If you miss the days of high-top fades, James Brown loops, fat gold chains and matching sweatsuit / sneaker outfits, then Chicago’s JW Hype might just be the artist for you.
Mesmerised as a youngster in the 80s by the seemingly endless flow of new styles and sounds pouring out of the then equally young culture of Hip-Hop, JW spent just as much time studying beats and rhymes as he did studying his school-books, immersing himself, like so many others of his generation, in music from the likes of Big Daddy Kane, Eric B. & Rakim and EPMD.
Fast-forward some twenty-five years later and Hype has gained himself something of a cult online following with his own brand of back-to-the-future throwback rap. Drawing heavily on his golden-era influences, the Chi-town producer-on-the-mic’s two recent EPs, 2012’s “Return Of The Hype Era” and 2013’s “Back 2 Work”, found JW flawlessly recreating the funky, uptempo feel of the classic records so many of us were doing the Running-Man or the Kick-Step to in 1989.
Also available as a limited edition vinyl release on the Chopped Herring imprint, Hype’s two free downloadable EPs instantly take the listener back in time, with the rapper’s slick flow, quick wit and dope beats sounding authentic enough to make the uninitiated wonder if they’ve stumbled across a demo-tape from the First Priority vaults upon first listen.
Here, JW Hype discusses his reasons for wanting to pay homage to late-80s Hip-Hop, favourite rap videos and his thoughts on the music of today.
Get busy, y’all!
What are your earliest recollections of Hip-Hop?
“Man, I can take it way back (laughs). I’m in my mid-thirties so I remember hearing the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” on the radio when I was a kid. I used to break-dance when I was in second, third grade, plus my uncles were all deejays, so I was familiar with groups like Newcleus and music like that. But I would say the time when I started actually developing my own tastes was around 86 / 87. I would say that’s when I really fell in love with Hip-Hop through hearing people like Rakim. I had an uncle who was in high-school when I was still in elementary school, so I remember him bringing albums over like “Paid In Full” when that first came out, the first Public Enemy album, and other stuff like MC Lyte, Sweet Tee, Three Times Dope. So I would always be going through his tapes and taking them outside to listen to and that’s when I really started developing my own tastes in terms of what appealed to me musically.”
Was there a local scene to speak of at that time when you were growing-up in Chicago?
“I mean, I grew-up in the suburbs but we were frequently back and forth to the city. My uncle, he was from the city, so he was bringing this music to me. I mean, I was already familiar with it and new what it was, but he was bringing it to me en masse. I had a few friends around me at the time, all elementary kids, and we were all listening to rap. We were all deep into Hip-Hop (laughs). We would figure out different ways to get tapes and go to the record store together. So I wouldn’t say there was really a Hip-Hop scene around us at that time. I mean, growing-up in the 80s, it was really an eclectic time for music and you had pop, rock, whatever, and we were familiar with everything but we just really gravitated towards Hip-Hop.”
What was interesting in the early-t0-mid 80s was that a lot of the same musical technology of the time, such as synthesizers and drum machines, was being used across a variety of genres, from pop and soul to funk and Hip-Hop…
“Oh yeah, definitely. Especially when you get to the more electronic sounding records, like the Eurythmics and groups like that, there was definitely a lot of the same sounds and technology being used in different genres that really crossed barriers in a way.”
So given that you were listening to music from different genres as a kid in the 80s, what was it about Hip-Hop that really drew you towards it over anything else?
“I think I always liked it on a sub-conscious level, but the record that really made me consciously say ‘This is for me’, I would have to say that was EPMD’s “You Gots To Chill”. The reason why was because I had that Zapp “More Bounce To The Ounce” record that they sampled on there. I loved that Zapp record. Then when I heard what they’d done with it on “You Gots To Chill”, I was like, ‘Okay, this is something I could do.’ I mean, I didn’t even really understand what they were doing in terms of sampling, but it made me realise that I didn’t need a band or anything like that to make music. But when I then realised I didn’t really know what I was doing in terms of sampling, I decided to start rapping (laughs). But yeah, EPMD’s “You Gots To Chill” was the record that really did it for me. I wanted to be a kid rapper back then (laughs).”
