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Reinforced Rap Clichés

Many clichés exist within hip hop, particularly that it’s a genre bent on discussing wealth. Sure, that’s true, but the same can be said for any musical genre or industry. But, in fact, no one in hip hop wants to talk about money anymore. In the last years, rap is slowly moving away from being money-centric to again, being about the music. This is what Rob Sonic and Aesop Rock aka Hail Mary Mallon [1] completely miss with their 2014 music video «Whales», an ironic view on wealth in hip hop culture. From the Norient book Seismographic Sounds (see and order here [2]).

Film still from Hail Mary Mallon (Music), Toben Seymour (Video): «Whales» (USA 2014)

Take something as simple as the media, which encompasses everything from social media to print media to television talk shows and the news. Wealth is everywhere. What extravagant thing did Kim Kardashian buy this week for her daughter North West? What luxurious, indulgent vacation did Beyonce and Jay-Z go on this time? Our society is obsessed with wealth, regardless of how much or little money you have.

From the standpoint of hip hop, the topic of money comes off as cliché. From hip hop’s outset, the genre has expressed a desire for money. Wealth is a prevalent theme in the first popularized rap song from 1979, «Rapper’s Delight» by the Sugarhill Gang, «I got a color TV so I can see the Knicks play basketball / Hear me talking ’bout checkbooks, credit cards, more money than a sucker could ever spend», raps Big Bank Hank.

There remains a flood of critics – both inside and outside the culture – who continue to chastise hip hop about its attraction to wealth. Hail Mary Mallon, the duo Rob Sonic and Aesop Rock, have joined those critics. The visuals for their track «Whales», from their latest offering Bestiary, is a song and video that rotates on a monetary axis.

Rooting in Underground Hip Hop

Indeed, HMM comes from a different world than Sugarhill Gang and the group’s successors. Rob Sonic and Aesop Rock are fundamental to underground hip hop: Aesop has been cited as a leader in the underground scene, an indie rapper who lit the torch and led the way for many others. Neither Aesop nor Sonic have found huge mainstream success, but both prefer it that way.

In 2011, the duo released their first collaboration album as Hail Mary Mallon, called Are You Gonna Eat That?. They subsequently released Bestiary in 2014. Bestiary’s overall aesthetic and thematic elements fall in line with the duo’s independent, underground roots, with off-the-wall production and bars that make you do a double take. Like a lot of HMM’s music videos, the visuals for «Whales» speaks to the emcees’ idiosyncrasies, and is rife with layers.

«Whales» opens with two styrofoam bums – the bum in the sweatband is Sonic and the one with the beard is Aesop – sitting on a trash can and dumpster in an alley. The figures and the surrounding scene are made from a foam rubber material, and the figures are controlled by puppeteers. The two bums begin rapping about money; we see actual translations of their ideas above their heads.

An Escapist Tool to Mask Reality

Most obviously, the song is about wealth, acting as commentary on society’s need and desire for affluence. The track also takes a huge jab at hip hop’s fascination with wealth and the multitude of rap songs that focus on wealth. Sonic and Aesop spit about the things they can buy with their money, and as the song continues, the items become more and more ridiculous.

The duo raps about getting multiple haircuts and eating Albert Einstein-shaped foie gras, of castles, yachts, and zoos, and of floors made of scalps; Sonic and Aesop’s imaginations allow them to travel to far off places like summers on Mars, and planes full of women and cigars. Throughout the video, the rappers’ thoughts come to life: for Sonic, money is an intoxicant, as we see dollar signs sitting on his tongue; for Aesop, money takes the form of bald eagles sewn into a coat, among other things. HMM shows that money fuels absurd and fantastical desires, acting as a tool to mask reality.

Film still from Hail Mary Mallon (Music), Toben Seymour (Video): «Whales» (USA 2014)

And that is a true and poignant matter: money does incite a materialism that can often reach ludicrous heights, and obscure the truth. The fact that the two rappers have chosen to create a music video where they have been reimagined as puppets speaks to society’s fixation on materialism. According to Google, a puppet is defined as, «A movable model of a person…that is typically moved either by strings controlled from above or by a hand inside it», and/or as, «a person…under the control of another». Therein lies the direct connection: those who are obsessed with money become puppets of wealth and materialism, and continually hide from the realities of this world.

