It was, according to no less an authority than The New York Times, the year rap went regional.
There was plenty of recent evidence to support this claim, beginning with the suddenly paltry record sales racked up by some of hip-hop's heaviest weights. There was lots of historical evidence, as well: ever since the Dirty South shook off the bicoastal stranglehold of the mid-'90s, hip-hop had developed burgeoning scenes in no less than a dozen major markets.
By 2006, most of those cities had mutated the music and culture beyond the recognition of all but the most dedicated hip-hop fan. These towns had their own sounds, their own slang, and even their own subgenres. A staple of late-night TV humor used to be exploiting a senior citizen's unfamiliarity with hip-hop; now you had to explain to Grandma the difference between the laid-back groove of “snap music” and old-fashioned, high-energy crunk. And the punchline was this: Her grandkids might not have been able to explain it, either.
But then along came Jibbs's “Chain Hang Low,” jingling like the last ice-cream truck of the long, hot summer, and a lot of those feudal, walled-city lines seemed to fade. With a melody familiar to Grandma (it was drawn from the children's song “Do Your Ears Hang Low,” which in turn took its melody from the traditional “Turkey in the Straw”), a G-rated lyric (the pimp reference notwithstanding), and a beat that repped the stuttering sound of St. Louis without shutting out fans from other locales, it was a reminder of hip-hop's power to unify.
In person, Jibbs isn't shy about expressing his ambition. He might have just turned 16, but he doesn't sound like he'll be satisfied hanging around the STL and disseminating new dance moves via YouTube. “I'm trying to hit every market, man. I mean, every market,” he says earnestly. “I wanna get everyone involved, and not just try to sell my album to one particular group of people.”
He might not have a choice, of course: now that the effects of leaks and digital piracy are hitting the ill-prepared industry full force, gold albums are starting to look great, and even going “wood in the hood” isn't quite the admission of failure it used to be. But as much of the fractured hip-hop nation gathered itself in November for another event that cut across party and geographic lines – the return of Jay-Z – it was worth remembering that trends can be as fleeting as the music that often drives them.
And now, having doled out that sage advice, we will proceed to ignore it completely, as we spotlight a few of 2006's other notable hip-hop trends.
The Comeback: Hov's inevitable return got most of the ink, but it wasn't the most notable. A couple of veterans who'd been on cruise control for a while finally awoke and turned in two of the better albums of '06 (as well as of their careers). Snoop Dogg's Tha Blue Carpet Treatment worked because Tha Doggfather finally applied himself. On Fishscale, Ghostface finally found some topics and tracks that matched the intensity of his high-pitched, borderline-crazy voice, and emerged with a coked-up, weirded-out winner. And Virginia's long-M.I.A. Clipse seemed ready to emerge from purgatory by year's end with the sometimes-stunning Hell Hath No Fury. The comeback moment of the year, however, involved not only Ghost but his Wu-Tang brethren. On February 7, the Clan's post-ODB era began in New Haven, Connecticut. The reunited group, plus supersub Cappadonna, were maddeningly erratic, and the club was so oversold that a dropped Zippo would have spelled another Great White disaster. Yet somehow, group leader RZA managed to assemble all his bandmates in the same room and even got the lackadaisical Method Man to act like he cared. Call it the Miracle at Toad's Place.
The mixtape: From its humble origins as a streetcorner hustle, the mixtape has become an even more vital part of the hip-hop artist's arsenal. Filled with rare tracks, remixes and exclusives, mixtapes don't just build anticipation for an upcoming album anymore–they deserve consideration on their own merits. And no one puts them together like Cleveland's Commissioner, Mick Boogie, who oversaw some of 2006's best and brightest mixtapes. Although he did yeoman's work all year, and teamed up with titans like Jay-Z and Eminem, the best of Boogie came on some of his lower-profile projects. Case in point: his Mobb Deep mixtape, More Money More Murda, which shredded the album it was supposed to help promote–through some live Roots collabs, and remixes filled with the New York grit that Prodigy and Havoc's G-Unit debut lacked. For the record, the Commish would like to point out his own notable '06 trend: “The return of good albums. Hip-hop has been lacking in album quality for the last two years,” he says, “but this fall has been tremendous. Great full-lengths from Jay-Z, Nas, Clipse, Outkast, Game, Snoop and UGK are closing out the year with a bang. Who says albums are dead?”
The British. Sort of: In fairness, 2006 can't be counted as the sort of watershed 12 months we witnessed two years ago, when Dizzee Rascal and the Streets and their grimey countrymen planted the Union Jack in hip-hop's bloated American carcass, with no intention of ever ceding territory again. And they haven't: while Mike Skinner was only at three-quarter strength on The Streets' The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, his Cockney wisecracks were still more fun than three-quarters of his Yank counterparts. Anyone Skinner failed to offend, the wee, witty Lady Sovereign – Def Jam's nod to the British Invasion — took care of. Meanwhile, one of the most slept-on releases of the year came from UK vets New Flesh: Universally Dirty mashed up dancehall, grime and even soca to give British hip-hop yet another brand-new beat.
Deep thoughts and partying and sometimes, deep thoughts about partying: There's room for both viewpoints now in hip-hop's increasingly diverse underground, which is good news indeed. Critical darlings Spank Rock might have merely made Too $hort safe for all the eggheads who thought they were too $mart for him the first time around, but even so, was there an album more fun in 2006 than the high-concept/low-art Yoyoyoyoyo? Didn't think so. Albums from the Bay Area's Ise Lyfe, whose SpreadtheWORD suggests he might someday take over Mos Def's mantle as hip-hop's activist poet laureate, and Georgia Ann Muldrow, an adventurous L.A. artist who reassembles urban music in novel ways on Olesi: Fragments of an Earth, were fun in their own thoughtful ways. Both discs make great soundtracks for the parties in your mind.
Self-promotion: Well, every year in hip-hop is the year of self-promotion, but today's kids certainly have it down pat. Just ask Jibbs his favorite hip-hop trend of '06, and he barely blinks before answering. “I would definitely say that the hottest trend,” he offers, starting to chuckle, “was people that got their chains hangin' low.”