Home > data science, rant > Does hip-hop still exist?

Does hip-hop still exist?

January 28, 2012

I love music. I work in an open office, one big room with 45 people, which makes it pretty loud sometimes, so it’s convenient to be able to put headphones on and listen to music when I need to focus. But the truth it I’d probably be doing it anyway.

I’m serious about music too, I subscribe to Pandora as well as Spotify, because I’ll get a new band recommendation from Pandora and then I want to check their entire oeuvre on Spotify. My latest obsession: Muse, especially this song. Muse is like the new Queen. Pandora knew I’d like Muse because my favorite band is Bright Eyes, which makes me pathetically emo, but I also like the Beatles and Elliott Smith, or whatever. I don’t know exactly how the model works, but the point is they’ve pegged me and good.

In fact it’s amazing how much great music and other stuff I’ve been learning about through the recommendation models coming out of things like Pandora and Netflix; those models really work. My life has definitely changed since they came into existence. I’m much more comfortable and entertained.

But here’s the thing, I’ve lost something too.

My oldest friend sent me some mixed CDs for Christmas. I listened to them at work one recent morning, and although I like a few songs, many of the them were downright jarring. I mean, so syncopated! So raw and violent! What the hell is this?! It was hip-hop, I think, although that was a word from some far-away time and place. Does hip-hop still exist?

I’ve become my own little island of smug musical taste. When is the last time I listened to the radio and learned about a new kind of music? It just doesn’t happen. Why would I listen to the radio when there’s wifi and I can stream my own?

It made me think about the history of shared music. Once upon a time, we had no electricity and we had to make our own music. There were traveling bands of musicians (my great-grandmother was a traveling piano player and my great-grandfather was the banjo player in that troupe) that brought the hit tunes to the little towns eager for the newest sounds. Then when we got around to inventing the radio and record players, boundaries were obliterated and the world was opened up. This sharing got accelerated as the technology grew, to the point now that anyone with access to a browser can hear any kind of music they’d like.

But now this other effect has taken hold, and our universes, our personal universes, are again contracting. We are creating boundaries again, each around ourselves and with the help of the models, and we’ve even figured out how to drown out the background music in Starbucks when we pick up our lattes (we just listen to our ipods while in line).

I’d love to think that this contracting universe issue is restricted to music and maybe movies, but it’s really not. Our entire online environment and identity, and to be sure our actual environment and identity is increasingly online, is informed and created by the models that exist inside Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Google has just changed its privacy policy so that it can and will use all the information it has gleaned from your gmail account when you do a google search, for example. To avoid this, simply clear your cookies and don’t ever log in to your gmail account. In other words, there’s no avoiding this.

Keep in mind, as well, that there’s really one and only one goal of all of this, namely money. We are being shown things to make us comfortable so we will buy things. We aren’t being shown what we should see, at any level or by any definition, but rather what will flatter us sufficiently to consume. Our modeled world is the new opium.

Categories: data science, rant
  1. January 28, 2012 at 10:56 am

    While agreeing with your general point, I take special evasive action with regard to music discovery. I participate in a group on facebook and last.fm called diversity + knowledge …(I am on my mobile at the moment so I can’t post the full url. Find the group link on my profile). We pick a random genre to explore each week. It is mind expanding!


  2. January 28, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    I think this is way too pessimistic. I’ve started listening to K-Pop recently because a video game blogger I follow on Twitter started posting youtube links to a lot of K-Pop videos, I found I liked some of them (e.g. http://links.malvasiabianca.org/post/14023773381/there-is-very-little-that-i-like-more-than , though admittedly that one has rather more to do with the dancing than the music), and I could go over to iTunes to buy albums by the artists I liked the most. That uses three services that didn’t exist a decade ago, all working together to make it easier than ever for me to discover new genres of music.

    Also, I’ve learned about a lot of music through Rock Band, both through the on-disc content and the downloadable content. (The folks at Harmonix have very very good musical taste.) The other half of your point is about isolation: but I play Rock Band with my wife, my friends, my coworkers. And going through London Calling (an album which I’d somehow managed to avoid listening to when I was younger) with myself playing drums in California, another friend playing guitar in Connecticut, and a third friend playing bass in, uh, Maryland? is a pretty amazing communal musical experience. (And ditto going through that same album with my wife, either on guitar/bass combos or singing together.)

    I had a lot more communal musical experiences and broadening of taste in high school / undergrad than I do now, but I think that has more to do with the effects of having a bunch of people forming an identity all physically colocated than the details of technology. I’m spending more time on a wider range of music now than I have in any other time during the almost twenty years since undergrad, and for me online experiences are very much helping with the genre discovery part of that.


  3. SisofmySis
    January 28, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Babe, Have you read this book? Lots of talk about it at the last Personal Democracy Forum conference: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1594203008/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=thefilbub-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1594203008
    Seems very on point.


  4. January 28, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    Another interesting post, Cathy. I appreciate the dry commentary of this line in particular: “My life has definitely changed since [Pandora and Netflix] came into existence. I’m much more comfortable and entertained.” It reminds me of this little nugget of wisdom: http://www.remnantsblog.com/where-the-magic-happens/

    In response to the title question: as a devoted and passionate fan of underground hip-hop, I can aver that the genre is very much alive, as innovative and dynamic as ever. I would be happy to write a guest post on why — and how — to listen to hip-hop, if you’d like to hear a more fleshed-out response.


  5. Michelle
    January 28, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    “All Songs Considered” podcast keeps me listening to new stuff. I find way more stuff through them than I do through Pandora… Pandora is always suggesting stuff I already know.

    But the google thing is creepy. I want my google searches to give me actual information, not slanted by what I want to hear. Harumph.


  6. January 28, 2012 at 5:33 pm


    I’m pleased to learn that you are an avid music fan. As a musician, I have a couple of suggestions for you:

    1. If you like live music, please support these performances by attending as many as possible, especially in the smaller venues. The proprietors of these venues usually do not sponsor live performances because they want to maximize their income; in fact, many of these venue owners lose money on live music. They are truly patrons of the arts.

    2. I’m not sure that we should be supporting Spotify. I heard an interview with a founder and what was revealing was that he said his motivation was to return income to the music industry. Spotify has been criticized for the measly royalties it pays the artists:


    Jay Goldfarb
    Reno, NV


  7. tissit
    February 3, 2012 at 4:23 am

    When has radio ever had new kind of music? It’s been ages since radios have had any music!


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