Musicianship In Hip-Hop: Hustler vs. Artist

Musicianship In Hip-Hop: Hustler vs. Artist

The Roots
Musicianship is defined as; the artistry in performing music. The technical and interpretive skills involved in singing or playing music. Hip-hop may be one of the only genres of music where musicianship is not a prerequisite for entrance or success. The average rapper comes from humble beginnings or poverty in some cases. Even DJ’s learn their craft doing house parties unless they’re taught by someone else. The idea of actually playing an instrument or going to school for music production or engineering rarely comes up. Two and turntables and a microphone? But if nearly all other genres maintain musicianship, why can’t hip-hop incorporate that more into the overall product? I’m not implying that we abandon the turntables, but haven’t we done everything else? Even if musicianship isn’t a priority from the inception of an artists introduction to hip-hop it can still be a part of the process. But for some reason its not the focal point unless you happen to be Nicolay or The Roots.

Technology has definitely played a significant part in this missing element. While its clearly advanced the business of making music, its obviously also created its fair share of Myspace artists. Certain artists who feel they can do this without regard for musicianship or this craft. If hip hop for dummies existed, they’d have the book. Whether its fruity loops, pro-tools or serato the technology has definitely made the music process/creation more seamless. But is the music really better or just being consumed at a higher rate? Live instrumentation has become more prevalent in hip-hop recordings. Even from a touring standpoint, the live band is becoming more commonplace also. I feel like it is getting better.

The divide in my opinion is that some people don’t see the importance of musicianship since hip-hop has thrived without it really incorporating live instruments for so long. When you factor the the profitability angle and plus cost of acquiring instruments and learning the technical skill, i think its a hard sell. There are definitely exceptions to the rule. If you’ve been classically trained like Questlove or the members of The Roots; it’s second nature. But when you’re a starving artist, hustling and trying to get your foot in the door the idea of going to school to learn music probably feels foreign.

It all comes to back to your motives for getting into music in the first place. Do you view music as a hustle or a craft? If you view it as a hustle your primary concern is profit rather than artistry. If you view it as a craft, musicianship is a necessary component to your art. In reality there are far more people that get into hip-hop because to them its a hustle, rather than a craft. But in the same breath, just because an artist has great musicianship doesn’t necessarily equate good art either. It’s still up to to the public to decide that. Arguments can definitely be made on both sides, but ultimately I view it like a career;  your capacity to want to improve should be on-going. Even if someone didn’t get into hip-hop for all the right reasons doesn’t mean they can’t embrace this craft later on and seek to become better at it.


  1. soulsupreme
    May 26, 2009 @ 08:33:29

    @DJ Multiple Sex Partners I agree; “Being an MC is being a musician, but because they’re not using the same language to do it, it’s treated as inferior.”

    Thanks for the comments.

  2. DJ Multiple Sex Partners
    May 26, 2009 @ 08:11:58

    Even rappers are musicians. Having chewed it over, I totally disagree with the first half of the first paragraph.

    Rappers, in order to make money, need to maintain people’s attention. I’m probably the last living human who’d ever defend 50 Cent but the man is successful because he understands pacing, rhythms and the importance of variation. Dudes like Clipse pretty much only rap about drugs and ignorant horseshit, but man they’re good rappers – technically good, musically good. They’re working over a set tempo, they’re using rhythm, pattern and variations, they’re learning from a culture of recorded music, and 99% of the time, they’re playing a solo for 40 seconds to 4 minutes at a stretch.

    Most other “musicians” don’t do anything that rigorous until they’re damn good, but in hip hop, that’s just the MC’s job.

    Look, this discussion reminds me of Western and Asian medicine back in the 1800s and 1900s. Being an MC is being a musician, but because they’re not using the same language to do it, it’s treated as inferior. Dennis Chambers didn’t start out sight-reading music and geeking out on theory textbooks, either.

  3. Objektiv One
    May 25, 2009 @ 11:25:42

    @judgemental You are completely correct. Using a turntable and an MPC can be instruments. I am not talking about specifically playing instruments, those were just my examples. I am specifically pointing out musicianship. Use whatever instrument you want! Use cans, bottles, turntables, bricks, whatever…. but atleast be able to convey it.

    Have you ever worked in a studio with someone who can’t even clarify bars, tempo, key, etc? The process takes ten times longer. Not to mention have you ever played in a band? I can tell you from experience that the overall feeling and process is different and rewarding. Turntables can be in a band. So can MPCs, bottles, bricks, xylophones, etc. The point is to enhance the live performance, and elevate the art to bring it up to par with musicial standards.