Did you ever pursue the idea of actually making records back then?
“Not at all. Like I said, I was living in the suburbs at that time, so making records or anything like that really wasn’t a reality for me. Rhyming was just something that I really loved to do. It was just a serious, intense passion.”
So moving a little more up-to-date, when did you first get the idea to start putting together whole projects based around that late-80s throwback-rap sound?
“I was already making music and doing production for people on a local level. I was also doing little remix projects here and there. Plus, I did my own album in 2008, “Where Da’ Sidewalk Ends”, which was a local release. There were a couple of songs on that album which were like throwback songs, and they were the songs that everyone seemed to love. So I started thinking that, at some point, I wanted to put a whole project together in that same style. Time went on, but the thought never went away. So I finally did it and that was 2012’s “Return Of The Hype Era” EP. It was just something that I’d always wanted to do because I felt that era had never really been revisited like that. I think people have more tried to revisit the mid-80s, but hadn’t really done the same thing with that 1987 – 1990 period. I mean, for me, those years really laid the foundation for everything that came afterwards in the 90s. In my opinion, there were a lot of artists that released classic music back then that don’t necessarily get mentioned as often as they should when people look back at that time. I mean, you look at a Super Lover Cee & Casanova Rud for example, they put out a classic album. Paul C. was ahead of his time with the production and lyrically and flow-wise they were doing things on there that a lot of rappers didn’t really pick up on until later. It’s important that records and artists like that are remembered which I think sometimes get forgotten.”
That period was definitely a great time to be a fan of Hip-Hop because the music was making huge creative leaps and you were literally hearing things being done for the first time, whether that was musically in terms of sampling or lyrically with the subject matter emcees were bringing to the table and the different rhyme styles they were using to deliver it…
“It was just a really experimental time where it seemed like all the artists were just trying to top each other creatively. Everyone was doing their own thing but it was all building towards something. The artists of that time seemed to have a sense that they were building something, even if they weren’t exactly sure of what it was at that point. But that just added on to the greatness of it all, because it just felt like there was a greater cause behind the music other than it just being about making money and fame. People were doing it for the love of the art and to add-on to the culture. I mean, as cliched as that sounds today, that’s really what it was. Plus, something else that contributed to the overall creativity of that time was the fact that this was right before the sampling laws started to come in. I mean, you’ll never hear another album like “It Takes A Nation Of Millions…” with so many different samples all crashing together in just one song because financially now it would be impossible to make an album like that with all of the clearances you’d need.”
On the subject of sampling, how did you go about choosing the samples you used on “Return Of The Hype Era” and its follow-up “Back 2 Work”? You used some very well-known samples on each release, so was it a case of you picking samples that were used on some of your favourite records from back-in-the-day and seeing if you could flip it a little differently or make a track that could stand next to those same golden-era records?
“That’s almost exactly how I did it. I mean, when you listen back to the music of that golden-era time period, a lot of the same samples were used over and over for different records. It seemed liked people really didn’t care about how many times a particular sample had been used, it was more just about, ‘Okay, I want to rap over this.’ So I worked on “Return Of The Hype Era” with that same mindset, as if I was actually making that release during that time period. So I didn’t go into it worrying about if the samples had been used before. I just used the music that I wanted to use. But moving forward, I think I will be using different samples that haven’t necessarily been heard before because I think I’ve made the point that I set out to make with “Return Of The Hype Era” and “Back To Work”.”
Have there been people who’ve been confused by your music when they’ve heard it?
“Yeah, a few people have definitely thought it was something that was old, and then they’ve gotten confused when they’ve heard some more up-to-date lyrical references and then they’ve realised it’s actually something new (laughs). But to me, that’s a massive compliment if someone does hear the music and thinks it did actually come from that late-80s era because that means that I did my job.”
