I know full well that I’m in danger of beating a dead horse here. Genre identifiers like chillwave, trillwave, and cloud rap are pretty well-documented as having been editorialized even before any real musical movement existed. I swear, think-pieces on the topic have, themselves, become a meme. Here’s how the story goes: music journalist sees beyond regional scenes through the all-encompassing eye of the Internet, using modern technology to cherry-pick artists that fit squarely into his own self-shaped music genre. But, this isn’t about that.
More than a few times in the past year, my own music has been categorized as, what tastemaking hip-hop blog Space Age Hustle calls, cloud rap. I like the name. Like its big sister, chillwave, the cloud rap identifier gives you almost all of the information you need in a neat, retweetable package. So, now that I’ve officially been anointed as a cloud rapper, I figured I could add to the mountain of think-pieces, with my own two cents. Here’s the basic contention: all rap (or at least the kind that I grew up with) is cloud rap.
When I was a kid in the mid-to-late-‘90s, I remember being obsessed with getting my hands on some of the de rigueur beat machines of the era. Producers using crunchy, hardware samplers like the E-mu SP-1200 and Akai MPC-60, shaped the sound of my childhood. Of course, dudes like Primo and Pete Rock were the recognized maestros, but even lesser-known producers were creating dramatic, and decidedly low-fi soundscapes using 12-bit drum machines with like six seconds of sample time. Easy Mo Bee, (the low-pro, New York production god, whose name so often goes unrecognized, while his body of work still speaks volumes) provides the perfect starting point to understanding proto-cloud-rap. Take, for example, his iconic work behind-the-boards for Craig Mack’s 1994 flash-in-a-pan hit, “Flava in Ya Ear”.
So much of the intrinsic beauty of “Flava in Ya Ear”, comes from the low-fi tones, crispy drums, and general analog warmth. As I write this, I remember a rumor that began circulating when this joint came out, suggesting that ‘Mo Bee had sampled a hair dryer to create this classic instrumental. I later read that the tones, which sounded something like fog-horns to me, were simply one guitar note, drastically pitched-down, spread chromatically across a keyboard, and finally recorded to 2” tape. In method and aesthetic, it’s easy to see this through the cloud rap lens. But, imagine now that your whole life consists of listening to this music over hyper-compressed late-night radio dispatches from Stretch and Bobbito, through DJ Clue mixes purchased from Chinatown tape peddlers, or even via warbly VHS recordings of Ralph McDaniels’ long-running Video Music Box TV program, and a case for low-fi warmth being inherent in hip-hop starts to really make sense.
By the late-‘90s and early ‘00s, as powerful, low-priced PCs made digital recording technology available to everyone, a few hugely forward-thinking artists even made a concerted effort to retain that gauzy feel that had up-until-then been at the core of rap music. Real talk: I can’t even say I understood it at the time, but I remember hearing MF Doom’s landmark indie-hip-hop release, Operation: Doomsday, and wondering why the fuck he would’ve recorded it on a four-track tape recorder.
With low-fi music, there’s always the question of intent. It can be what divides great art from just another douchebag’s shitty –sounding demo tape. In the case of Doom, it’s all intent. In his recent erudition exercise for Red Bull Music Academy, dude lays it all out there. The four-track vibe, the cloudy veneer, and the Radio Shack dynamic mic sound of “Operation: Greenbacks”, were set-in-motion to effectively nostalgize rap’s earliest era of park jams and bootleg tapes.
But, maybe nostalgia is what this is all about. And, if that’s the case, then the early-2K J. Dilla knew it. While Swizz Beats and The Neptunes were busy creating pointed, high-fidelity sounds in multi-million dollar studio suites, Dilla was working hard to make his drums sound more “round”. That’s what I remember hearing, anyway. By using outboard compressors, rolling off high-end EQ on snare drums, and recording these beat documents to tape, Jay Dee was creating his version of a loping, AM Gold, Rumors-era Mick Fleetwood hip-hop drum sound. Listen back to the instrumental joint, “Anti-American Graffiti”, and hear Dilla as direct progenitor to today’s chillwave.
It’s not terribly surprising to hear bros like Washed Out and Toro y Moi name-check Jay Dee as part of their canon of direct influences. And, so it shouldn’t have been surprising when an em-cee like me appropriated a dazzling Ariel Pink single to spit flame over in 2009. No, this isn’t the indie-bating bullshit that quickly came-and-went over the last several years. To me, it just seems to be part of one intertwined lineage.
Today, dudes like trill Harlem rapper, A$AP Rocky are blurring the lines fully. Cloud rap’s hazy, analog glow is spinning three million dollar signing bonuses from major label A&Rs hyped to ride the wave. And honestly, the shit sounds as good as ever. Check out a woozy feature from Rocky on the below indie-folk sampling number from Schoolboy Q.
So, when the dust settles, and people look back on these songs, I think the new genre-identifiers might just become a footnote to some amazing art. Speaking for myself, you’re certainly welcome to call my music cloud rap. I like the name. But, listen to the increasingly low-fi, exploratory jams on my upcoming LP, Plateau Vision, like this Botany- produced banger, “Big Sur”, and tell me that, deep down, it isn’t just plain old motherfucking rap music.