Music continues to be one of the most recognizable and influential elements of society. For thousands of years, music has brought people together and evoked emotions and feelings. It can bring you back to a certain place in time and transport you to a memory that feels so real you swear you are experiencing it for the first time. No matter where you go in the world, people connect and interact with music, no language needed. You do not need to understand the words in a song or have any words at all to enjoy it. Research shows that music is recognized by infants in the womb, and if that is not a display of the power music has on humans, nothing is.
Looking at the way today’s cultures and societies have changed in recent years, there is one genre of music that seems to exceed the rest in popularity among youth and that is rap music. Whether young or old, black or white, everyone knows someone who has a connection with rap. The various sub-genres and categories that make this music different as well as the wide variety of artists who share this music to the world, have helped make this a staple in society these days. But is it spreading a positive message to those who listen? Are there behavioural changes from those involved in this music? Before those questions are answered or even discussed, learning the history of rap music will allow for a better understanding of what it is today.
Rap music began in the early 1970s in the United States as a mix of disco and funk at clubs and other music spots. The DJs would generally speak over or after the songs and incorporate the crowd to get a better reaction from the music. Soon the spoken lyrics were rhymed throughout the songs which energized the audience. The music first had a disco and crowd-oriented vibe that allowed all who listened to get involved. The Sugarhill Gang were the founding fathers of rap and really became popular because their style and beat had never been heard before. As the 1980s began, rap became more of a personalized style that strayed from disco and changed to have more of a hip hop feel. Run-DMC was the first rap group to really hit on a mainstream platform in this different style.
In 1986 a new group named NWA came onto the scene and they exploded, achieving platinum album status when they sold over 3.5 million albums of their first release, a cultural staple in society at the time. However, they used an aggressive “thug/gangster” style which generally involved songs about gangs, black social movements, drug wars and police violence which were all relevant issues. NWA became extremely popular with teens at that time because they themselves were involved in those same issues and the group’s rebellious attitude just added to it.
Since then, rap has experienced more changes in sub-genre and has also gained popularity and mainstream attention virtually every year since thanks to the advancements of social media which allowed fans to connect with their favourite artists, such as Kanye West, Drake and Eminem, in a way they never could before.
A few years ago, a new style of rap has taken over called “mumble rap.” This rap has a slower, drowsy beat and the rappers who “sing” basically just talk in a slow, mumble voice. For whatever reason, this sub-genre of rap has spread like wildfire among youth and young adults and is one of the most popular and influential styles of music to date.
“When I was like, 12 or 13, I really started to get into music more and especially rap,” says Issac Campbell, a 23-year-old Conestoga College student and Cambridge resident when explaining his discovery of rap music in the late 2000s. “Eminem was huge then and still is. I would probably say he is my favourite and he opened me up to rap.”
Eminem, along with other megastars in the industry like Jay Z, Lil Wayne and 50 Cent, are still going strong today despite competing with mumble rap which is on their tails.
“I think (rap) used to be more lyrical like any other song and kind of like a poem which is why everyone loved it,” says Campbell. “Now, the more you talk about awful things, the more popular you are. Guys like Lil Uzi Vert and other mumble rappers do not even rhyme anymore. It is weird.”
Campbell understands that music, like everything else in the world, will change over time and he knows he is not going to enjoy all music and all genres. However, no one knows what the future will hold and for Campbell, he just hopes it is time for a change. “I do not know where rap will go but as long as the current style dies out I will be happy. It’s just negative music for everyone and does not need to stick around. All I want is for rap to go back to what it was because that’s what made it blow up.”
Mumble rap focuses on drugs, sex, money and violence, topics you wouldn’t want a young person to listen to. The website, The Conversation, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, calls it, “a brainless and lazy reflection of music.” However, it doesn’t matter how much mumble rap is criticized, people still want to engage with whatever is popular. Whether people think it is cool to act like the people leading the charge in mumble rap or just a monkey see, monkey do scenario, one has to wonder what will come of teenagers listening to this type of music for hours on end?
Local rapper Kevin Edworthy, commonly known as KVNE, explains what rap music means to him without all the outside noise and distractions that can sway someone, especially as a rapper himself. Tucked away in the countryside of Hamilton, Ont., away from the distractions, Edworthy sits alone in his simply crafted home music studio with his productions and lyrics constantly playing in the background. The wooden panels that line the walls give the esthetic of a log cabin hidden from the outside world and the smell of oak mixed with the plastics of all the music gear almost give it that “new car smell.”
Edworthy’s nonchalant area of work is erratically different from himself physically. His bright blue eyes and wildly bleached hair make him stand out from everyone else. When frustrated or tired of countless hours in his studio, he will take some time to throw around a football with his four-year-old son or do some other activity with him, as his son is the most important person in his life, the one who inspires and motivates him every day.
“I was about 11 or 12 when I got my first guitar. I never really put it down. I quickly found myself playing in bands in elementary school and continued through high school,” says Edworthy when explaining how he found his love for music. Although starting with the guitar and being influenced by Kurt Cobain, he kind of fell into the hip-hop and rap aspect of the music industry by accident and has never looked back.
“I started actually doing production and engineering – which led to songwriting for other artists then eventually my manager started encouraging me to just put my own voice on some of the material and start releasing it and that’s what I did.”
Edworthy knows the music he and other artists in his genre create is under a microscope in today’s society because of its immense popularity so he is determined to share the correct message.
“I think with hip-hop being the biggest genre in the world right now it is detrimental to youth and teens. That is why myself and my team work so hard to spread a positive message with our work because there are so many negatives in the world right now.”
Edworthy does not believe those negatives can all be attributed to mumble rap as he believes all influences in a person’s life are responsible, musical induced or not.
