Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Encore Muziek Festival: Hip-Hop and Head-Bobbing Universalism


Encore Muziek Festival: Hip-Hop and Head-Bobbing Universalism

The most astonishing thing about Encore Muziek Festival, a showcase of primarily (by the program, perhaps 70%) Dutch hip-hop artists taking place in Amsterdam, was how very American it was. Based on the lineup, and of course the location of the event, I had not so astonishingly assumed that this festival would be largely focused on Dutch music.  Nestled within the mountainous midst of seemingly defunct cranes and other shipyard paraphernalia, the circus tents of Encore Muziek Festival are hidden from view as you arrive on ferry from Centraal Station. Besides a generally laxer policy towards marijuana at the security gate, upon entry Encore appeared and sounded almost exactly like any hip-hop festival I had attended in the States. Though initially disappointed that Encore did not deliver an especially Dutch touch, I ultimately became fascinated by the festival as an example of how deeply American culture is woven into international hip-hop, and furthermore by hip-hop’s natural ability to transcend cultural and geographic boundaries.

Examining rankings of all-time top-selling music artists, there is a strong international presence across all major genres (pop, rock, R&B, jazz, etc.) with the exception of hip-hop. Forefronted by Eminem, Jay Z, and Tupac Shakur, respectively, nearly every top-grossing hip-hop album since the genre’s explosive rise to prominence in the early 1980s was made in America, and the influence and primacy of American-ness in international hip-hop culture tangibly resonated for me at Encore. While there was a numerical majority of Dutch artists, the event focused promotional attention on the American headliners—Vic Mensa, Pusha T, Ty Dolla $ign, and Kid Ink—all of whom rapped on the centrally located Live Stage. The other two stages, tucked in a corner and noticeably less crowded, rotated between Dutch hip-hop DJs who seemed to play exclusively American hip-hop. During the 4.5+ hours I spent at Encore Muziek Festival, I never consciously heard one Dutch song; that is to say, if I had indeed heard a Dutch song while I was there, it was so carefully modeled after American hip-hop that any cultural distinction had been rendered null and void.
This brings up another idea with regards to the similarity (or rather, lack of distinction) I found between the music at Encore and at an American hip-hop music festival: what I’d like to term the ‘universality’ of hip-hop. Ty Dolla $ign’s most popular song (based on audience enthusiasm and participation) had the following chorus:

“All I smoke is papers (papers)/ all I smoke is papers (papers)/ I’m a motherfuckin’ Taylor (Taylor)/ I’m a motherfuckin’ Taylor (Taylor)”  x2

Now, for the life of me, I cannot accurately recall if I had ever heard this song before, but after approximately two seconds of listening, I was scream-singing the words as loud as anyone else in the crowd (and believe me, there was a lot of scream-singing going on). Ty Dolla $ign did not write a lyrical masterpiece, he wrote something infinitely accessible. The words employed are short and easy to both say and understand for English and non-English speakers alike, creating a seamless global marketplace for this style of music that perhaps partially explains the lack of international diversity in the genre; hip-hop, American-made or otherwise, contains an inherent universalism. While there are of course some exceptionally poetic hip-hop lyricists, I’d argue that successful hip-hop primarily trades on an artist’s ability to translate an accessible (as opposed to intellectualized or abstract) narrative/prose into catchy rhyme schemes atop an equally accessible and catchy beat.

For me, it all starts with the head bob. When you hear a good beat in hip-hop there’s a visceral reaction. Your body responds before your brain has time to process what it is you’re hearing, or even why it is that you like it. It’s nothing like hearing the Beatles for the first time; the beat in hip-hop is unemotional and doesn’t trade on tonal subtleties. Quite the opposite, hip-hop thrives on repetition—whether it’s a refrain repeated without change before and after every verse, or a consistent beat carried throughout an entire song. As illustrated in the above example, the simplicity and repetitive nature of Ty Dolla $ign’s music and lyrics—characteristic of hip-hop generally—make the song feel familiar even if you have never heard it before. The slant rhyme he uses in this refrain is aurally pleasing, and equally pleasing for the crowd to yell out in unison with the rapper (as is largely encouraged at hip-hop concerts, unlike many other genres). And the beat is head-bobbing—a hypnotic hip-hop combination of deep-in-your-gut bluesiness and heart-racing poppiness that at once makes you want to both sit down and stand up.

While I still hope to see a live performance by a Dutch rapper before I leave Amsterdam, Encore Muziek Festival was a truly incredible experience not only because of the many talented performers, but also for the broader awareness I gained about the influence of American culture on the international hip-hop scene. When the beat dropped, it didn’t matter where we were, where we came from, or what language we spoke, we all bobbed our heads.

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