Playing devils advocate for a moment, what would your response be to people who might criticise your music and say you’re holding on to an era in Hip-Hop that’s never coming back?
“I would point to someone like a Mayer Hawthorne. I mean, he’s pretty much doing the same thing that I’m doing with Hip-Hop but in an R&B format. When you listen to his music you can’t really tell whether it was recorded in the 60s or now. I think that artists like myself or a Mayer Hawthorne are needed in our respective genres because there are people out there who do want to hear that sound that I’m making. There are people out there who still love that sound and someone has to do it. But also, I’m not trying to bring that era back as such. I mean, I know that era has gone (laughs). But I also think a style of music can never really die. You can’t kill a particular style or sound. I mean, artists might stop making a particular style on a massive level, but that doesn’t mean that it no longer exists. When you look at rock, it’s changed on a huge level over the years, but that doesn’t mean that someone can’t go into an old studio like the Beatles would have used, pick up all of their old instruments and make an album today like they would have made back then.”
Given the number of different golden-era influences that can be heard in your music, what prompted you to focus so heavily on the Juice Crew in particular for last year’s “My Dedication” single?
“I was obsessed with the Juice Crew when I was younger. They were really the first crew where everyone involved was just dope. I don’t think that had really happened in Hip-Hop before the Juice Crew where individually everyone was just great on their own. Not only that, but they were hugely influential at the time. I just felt that if I was going to do something to show respect to the Juice Crew, I really needed to accentuate it. I mean, me and my buddies, we were just obsessed with the Juice Crew. They really were like a phenomenon to us.”
The recent clip you dropped for “Get Hype” features footage from a long-list of classic Hip-Hop videos. Are there any videos in particular that stand out to you from that late-80s era?
“Let me see. I loved that Big Daddy Kane video for “Lean On Me”. I remember when that came out, everyone was just so hyped about that video and I really think they took the dancing to the next level with some of the moves they were doing. I loved MC Lyte’s “Paper Thin”, which was always just a classic video to me. Also, Gang Starr’s “Words I Manifest”, EPMD’s “You Gots To Chill” and I can’t forget Kane’s “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'”. I could really just watch those videos all day long (laughs).”
During that time-period there were so many different styles co-existing, from the gangsta rap of N.W.A. to the politics of a KRS-One and the humour of a Biz Markie, but it all fell under the banner of Hip-Hop and was given equal attention and exposure by the Hip-Hop media at the time. Do you think we’ll ever get back to a place where there’s such a balance in terms of the music that’s being presented to the public?
“I don’t think so. I think the music and the industry around it has just grown way too much for that to happen again. I mean, back then, Hip-Hop was a counter-culture artform and I think that was something that helped it because it was something that was out of the ordinary. I mean, you had your mainstream, but then you had your counter-cultures. Today, rap isn’t the counter-culture anymore, it is the mainstream culture now. There isn’t really that sense of community that you had back in the day. I mean, because Hip-Hop was on a much smaller scale back then and there was only a relatively small amount of people involved in it, it made it feel that much more special. But now? I’m really the wrong person to talk to about rap right now because it can get real dark (laughs). I mean, the last person I was really paying attention to was Joey Bada$$ and that whole movement, but they’ve even become very disappointing in terms of where I thought they were going to go when they first came out.”
With that in mind, do you think we’ll ever again see another universally acclaimed classic album that really captures the attention of everyone within the culture in the same way that a Run-DMC or a Public Enemy did back in the 80s?
“I mean, every generation has their classics but I don’t think the albums that are called classics today will still be considered classics in years to come or celebrated in the same way as the classics from our generation. I mean, in terms of what’s coming out now, I don’t see there being an album that’s considered a classic by everyone.”
So the fourteen-year-0ld kid listening to Drake’s “Nothing Was The Same” or a Rick Ross release today isn’t going to be celebrating those albums in twenty-five years time in the same way that thirty-something fans from our generation still cherish albums like De La Soul’s “3 Feet High And Rising” or Big Daddy Kane’s “Long Live The Kane”?
