Why All Music Genres are Lies

Some dude on reddit called me out. WUT, SRSLY?!?! I know, right, crazy, wow, someone on reddit with an opinion.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. In fact it’s probably the 382839576th. Whatever.

Anyway, so /u/nnacan had the following to say about my recent “Art Rap Syllabus” post:

Man, “art rap” is such a flawed concept, especially as you haven’t sufficiently explained what constitutes “art rap” — or rather, what differentiates it from “non-art rap” — in your blog posts. Rephrasing and simplifying your working definition of “art rap” reveals that it is essentially a tautology: “art rap is a type of rap music that possesses a meta-awareness of itself as [art rap],” and until you refine and clarify this definition “art rap” will remain a fancy sounding label devoid of any real substance.

You wrote that you “probably could delve deeper into discussions of what art rap [is]” — and you probably could — but that won’t bring you any closer to the non-existing essence of “art rap”. If anything, it would lead you to believe that its essence is hidden somewhere between the lines of jargon-laden paragraphs concerning the difference between “non-art rap” and “art rap” that you’d unavoidably end up with.

Do not go down that road because you won’t find anything worthwhile at the end of your journey.

“Art rap” is at most a label which Open Mike Eagle and a handful of other music artists applied to their music in order to further differentiate themselves from the mainstream artists and create their own niche. It’s indeed their way of saying “please look at what my friends and I are doing, and please try to see it as something oh-so unique.” It’s not unique, though. It’s merely a fringe style of rap existing ever since the Freestyle Fellowship and Anticon days.

Contrary to what Busdriver said, you don’t have to imagine rap without the unbelievable load of stigma.You can filter out the stigma and listen to rap that way; you’ll find that most rappers cover the exact same subject matters as the “art rap” guys you singled out in your list. They might not be as verbose, but their music is often as poignant and as deep.

I could take my time trying to respond to and refute each of this guy/gal’s claims about the supposed hollow shittiness of my talking about “art rap,” but I’m not going to do that. Because I think this guy/gal actually agrees with me about the most important thing and just doesn’t realize it. He/she writes:

“[Art rap is] merely a fringe style of rap existing ever since the Freestyle Fellowship and Anticon days.”

In other words, art rap exists.

Correct! We have a winner! /u/nnacan concedes that art rap is a fringe style of rap. In admitting that art rap exists—that it is indeed an obscure sub-genre of rap—/u/nnacan implicitly concedes that “art rap” is not an empty label, as his/her earlier claims would suggest. He/she may not like art rap, but he/she does acknowledge that there is a strain of rap sufficiently different from the bulk of the stuff to warrant a sub-genre classification.

And that’s precisely what I’ve been saying! That art rap is there/here. That it exists (even though it maybe doesn’t actually exist [more on that below])! And also that, unlike /u/nnacan, I think it’s valuable and interesting and cool and transformative enough to compel me to take to the blogosphere and draw attention to it.

The Paradise by Salvatore Di Giovanna. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The Paradise by Salvatore Di Giovanna. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

What /u/nnacan really has a problem with seems to be the way in which I’ve tried to define “art rap.” He/she doesn’t like that I’ve called art rap “a type of rap music that possesses a meta-awareness of itself as a divergent movement in the lineage of rap and broader art history, as a force that seeks to draw upon a wide array of lenses that have historically been underrepresented in rap music or art generally.”

My presumption is that he/she doesn’t like that definition because it is admittedly somewhat vague (necessarily so, I think) and because it uses some sorta-highfalutin language that maybe makes art rap sound special, top-shelf, exceptional, and superior to other kinds of rap music or music generally. Which it isn’t. Superior, that is.

Contrary to /u/nnacan’s opinion, it is, however, unique. Just like every music genre or sub-genre. Just like every album. Just like every song. Just like every musician. There is something distinctive about art rap, and I’ve spent some time trying to put my finger on where that distinctiveness resides, first by directly addressing the issue in essay format and then by compiling a list of albums that I would on most days classify as “art rap.”

/u/nnacan is actually correct in suggesting, though, that I have not and will not discover the “essence” of art rap because, as he/she says, it doesn’t exist. Why?

Because all music genres/sub-genres are lies.

That’s right, there, I said it. Not to dash /u/nnacan’s dreams, but he/she unknowingly hit upon something that I should have made overtly/unimpeachably clear from day one: music genres are bullshit. Let me explain what I mean.

Music genres are for convenience’s sake. For discussion’s sake. Anyone who thinks labels like “alt rock,” “techno,” “reggae,” etc. actually section music off into neat-and-tidy impermeable compartments is sadly, sadly mistaken. This should, by now, have been made sufficiently clear by the countless artists who have created music that blurs the boundaries between genres or seems to demand that a new genre be invented to accommodate it.

If you really get down to it, there’s no surefire way even to define what constitutes “music” (see 4’33” by John Cage). There are probably a number of extremely cogent arguments one could make to support the idea that everything is music.

