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Word Up: Hip-hop is old

October 20, 2009
Hip-hop's generation gap can be jarring

Hip-hop's generation gap can be jarring

It’s the stuff of genres and yes, blueprints — changing vanguards, provocateur newcomers, torch passings, aged mentors and sniveling students. Cliches about the more things change, etc. Movies where wily old men defeat athletic teens with sheer know-how and decades worth of muscle memory. Honourable samurai versus heretic ninja. The good ol’ days when work meant something. The circle of life. The nostalgia, man.

So when a flurried succession of albums from established, 40-ish rappers came through the door waving flags and re-staking claims — Raekwon, KRS-One and Buckshot, Ghostface, Jay-Z, and Snoop to come — something was no doubt up. A clear line was appearing between the beasts of yore and the fashion-obsessed upstarts of today, and those who care about the culture (and a few who don’t) naturally got to thinking, what the fuck is going on here anyway? And why do my knees hurt so much when it rains?

Here’s what they had to say.

snoop with family

Snoop with the next generation

Coming of age

The BBC’s Alexis Akwagyiram profiles Joe Conzo, a South Bronx-bred hip-hop photographer who came up in rap’s Golden Age. The piece jumps from Conzo snapping pics of Latino bboys before the term ‘hip-hop’ was even coined, to Ivy-League Yale academics discussing the work of New York’s finest emcees. Whereas Conzo lived and breathed the culture, the students take part in tours that visit New York’s projects on field trips that add context to their studies. Is hip-hop’s growth one from first-person storytelling and genuine community to twice-removed cultural tourism? [Hip-hop comes of age]

As it lives and breathes

Blunted blogger Noz has a few things to say about that. In a piece for The Root, Noz points out that the BBC article regards hip-hop as some sort of artifact, already embalmed and hanging in a museum for never-downs to stare at and pontificate on. Noz calls for nuance — hip-hop is old and changed but alive and well, and while some rappers have aged gracefully others are just as shallow as before, merely bragging about maturity instead of actually reaching it. [‘Grown Man’ Rappers Like Jay-Z or Common Are Mature Only in the Absence of Immaturity]

Bigger than hip-hop

Jonah Weiner blogs on Slate‘s “Brow Beat” that maybe there are only two paths for aging rhymesayers: 1) become bigger than hip-hop and reach outwards to other genres ala Andre 3000 and Kanye West, or 2) stick with it and become entirely unconvincing ala Jay-Z. While artists in other forms of pop music have found ways to go grey in style, Weiner says rappers have yet to figure this out for themselves. [Growing Old and Going Broke in Hip-Hop]

The Jigga factor

Leave it to The New Yorker to say the least but say it the best. Sasha Frere-Jones muses on the death of hip-hop, but really he’s talking about the decline of Jay-Z, a distinction made clearer when he gives props to Raekwon and Indiana’s Freddie Gibbs. But damn if this isn’t a wonderful sentence: “Somewhere along the way, the struggle to escape became a love of accumulation, and underdogs ended up sounding as smug as the authorities they once battled.” [Wrapping Up]

But hip-hop’s autopsy isn’t admissible to a jury of stalwarts like Toure. No sir:

Tweet Toure 1

Generation next

Meanwhile, back at The Root, Jeff Chang sounds a little bored with the whole debate. The academic-minded writer (apologies, Jeff, it wasn’t a diss tweet, just a real tweet!) who once noted that generations are fictions, sees the discussion as the same old same. “Every time the ex-kids who feel like they reinvented it get a little older, the new kids behind them start turning it into something else. How do the older ones react? They holler about ‘Hip-hop is dead’—the first time someone said hip-hop was dead was in 1979, the year ‘Rapper’s Delight’ came out.” And that’s word to your son’s grandma. [The Small, Hot Argument Across Hip-Hop’s Mini-Generation Gap]

Or, as Ego Trip’s Ted Bawno might tweet it:

Tweet Ted Bawno

Caught feelings

So maybe that’s all it is — we’ve caught feelings. Not over the culture as a whole, as we might have claimed in our KRS-One Knights of the Four Elements phase, but over our personal time in the spotlight; our paused screenshot in hip-hop’s voracious, incestuous, panoptic whirl of style and attitude. It’s not the death of hip-hop we’re crying over, it’s our inability to relate to Drake and the lack of meaning Jay-Z gives to our lives. But who changed — Jay or us? Hip-hop or the general pop culture’s relationship with hip-hop? Rafi Kam looks at Ice Cube’s commercial for Nike and concludes that nostalgia is one hell of a drug. [Nike, P-Rods, and Falling for the Okey-Doke]

The world tour

Of course it’s a Canadian who forecasts sunnier skies to come. Toronto scribe Dalton Higgins writes in his new book Hip Hop World: A Groundwork Guide that hip-hop grew up and didn’t just move out, it traveled the world and put down roots. Canada offers fertile ground for this kind of thinking, what with Canuck talent lately going all in and the T-dot’s penchant for immigrant stories and diaspora double-dipping, but Higgins says it’s bigger than any scene. Those who want more (or less?) from the 30-or-so year-old genre are just myopic; today’s most exciting rap music probably comes from a teenage dude in Soweto or a girl in Bangladesh. [Hip Hop World: A Groundwork Guide]

“Word Up”: the linkdump series that feels like homework.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Simon permalink*
    October 21, 2009 12:27 am

    That was some true internet savvy, wordsmithed beyond reproach. Bravo.

  2. Jesse permalink*
    October 21, 2009 8:44 am

    Agreed, great read Jef. And I’m not going to lie. Watching that Nike video makes me want to do two things: listen to the original (which I just did), and buy those sneakers (damn you Nike!)

  3. Simon permalink*
    October 21, 2009 4:59 pm

    Sadly, I already own those sneakers.

  4. Anupa permalink*
    October 21, 2009 11:18 pm

    You are awesome.
    And that line in that Sasha Frere Jones piece is definitely money.
    Hip-hop blogging and writing in general is such a fascinating thing. The fact that there is such a diversity of opinion with regard to this (seemingly) niche topic should be proof enough that hip-hop definitely isn`t dead. I love how it can make people so reactionary.

    And, btw, it`s true: I can`t relate to Drake.

  5. October 23, 2009 5:45 pm

    Apology accepted. Now if someone wants to offer me an academic job with lifetime tenure and health benefits, please holla.

  6. October 24, 2009 3:12 pm

    Jeff: Don’t know if I can help, but if Obama’s health care plan craps out, come to Canada. We’ve got a lot of open space and no idea what to do with it.

    If anyone is interested more in this debate, it’s goin down at

  7. Double-u permalink
    October 27, 2009 11:27 pm

    Yo jef,
    this is some interesting and some eye opening about these aging rappers. I think the only way they keep doing it because they signed big contracts for like 10 album deals hoping that this album is going to out due the last one and go quadruple platinum record sales and still be relevant in the times that they are in and coming. Every rapper has something to say but sometimes I can’t feel it like I used to. Looks like I am growing but the other side wants to hear it and still want to know who is hot and who is not and who sill end up on the XXL milk cart missing. I hope Jay,Common and Nas don’t end up there!

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