When does ‘influence’ become ‘imitation’ in rap? While there has always been a strong element of riding the wave of whatever sound is popular and the inevitability of adopting some of the the stylistic traits of whomever you came up listening to, accusations of biting have become more prevalent than ever in recent years. 2014’s main influence on mainstream rap has been the so-called ‘Migos flow’, which has been adopted by everyone from Drake and Kanye West to J. Cole and Usher (!), as explained so effectively in this video by my boy David Drake. Meanwhile, closer to home, a rather heated debate has raged over the authenticity of Your Old Droog, who has proven that he isn’t Nas, just as I argued back in June in this very column.
When I first started checking for Action Bronson, back in his pre–Vice Records days, when he was a standout member of the Outdoorsman crew along with Meyhem Lauren, I never once questioned his originality. The Unkut.com comment section was less kind, with several accusations that Action was nothing more than a shameless Ghostface Killah impersonator. Tony Starks apparently wasn’t concerned, as he worked with Bronson in 2011 for the Legendary Weapons album, and in the four years since it’s fair to say that Bam Bam has carved out his own niche as the guy who can rap well while doing a backflip off a beer truck or throwing little people off stage.
Look up a random rap record from 1986, and chances are the MCs will be Shout Rapping themselves hoarse, in reverence to the reign of Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys at the time (even Ice Cube wasn’t immune), while 1992 saw the airwaves plagued with tongue-twisting rap flows that sounded remarkably similar to Das-EFX, a trend that even dragged down both Common and Jay-Z before they found their respective voices and signature styles. Likewise, at the height of the Roc-A-Fella takeover, there were more than a few Hova clones, not to mention the dudes who sounded like Biggie, and the legions of Tupac wannabes not named Ja Rule. Ultimately, record labels are always going to encourage copycats to clock some easy sales.
But what separates the rip-off artists from the rappers who have been influenced simply by measure of listening to their favourites or working with their peers? The Queensbridge flow that Mobb Deep are recognised for can be traced back to Tragedy’s second verse on Marley Marl’s 1989 track ‘Live Motivator‘, while Nas’ style is very much a combination of the styles of Kool G Rap and Rakim. Your Old Droog, meanwhile, has a raspy quality to his voice and cadence that had crackpots insisting he was actually an alter ego of the Illmatic veteran. Now that such foolishness has been dispelled, he’s the subject of criticism from rap fans who feel that he’s sharking Nas’ entire life. If you actually listen closely and get past the vocal similarities, he doesn’t rap like Mr. Jones at all in terms of his stream-of-consciousness delivery and rhyme structure. He simply subscribes to the non-progressive Conservative Rap Coalition values that champion rapping over loops and not doing stupid cartoon character voices.
Will Droog make a classic album? That remains to be seen. His EP was certainly a refreshing change of pace, and his cut with RAST and the P Brothers was incredible. Now that he has the attention of far more people than the average underground MC on the come-up, Droog has a chance to make some real noise if bitter Nas stans can get off his nuts for a minute. Action Bronson has, for the most part, been able to shake the stigma of having a voice reminiscent of another beloved rap icon and has done rather well for himself as a result. While I don’t see Droog as ever having the kind of crossover appeal that the larger-than-life Bronson persona allows, he does have the potential to remind jaded listeners that there is more to rap in 2014 than arguing about who rhymed in triplets over a drum machine first, or hollow 90’s nostalgia from kids who weren’t even out wearing their big boy pants yet. Let the man cook, damnit.