Most cultures hold their elders in high regard. It’s safe to say that hip hop in its current form is not one of them.
In today’s hip hop landscape, pioneers are typically dismissed and marginalized by the mainstream, trotted out once a year during VH1’s “Hip Hop Honors” and then conveniently forgotten.
There is a sense that aging rap artists need to “move out of the way” or “stay in their lane” to make way for new artists, as if classic rappers could be any further out of the way than they already are and new artists are actually worth getting out of the way for.
One has to wonder why rock artists are revered well into old age while their rap counterparts are generally ignored and then branded “angry and bitter” when they object to being tossed aside like yesterday’s garbage.
Rockers aren’t told to move aside and make way for the next generation. They’re regarded with a level of respect and awe that often borders on hero worship, because listeners understand that people age and styles change, but quality music is timeless.
It’s well known that The Rolling Stones still sell out stadiums, acts such as Steve Miller Band, Allman Brothers Band and Fleetwood Mac can still pack arenas and amphitheaters, and their shows attract multiple generations of fans — something I can attest to personally after seeing these groups several times. Classic rock and adult contemporary stations keep the catalogues of “old” rockers in heavy rotation, and artists like Bob Dylan and Tom Petty still land on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
The nationally televised 12-12-12 fundraising concert for Hurricane Sandy victims proved yet again that rock artists with AARP cards remain relevant; the lineup was stacked with classic acts like Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, The Who and Paul McCartney.
No, hip hop and rock are not the same, and there’s no attempt here to equate the two. Although they’re both young genres with roots in rebellion and angst, they’re also different styles of music that appeal to fan bases of different sizes. Most rap artists will never claim the number or breadth of fans that major rock acts like the Rolling Stones do. But a rock-to-rap comparison isn’t exactly to “apples and oranges” either. While the size and makeup of rock and rap fan bases differ, it stands to reason that if quality artists in one genre can still garner radio play, media coverage and respect well into old age, then quality artists in another genre should receive similar treatment.
And yet classic rap artists are typically treated like they don’t exist. There are few, if any, terrestrial classic hip hop stations; the most we can get for throwback music in Boston, for example, is a half hour of hits from the ‘90s and early 2000s at lunchtime, or whatever might play on college radio. The Hip Hop Gods tour that Public Enemy headlined late last year was universally ignored by major media outlets, even though Chuck D is as important to hip hop as someone like Bob Dylan is to folk and rock, and Public Enemy is one of the most groundbreaking groups in all of music.
Local rap radio stations will proudly promote live shows for 2 Chainz and Trinidad James, but barely mention tours by rap legends like Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane, who helped to create the genre these stations are busy milking for its last dollar.
Artists like Jay-Z, Kanye West and Eminem have managed to maintain superstardom well into their 30s, but they are the exception and not the rule. Most aging hip hop artists — Ice Cube, LL Cool J and Queen Latifah, for example — have chosen to branch off into other endeavors like film and product endorsement to stay relevant. It’s nice that Chuck D and LL got to close out this year’s Grammy Awards, but considering how infrequently hip hop pioneers play on a national stage, it was baffling to see them perform an unfamiliar new song rather than a medley of their classic hits.
Which begs the question of why hip hop legends who helped to create this now-global culture are seldom given the respect or platform they deserve.
It’s true that hip hop is youth-oriented and built around battling and besting the next man, and that’s not necessarily a mindset that breeds respect. And as The Guardian noted in its music blog, the urban family structure may influence hip hop’s treatment of its elders:
“Culturally, the lack of a father figure in a majority of ghetto homes also plays a role. Hip-hop manifests this as an obsession with one’s immediate peer group and a dismissal of elders. Knowledge isn’t handed down; what little knowledge there is gets shared by peers. People raised in ‘the streets’ know nothing but ‘the streets.’ The codes and the rules of the streets don’t necessarily allow reverence for elders.”
True enough, but there’s a larger factor in the equation that no one is talking about, and that’s the influence of corporations.
It’s no secret that corporations now control mainstream hip hop culture — if it can even be called a culture anymore.
One company — Viacom — owns BET and MTV. One company — Clear Channel — owns the majority of radio stations in the country. One company — Live Nation — produces most of the concerts in the U.S. And since 1988, the major labels have been reduced from six to three. So the result is a consolidation of control over our music, and a very small number of people deciding what a large number of people will see and hear.
Corporations now determine who gets signed, who gets radio spins, who gets national tours and who appears on “106 & Park.” And this, in turn, determines who gets covered by your favorite magazines and blogs, because at this point, hip hop journalism has degenerated from actual reporting and analysis to blindly promoting “hot” artists in an effort to draw readers and boost pageviews.
Even “indie” promotional outlets like social media and YouTube are heavily influenced by corporations; try watching any video without seeing an ad for Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, 2 Chainz, et al.
The result of corporations controlling hip hop is the total degradation of our music and culture. What began as a tool for black progress and a movement with the power to pick up where Civil Rights left off has become a weapon against the very community that created it, with a barrage of images and messages that promote the destruction of self, family and community.
Hip hop’s original tenets of peace, love, unity, fun and knowledge of self are glaringly absent from the corporate rap paradigm, which caters to a young, mostly white audience that would rather see caricatures of black life than hear about the violence exploding in Chicago, or the number of blacks in prison, or the quality of our school systems.
That’s not to say that old school artists were universally positive and new school artists are universally negative. There are still bright spots in the current commercial landscape, like Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Murder to Excellence,” and classic rap wasn’t all flowers and unicorns. Not every old school song depicted inner-city life as vividly as Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” nor did every song advocate for female empowerment like Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” or denounce drug use like MC Lyte’s “Cappucino.”
But even when N.W.A. breathed fire on “Fuck tha Police,” they were protesting oppressive conditions in their community, not advocating for them as so much modern-day rap does. And there was a sense of diversity and authenticity in hip hop before the mid-to-late ‘90s corporate takeover. From Rakim to KRS-One to Ice-T to A Tribe Called Quest, rappers came off as real people expressing real feelings, not studio thugs or characters created in some corporate conference room.
Now, rap has been reduced to mass-produced ignorance. Most artists sound the same, and every mainstream rap song revolves around some combination of drugs, alcohol, violence, crime, misogyny and materialism. You will not hear about the black unemployment rate, but you will hear French Montana and friends rapping about bitches tiptoeing on Italian marble floors.
So it makes sense that old school rappers have no place in the new school corporate paradigm, because these two schools are two worlds at odds, with clashing messages and goals. One promoted survival; the other celebrates death.
Of course many older artists are going to fade in popularity. Of course styles change and new trends take hold. Not every artist can claim the fan base they once had, not every artist will maintain their skill level and not every artist wants to be a part of hip hop well into middle age; some will simply outgrow the culture and move on to other things. But the virtual erasure of old school hip hop figures from the new school landscape is not about rusty rappers or fading popularity and new trends. It is a calculated move by corporations that are busy selling ignorance and silencing sources of enlightenment. The corporate rap paradigm profits off of black dysfunction, and old school hip hop artists merely represent a dent in their profit margin.