Indie rock, hip hop and everyday city life

recent black and white photo of 2 young men crouching by a brick wall

Shack © Mark McNulty

The lyrics of many popular songs have portrayed everyday life in the city. This can be illustrated with examples from indie rock and hip hop music.

The lyrics of British 'indie' rock (independent or alternative rock music) focus on a broad range of themes. Like other styles of popular music, some involve romanticised or abstract accounts of personal experiences and relationships. Others however are full of rich observations on the mundane rituals and routines of everyday life.

Indie rock bands from Merseyside, for example, have produced realistic and often humorous lyrics based on their everyday experiences and observations.

Half Man Half Biscuit is an indie rock band from Birkenhead. During the mid-1980s the band produced a basic style of punk music accompanied by lyrics about British television celebrities, football, and the minutiae and everyday tedium of a life of unemployment. This is evident in songs such as 'Dickie Davies Eyes', 'The Trumpton Riots' and 'All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit'. Music journalists have described such songs as a product of musicians who sit at home all day watching daytime television.

During the early 1990s some Liverpool indie rock bands produced songs that represented a lifestyle surrounding unemployment and a related drug culture. The Stairs, for example, released a song entitled 'Weed Bus' (weed being a reference to marijuana); The La's referred to heroin use and unemployment in their songs 'There She Goes' and 'Doledrum'; whilst Shack's 'Streets of Kenny' refers to the run-down Liverpool area of Kensington and its heroin problems.

Local music journalists have stereotyped such bands and their music by describing them as examples of the 'drug and dole culture' of Liverpool council estates (dole meaning unemployment benefit). Yet different groups of musicians have different everyday lives. Unemployment is not an experience shared by all indie rock musicians on Merseyside and is just one of many themes found in indie rock music.

The problems of urban living have also been a common theme in hip hop. In the URBEATZ film 'Crossing the Line', for example, a 15 year-old female rapper explains how her music reflects her experiences of drinking and life on the streets of the Liverpool 8 neighbourhood. The rapper Riuven is also from that neighbourhood. His song 'The LIV' became known locally via his Myspace webpage and he was subsequently invited to perform at one of the opening events for Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture 2008. His appearance caused controversy, however, largely because his lyrics included references to stealing cars around Liverpool's Sefton Park and fighting with goths outside the club the Krazy House.

In the US, rap and hip hop have taken depressed inner-city neighbourhoods as their creative foundation. Particular cities and city neighbourhoods feature in the names, lyrics and visual imagery of rap acts, in their song and album titles and also in their musical sounds:

"In the music the city is an audible presence, explicitly cited and digitally sampled in the reproduction of the aural textures of the urban environment" (Forman, 2000: 67).

The music journalist and author Dan Sicko describes certain styles of Detroit hip-hop as "an extreme, almost parodied" version of inner city life, which he links to the extremities of urban decline in that city:

"both the horrorcore of hip-hop outfits such as Insane Clown Posse, Esham and (to a lesser extent) the multi-platinum selling Eminem, utilize shocking (and blatantly over the top) narratives to give an over-exaggerated, almost cartoon-like version of urban deprivation in Detroit" (cited in Cohen and Strachan, 2005)