Locked Down, Turnt Up

Resilient and resourceful as ever, hip-hop culture has thrived in the face of the global pandemic.

by
Credit: FG Trade.

Online at least, the past 12 months have yielded more than a few seriously inspiring musical moments — just think of everyone from Michelle Obama to Oprah Winfrey tuning in to D-Nice’s Instagram dance party, or a colossal animated Travis Scott rhyming in a virtual universe.

Reality, however, was very different. Any professional musician will tell you that the industry is an unforgiving place, and that its challenges have increased tenfold with the Covid-19 pandemic. The disease’s airborne contagiousness prevented artists from performing live and collaborating on new music in-person, and historic unemployment found countless people around the country penny-pinching more than ever — not exactly the best climate for buying up merch, vinyl and other products.

Everyone in and out of music has had a tough time since last March, but as always, hip-hop found a way. The genre and culture were birthed out of a spirit of making due with what you’ve got: manipulating the technology of the time — turntables — to find the breaks in popular songs that made people dance; eschewing expensive instruments like saxophone and piano to make music on the spot by pounding on a lunch table, beatboxing with your mouth and rapping off the top of your head; and taking impoverished, racist conditions and creating beautiful, emotionally resonant art from them. The adaptive, innovative attitude of hip-hop was hella necessary during a pandemic where people had to deal with some of the biggest changes in their lives. Over the past year, hip-hop has showcased its brilliant creativity through social media, streaming and everything in between, continuing to prove that hip-hop is behind the wheel of culture and technology. 

The most ingenious adapters to the pandemic era were Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, who created the Verzuz franchise. The two legendary producers enjoyed one night last March when they took turns playing their greatest songs on Instagram Live, coaxing remembrances, love and competition out of each other the whole time. They coordinated for other artists and producers to follow suit with their own one-on-one matchups, and suddenly the pandemic had its premier live appointment viewing. The competitions (or, if you ask Swizz and Timbo, “tributes”) eventually transitioned into the artists and producers fellowshipping in the same building, but it’s easy to forget that this started as a product of people being unable to unite under one roof. We got to see iconic artists in their unique home and studio environments, providing an intimate look at how legends actually live, with a split-screen visual that evoked those old-school boxing video games.

The main thing we all miss about live concerts is the memories, and Verzuz gave us an opportunity to reflect on the old ones, create new ones and, most importantly, enjoy them together. We laughed when songwriter/producer Breyon Prescott spontaneously danced while Teddy Riley squared off against Babyface, drank along as Lil Jon and T-Pain partied the night away, prayed together while Fred Hammond and Kirk Franklin performed a special “The Healing” edition of Verzuz, and swayed as Erykah Badu and Jill Scott gave each other the admiration we’ve had for them for years. Verzuz showcases artists and producers of different genres, but two hip-hop producers created it, and it is unquestionably rooted in the spirit of hip-hop battles and reggae sound clashes.

DJs have also held it down in quarantine time, competing with technology itself just as they were pushing it forward. When clubs were closed to combat the spread of the coronavirus, record spinners around the world took to Instagram Live to perform their sets, inviting us to dance in our living rooms. And no one did it as effectively as D-Nice, the renowned DJ who got his start with Boogie Down Productions in the 1980s. D-Nice drew over 100,000 viewers during a nine-hour “Club Quarantine” dance party last March, leaving lil-old-us in the same VIP as A-List viewers like Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Rihanna, Janet Jackson, Angela Bassett and Mark Zuckerberg. He teamed with Obama a few days later to inspire viewers to vote.

Other DJs, like Biz Markie and Chase B, also spun phenomenal sets. Then, Instagram Live cracked down on copyright infringement, so DJs adapted. Some of them flocked to the platform Twitch, which is usually known for streaming video-game play; the platform enjoyed a surge in users before suffering from copyright-enforcement issues of its own. Questlove thrived on Mixcloud. Others, like hip-hop artist/DJs Jean Grae and Donwill, mocked the powers that be by performing a set on Instagram made entirely out of the app’s library of generic music and sound effects. With people losing jobs and loved ones during a pandemic, the least we could do to heal is dance together, albeit thousands of miles away from each other, and DJs provided that ability.

Artists performed live online as well, from their living rooms, studios and beyond. Rae Sremmurd hilariously stage-dived into a nonexistent audience during an impromptu IG Live performance, while Gunna celebrated his No. 1 album with Wunna Live in LA, a straight-to-YouTube concert. Chance the Rapper presented two beautifully produced pre-recorded virtual concerts from his hometown of Chicago — one in September from the Ralph Lauren flagship store, and a Christmas special concert film — both with the same lively, energetic spirit he brought to his pre-Covid shows. Erykah Badu — categorically a soul/R&B singer, but a child of hip-hop through and through — set a new standard for online live shows with her Apocalypse series, charging $1, $2 and $3 respectively while airing the hyper-creative, gorgeously shot concerts through a player on her own website.

TIDAL also hosted several standout live performances last year: Megan Thee Stallion took to the platform in late August with her first live concert since being shot in both feet earlier that summer; Griselda capped off their characteristically prolific year with The Butcher & the Machine, as Conway stalked the stage while Benny performed atop a regal black throne, still recovering from a shooting in Houston in November; and Lil Uzi Vert followed Eternal Atake and Pluto x Baby Pluto by bringing his melodic, charismatic performance to Lil Uzi Live. Travis Scott had one of the biggest events of the year when he teamed up with the video game Fortnite to present a spectacular animated concert series that a reported 27.7 million unique visitors interacted with. Hip-hop led the way when it came to online concerts. And once we do go back to in-person live shows, Lupe Fiasco has announced that he would require attendees to prove they were vaccinated for admission. 

Speaking of Lupe, he’s put on a clinic as to expanding already-boundless creativity during quarantine. When he discovered a tweet that encouraged him to rap over a beat by Florida producer Kaelin Ellis, he did one better: He teamed up with Ellis to create an entire EP, HOUSE, full of the same conceptual brilliance we love from him — but with both of them recording from the safety of their own homes. Hip-hop artists have been working with each other remotely for years, sending sessions back and forth via email and file-sharing services. Meek Mill, Flo Milli and scores of other artists made strong music during quarantine. Lupe also launched a podcast with fellow wordsmith Royce Da 5’9”, and used the bubbling party-line-meets-social-media-app Clubhouse to start two series — one called Food & Liquor dedicated to people’s favorite foods, and Rhymen Shop, which lets users listen in as he and other elite MCs write and record a verse in real time, inspired by an audience member’s idea. 

Elsewhere on Clubhouse, JAY-Z’s birthday was celebrated with a gathering of Roc-A-Fella alumni and industry vets sharing stories about Hov, in one of the most memorable moments in the app’s young history. Rapper 21 Savage has emerged as one of the best moderators on the app, keeping a conversation around divisive media personality DJ Akademiks civil and focused. TikTok also took off, and hip-hop mastered it quickly, with artists inspiring their fans to participate in “challenges” based on their songs. Users flipped light switches to Drake’s “Nonstop,” imitated the squeak from the beginning of Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” danced to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” and shared “My Type” jokes to Saweetie’s hit. The list goes on and on. 

With vaccines beginning circulation and medical professionals steadily learning more about the coronavirus, hopefully the pandemic gets under control in the new year, putting fans in concert seats, DJs and MCs in front of massive crowds, and artists meeting up for in-person recording sessions. But pandemic or not, the music industry will never stop changing — and hip-hop will always be ahead of the curve. 

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