    I think hip hop is more creative then all forms of music. They invented their own instruments, sound, language, dance, etc…. BUT, it is to the point where we should be able to compete and communicate with other genres. I have never found such a low caliber of musicianship in any other genre. But I have never found such a high caliber of ingenuity.

  4. judge mental
    May 25, 2009 @ 10:16:01

    I can’t condone this notion that for some reason, in order to exhibit musicianship, you need to be proficient in what has classically been considered a musical instrument. At one point in time, people would have said the same things about the electric guitar. Tell that to Jimi Hendrix. Just because the turntables are an unconventional, non-traditional means of creating original music, doesn’t mean that they do not take musicianship to master. I think that the problem lies in the so-called producers themselves, and not in their choice of tools. The MPC is an instrument. A Turntable is an instrument. And the human voice is an instrument. It’s what you do with them that determines your level of musicianship. People just need to be creative.

  5. soulsupreme
    May 24, 2009 @ 11:57:24

    @Kaznasty You made a great point; “People are used to change in hip-hop because that’s what has happened for 30 years but it’s also human nature to shun drastic change (in this case, if it moves to quickly from one trend to another). This is why anything deemed TOO experimental doesn’t get the acceptance the artist intended, despite even great amounts of musicianship. ”

    Hip-hop is really funny about change. It literally has to be accepted on an underground level before it can be become potentially accepted in the mainstream. Which is ironic to me because so much of the music lends itself to whats trendy, you’d think we’d be more accepting of the next big thing when it arrives…lol

    Thanks for the comments.

  6. djdiz
    May 24, 2009 @ 10:25:59

    Doesn’t whether or not an artist views hip hop as a hustle or a craft depend on the artist’s financial circumstances? If somebody is good money, then they can focus on their craft without worrying about the financial success of the album. If somebody isn’t financially secure, then they GOTTA rely on the music for money, and they can’t focus as much on their personal craft. Either way, this article is good and thought provoking.

  7. Objektiv One
    May 24, 2009 @ 05:59:16

    FYI this is what happens when live performances degrade so badly and no one holds our musicians responsible. This IS A MAJOR LABEL ARTISTS JUST PLAYING HIS CD ON STAGE….


  8. Objektiv One
    May 24, 2009 @ 05:45:05

    I also forgot to mention the camaraderie formed from being in a band is something unique when you play and create music together. Yes, emcees have crews and dudes they are close with, but you look at someone like The Roots and they act and move as a single unit. When you play with a band long enough this becomes instinct. This chemistry makes new and interesting music. Being in the studio with a producer for a day (or even just writing to his beat) doesn’t create this chemistry.

    That being said individuals banded together and having played together for a number of years start to develop and change as a single unit and they create new and amazing ideas and sounds that cannot be done with just one person many times….. I mean look at what The Roots have done compared to someone else who has been around as long as them. I think that is a testament unto itself.

  9. Objektiv One
    May 24, 2009 @ 05:38:15

    Musicianship is becoming necessary for hip hop. Hip hop live performances suffer as a result. I know that a DJ and an emcee can rock a mic and give the crowd what they want, but seeing a band perform together is an art all too itself. Most of the time though emcees don’t even use DJs, they just use CDs, and if they do use DJs its them cheating with Serato (as in misusing it rather than being a good DJ and using it as a tool to help them)……..

    I think hip hop would also gain more respect from other genres. Everyone has recognized hip hop as a force to be reckoned with, but many musicians see hip hop as an end to their existence. One of the most influential forms of music struggles to use musicians, and as a result puts musicians and musicianship out of the picture. How would you feel seeing your favorite emcees recreate all of your favorite songs atleast with drums, bass, keyboard, DJ, and an MPC? What if this became standard? This could eliminate many of these clown emcees who are over saturating the genre with bullshit. It would make the face of hip hop change.

    I think its time for hip hop to expand its world and join the rest of musical society. Hip hop is supremely advanced in the ways of lyrics, style, master of simplicity (what other genre can do an 8bar loop for 4 minutes and have it be dope), but hip hop is in the dark ages when it comes to musicianship, live performances, music theory (whats that?), and even general music knowledge (every musician I know knows what these things are: XLR cable, 1/4″ cable, tempo, key signature, time signature, gain, etc, etc… you know… basic shit).

    The market is over saturated with pretty bad hip hop right now. Most of us can agree on that even if we don’t agree WHAT it is. If this became the new general practice in hip hop you would eliminate %85 of these clowns. Maybe hip hop could be revitalized in many different ways as well.

