be deemed obsolete.
So I switched the radio to K Rock, New York’s top 40 Rock station. In the last half hour of my drive I heard “The Joker” by The Steve Miller Band, “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns and Roses, and “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden. The only contemporary artists who were played were Jet and The Hives, both decidedly retro. No Fallout Boy, no My Chemical Romance, no All American Rejects. I guess by K Rock’s standards modern Rock ended in 1994.
From a musician’s perspective, these are a hard set of rules to follow. That means that for popular approval as a Rap artist your music has to be specifically tailored for the here and now. Longevity is less important than communicating an emotion for the present. The rock scene expects the opposite. Top Forty Rock and Roll is deeply nostalgic, with modern artists trying to capture the feeling of recordings that were released almost a half-century ago while still trying to be relevant 15 years from now.
Neither of these positions are healthy, but the Rap scene is on the right track. Music is written to communicate a feeling in the present, the world is constantly changing and music needs to keep up with that. Older music has can have great ideas, and certain concepts are timeless, but it can’t predict the mindset of modern times. Try as much as you want nostalgia is a trap, and you can’t write songs for yesterday.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org