“I don’t think it’s really better or worse than any other genre. I think truthfully listeners need to start looking at the situation as a whole and less in one aspect. If an artist mumbles lyrics because of the substances he is over-influenced by, obviously no, I don’t think that is beneficial for our youth. But at the end of the day, you, as the listener, are responsible for making the effort and seeing the bigger picture. I know a handful of artists who might have sounds similar to an artist endorsing a lifestyle of drugs and gang violence, but aren’t about that life.”
An example of one of the many misleading rappers in the industry who Edworthy is talking about is Tom MacDonald. With half his head shaved, the other half in long braids featuring a new colour each time you see him, and his neck plastered with tattoos and his face not far behind, along with a silver grill of teeth for a finishing touch, MacDonald looks like a rapper who preaches drugs, crime and everything else the world doesn’t need more of. However, he is the exact opposite. MacDonald is a 28-year-old Canadian rapper who shares his beliefs on how crooked the rap industry has become and how brainwashed millions of young minds are when listening to this music. MacDonald has over a dozen songs that protest these issues including a song in 2017 titled “Dear Rappers” as a plea for these mumble rappers to stop the negative influences on youth because it is becoming detrimental to society. The song includes lyrics like, “Your music feels kinda like you’re tryna write a check. Everything is digital, I mean no disrespect but I’m payin’ even more, and you give me even less.”
MacDonald feels as though these rappers care less about the message and music and more about the money and fame. He says these rappers are exploiting the new style of producing music and taking advantage of people. In his song Dear Rappers, he says, “You taught me to think, you taught me to grow, You taught me the things to survive on my own. But now you teach me to drink, you teach me to smoke you teach me to think, every woman’s a ho.” This is an emotional line for MacDonald as it shows how he was influenced and fell in love with rap music as a kid and now that he is living his dream making this music, he is ashamed and embarrassed about what it has become but doesn’t have the power to change it.
MacDonald is not alone. Another Canadian rapper, Daniel Nwosu Jr., most commonly known as “Dax,” made a song with MacDonald in April 2020 called “Blame the Rappers” where he expresses how important musicians and the message they spread are to the world.
“We are medication straight through voice, some give life, some destroy. And even though this money seems nice it can’t come so we must take that as a hint that there’s other things in life you should enjoy.”
As more people and specifically rappers continue to step up and voice their opinion about what mumble rap is and where it is heading, more recognition is being brought to the sub-genre which may finally get these rebellious rappers’ voices heard, or it could just bring more publicity to the already thriving mumble rap world.
The proof is in the pudding. Dozens of the rappers who are labeled as mumble rappers have died recently from overdoses, gun violence and other acts that they seem to promote and gloat about in their music. Any time you see a headline in the news about a musician or singer dying, it is usually a rapper. And these deaths are not just coincidence or bad luck. Mac Miller’s death was one of the most notable ones in recent memory and caused a lot of grief in the rap community. With a history of arrests due to drug possession and driving under the influence, Miller clearly had issues with substances and overdosed on a mix of fentanyl, cocaine and alcohol in September 2018. In 2017, 21-year-old Lil Peep overdosed before a show in Arizona. He had taken a mixture of mushrooms, cannabis and six Xanax pills. Most recently in December 2019, another 21-year-old rising star, Juice Wrld, was travelling in a private jet containing illegal weapons as well as 70 lbs of marijuana among other drugs. While aboard, Juice Wrld had a seizure and died due to an overdose of oxycodone and codeine.
There have been other similar deaths in the past and there will be many more in the future. Obviously there is a difference in the rap industry between those who take substances for pain and suffering and those who glorify drug use in their music, but these themes are always a constant that follow the mumble rap sub-genre. When teens and young adults listen to this music and all their friends listen as well, what are they expected to believe and how are they expected to act?
A study from Emory University in Georgia discovered that teens between the ages of 14-18 who listened to rap music for roughly around 14 hours a week were three times more likely to get in a fight with a teacher, 2.5 times more likely to find themselves getting arrested, and 1.5 times more likely to take part in illegal activities such as underage drinking and experimentation with drugs. Another study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh in 2008 analyzed Billboard magazine’s most popular songs of 2005 and it was found that substance use was referenced in 77 per cent of rap songs, the highest percentage of drug mentions among all genres included in the study. Of the Top 10 rap hits of 2020 on Spotify right now, nine of them discuss either gun violence, drugs or sex. The dominance of these songs and artists in the industry today are not just a sub-genre anymore, it is the genre.
Although it may seem bleak and a bad way for teens to be spending their time, Jackson Gagne, an independent music producer and engineer in the small town of Welland, Ont., wants to believe otherwise, and sways others to look past the negatives of the hip-hop/rap world in recent years to find the beauty that still lies there.
“It is like anything else in life. There is always pros and cons, good and bad. People do drugs without rap, it’s the person’s choice to decide what path they want to live.”
Gagne also knows the messages being spread by these artists aren’t ideal so he believes people need to stay true to themselves and their principles.
“I think there is a lot of lying and false people in not just rap but all music and media. I only produce and make music for a small number of people but even I feel the weight of saying the right things.”
A lot of artists start with good intentions and a goal to spread a message or help people through their music, but sometimes things change. “I think people forget where they started and why they fell in love with music in the first place. Money and fame change people, it’s sad to see,” Gagne says.
There is one true way for people to personally evaluate what rap and mumble rap artists do for young minds as a whole. With sold-out concerts, millions of followers on social media and thousands of songs sold and downloaded monthly, there is no doubt these artists are influencers, but what are they influencing people to do? Are people “under the influence” of an ill mind that will damage their future? Or is it an influence that will allow them to achieve things they could have never thought possible before? When analyzing these rappers as a whole or individually, the only question that has to be definitively answered is, when exposed to these rap influencers, do people walk away better or worse?