  10. davedelus
    May 24, 2009 @ 05:16:57

    you should make it a standard question in the interviews potholes does. “Do you view yourself as a hustler or an artist?”

  11. soulsupreme
    May 23, 2009 @ 16:42:38

    @proof of life We appreciate it, glad you liked the column.

    Thanks for the comment.

  12. soulsupreme
    May 23, 2009 @ 16:41:21

    @Mookie Hip-hop might be the only genre where the rules of making music don’t apply. The creativity comes in all forms. The normal barriers don’t apply as it proven to make the most with less.

    Thanks for the comment.

  13. soulsupreme
    May 23, 2009 @ 16:31:17

    @OCSupreme The motives are key, but the final product has to be good for public consumption.

    Thanks for the comment.

  14. soulsupreme
    May 23, 2009 @ 15:57:15

    @Sho The pendulum is definitely swinging towards real music again. We’ll always have hustlers. I don’t have a problem with them as long as their making good art.

    Thanks for the comment.

  15. Kaznasty
    May 23, 2009 @ 15:09:00

    I really like the view here without taking a definitive stance towards either side.

    It seems as if the basis of hip-hop and it’s starting origins didn’t rely as much on the musicianship as nearly every other genre of music that has ever existed, and from the beginning hip-hop has been the one stand-out genre where lyrics are by far the most prevalent factor in making something enjoyable to the listener. Now that is not to say that the rest of what composes the songs don’t matter because, let’s face it, we’ve all said “I don’t like the song but I like the beat.”

    This subject has come up more and more over the last few years. I believe I have a reason as to why: the majority of listeners, be it mainstream or underground, have a craving for the genre to expand. Even the most original releases now days are only [more] original by comparison of OTHER newer releases, all of which have stuck to the same path that was forged years ago. Hip-hop has been an evolution since it’s inception into our musical tastes and, although I’m not saying we are at the ultimate climax of it, we’re almost running out of areas to evolve into. People are used to change in hip-hop because that’s what has happened for 30 years but it’s also human nature to shun drastic change (in this case, if it moves to quickly from one trend to another). This is why anything deemed TOO experimental doesn’t get the acceptance the artist intended, despite even great amounts of musicianship.

    I bring up the above points to back my next statement: Musicianship has never been a constant in acceptable hip-hop, old or new. We are, as a whole, looking for more of that musicianship and actual musical talent in this era however because the other end of the spectrum (the rappers who want to hustle the system and make money by making a name) has watered down what we hear so much. Like all things, hip-hop culture is a fine balance of yin and yang. There have always been the musically talentless who have had a lasting effect on the genre just as much as there have been wonderful musicians with formal training and great application of that knowledge. As we hear more of the musically deficient releases come out (Solja Boy, for instance) our natural impulse is to expect something drastic on the other side of the spectrum to counteract it, and even once it does it is a hard swallow because, once again, change isn’t easily accepted.

    None of the above is the definitive answer to where hip-hop is going and what will happen to it in the future. I believe we will see more fly-by-night musicians that are in it for the hustle come and go just as we will see more creative and instrumentational artists balance out the genre. Hip-hop is becoming wider friends, just remember that there is a lot of variants of this love of ours out there and you’re not just cheating the artists who put hard work into it (be it musicianship or hustle) by avoiding it, you’re cheating yourself.

    My favorite line is “Even if someone didn’t get into hip-hop for all the right reasons doesn’t mean they can’t embrace this craft later on and seek to become better at it”. That is true from the capital “E” to the lower case “t” — it all encompasses a state of mind that all artists should subconsciously hold on to so as to not paint themselves in a corner through their career.

  16. proof of life
    May 23, 2009 @ 14:48:49


  17. Mookie
    May 23, 2009 @ 14:22:03

    Good point.

    The thing is though, I think if acceptance into the genre required musicianship we wouldn’t have some of the great artists we do now because like you said, acquiring the skill and buying the instruments might be too big of a barrier to get over.

  18. OCSupreme
    May 23, 2009 @ 13:46:51

    Very well put. I am a big fan of The Roots and have seen them perform at least 6 times. I can see the difference in artists who view their careers as art and how others view it as a hustle. To each his/her own but I get the final say on what I purchase. Good stuff!

  19. Sho
    May 23, 2009 @ 13:14:01

    Yeah these hustlers have been ruining the game. But these new artists seem to be about the music, so things are looking up.

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