I’ve been a fan of hip-hop for a long time. My first memories listening to Kanye West’s The College Dropout and Late Registration happen to coincide with my pre-adolescent Runescape phase.
(It was an odd combination but it worked.) Despite my shifting musical tastes throughout my teens, hip-hop remained a constant. It provided me with something that no other genre could. But until recently, I didn’t know what this “something” was.
Hip-hop is one of the purest mediums of expression. It might be deviating from its origins—many say it’s saturated with artists whose desire to make millions trumps their desire to create meaningful music—but it still remains the greatest source of mainstream musical expression. In its most basic form, it’s inspired by poetry and storytelling. It strives to do more than entertain; it informs.
One of my favorite advancements in hip-hop was its adoption of the mixtape. This decision embodies a willingness to experiment, which artists embrace by recruiting multiple artists to feature on their album, as well as creating cross-genre collaborations and producing samples of unsuspecting songs. These processes are all part of the hip-hop approach, which should be embraced by other genres.
Hip-hop has been on the bleeding-edge of artistry when it comes to creating a record. This is partly due to producers’ willingness to experiment and perfect their craft. Just as famous fine artists are renowned for a particular painting style, hip-hop producers and beat makers are known for their own styles and idiosyncratic preferences, which allow them to leave their stamp on any given track.
But in indie rock, the band’s label often taps their own producers. Frequently, this is because the producers have the best interest of the label in mind. However, this process tends to be money-orientated and revolves around how the label can spend the least, in order to make the most. Quality isn’t compromised—as that would be counter-intuitive behavior from the label—but creative input from the artist is usually limited.
Luckily, hip-hop doesn’t adhere to this desire to blindly replicate previous successes. A good hip-hop label may dictate to the artist what they want to see. But they permit a level of freedom, often allowing their artist to recruit the services of a producer or beat maker—often somebody who is esteemed for doing both—of their choice. This freedom to actively choose their collaborators, in order to evoke a certain feel or style in any given track, empowers the artist.
Indie rock music is certainly a credible genre, and to deny this is an exercise in futility. However, it seems the artists within this genre allow exterior sources with alternative motives to dictate their music all too easily. Labels search for that “next, best thing” and upon finding it, offer them big money contracts to ensure that everybody knows about them, which seems perfect from the artist’s point of view. However, this million-dollar contract is never quite as it seems, and the huge investment made by the label often turns out to be more of a loan.
The need for an ultra-successful album that makes vast amounts of money for the label is often a necessity to justify signing the band in the first place. This need for immediate success often leads to the pursuit of a totally unique sound, one that can capture a spot in a niche market. At the same time, the label recognizes the need to achieve universal acclaim and, in order to do this, the artist needs to appeal to the masses. But this only decreases innovation and artistic expression.
On the surface, hip-hop doesn’t have this issue. The music industry is called an industry for a reason; the money-driven world we live in today unfortunately means that many enter looking for fame. However, in its approach and execution, hip-hop remains an experimental and expressive environment, where being different is celebrated.
If a hip-hop artist is told that his sound is similar to somebody else from within their genre—if they’re told they have a “Nas flow” or that their music is reminiscent of “early Biggie tracks”—it is a compliment to the highest degree.
Indie rock and similar genres often lack this depth of comparison, or at least the desire to embrace it. So who would have thought that Bastille, a four-piece indie band from London would be the first to buck this trend and bridge a monumental gap? A mixtape from a band, especially an indie rock band, is almost unheard of. But Bastille gladly wandered into this unfamiliar territory. They set up camp, went about their business and raised a giant, metaphorical Bastille flag for all to see.
From what I can tell, Bastille didn’t take this step to be different or to create a small buzz around the novelty of an unexpected move hoping to fuel anticipation for future releases. They did it because they felt they were capable of doing it well. Equipped with extraordinary musical ability, a vast and varied wealth of musical taste and knowledge, and a desire to remain creatively active throughout the entire project, Bastille made history.
