Kendrick Lamar and the rise and rise of the LA sound
The power and the fury of Kendrick Lamar’s music comes from its deep Los Angeles roots. Here's a musical journey through the sonic heritage of the west coast
The soundtrack of a modern social movement: Kendrick Lamar. Photograph: Angelo Merendino/Getty Images
Rapper Kendrick Lamar ( onstage during the 58th Grammy Awards at Staples Center on February 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Before reading this article, we recommend you find a comfy seat, open a cold one and click on this Spotify playlist of tunes old and new from the LA scene
At the Grammy Awards in February, Kendrick Lamar walked out on stage in chains. He performed The Blacker the Berry – a blistering rap song that condemns systematic racism – with hands bound and his band locked inside jail cells. The iconography was a right hook aimed at America’s solar plexus. Lamar’s musical forefathers would have been proud.
Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early 1990s is remembered for Magic Johnson ruling the court, and the riots in the wake of the trial of the police officers accused of beating Rodney King, and South Central becoming a US national byword for urban mismanagement.
West Coast hip-hop made Lamar’s Compton and a group of neighbouring districts the 1990s pop culture capital of the world. Palm-treed pavements, Chevys bouncing up and down and fingers curled into the letter W – it’s imagery as iconic as the Capitol Records Building or the Lakers’ gold and purple sheaths.
Lamar makes new-age music viewed through old-school filters. His ground-level depictions of growing up in Compton bend the knee to rap deities NWA, but Lamar differentiates himself by decrying violence. Gangster rap can make weed and liquor sound like the most blissful nectar in the world, whereas Lamar observes alcohol’s corrosive effects on his community in Swimming Pools (Drank).
His music is undeniably LA-centric, but works in everything from Nigerian Afrobeat to Asian philosophy. His 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly has been the soundtrack of a modern social movement, but it ends with a generation-connecting conversation with Tupac Shakur, who died in 1996.
In a time when blood spilled on the streets of Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, Minneapolis and Baton Rouge has once again laid bare the all-too familiar trappings of being born black in America, the single Alright has been frequently heard chanted at Black Lives Matter rallies as a hymn of strength, unity, peace and defiance.
Like Shakur, Lamar (who headlines the Longitude festival in Dublin tonight) has built a reputation for being a socially engaged hip-hop purist, giving voice to new generation. He’ll rap on top of a vandalised police car because imagery matters.
Chances are that even if you can’t name a Tupac song, you probably still know what he looks like. Shakur left irresistible iconography. The public recognises the imagery in the same way those who know nothing about the Cuban revolution recognise the image of Che Guevara. Pictures of Shakur’s heavily tattooed torso will inspires feelings of rebellion forever. But even the most sheltered rap novice probably rknows his biggest hit, California Love, when it comes on their car radios.
The LA Sound playlist
Produced by Dr Dre – whose handprints are all over that classic Los Angeles sound from his time with NWA, as a solo artist, producer and as LA’s chief taste picker – California Love is the most famous thesis of G-Funk, a sound that dominated and defined west-coast rap.
Heavily drawing from Parliament Funkadelic (who play the Beatyard festival here on July 31st) and Zapp, funky outsiders that heavily infiltrated LA’s concrete boulevards in the 1970s and 1980s, the buzzing synthesizers, hypnotic grooves, thick basslines, Shaq-sized handclaps and sour vocodors are as distinctly 1990s as Clueless and flannel shirts.
The internet has ushered in a more region-free era of hip-hop. Untraceable production became the status quo for many beatmakers who grew up with unlimited access to sounds across the map. But Lamar’s ode to G-funk, King Kunta, has been indicative of the bounce coming back to the wild, wild west. A new generation of artists are making uncompromised music that pays tribute to their roots, while forging their own imprint on LA’s rich music history.
On the recently released Still Brazy, YG has cut one of the rap albums of the year by mixing that classic G-funk sound with more modern ratchet production. SchoolBoy Q, a member of Lamar’s Black Hippy crew, makes music that scrapes the darkest corners of LA gangster rap. Vince Staples’ Norf Norf lays out his love-hate relationship with gang life with such creeping detail you can taste the bitter pavement.
Induced by his work on the glossy NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton, Dr Dre last year finally closed the circle on his own solo career with Compton, his first album in 16 years. Snoop Dogg, his original protege, is still around, and The Game, who has hinged his whole career on pitching himself as the heir apparent to NWA, has tried to harness the revival.
The Game’s recent documentary series Streets of Compton seemed opportunistic, but it would be cynical to doubt his sincerity.
LA’s embrace of its geographical sound isn’t just restricted to rap. To Pimp a Butterfly saw Lamar handpick his city’s finest musicians to help sew the record’s dense sonic fabric. All are frequent collaborators, inseparably bound in a close-knit musical community. Together, they are carving out the most interesting, consistently strong regions in American music right now – all of while reflecting Cali’s pastoral grooves.
King Kunta was gifted its bounce by bass-playing virtuoso Thundercat (coming to a Sugar Club near you on August 8th). His most recent solo release, The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam, plays like a hyper-twist into space funk’s outer cosmos. Single Them Changes swerves like a pre-internet starship, recalling a time when the analogue verve of Steve Arrington, Zapp and Manzel sounded like the future and not the past.
Terrace Martin played saxophone and keys on To Pimp a Butterfly, eventually earning co-writing and/or co-production credits on seven of the album’s 16 tracks. In April, he put out an album-of-the-year contender with Velvet Portraits, an eclectic collection that sees Martin tackle everything from roof-raising gospel to talk-box ballads doused in carnal sexuality.
Embedded in the record’s DNA, though, is the spirit of classic West Coast jazz, a 1950s sub-genre that blazed a more chilled-out, less cluttered sound than bebop. Throughout the record, Martin’s saxophone blows in and out like a cold breeze on a hot day. Somewhere in the United States, Roy Ayers is smiling.
LA jazz has long been characterised by the wide scope of sounds it absorbs. Flying Lotus has melded hip-hop and jazz into an almost unrecognisable form. Last year, Kamasi Washington made one of the finest jazz albums of the decade, funneling years of jamming in LA’s late night piano bars into a 173-minute classic suitably titled The Epic. You could spend a lifetime deconstructing the record’s sonic make-up.
Elsewhere, Dam-Funk has raised his banners and gone to war for classic west-coast funk. Reining in floor-filling disco, dizzying electro and sci-flick flicks, Dam-Funk’s brand of throwback funk sounds crystalised from a time right before rap overthrew and, eventually, heavily pilfered the genre.
His most recent project, Nite-Funk, sees the Pasadena native pair with singer Nite Jewel. Their first single Let Me Be Me is the kind of outrageous belter that LA pop trio Shalamar would have once rode to pop stardom.
You pack certain pre-conceived expectations when visiting Los Angeles. The sprawling city is one of the most pop cultured places in the world. From Chinatown to Straight Outta Compton, from Philip Marlowe to Henry Chinaski, from DJ Quik to Michael Mann; it’s impossible to disentangle the framed imagery from reality.
Touching down in LAX and breathing in the dizzyingly tall palm trees that tower over the streets, the plastic discman in your head automatically whirls into life, rattling off Carrie Lucas boogie, Lakeside’s fat funk and Dr Dre beats. Adding to that are a new era of musicians, cutting records as distinctly LA as Hollywood Boulevard.
When Lamar takes to the Marley Park stage, he’ll be shadowed by the ghosts of the greats, and infused with the spirit of a modern-day movement. Let’s push things forward.
- Kendrick Lamar plays Longitude, Marlay Park, Dublin on Friday night.