But in our day-to-day lives, “music” refers to sounds combined in a particular way to produce “beauty,” “harmony,” “emotional expression,” and other such vague concepts. This is what “music” means because we have agreed to pretend that the sound mew-zik and the precisely arranged symbols m-u-s-i-c are not gibberish or meaningless black loopy things but are in fact metaphors representing some category of thing that we agree exists in the Objective World that we also agree exists. This all gets really messy and dicey and philosophically clusterfuck-y, if you can’t tell—this business of getting down to the ultimately subjective/illusory nature of all linguistic signs.

But the moral of the story here is that if we can’t even really be sure what “music” is/means, then surely we can’t possibly purport to partition undefinable “music” off into discrete, hard-bordered boxes and claim that those boxes actually say/define something real and tangible about the “essence” of certain types of essence-less “music.”

No, no, I think it’s quite clear that music genres are a classification system that we impose upon music—a really clumsy and somewhat misleading way of making music much easier to talk about. And making it much easier to signal to other people the general galaxy of musical taste in which one resides. And maybe—just maybe—occasionally adding something meaningful to our experience of music by linking various artists/projects together under a particular umbrella to note the commonalities of those particular artists/projects.

A music genre, I think, is simply one particular lens through which to view the vast multiverse of music. We basically grab an assortment of totally individual, inimitable music-artifacts and say, “But hey, look, they’re all doing this particular thing sonically or referencing this particular subject matter lyrically or were influenced by this particular predecessor.” And that gives us a new mental model—a new lens to utilize to find similar sounds or to make new sounds more intelligible (“oh, okay, this is like alt rap meets indie rock”) or to more aptly describe a particular sound (“it’s kind of like psychedelic-otherground-existential-Taoism rap“) or to gain a more nuanced musical perspective (“oh, yeah, now I think I get what ‘chip-tune’ means”).

So genres are useful conceptual tools. Maybe calling them “lies” was a little harsh. But in our frenzied excitement to classify and discuss the music we’re listening to we should keep in mind that this whole business of genre-labeling is always, to some extent, a subjective language game. Genres don’t really exist. There is no Smooth Jazz Ideal existing in some far-off Platonic Heaven. If you disagree and are so wrapped up in lobbying for/shitting on a particular genre that you’re not really enjoying music anymore and are just spending most of your time writing dismissive, angry comments on reddit, you might want to take a step back.

Full circle: but so why art rap really does exist.

So by now you should know that “art rap” doesn’t really exist. Except that it does exist—in the minds of the people  who agree that it exists. Who agree that it’s a useful term for talking about a particular strain of a particular type of music they’ve agreed to call “rap music.”

In other words, it exists subjectively—it means something different to every person in whose cranium the term resides (just like all language). There is no essence o’ art rap. At least not one that can be verbalized. But that doesn’t prevent “art rap” from being a useful metaphor to signal a particular type of music.

I will, in the future, probably dedicate more time to trying to put words to the distinctive features of art rap. I won’t do this because I want to put art rap on a pedestal or claim that it’s the universe’s coolest, newest, uniquest, most awesomest thing ever. I will do it because there’s a group of artists whom I love very much that I would like to discuss and celebrate with other people who already love/might someday love those same artists. And a good way to do that on the Internet is to group them all into a cute little hashtag-able sub-genre.

But let it be known, once and for all, that I don’t take (sub-)genres all that seriously. That I don’t make hard and fast distinctions between art rap, alt rap, otherground rap, experimental rap, avant-garde rap, neo-rap, post-rap, backpacker rap, void rap, underground rap, nerd-hop, or even just rap music generally. That I think all categories and genres in art are fluid and fragile and illusory. That I am not interested in arguing about the essences of genres but in celebrating music and creativity in all forms.

I hope we’re all clear on that. Art rap 4ever. Peace.


Young existential crisis. I make rap music about the void.


  1. Nick

    i think there is an implicit emergent quality to musical genres (like everything that exists, actually, natural or cultural), whereby they are retroactively identified within the larger category of popular musical/musical styles. Of course, in the moment of their creation (by individuals), the genre is reactionary to an extent (to the previous cultural situation/mileau), thus art-rap emerges out of rap proper, however, upon its identification as art-rap, those qualities can be seen (perceived) in earlier forms of rap music as well (or so the redditer quips). Our cultural moment is unique in that we can have a meta-access to all previous forms and styles, which become the content for the creation of novelty. So its easy to deny the existence of genre from this vantage – however, art-rap is also in the process of creating itself within this environment (in the flow of the temporal advance, so to speak, rather than removed or abstracted from its context – its meta-awareness is more specific, at least in your initial definition). Thus an ideal form of art-rap isnt so much a static unchanging concept but more of a Je ne sais quoi based on the total synthesis of individual works categorically connected within the mental lexicon/experiential history of individuals themselves, and in this sense, is collectively created, even if just for “convenience” – Clause Levi-Strauss would say “Good to Think”). Its ridiculous to say art-rap doesnt exist, if anything it springs out of the same tendency that art-rock (also called prog) did – a desire to bring a higher level of intellectualism and creative articulation to the existing platform/genre of rock proper. Now I will be the first one to say there are intellectual insights of a high degree of profundity in even the stupidest and simplest music (Ramones anyone?), but this doesnt negate the creative desires of the individuals who created prog rock to differentiate themselves from earlier pop musical forms. And if one looks at the progression of history, prog can be seen as a movement contrasting with rock n roll (songs about girls, partying, etc.), and which is further contrasted in a more extreme measure by punk rock (long songs become short songs, long hair becomes short hair, intellectualism becomes the righteously dumb, peace and love (more hippie/psychedelic but close to prog) becomes nihilism). These various movement are all present in contemporary music, whether retrieved in their purity of form or whether synthesized with other genres/subgenres, etc., because music, like language, like culture, is a big Tree, and its roots go back as far as you can identify them (200,000 years or so, more if we are talking monkeys banging on rocks with mammoth bones). Genres are like brances and leaves, except in our case they end up growing back together, getting grafted and spliced onto other branches, and remixed within the ongoing cultural-creative advance.