“It’s actually a very good question and, thinking about it now, one of the reasons why I don’t think that will happen is because I don’t think the respect level is there from the fans. I don’t think today’s fans have the respect for the music that people are making today, regardless of whether they actually like it or not. I mean, you look at someone like a Drake, people have labelled his albums as being classics, but in ten or twenty years time, are his albums going to be mentioned or cherished like the classics from back in the day are by us? I really don’t think so. Which is partly down to the mentality of today’s so-called fan and also because the music that a lot of these artists are making doesn’t stand on anything. It doesn’t really have any substance to it. But when you look at the albums that we consider classics today from the 80s and 90s, even at the time, there was a respect level for the artists, the music and the culture around it that made us really consider what people like Rakim and Kane were doing as something that was special and ground-breaking. So some twenty years later, we can have these anniversaries and still celebrate those albums because they’ve stayed with us for all this time. But twenty years from now, I don’t think a fourteen-year-old kid today is necessarily going to be celebrating a Drake album in the same way, because I don’t think the music has that type of staying power.”
If, as you say, the level of respect that today’s younger fans have for current artists has declined compared to the past, do you think that also has something to do with the fact that, aside from the quality of the actual music being made, so many fans today are also aspiring artists themselves?
“I think that’s definitely a part of it, but I also think that the audience that listens to the music today isn’t the same type of audience say, from our generation, who have the same level of expectation from artists today as we did back then. I think the audience that today’s mainstream rap attracts is the lowest common denominator of individual. Back in the day, the people who were attracted to Hip-Hop weren’t your typical crowd of kids. It was a smarter kid, a more eclectic kid, a kid who willing to step outside of the box. Whereas today, nothing about the music is really outside of the box. So there’s no respect level towards what these kids are a part of, because they’re actually not a part of anything in the same way that we felt that we were part of a culture. We felt like we were a part of Hip-Hop back then and it gave us a sense of identity, but the music today doesn’t give kids that same sense of identity like it did for us because a teenage kid today listening to Rick Ross, their mom is probably listening to the same thing when she turns the radio on in the car (laughs).”
Would you say the music today is almost just an accessory to an image-driven fantasy lifestyle that’s being pushed by many popular current artists?
“No-one’s really truly invested in these artists. There’s no bigger picture culturally around what they’re doing. The music that’s considered popular now, so much of it isn’t even really attached to the culture of Hip-Hop. I mean, when I hear some of the music today, I don’t think deejay, I don’t think break-dancers, I don’t think the Bronx. It just doesn’t embody that spirit of Hip-Hop, and if I can’t feel that spirit of the culture in the music then to me it’s just rap music. I mean, I wonder sometimes today if the people listening to this stuff are actually music fans. I think there’s a small number of people out there who’re genuinely into the music and everyone else is just here for the show. They want to know who’s beefin’ with who and all of that kinda stuff. I don’t think they’re even really listening to the music they’re saying they’re fans of.”
So what’s next for JW Hype?
“My goal is really just to continue putting out projects. I mean, I’m not looking to make any money off the music I’ve been putting out because I couldn’t possibly clear all of the samples. So I’m just putting it out for free and hopefully it’ll grow to a point where I’m able to do shows. What I’d also like to do is involve some of the older artists from that golden-era period and get them on-board as well. I just really want to keep making music and having fun. I haven’t decided if the music I make moving forward is still going to be under the same name, or if I’m just going to keep the JW Hype brand for that old-school flavoured material and figure out a way to perhaps put out some other material. But to be honest, I think I’ve only really just scratched the surface with the music I’ve put out recently and I think there’s still a lot more people out there who would appreciate what I’m doing if they heard it. It’s just a case of getting more blogs and websites on-board with what I’m doing to really be able to penetrate the audience that I’m trying to reach. So I definitely think there’s still a lot more work to be done.”
Follow JW Hype on Twitter – @JW_Hype
JW Hype – “Get Busy” (JWHype.BandCamp.Com / 2014)