Hip-Hop’s Cracked Rear View

Welcome to Backseat Freestyle. This is my weekly hip-hop newsletter I send out every Friday focusing on one big thing that happened over the past seven days. I also include links to what I’ve been listening to, reading and watching. You can check out the archives, here, and read more about me, here. If you’re already a B.F. subscriber, thank you for your continued support. Please share this newsletter with your circle so that they can enjoy it, too. If you’re arriving to this issue by way of a forward, LinkedIn or social media, please subscribe below. With that said, let’s get into it….

Editor’s Note: This is last week's post and I'll have another one coming this Friday. 

Front Seat

This is what’s driving hip-hop this week….

AS A HIP-HOP JOURNALIST, YOU MIGHT IMAGINE that I have a lot of collectibles. You'd be correct. You name it: CDs, magazines, books, etc. I've seen a lot of movies and documentaries. I love this culture and I work in it because of that. I'm still very much in love with it and that's the reason I launched Backseat Freestyle. I still have the same rush to hear new music, discover new artists and follow along. But just because I'm looking forward doesn't mean I don't look back from time to time. The thing is, we don't look back well. I respect the story of hip-hop's origins, but that well is revisited so often whenever projects get discussed. It's like if we only told the story of Delaware whenever charting the history of the United States. As the culture expands we need to connect it a lot better.

Back Seat

Respect my mind or die from lead shower.

FOR YEARS, I'D BEEN PLANNING ON TELLING THE STORY of the year 1997 in hip-hop. It was a pivotal year on the personal tip (I went from high school senior to college freshman soundtracked by Bad Boy) and a cultural level (Biggie’s murder, the release of Life After Death, the seeds of Jay-Z’s ascention, the roots of the South’s impending dominance, etc.). I researched, wrote a book pitch, tore it up and made it a doc treatment instead, secured Twitter and IG handles. But as the 25th anniversary creeped closer, I found myself still possessed with chronicling the now versus the then. In the present, hip-hop has expanded in a way that’s made for a bigger tent: more subgenres, more releases, and a wider pool of rappers, which is a spectrum that’s not just a range of styles but also one of ages and genders. What’s happening on the daily is exciting!

That’s why I launched this newsletter in the first place. 

Outreach from editors still comes my way, but the assignments are mostly retrospectives to acknowledge an anniversary, a birthday or a death. 

I feel an immense duty to provide the context for these in the proper historical context. Sometimes I’ll even help the editor find another writer if I think they’ll do a better job with the piece. The accounting of history is that important. 

But, the way we do it is full of blind spots in execution. 

Most online outlets will tell you their audience isn’t into looking back. The numbers don’t support the posts. That’s why it’s often shuttled off to social (where outlets are often unimaginative in what they do over there.) 

This creates a nostalgia gap. 

Hip-hop archives from the Big 3 (The Source, Vibe, XXL) aren’t readily available. Too often rather than mind their own content, they’ve let Instagram brands eat off anniversary programming. This is a prime example of Clayton Christensen’s theory of Disruption. Ev Boogie’s Up North Trips has become a trust brand and he’s entered the book space, as a result (see, “No Sleep”). LL’s Rock The Bells is a VC-backed outfit that’s looking to create content from the past. And, of course, my current gig, running The Bridge: 50 Years of Hip Hop, is another play. Mass Appeal has been smart to pivot to docs and their Hip-Hop 50 play. Competing against the massive Complex operation or against the deep institutional legacy of the Big 3 is daunting. 

The compass for the past, however, isn’t pointing in any particular direction. The look backs are either haphazard (on this date in hip-hop!) or deeply probing ie Dan Charnas’ “Dilla Time” book or the Video Music Box documentary. The in-between is lacking. 

Hence, the gap. 

This week we’re in the middle of two monumental moments in hip-hop’s history, the 25th anniversaries of Biggie’s murder and the release of his Life After Death double LP. I know enough ink has been spilled over Big to power a tattoo convention. But that’s my point. Use that shit. XXL took the social route. Snooze. Vibe published an introspective piece by my brother, Datwon Thomas. But those types of content only help to make Biggie as distant as a poster on a wall. Or an NFT. 

When the Super Bowl was approaching and the commercials were running to promote Dr. Dre’s all-star headlining set with Snoop, Mary J. Blige and Eminem, the best thing I saw to capture how amazing of a feat this was, was on Tik-Tok. A variety of clips showed just how incredible the announced performers careers were, the fandom, and the way hip-hop has crossed eras (this is what your parents were doing when the halftime performers were in their prime, was a particularly great example.)

Archives are a treasure not a cemetery. There’s new business to be found there and new opportunities for the audience (I’d like to thik our pod is one). Rock The Bells can only do so much, that’s why that brand is better suited to radio (so far) than a content factory. There is, however, something that exists between a social post and a book or documentary. 

Hopefully we can have a clearer view of the past as we continue to move forward.


Music, news, reads, podcasts and videos that I’m checking for.

