Studying the developments in our cultural landscape as a new decade dawns...

1Xtra host Tiffany Calver writes for Clash...

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Rap is the new pop and it's everywhere, whether you like it or not. Not only dominating the charts but also the billboard campaigns, the brand deals, and the television screens. It is what the youth are wearing, streaming, and living. Spreading across the world like a sonic wildfire.

The hip-hop renaissance is and has been growing at an immeasurable scale; and it's only 44-years-old. But just what is it about the genre once viewed as a flash in the pan that has kept it alive and thriving?

The 2017 Nielsen music report stated that the genre dominated eight of the top 10 albums of that year, including Kendrick Lamar's 'DAMN' and Drake's 'More Life'. Jump over to 2019's mid-year report and the most popular current music trend is “R&B-infused trap and mumble rap”, thanks to songs from the likes of Post Malone, Da Baby and Lil Nas X (who boasts an astonishing 1.3 billion on-demand streams for his debut hit 'Old Town Road'). The report also showed Billboard's mid-year Top 10 artists, seven of which are rappers.

Writing this piece took me back to a conversation I'd had in 2014. Donald Glover (AKA Childish Gambino) and I had been going back-and-forth over email on just this topic. I had mentioned to him how I felt that rappers were the new rock stars, tipping my hat at artists such as A$AP Rocky, Playboi Carti, Danny Brown, Travis Scott, Flatbush Zombies, and the birth of yet another sub-genre that was making its mark within the scene.

“Rap is where rock was,” he replied, “when people were like, 'Where's the real rock?' in the late-'70s. To be real, rap is the new pop, just like rock became pop.” And he was right.

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The mitosis of hip-hop and its ability to divide and grow through adaptation and collaboration is what has inevitably led it to dominate the charts today. Lines have been blurred between genres, and rap is everyone's favourite guest.

Take Ed Sheeran, for example: one of the biggest artists in the world. This year his album 'No.6 Collaborations Project' peaked at number two on the US Billboard Charts, with the majority of collaborators being rappers such as Cardi B, Stormzy, Young Thug, J Hus, Meek Mill and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie (who is one of the top reigning rappers of 2019 according to the Nielson report).

Crossover success for rappers was somewhat unique when I was growing up, with some of the most successful moments being when rap and rock collided. Records made by Run DMC and Aerosmith, Anthrax and Public Enemy, KRS-One and R.E.M. all kicked off the start of something special, which later paved the way for records like Jay-Z and Linkin Park's 'Numb', artists like Kid Cudi, Post Malone, Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert and Migos, who picked up the Best Group award in the Pop/Rock category at the 2018 American Music Awards.

Hip-hop stars were always large in their own right, but up until now remained stars in their own lane, yet once genres started to intermingle and experiment (honorary mention to Pharrell Williams, who played a major hand at switching things up), multiple sub-genres were formed and inspired timeless projects like Kanye West's 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy', Drake's 'Take Care', and the birth of Odd Future.

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This was a fundamental era for the shift in positioning of hip-hop; bringing the genre to the surface and shining a spotlight on the potential of what was to come. Today, rappers have now replaced rock stars as headliners on the majority of festival line-ups. Even taking over the BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra rap show this year and witnessing the demand that there is for rap in this current musical climate has been incredible and definitely keeps me on my toes daily. There isn't one week where a tracklist is identical to the week prior, because there just isn't ever a week without a plethora of brand new music to listen to and support.

Due to the way the world is now listening to music it has also reminded me of the importance of being a tastemaker. Today there is so much access at our fingertips to independently listen to and discover music that we like, so to broadcast a show each week that is all about introducing listeners to my personal taste, as well as sharing theirs with them, is fundamental. There isn't an app that can do that or form that kind of bond with hundreds and thousands of people, and it makes my job so worthwhile.