Regardless of the legitimacy of the aforementioned claim, obsession with materialism and money, and escapism, is not something that can solely be ascribed to hip hop. Certainly, celebrities use their wealth as a means to escape their realities – they purchase things to fill a void or to prove to the world that they can continue to afford such excess. On the same note, we – the viewer, the listener – use our obsession with wealth to hide from our own truths; we also use it as a sort of escapism from our own worlds.

No One in Hip Hop Wants to Talk About Money Anymore

The song is satirical in nature: Sonic and Aesop employ rap to criticize hip hop culture, using humor, irony, and exaggeration to expose hip hop and society’s obsession with wealth. Certainly, many emcees rap about money, regardless of whether or not they are rich; and yes, we do indeed live in a society that is increasingly obsessed with wealth and those who are wealthy. But our obsession with money trumps most people’s disapproval of wealth; «Whales» stands to either be wholly relevant or completely irrelevant.

While hip hop is steeped in a fascination with wealth, it is also immersed in reality; the genre is continuing to prove this day by day. As rap continues to progress and meld with other genres and sounds like R&B, EDM, jazz, and blues, so too has hip hop’s topical scope.

While yes, emcees still spit about money – and while yes, there are many emcees who still largely rap about wealth – the newest generation of rappers who are breaking genres don’t solely focus on materialism. The line between genres like conscious, alternative, and backpack rap – where rappers focus on our social and political landscape – and mainstream rap, gangsta rap, and trap – where emcees focus on wealth, women, and violence – are blurring. Many emerging rappers instead direct their music on their experiences, spitting on the realities of relationships, family, wealth, emotions, love, and struggles. It doesn’t seem to be one or the other anymore. And honestly, it never was.

Sonic and Aesop have simply missed the point. No one in hip hop wants to talk about money anymore. We know who is wealthy and who isn’t – we ridicule, criticize, and uplift those who have affluence and those who don’t. Money is no longer a talking point in rap, both for the rappers and for the listeners.

At this point, we have to ask ourselves, are Sonic and Aesop living in the past? Are they aware of the progress the genre is making?

Film still from Hail Mary Mallon (Music), Toben Seymour (Video): «Whales» (USA 2014)

From Underground Hip Hop to the Concept of Internet Artists

Both emcees have been on the hip-hop scene for almost twenty years: Rob Sonic has been active since 1998, while Aesop Rock has been around since 1996. Aesop Rock started out as an independent artist and continues to be one to this day – he financed his first album Music for Earthworms in 1997. Rob Sonic’s career has not been as outwardly independent, however, his work is quite underground. A lot has changed during their time; even the indie and underground hip-hop scenes that they spearheaded have changed. The duo still fly under the radar and aren’t heavily involved in the goings-on of current hip hop, so maybe they aren’t cognizant of hip hop’s forward momentum.

Of course, the industry is still fueled by money, as every industry is, especially music. But now, the interaction and connection between social media and music has become paramount: the concept of the Internet artist is at its peak. The Internet artist is what an artist is today, no matter how big or small your following, because that’s how people consume music, via the Internet.

The Internet artist didn’t exist during the height of Sonic and Aesop’s careers. Now, you don’t need piles of money and major label backing to make music that people want to hear and care about. Music has come to a point where you can be an independent artist and have an extremely solid fanbase. Twitter has done that for us, SoundCloud has done that for us, and the influx of online publications have done that for us. Emcees fund their music by themselves, record at in-home studios (recording technology is only getting better), and hold crowdfund campaigns for tours and albums to collect money from fans.

Again, none of this existed during the height of Sonic and Aesop’s careers. They would have benefited from social media and SoundCloud. Rap is slowly moving away from being money-centric to again, being about the music. «Whales» is a retrogression to early 2000’s hip-hop, when rap was less substantive. Now rap is pushing forward sonically and lyrically, melding with other genres to create something new. Hip hop is no longer stuck in the position that HMM assign to it.

In the end, the bums, destitute and moneyless, are brought back to their reality in the alley. Lost in Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic’s critique on rap and wealth is that idea of escapism, or using money as a departure from reality. The duo could have teased that theme out of the song, instead of showing their lack of awareness of rap’s current landscape.

A shorter and edited version of this text was published in the second Norient book Seismographic Sounds [3].