‘Rap isn’t real music! It’s just talking fast.’
Wise words from my 13 year old self. Man I was dumb. To be fair, I was mostly just sick to death of my brother listening to his Massive R&B compilation on repeat. But considering that a hefty chunk of what I listen to now would be considered just ‘talking fast’, something obviously happened. That something was Collision Course.
As a white kid in a crappy little town in the early 2000s with zero diversity around me, it is not surprising that I grew up listening to mostly indie rock and ignoring Hip Hop. I didn’t understand it and frankly it wasn’t for me. Linkin Park, on the other hand, fit the bill perfectly. I was especially obsessed with their second album; it is pretty much 36 minutes of hits. Angsty salve for my teenage self. So when I heard they collaborating with Jay-Z for a mashup album I was very sceptical but, hey, if Linkin park are involved it must be worth a listen.
I had heard nothing like Collision Course. It wasn’t really like anything before it; the lyrical content of the songs didn’t match, the music shouldn’t have fit together, but they didn’t just haphazardly stitch everything together on a computer. They hung out in a studio, reworked the songs, re-recorded everything to bring together their disparate sounds. The result was an EP that sounds like it was all part of the original design. And to be honest, with a song as catchy as Numb/Encore, does it matter that we’re abruptly switching between talking about insecurity and being at a ‘all-time high’.
It is undoubted that Jay-Z has amazing talent. Watching the studio videos of him laying down the vocals is mesmerising. His speed and flow, with familiar lyrics over unfamiliar backing, is pretty astonishing. It leaves the studio stunned.
That dexterity really is what made me realise, ’Hey, this guy is actually pretty skilled’. As soon as my eyes opened a little I realised just how ignorant I had been. And so opened up a wormhole of musical discovery. Without this breaking point I wouldn’t have found Outkast, De La Soul, Chance, or Kendrick. Well maybe it would have come later I guess. I probably would have been relying on Kanye to bring me into the rap fold, and that would leave me with all kinds of mixed emotions at the moment. So I can only thank Jay-Z for that.
The thing that I think sets Jay-Z apart is how smartly he is thinking about the bottom line. He famously said on The Black Album ‘I dumb down for my audience and double my dollars’. Jay-Z always seems to making the right moves (lets just forget that Tidal exists). Jay-Z approached Linkin Park about this collaboration, hitching himself to one of the biggest bands of the time. Then he actually invested in the project to make it good. For me he changed my relationship with rap from antagonistic to a fan. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one, as he went about recruiting a whole new audience. 15 years later the Jay-Z empire is still booming as he has just been crowned the first billionaire rapper.
As I mentioned in the podcast (Episode 20), 2004 was a big year for me musically. Collision Course and Willy Mason’s Where the Humans Eat changed my musical tastes, broadening them massively. Looking back now as someone who voraciously consumes pretty much every music genre, I wouldn’t be here without these albums. As someone who compulsively soundtracks their life, I’m very thankful for that. It would be very boring still listening to nothing but indie rock.
It’s not just about having some variety in music as you travel through life. Diverse music and diverse stories have provided me a window into people’s lives that I wouldn’t normally get exposed to. Even as someone who has spent 3 years living just a few blocks from where Jay-Z grew up, my privilege means it is impossible to fully understand what it was like growing up as a young black man in Brooklyn. In these divisive times, the smallest insight provided by different artists can go a long way. I want to be in a world where people care for other people regardless of race, sexual orientation, or religion, and that can only be built on understanding.
The rejection of the little Lil Nas X song ‘Old Town Road’ by the American Billboard Country Charts is a symptom of how broken things can be, and how white establishments are scared of what diversity brings. As annoying as I find this song, its hugely important in bringing different voices to new audiences. Fortunately the charts are no longer gatekeepers and with the ease of access of media online, if kids want to access it they will find a way to enjoy the music in all its forms.
Jay-Z will go down as one of the most important rappers of all time for helping drive Hip Hop into the mainstream. For me, however, there are none more important, otherwise rap would still just be ‘talking fast’ and I’d still be just an indie boy in a small town near Brighton.
Words by Matt Paul