Two revealing hip-hop events happened within a month of each other. On June 11, 2019, Grandmaster Flash—a DJ who played an important role in establishing the beat logic of hip-hop with pre-digital sampling tools, two turntables—received Sweden's Polar Music Prize, which has been called the "Nobel Prize for Music." A few weeks later, superstar rapper A$AP Rocky was arrested in Sweden and charged with assault. Both events drew international attention. The former because Flash was the first hip-hop artist to be awarded that prestigious prize. The latter because Donald Trump called Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven on A$AP Rocky's behalf.
What do these events reveal about hip-hop today? The current status of two of the four key elements of hip-hop (DJing and rapping—the other two are breakdancing and graffiti). Flash represents the status of the first element; A$AP Rocky, the second. The DJ is being recognized for what made hip-hop possible in its first movement (between 1979 and 1984): musical innovation. The rapper—once a mere accessory in a DJ's sound system (the meaning of emcee is, precisely, the master of ceremony for the DJ)—generally abandoned the producer/DJ in the late 1990s, entered super-stardom realms in the second half of the 1990s, and, in the case of A$AP Rocky, is now in the embarrassing situation of receiving favors from a racist president who loves grabbing pussy and has told women of color to leave America. How did the rapper get here? The answer to that is for another article. For now, I want to explore how in Flying Lotus, the spirit of DJ Grandmaster Flash—constant innovation—is still very much alive.
Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison) is a producer, meaning, he comes from the tradition of the hip-hop beatmaker. The producer evolved from the DJ. The two do the same thing but with different tools. The movement from one, the DJ, to the other, producer, happened in the mid-1980s. At that time, the innovative spirit of Flash appeared to be reflected in the Golden Age of producers such as Eric B., Diamond D, and The Bomb Squad.
In the 1990s, producers split into three branches: pop hip-hop (for example, Kanye West), underground hip-hop (for example, J Dilla), and trip hop (Tricky). In early 2006, Flying Lotus, an L.A.-born producer, fused the last two into one continuously unfolding musical experiment.
Flying Lotus has a new album out, Flamagra. Like his other work, his sixth studio outing is, in essence, a restless search for new ideas, new modes of feeling, sounds, and beats that either break with the past or completely revise it or revere it in new ways. The wonder is that Lotus, despite his fame, still maintains a fidelity to non-commercial hip-hop innovation. David Lynch is on this record, in a track called "Fire Is Coming." It's pretty out there. But it reminds us that rappers also used to be pretty out there. He or she matched, beat for beat, the DJ's sonic innovations. This was Rakim, Roxanne Shante, KRS-One. Today, it is Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces (he is also on Lotus' Flamagra—it's a dreamy, dubby, deeply Afro-futuristic track called "Actually Virtual"). Now, could you ever imagine Ishmael Butler getting help from Donald Trump? That sad cell in Stockholm shows us how far the emcee—in the popular form of A$AP, a black celebrity who is not at all political—has fallen.