It Was a Type Beat Year

In the end, 2017 was an outstanding time to be a rap fan. It was year that saw an unprecedented level of popularity at the mainstream level, and so much vitality in the underground. Sounds changed in 2017 as new forms and frameworks pushed through. There was a lot to keep track of and a lot of awesomeness to hear at every moment.

Industry-wise it was a topsy-turvy time defined by Gen Z coming into its own, graduating from grassroots success to major label contracts, all while facing plenty of gatekeeper discrimination along the way. Kurt Cobain was the main fashion inspiration (his favored women’s sunglasses were unfortunately renamed “clout goggles”), and the raging, depressive feeling at the root of the music echoed the early ‘90s when Nirvana became the biggest band in the world. The mainstream was anti-mainstream. The line between influential and influenced was thin. In a modern twist, trends popped off in real time on IG live.

As the internet continued to flatten entry into the field of production, styles rapidly evolved through mimicry and perfect fakes. Rap music was more postmodern than ever, created almost purely out of references and actual pieces of previous artworks.

Through it all, the Billboard Hot 100 contained plenty to be enthusiastic about: Lil Pump antagonized tradition/quality with his undeniable, consciousness-blunting jams; Lil Uzi Vert mined emo and goth styles; Pi’erre Bourne perfected a certain bounce that seemed to coat all his productions with a haze; and Metro Boomin was at full dominance, creating banger after banger.

There was a lot of repetitiveness and boringness, too. At times the mainstream sounded like one barely differentiated trap configuration after another, as producers took Southside’s original idea from five years ago and squeezed it to death. And Pi’erre Bourne, who lit up the underground before crossing over with “Magnolia,” saw his basslines and video game melodies ripped off relentlessly. The same went for his peers Mexikodro and K$upreme. Fans like to think of music as expressive and even spiritual, but it’s also a business. If something hits, it will be driven into the ground.

Bourne’s style was most blatantly knocked off in “The Race” by Tay-K, the viral smash composed over a beat that producer S.Diesel originally sold as “Pi’erre Bourne x Playboi Carti type beat.” In 2016, Desiigner was in Tay-K’s position, after turning a “Meek Mill type beat” into “Panda.” In 2015 it was Bryson Tiller, who sang about searching for beats on Soundclick and is rumored to have built most of Trapsoul by searching for “Partynextdoor type beat.” The type beat has become a fixture in the modern musical landscape, as ubiquitous as Auto-Tune.

Members-only sites like Traktrain sprung up as well-designed type beat emporiums, adding classiness to the act of starting your rap career by electronically transferring $40. But the unofficial marketplaces were YouTube and SoundCloud, where there are now plenty of tracks labelled as “The Race type beat.” The snake eats its own tail.

Type beats were one factor in the sameness of 2017, stemming from rap music made Ikea-style at the amateur level, assembled at home (though with hit-making possibilities). If you were on a budget, that was smart shopping. And as far as the naming convention, a “type beat” was a requirement for new producers, literally saying who they’re copying. Sharing sounds used be shameful, but now the stigma has been forced out. Producers need reliable search results, and that’s what people are searching for.

Another factor in the sameness, especially in the mainstream, was tons of songs made by producers creating from samples and replays supplied by Cubeatz, G Koop, Frank Dukes, and the Five Point Bakery. They were the Watchmen, the ghost producers. And while they’re real-ass musicians who should all be inspirations to anyone wanting to get into songwriting or production, they were also part of a process that, at its most uncreative, led to producers buying sounds, sprinkling in some drums, and then adding in their own drop during the first few seconds like it was a piece of parsley garnishing a plate.

Producers sold sample packs (bundles of sounds they use/used to use), through platforms like Splice or the Drum Broker–some of which were then bootlegged on Reddit or elsewhere on the internet. It makes sense that the more a producer uses another producer’s sounds, the more they’ll sound like that producer. The same goes for plug-ins. If everybody is getting their sounds from Omnisphere, and America is churning out more rap than ever, won’t originality suffer?

Relatedly, game-changing artists Young Thug and Future made great songs but lacked creative energy compared to years prior. Despite releasing five albums between them, to a degree, they were victims of their own influence. Not only did they have to choose beats from producers increasingly trained by the industry to provide “Future type beats” or “Young Thug type beats,” they also had to deal with “type rappers.” Vocally, Thugger was bitten more than ever this year. His once divisive rap style became a normal language.

Sameness in rap is nothing new. A small selection of funk and soul songs were chopped up over and over in hip hop’s first decades. Backpack rap was even more cookie cutter. But inspiration has perhaps become more literal and certainly more sped up. The internet speeds everything up. Essences and intangible gestures in works of art are transferred as surface aesthetics, the easiest way to make a reference. While producers will get on IG live and show the project file of a song as they create it, they won’t say why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Lil B changed the game with his anti-establishment point of view and distorted music in 2010, which came about from him embracing rawness and not caring about technical excellence. He influenced the South Florida underground, which in turn borrowed his distortion as a style. And once those Florida producers got a hold of it, “Ronny J type beats” started popping up everywhere. The Based God’s sound is still all over the place, but do those artists ascribe to anything like his #based philosophy?

During inteviews, producers who encountered their own type beats this year described it to me as a rite of passage. When they typed their names into Google and the next words that auto-populated were “type beat,” they knew they had leveled up. Somebody was biting their style and trying to undercut them. It was an honor, sort of.

Personally I delighted in the robust rap universe of 2017, but also gasped for artists for whom money was not the main point, acts that developed their sounds in active resistance to the internet hive and who dug deep into their personal experiences. I found that in the New York City underground, following Wiki and the Onyx Collective’s local influence to discover the rapper MIKE and his sLUms crew and the group Standing on the Corner. Through the Insecure soundtrack, I learned about the singer Nick Hakim. Their echelon was about creating a place where artists could impose taste instead of pandering to instant feedback. Plenty of other new names out of NYC impressed me throughout the year, too, like stars in waiting Flipp Dinero and Jay Critch. It’s weird to say, but New York is slept on right now. I digress.

The music industry began rebuilding itself in a meaningful way this past year after being brutally disrupted by the internet on several levels. New gatekeepers rose to power like Tuma Basa with his powerful RapCaviar playlist on Spotify. Roughly 80% of RapCaviar is populated by major label artists, but as usual, the underground supplied the ideas that fueled it.

There is an increased level of democracy in music right now. Hits are harder to predict. And while, yes, a new establishment is coalescing in the internet-shaped industry and consolidation of power is staring us in the face, things have been shaken up enough that the power remains imbalanced. And because I love good music, I’m not blanket mad at all the copycatting and culture vulturing. It’s an occupational hazard of how easy it is to make music now, how fast influence spreads. Those are things to become more literate about as we control our listening lives. But in the big picture, it’s (still) a great time for rap. Long live the destabilization.

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