Griselda Ghost And Rap Purism

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. The feelings and impressions that we associate with certain past experiences exert a strong grip on us; in turn we harness those associations as symbols, projecting them outwards to remind ourselves and others of what has given and continues to give our lives meaning. This is true in art above all else. Artists – visual, musical, cinematic – continually return to their influences, channeling the symbolic energy of the past to make statements about the present. Normally this is a subtle process. But sometimes it’s loud, assertive and insistent – it’s the whole point. So it is with Griselda Ghost

Griselda is a 20-minute slice of toothpick-chewing rap purism produced by the respected (and feared) blogger Big Ghost and brought to life by Westside Gunn and Conway; two NY rappers who make the sort of music that Ghost tirelessly promotes. For longtime followers of Big Ghost’s blog and Instagram/Twitter feeds, Griselda feels like the sonic embodiment of a manifesto years in the making: it’s blunt, uncompromising and defiantly traditionalist, with beats and lyrics that don’t so much ignore as actively scorn the 2015 rap zeitgeist. As the EP’s SoundCloud blurb makes clear, it’s a self-consciously classicist project, channeling the essence of the 90’s and spurning the room temperature soy milk rap of the present.

And sure enough, this is dusty East Coast revivalism at its finest. The drums bump like something out of a Group Home record; the piano and guitar licks evoke RZA at his most baroque; Conway knows people “who had bricks since the Tyson days” and Gunn “used to tell tales with the lifers”. There’s even a ‘Shook Ones’ sample in the blissed-out ‘Interlude’, in case the record’s influences weren’t clear enough. For anyone who came of age to the sound of Golden Age New York rap (I did), let alone lived it at the time (I didn’t), this feels like a return to the good old days. A homecoming.  

“Rap that breaks the mold and defies the rules set down by elder statesmen is somehow offensive.”

But artistic statements like this are never solely positive, because to exalt the past is always, to an extent, to reject the present. Insofar as Griselda Ghost is a salute to Prodigy, Nas, whoever, it’s also a reaction against the soymilk purveyors of today, and – in his writing, if not on this EP – Big Ghost has never minced words about the guilty parties. What is hip-hop in 2015? Young Thug, Fetty Wap, Rae Sremmurd, Future, a slew of trap producers from Atlanta and, of course, the most OK R&B chanteuse of all time – Drake. These aren’t Ghost’s favourite artists, to put it mildly. And this resentment lurks menacingly on the periphery of Griselda, whose narrators are “nicer than everybody on the last three XXL covers,” slapping your favourite rapper and juking people at the MTV awards. Nostalgia is a longing for home, and we feel it most when our surroundings are strange and uncomfortable.  

Nostalgia is emotive, and it can cause bitter divisions when we come to evaluate the past. A week or so after Griselda Ghost dropped, a storm kicked up in a corner of the rap Twittersphere when Complex writer Angel Diaz put out an article defending the new Drake and Future record, What a Time to Be Alive, from the rancorous complaints of rap traditionalists. The premise of the piece was that the enjoyment of music is context-driven, and that “old heads” that complain when people drop Future tracks at a party are severely missing the point. Diaz cited Talib Kweli and Lupe Fiasco as exemplars of the cerebral rap that old-timers mistakenly believe is the be-all-and-end-all. And then, this being 2015, Kweli and Lupe jumped on Twitter and started laying into Diaz with a horde of their fans.

This whole incident (and the excellent response piece by Complex grandee Noah Callahan-Bever) served to shine a bright light on the nostalgia fault-line that runs through, and to a large extent defines, rap fandom. Rap has always been a highly protean genre – those who change, adapt and bring something new to the table succeed. But although rap fans clamour for the new, the emphasis on reputation and respect that is written into hip-hop’s DNA constantly pulls in the other direction. Many listeners can happily obey both impulses, but for a few – the “old heads”, as Diaz puts it – rap that breaks the mold and defies the rules set down by elder statesmen is somehow offensive.

This divide has always existed in hip-hop – at one point in the brilliant 1995 documentary The Show, members of the Furious 5 and other real old guarders sit around a table to bash the wayward rappers of the then-present. And rap purists have fought their fight ever since, in the Backpacker Wars, the anti-autotune movement and a thousand smaller flashpoints. The irony is that this quality of the militant nostalgists – their eternal presence – reveals exactly what is wrong with their outlook. The Beanie Sigel fan who attacks Young Thug for failing to fulfill the requirements of the lyricist lounge doesn’t acknowledge that their own favourite rappers founder by the standards of their predecessors, whose own music failed by the standards of the previous (pre-rap) generation (because rapping is just talking fast over stolen beats, right? Where’s the melody? Where’s the skill?).  

It’s a mistake to think of this as a decline; the fact that some of these standards fall out of currency only to return later shows that the reality is more complex than that. There is good music and there is bad music, but over time the cultural significance of a good song/album/artist, the importance of the standards to which they adhere, and the context in which they are enjoyed, will change. Maybe not for every individual, but for the wider culture certainly. This is what Diaz’s detractors fail to realise.

The streaming revolution might change all of this. The ready availability of all music of all ages to anyone with a Spotify or Apple Music account means that the associative links between a given song and a particular time or place are theoretically weaker than ever before. You pay £10 a month, and Frank Sinatra is as few clicks away from your headphones as Fetty Wap. Growing up in a world like this, the next generation of music listeners might just free themselves from the prejudices of our own.

They may realise that a strong, nostalgic, attachment to the music of the past need not preclude enjoying the music of the present. The key is to take each record on its own terms, and resist measuring it by the standards of forbears it probably never set out to emulate. For my part, I was bumping SremmLife mere minutes after luxuriating in the smoke and splendor of Griselda. And even Big Ghost himself reacted to the Diaz episode with a degree of equanimity:

A fair point, because internet discourse continually oversimplifies things. Music is never simple, nor are the preferences of music lovers. Contradictory impulses coexist. Nostalgia makes us long for home, but travel broadens the mind.

Words by Otis Graham