What Makes An Artist?

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a blog here at aboveGround Magazine, so apologies for that. I’ve been extremely busy over the past couple of months launching my own monthly Hip-Hop jam/ nightclub night as well as keeping my own site up to date and working on a few other projects that I can’t yet discuss, but I’ll be sure to keep up to date in the future!

This month I wanted to follow on from my last blog a couple of months ago about submitting music to websites, by talking about what makes a good artist. I feel that having the ability to rap is different from actually having the potential to be a recording artist who will gain a good following and will stick around for years to come; an artist has longevity, and the ability to reinvent themselves time after time in order to keep fans surprised and keep bringing something new to the table.

The perspective I take on this is as an art graduate, rather than specifically a hip-hop “critic”. However, the same rules do apply regardless of the outlet; whether you are using rap, paint, film, photography or any other medium to put across your ideas. The concept of a “good artist”, in my mind, stems back to a conversation I had back in university when I was working as a painter. My tutor said to me that I could paint pretty well, but that there are a lot of people who are better than me, as well as a lot of people who are worse, and to succeed as a good artist within the medium I had to do something different. I had to be obsessed with the medium of paint (rather than necessarily the ideas or images that I would create with it) as I was looking to shift something that had thousands of years of history. I ended up realizing that it wasn’t actually the medium that I liked, but more the concepts and ideas that were in my head which actually translated better into other mediums, such as film and writing, and ended up exploring that instead.

I think that this conversation is also very relevant in the medium of rap, which luckily has a much shorter history than painting, making it slightly easier to find something original (though, really, only slightly). I do believe that a lot of rappers out there are doing it just because it’s cool, and aren’t really doing anything different or particularly interesting. There is such a huge variety of sounds and styles within the genre of hip-hop now that a straight forward flow over some average sounding beat just doesn’t cut it: You have to have something about you, whether it’s your style, flow, movement, subject matter etc that sets you apart — but, this shouldn’t just be a gimmick either. I think that in a time when making music is so accessible, it becomes even harder to be truly original. I would even stretch to say that it’s impossible to be truly original. Making good art/music/film/etc is about putting out something that is different due to your unique combination of influences that have passed through the melting pot that is your brain, and therefore it is important to be a very open person acquiring influence and knowledge from everywhere you can, be it a movie, an art exhibition, a different genre of music or something you see on the street.

I think that it is possible to break down a lot of artists into their various influences, (and they often discuss their influences in interviews, making it even clearer), however this is not a negative thing; the appropriation of something that is not necessarily hip-hop, into something that is hip-hop is a huge part of the culture. I remember Grandmaster Caz (of the Cold Crush Brothers) once describing to me how it is like wearing Jordans with jeans: taking two things that were created for entirely different purposes and juxtaposing them against one another, creating a new look. And of course Afrika Bambaataa re-appropriated Jamaican toasting, resulting in the very medium that I am discussing.

What is important to becoming an artist rather than a one-hit wonder ringtone rapper, is keeping an open mind; looking out for anything that might translate into your music, even if only slightly, as this is what gives you an edge. However, make sure that what you are looking at or listening to is actually inspiring you for the right reasons. Don’t buy into things because of the hype, as hype dies out and is impossible to keep up. If you are chasing a sound that is popular right now, you are already behind, because something new is just around the corner. Instead, look for opportunities to create your own sound that could become the next big thing.

Keep a very open mind, and remain true to yourself and let it happen. Being a good artist is definitely something that takes years (and I’m not saying that I myself am a good artist either, I have merely picked up on studying others). Aim for longevity as opposed to the idea of “blowing up” as overnight success usually leads to overnight downfall.

Category: Words I Manifest

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