Hip-hop and indie rock have always existed as largely separate genres, complete with their own musical touchstones, cultures, and roles in society, outside of the odd collaboration or sample. However, despite the two genres’ surface differences, they possess a common core: both genres began as forward thinking, underground styles that have changed and grown to encompass the full spectrum of success and mindset. Perhaps it is this inherent similarity that has allowed for hip-hop and indie rock to blend more thoroughly during the current decade than they have before in the past.
One potential immediate instigator of such a change is the emergence of the Internet as the dominant source of media; this phenomenon has facilitated a globalization of music and the cultures surrounding different genres. Today, there are countless platforms in which to discover music: SoundCloud, Spotify, Tumblr, Hype Machine, and the abundance of music blogs on the Internet which expose listeners to every type of music available, giving equitable exposure to each genre. More universal cultural factors are also at play: as cultural boundaries disappear on a societal level, a parallel occurs in the cultures surrounding art, and it becomes more common to engage with music outside of the established boundaries. Because we naturally create how we consume, we begin to create work that is shaped by a variety of disparate influences as we are exposed to music from different artistic and cultural backgrounds. All of these factors have led to a proliferation of cross-genre collaboration and significant influence between hip-hop and indie rock.
Since hip-hop and indie rock are popular, youth-oriented genres that appeal to the most prevalent users of the Internet, the blurring of lines between the two has a significant impact on musical expression and culture. It should be noted that there is a history of cross-genre collaboration, sampling, and expressions of respect between hip-hop and indie rock, dating as far back as the 1980s. However, the collaboration and influence between the two genres is currently far more pervasive than in the past. The occasional collaboration between Sonic Youth and Chuck D of Public Enemy or R.E.M. and KRS-One in the 80’s has given way to work like Kanye West’s extensive collaborations with Bon Iver on 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Phantogram’s 2015 EP Big Grams with Big Boi of Outkast, and Frank Ocean’s sampling of Radiohead and MGMT on his 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. Collaborations between popular artists of both genres within the last several years have in turn led to a more thorough coalescence of genre.
Many contemporary artists who fall under the indie umbrella like Blood Orange, Lana Del Rey, fun., Wet, Lorde, and Purity Ring wear their hip-hop influences on their sleeves, especially in their rhythmic production styles. This phenomenon is best exemplified in fun.’s breakout 2012 album Some Nights, which the band has stated was heavily influenced by hip-hop production. Many bands that gained popularity on the Internet, like Wet and The 1975, regularly release remixes of their music, a practice that has been common in hip-hop and R&B for decades. Bands such as Bastille and The Neighbourhood have also released mixtapes, another characteristically hip-hop practice. Conversely, rappers and R&B artists like Drake, The Weeknd, Danny Brown, Childish Gambino, PartyNextDoor, and Azealia Banks collaborate with indie rock artists or imbue their music with associated musical devices such as muted synthesizer pads and clean guitar lines. Some artists, such as A$AP Rocky, take influence from indie rock in their self-presentation rather than in their music. In fact, A$AP Rocky first found fame through Tumblr, due to his late business partner A$AP Yams’ fluency with the Internet. This is noteworthy because Tumblr is generally more associated with indie-rock than with hip-hop, as indie-influenced music subcultures such as vaporwave and seapunk tend to thrive more readily on the website than do the music of hip-hop crews. The duality evident in the music of these artists and their contemporaries also plays out in their attitudes. As hip-hop becomes more introspective and vulnerable, indie rock becomes more confident and adventurous.
The exchange of musical ideas is the most central part of this dynamic between hip-hop and indie rock. However, the related exchange of cultural touchstones is highly significant as well. Fashion, being one of the most visual aspects of culture, and one important to both aesthetic-focused indie rockers and extravagant hip-hop stars, serves as a solid indicator of this phenomenon. An example of fashion crossing over between the genres is the clothing of Tommy Hilfiger; originally a hip-hop trend promoted by artists such as Snoop Dogg and Usher in the ‘90s, Tommy Hilfiger’s clothing is now more associated with indie-rockers such as Zooey Deschanel of She & Him, who has designed for the brand, and the band Vampire Weekend, whose music appeared in an advertisement for Hilfiger in the fall of 2010.
One of the most important aspects of hip-hop fashion is sneaker culture. Adidas have long been popular as a brand in hip-hop fashion, primarily due to their sneakers. In 1986, Run-DMC helped to cement this popularity in their hit single “My Adidas”. This brand loyalty has now extended into indie-rock culture as well. Singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis cited her adolescent love of hip-hop in explaining her propensity for wearing Adidas tracksuits while on tour with The Postal Service in 2013. In addition, Adidas clothing was featured prominently in the 2013 film Palo Alto, which was heavily geared towards young indie rock fans, and which featured music by indie artists such as Mac DeMarco and Dev Hynes. Hip-hop’s sneaker culture has greatly influenced Western street fashion, which has in turn been co-opted by indie rock musicians and fans. This cultural protraction is evidenced by bands such as Animal Collective and Tegan and Sara designing their own sneakers, and by the newfound popularity of sneakers, such as the minimal New Balance brand, in indie fashion. Though fashion is individualistic, and not necessarily tied to specific cultures and styles of music, there is a clear trend of fashion influence from hip-hop to indie rock in the last decade.
Today, many hip-hop and indie rock artists share wide swaths of listeners, collaborate regularly, and play many of the same festivals. Collaboration, transference of musical ideas, and fashion are just a few examples of a complicated, subtle blend of culture that has reached critical mass within the last several years. Electronic music producer Ryan Hemsworth, who has repeatedly expressed his indie rock roots, highlighted this phenomenon perfectly when he called hip-hop star Future the “rap-game Elliott Smith” in his short documentary Boy Meets World (2013), noting that the two genres are far more alike at their core than they are different. In recognizance of this common core, people feel freer today to create and listen to music that challenges notions of which frameworks to which indie rock and hip-hop should adhere.
Written by Brendan Gibson
Artwork by Miranda Hart