Darkness in hip-hop: the words that are currently used (possibly over-used) are ‘gritty’ and ‘grimy’ to speak about this quality, but little attention is given to what this concept might in fact mean in a musical sense.
The focus on ‘atmosphere’ is important but again what does this mean? Atmosphere, or mood as terms are neutral, you can have any kind of atmosphere (exuberant or melancholy, or anything in between). Subject-matter comes into it, whether for example MCs are speaking about violence, but one striking aspect of hip-hop is how the subject often seems less important than the demonstration of skill, not so much what is said, but how. This might be a minority opinion, I know other people hear it differently.
Sometimes when listening to an MC you have the feeling that the thought/connection is coming to them in the ‘moment’ and this feeling of spontaneity is what matters, as you have the impression you are listening in to their thoughts as they are being formulated, then and there, as they speak to you directly. (This is the genius in much of the work of early Nas the way he spoke with such confidence, but kept it loose, never becoming didactic).
The question remains, though, how might this notion of darkness be conveyed in a musical sense ... (this is the track with vocals, the instrumental has disappeared since I wrote this).
This track captures one of my favourite qualities in music, to quote Bowie, of being “rugged and naïve” – it feels unschooled and natural, willing to remain simple as a way of showing its essential heart. It is full of impact, while remaining quiet. There is technique, certainly: at approximate one-minute intervals there is an addition to the music, or a shift (the most surprising being just after 2,40” where there is a brief hollowing out and return of the tinkling sound that was there at the start). Overall this music is extremely simple, under-developed, for want of a better word (as that sounds like a criticism).
Its dominant feature is the warmth of the central low sounds, a keyboard sample maybe and the drums, but what’s interesting is the way the drums though while at the centre appear to recede in favour of the other elements. Rather than trying to be ‘hard’ and dramatic, the music has an introspective, thoughtful quality and there you find its power.
Such music is dark in the best possible sense, it feels intimate and unpretentious; interested in ambiguity and feeling, rather than making a clear statement.
Here’s an excellent article on Da Beatminerz and The Arsonists (and more) putting their work in a broader context, “Bushwick’s Finest: Forgotten Heroes of the Brooklyn Hip Hop Underground” by Philip Mlynar published on the Red Bull Music Academy Daily site in 2014. And an audio interview with Mr Walt (from Da Beatminerz) from 2004 with Hugo Lunny via MVRemix Urban.
It starts with Mr Walt doing the intro: ‘Yo, one, two, this is Mr Walt of Da Beatminerz, baby, we’re coming fully loaded, fully loaded with static!' His little son is in the background, after his dad asks him to give his opinion about the fact that they're going to be checking out the remixes, he shouts: 'Let’s go!'