Backseat Freestyle’s inaugural 6th Man of the Year, Lil Durk, is back with his first new solo album since 2020’s The Voice. The Chicago native delivered his latest offering, 7220, a nod to his grandmother’s house. (He’s referenced the building before in “Granny Crib.”) Durkio has been on the precipice of leveling up for a while now, but his rise has been deliberate as he maintains a focus on street records (collaborations with Morgan Wallen aside). He’s getting there, though. Early standouts: “No Interviews,” “What Happened To Virgil'' featuring Gunna and “Smoking & Thinking.” [Listen] Related: Durk connects with Gillie and Wallo for an episode of Million Dollarz Worth of Game (Durk told the Philly duo his booking rate more than doubled after appearing on Drake’s “Laugh Now Cry Later.” [Watch]

Durk’s brother from the Chi, the late King Von, has a new album out too, What It Means To Be King. The posthumous project arrived last week and Von’s usual flow through gritted teeth underscores the urgency his best work included. Tracks like “War” and “Change My Life” ring out. [Listen]

Mooski is making moves with his latest mixtape, Melodic Therapy 4 The Broken. He got one with “Counting Time,” a nice flip of Anthony Hamilton’s “Charlene.” Overall, a nice project to vibe out to. [Listen]

Kali comes in hot on Toxic Chocolate with “Standard” and doesn’t let up over her new seven-song project; “Eat It Up” with Bia is a heater that deserves a mega remix, be it guys or girls I just want more.  [Listen]

Benny The Butcher is working overtime with the amount of releases he’s pushing out. Tana Talk 4 is here (presumably his last release until his Def Jam debut?) and it’s everything I love about Benny: grizzled street narratives punctuated by an earned perspective. Shit, he even got off on “10 More Commandments,” lifting a Biggie classic and putting his stamp on it. [Listen]

UTA inks Rap TV as a client with hopes to build the social media account into a powerhouse. I’m dubious if a majority curated operation can scale in the regard they are hoping for. Obvious counterexamples include House of Highlights and The Shade Room, but those are the exception more than the rule. [Info]

RIAA’s 2021 year-end report was released; streaming is up, downloads are down and physical is having a comeback. [Info]

TikTok: I'm into distribution, I'm like Atlantic/ I got them motherfuckers flyin' 'cross the Atlantic ….  [Info]

Amazon launches a Clubhouse competitor with a twist: You can DJ. (It reminds me of Spotify’s talk and play format, but Amazon’s is live and Green’s is on-demand.) [Info]

Congrats, my peoples: Phylicia Fant joins Amazon Music as Head of Music Industry Partnerships. Walt Jones levels up in a move back to Sony Publishing. And Dimplez takes over digital at Capitol Music group. [Info] [Info] [Info]

YSL takeover! Young Thug and Gunna cover Billboard. I love Thugger’s timeline from most controversial to most influential.  [Read]

An interesting look from Amos Barshad on how conspiracies took over the rap internet. [Read]

Griselda makes a lot of noise with their productivity and despite their championing one another, there’s always chatter about beef. This hiphop-n-more interview by NavJosh with Conway The Machine puts the focus things back on the crew. Conway talks about his Shady debut, but also an Alchemist project that’s on the way too. [Read]

Another stellar Q&A, William Ketchum speaks to TDE’s Punch about the state of the label, his own music career and what’s next for Kendrick and SZA. [Read]

Vice with a scoop: YouTube has been working with police to take down Drill music videos. [Read]

The New York Times Magazine’s yearly music issue has arrived. I tend to loathe this every year, but read it anyway. The dial on their compass just feels so off from what’s happening in music or even their own music coverage. Weird but compelling in parts. [Read]

Pitchfork with an introductory piece on Babyface Ray; plus a local Michigan paper with a profile on one the upstart. [Read] [Read]

Reggaton’s global expansion and wide-open future courtesy of a chat between Jon Caramanica and Isabelia Herrera and La Gata, Katelina Eccleston. [Listen] Related: The LA Times’ Suzy Exposito catches up with Daddy Yankee acolyte, Rauw Alejandro. [Read]

I just got around to this Nipsey Hussle episode of The Guardian’s Today In Focus podcast and it’s a devastating examination of predictive policing policies, which the reporters exert has biases in its statistical data entry and the push to prove this costly initiative works leaves the LAPD doubling down on an effort that repeats the same historical prejudices against Black and brown folks. Hussle wasn’t immune to it. And this pod wonders if the police created the environment around his Marathon Clothing story that ultimately led to his murder.  [Listen]

One of my favorite records on Jim JonesGangsta Grillz: We Set The Trends, “Who Dat,” gets a visual. [Watch]

There’s something powerful yet solemn about Key Glock in the winter landscape for “Pain Killers.”  [Watch]

I love Latto and I try to put that in writing on the record as much as possible. Her new joint, Wheelie, is a heater. And she got that it’s-my-year confidence in the video. [Watch]

After spending two fruitless hours watching The Game’s episode of Drink Champs, I haven’t gotten to fully dive into Joe Budden x Nicki Minaj. I’m 30 minutes in and just wish there was a better edit to give this conversation some shape. (It's really more meandering podcast conversation than high-profile feature interview.) Despite that, I have high hopes; an engaged Nicki Minaj is one of the best interviewees to listen to in the game. [Watch]

Backseat Freestyle is written and produced by me, Jayson Rodriguez, for Smarty Art. If you have any comments, feedback or questions, feel free to email me: [email protected]. If you would like to discuss sponsoring an issue of the newsletter, contact: holler@ smartyartllc.com. And follow me elsewhere:

(I recently added a couple of new links below because I might experiment with promoting Backseat Freestyle on TikTok or Twitch, etc.)

Clubhouse: @jaysonrodriguez

Podcast: coming soon

Disclosure: I’m an employee of Spotify and given that I frequently include publicly available news/streaming numbers from Spotify in the newsletter, I want to note that the views and opinions reflected in Backseat Freestyle are solely my own. Also, as the showrunner of Nas’ podcast, The Bridge, I work closely with him, however, any inclusion of his music is without influence.