Rap has infiltrated social media and streaming services like no other genre. Whether the President of the United States is tweeting about freeing rappers from jail (and Obama has them on his playlist), or streaming numbers are catapulting across platforms such as YouTube, Apple, SoundCloud, Twitter, Spotify, Shazam, Triller and Tik Tok, it's hard to dictate what equates to a chart hit nowadays without reflecting what is actually in-demand. It is the people's choice. Safiya Lambie-Knight, Lead, Artist and Label Marketing, Urban at Spotify UK said: “It's no surprise we've seen hip-hop, rap and music from urban artists dominate the mainstream charts,” adding that “the shift has been in the genre's mainstream, global reach, and streaming - and Spotify - has played a key role in that.”

An example of this is Dave and Fredo's 'Funky Friday', which beat Sam Smith and Calvin Harris' 'Promises' to the Number One spot in the UK Official Charts back in 2018. It was the first song by a British rapper to reach the top of the UK Singles Chart since 'Not Letting Go' by Tinie Tempah featuring Jess Glynne in 2015, and served as a significant moment for British rap music. Boasting a combined number of 6.7 million audio and video streams, this win for UK rap showcased a major shift in what was trending to the UK audience, and the significance of the inclusion of YouTube video streams.

“It's partly down to how artists have embraced technology; the genre is fast-paced, grounded in innovation, rooted in culture and with collaboration at the core, so streaming is really the perfect medium for hip-hop to thrive within,” Safiya explained. “What we're seeing now in the mainstream reflects the appetite for a genre for which the share of listening in Europe has increased by an average of 20% every year, for the last five years.”

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Chris Price, Head of Music at BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra, says: “For me, the most exciting development this decade has been the crowning not just of rap, but of UK rap as the dominant genre, with Stormzy at the helm of that. Take just two barometers of cultural significance in the UK - the Radio 1 playlist and the Glastonbury headline slot - and straight away you can see that Stormzy has owned that latter half of the decade. From 1Xtra's 'Hot For 2015' list to his first UK Number One single in 'Vossi Bop' this year, Stormzy - along with Dave, J Hus, AJ Tracey, Little Simz and countless others - has cemented the place of UK rap at the top of playlists and festival line-ups.”

Witnessing the rise in demand over the last few years and a genre growing almost faster than the viral rappers even have time to develop has been interesting, and there are no signs of it slowing down any time soon. The capacities of venues have changed massively, as have the audience inside of the buildings. “The time where your core base had to be black in order to authenticate yourself in “rap” is over,” Childish Gambino wrote to me back in 2014. “That co-sign is done. So white crowds aren't worrisome at all to me.”

Looking out at the sea of people this year as I played the main stage of Lovebox festival, a stage that also showcased sets from rappers Slowthai, 2 Chainz, J Hus and the powerhouse that is Solange, the majority of people screaming back lyrics word-for-word to me, jumping in and out of the mosh-pit, thrashing and ripping each others merch T-shirts, were indeed white.

“White crowds usually show up more (probably because there's just more of them and, depending on what area you're in, have more money to spend on concerts). It's interesting,” Donald had noted, and again, it's true. Even looking at the growth of UK rap, the listenership has transformed from a specific niche to an entire new age bracket. It's one of the most popular genres for the youth, and the growing crowds for these artists mostly do not look like or likely come from the same life as them.

Rap has long moved past strictly being the sound of the underdog and the oppressed; in fact, there are hundreds of different breeds of rap that all sit under the hip-hop umbrella. Hip-hop is right at the forefront and still at the bottom of the pile. It is everywhere, and caters to everyone. It can reach thousands, or very few, and that is what makes it so important.

When defining the meaning of pop music, it is “the genre of popular music that produces the most hits,” and that in itself epitomises the current state of hip-hop today.

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Words: Tiffany Calver Listen to 1Xtra’s Rap Show with Tiffany Calver from 9pm on Saturday’s on BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra. Tiffany Calver is also hosting new Red Bull project The Cut.

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