Is Hip Hop More Influential than the Beatles?

Kanye West
Kanye West
I’m not that cool.

I was floored a few days ago by a headline I read at Digital Trends: “New Study: Hip-Hop, not Brit Rock, is the Most Influential Genre Since 1960.”

My God. No.

Could it be true? What kind of study was this? What were they smoking?

Researchers at the University of London and Imperial College used music recognition software to analyze changes in harmony, timbre, instruments and chords in a staggering 17,000 songs from the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts from 1960 to 2010.  Their purpose was to find out which genres had the most impact on popular music.

They discovered three important moments in pop music: 1964, the year of the first British invasion (Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks), 1983, the year New Wave finally took hold (Duran Duran, the Human League, Culture Club), and hip hop in 1991 (N.W.A., West Coast rap).

Beatles ‘Exploited’ a Musical Revolution

But they dismiss the Beatles and the British invasion as an “exploitation” of what was already going on in popular music. “While the British may have contributed to [the 1964 music] revolution, they could not have been entirely responsible for it,” the researchers claim. “They did exploit it and, to the degree that they were imitated by other artists, fanned its flames.”

This is pure conjecture on their part, Correlation does not equal causation, and they show no evidence that the Beatles or the Rolling Stones capitalized on anything. The Beatles did borrow from the girl groups of the early 1960s, but every movement has its ancestral origins. Tupac and Eminem wouldn’t have made it if it weren’t for Grandmaster Flash and Run-DMC.

I was pleased to know that one of the years, 1983, coincided with the beginning of my obsession with popular music (actually in 1982); I grew up during a part of an important musical movement that rivaled the Beatles’, and that movement, along with the Beatles, continues to influence my taste in music.

But since 1991 — an astounding 24 years — hip hop has dominated the Hot 100, making way occasionally to the latest fad (dance music, a New Wave resurgence, yawp lite metal).

Rap is here to stay

I suddenly saw and had to admit — regardless of whether it was good or bad — the influence and staying power of rap. For some reason I have yet to figure out, this genre has staying power, and bands such as Public Enemy, Tupac, Eminem and the Beastie Boys are continuing to shape young people’s minds with their blathering and creating new artists who want to emulate their idols.

Now, you can be a good influence or a bad influence, and I’m not necessarily sure that 25 years of hip hop domination is a good thing for popular music. But it’s not going away. And as good as some power pop bands have been over the past 10 years, they continue to simmer underground, away from the spotlight. Of course, that’s what rap did in the early 80s, with only Run-DMC breaking through somewhat into the mainstream.

Then in 1991 — bam. It hit big-time. “I think that hip hop saved the charts,” said lead author Matthias Mauch. Even Paul McCartney has recognized this, latching on to Rihanna and — gasp! — Kanye West to score his first top 10 hit in 30 years with “FourFiveSeconds” (his last one was 1985’s insipid title track to the movie “Spies Like Us”).

I always hope that melody and harmony will do the same thing:  That the buying public will recognize melody and harmony in a band, and 1964’s sound will come roaring back and save the charts from foul lyrics, lack of melody and harmony, and Kanye West.

One can hope.

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  1. Drew

    It may be the dominant form of music of the past 15 years (I won’t say 25 years because rock was still king in the 1990s up until ~2000 or so) but just because it’s saturating the airwaves doesn’t mean it’s good. If anything, I find it caters to the lowest common denominator of music fan…I don’t mean this in terms of intelligence but in terms of easily disposable noise that doesn’t take a lot of creative energy or imagination to make, and appeals to the basest human musical instincts (thumping beat, 1 or 2 repetitive droning notes, etc) . It’s probably just my musical snobbery shining through but that’s how I see it.

  2. Charlie

    I always hesitate to dump on rap & hip-hop because when I do I believe I’m being as closed minded as my parents generation was about rock but then I find I can’t help myself. I’ll say the same things they said, where’s the musicianship, harmony, and melody? Then you add to that the god awful lyrics & the whole genre feels like a cultural wasteland. I don’t think it takes any talent to curse in rhythm to what amounts to be nothing more than a digital metronome as accompaniment.