    Your redditor friend seems overly concerned with abolishing the distinction between art-rap and rap proper (or with the specific instance in which the term is being employed presently), and asserting that true connesuirs can listen “without the load of stigma” (a ridiculous statement as that load constitutes precisely the same kind of cultural posturing or stance that art-rap does, even if they stand somewhat in opposition). This isnt to say that all rap besides art-rap can be reduced to said ‘load’ of pretenses or trappings, but that, in the view of art-raps progenitors, the genre is in danger of this (just like punk’s extreme qualities led to its being overly codified for a time). We see the purpose of this type of extremism now, at least in punk, and recognize the intellectualism, profundity, and aesthetic dimensions of the genre on par with those of other genres (i listen to the Ramones and Rush without any internal crisis). Punk had to go through a lot of its own internal dischord, however, and its only now gotten to this point, and it seems rap is (being a younger genre) going through similar transitions and self-recognitive awarenesses of itself and what it wants to be – collectively. If art-rap can be a strong new branch or even just a rad leaf on the rap branch of the pop music branch of the human culture tree, then all the better. Just because it grows within and out of rap doesnt mean it cant also be distinguished as its own form. Indeed the distinctions (marking off of boundaries with regard to synthesizing/creating new forms) are what lead to furtile grounds for continued variety and growth. Said redditor also seems to be falling victim to the historical fallacy, of trying to identify the “Original” genesis of which art-rap is a contemporary shadow or iteration. Which is fine, however fraught ultimately, but it doesnt negate either the existence of art-rap nor its uniqueness.

    Ill end with a quote by Lester Bangs on the invention of Punk:

    “I invented punk. Everybody knows that. But I stole it from Greg Shaw, who also invented power pop. And he stole it from Dave Marsh , who actually saw Question Mark and the Mysterians live once. But he stole it from John Sinclair, who stole it from Rob Tyner. Who stole it from Iggy. Who stole it from Lou Reed. Who stole it from Gene Vincent. Who stole it from James Dean. Who stole it from Marlon Brando. Who stole it from Robert Mitchum. The look on his face in the photo when he got busted for grass. And he stole it from Humphrey Bogart. Who stole it from James Cagney. Who stole it from Pretty Boy Floyd. Who stole it from Harry Crosby. Who stole it from Teddy Roosebelt Who stole it from Billy the Kid. Who stole it from Mike fink. Who stole it from Stonewall Jackson. Who stole it from Napoleon. Who stole it from Voltaire. Who stole it form an anonymous wino whose pocket he once picked while the man was lying comatose in a Paris gutter, you writers know how it gets when youre waiting on those royalty checks. The wino stole it from his mother, a toothless hag who once turned tricks till she got too old and ugly whereupon she became a seamstress except she wasn’t very good, her palsied hands shook so bad all her seams were loosely threaded and dresses would fall off elegant Parisian women right in the middle of the street. Which is how Lady Godiva happened. Lady Godiva was a punk too, she stole it from the hag to get revenge. And Godiva’s horse stole it from her. Soon thereafter said horse was riddden off to battle where it died, but not before the Major astride the horse stole punk from it. The Major was a serious alcoholic given to extensive periods of blackout running into weeks and even months, so he forgot he stole it. He forgot he ever had it. Forgot what it ever was or meant. Just like all of us. But one night in a drunken stupor he burbled out the age-old and Grail-priceless Secret of Punk to another alkie with a better memory. When the Major sobered up, the other alkie, a pickpocket and generalized petty thief, hed and told the Major that he, the pickpocket, had originally owned punk but that one night when he, the pickpocket, was in his cups the Major stole punk from him. The Major believed this. But later he got drunk and forgot all about punk again. So it might have been lost in one of the crevasses of history and John Holmstrom would be an aluminum-siding salesman door-to-door and Richard Hell would be pitching hay down from the loft of some midwestern farm where he was hired hand RIGHT AT THIS VERY MOMENT in which also I, creator of punk as I really shouldn’t have to remind you, would not be a rock critic and sometime musician to the irritation of many and pleasure of some enlightened folk but rather a senior poohbah in the headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses over in Brooklyn Instead of reviewing Devo for the Voice, I would be the author of the article “Springs – The wonder Metal,” published in Awake! Magazine sometime in 1978. And that too would be something to be proud of.” –Lester

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