One of the most important characteristics of any modern mixtape is its composition, and the mood or message it portrays. Since the majority of mixtapes are freely available, most aren’t subject to the usual copyright infringements that EPs or albums are. This allows a much greater range of sampling (taking a sound or snippet and reusing it in a different song)—something Bastille took full advantage of on their two mixtapes Other People’s Heartache (Pt. 1 & 2). The songs Bastille chose to sample and cover perfectly demonstrate their vast knowledge of music and culture.
Bastille looked past their own genre to further their mixtapes quality and depth. They also weren’t bound by the confines of their own expertise. Many of their songs feature backing beats, chord progressions, lyrics or even full covers of tracks from a host of genres, which stretch over forty years worth of music. The art of sampling is on full display throughout their albums.
The first sampling is “Adagio For Strings” by Samuel Barber, whose melody immediately brings a classical feel to the opening track, a creative decision you wouldn’t expect from an indie rock band. Samples of “What Is Love” by Haddaway and “The Rhythm Of The Night” by Corona follow. These tracks, included early on, encapsulate the reoccurring 80’s and 90’s dance vibe.
In addition to this, the famous beat from Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks”—teamed with the later cover of “Thinkin’ Bout You” by Frank Ocean, and hip-hop artist F. Stokes’ impressive inclusions—naturally reiterates the inspired hip-hop and R&B theme of the mixtapes, while subtly experimenting with the use of spoken word. Furthermore, the surprising inclusions of songs such as “No Scrubs” by TLC and “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac add supplementary Classic R&B and 70’s Rock elements to the smorgasbord of genres represented.
Bastille took the creativity of their mixtape to a new level by including snippets of dialogue from some of their favorite films. On their tracks “Requiem For Blue Jeans,” “No Angels,” “Titanium” and “Oh Holy Night” the band opted to further the meaning of each track by adding audio clips from films such as “Requiem For A Dream,” “American Beauty,” “Mulholland Drive” and “Home Alone.”
These inclusions pave the way for intriguingly differing effects. For instance, on the second track “What Would You Do?” a fragile, female voice says, It is a reason to get up in the morning… It is a reason to smile; it makes tomorrow alright before the track is effortlessly transitioned into its successor “Requiem For Blue Jeans.” The chorus of this next song includes the lyrics, I will love you ‘till the end of time, I would wait a million years and the similarities between the obvious themes of these two clips allow anybody to appreciate their intentional coupling. However, familiarity with the films from which the clips have been lifted intensifies the meaning.
Having seen the film “Requiem For A Dream,” I am fully aware that the fragile voice belongs to the character Sara Goldfarb. Knowing her struggles is key to understanding the reason why clips of her, in particular, are included in those songs. Throughout “Requiem For A Dream,” Goldfarb gradually descends into a state of mental instability due to incessant waiting. This ingeniously ties in with the lyrics from the next song, which sings, I would wait a million years as her constant struggle is mirrored by the promise of an unending wait for love. The connection between the two clips grows when your take time to understand that Goldfarb’s quote, It is a reason to get up in the morning… It is a reason to smile also relates to the feelings proposed by the desire for love, suggesting that having somebody to love is also a reason to get up in the morning, or to smile.
The intentional, constant back-and-forth between mediums and genres is refreshing in its execution. The variation and willingness to play—unfaltering throughout all eighteen tracks—spurs you towards subtly questioning the legitimacy of their generosity: I can’t believe they have managed to fit all of this on just two mixtapes and it’s free!
This unparalleled venture from Bastille is something that I have never seen before, at least not from an indie band, and certainly not to this standard. I was a fan of the band prior to the release of these two mixtapes, but their ambitious approach and faultless conviction sets them apart from the rest of their genre.
When a new band or style is discovered, people have a tendency to keep them quiet or boast they knew them before they achieved mainstream success. But I wholeheartedly hope that this creativity spreads. Because the sooner bands adopt the lessons hip-hop has been teaching us for years, the sooner innovation will happen. And that is what everybody wants to hear.