They Reminisce Over You: Why Rap's "Golden Age" Will Never Be Duplicated
Mar 27, 2007 (Updated Oct 3, 2007)
Popular Products in MusicThe Bottom Line You know, back in the old days, when I was a boy...
A long time ago in a galaxy far away, an Epinions reviewer named Madtheory hosted something called "The Hip-Hop Appreciation Week Write-Off". Now, I'm not here to resurrect that particular exercise. Hip-hop has become widely respected as an art form over the years and is certainly well-represented on this site.
The reason I reference this write-off is because the only time I ever entered it, I wrote a piece looking back on my youth and my entrenchment in what is lovingly called hip-hop's "golden age". That essay has long since been deleted, and I have no idea what I actually wrote in it, but I'm sure I'll repeat some of the points I made in this essay, so I apologize if you're reading the same thing twice.
At any rate, it's probably safe to say that every musical genre has a particular period that connosieurs will agree represents the creative peak of said genre. Jazzheads will point to the 40s and 50s, when acts like Billie, Ella and Miles were in full flower. Hard rock heads gravitate towards the Seventies peak of acts like Led Zeppelin, and if you're a pop fan, was there ever a greater time than the mid-Eighties, when Michael, Madonna and Prince were spinning out classic after classic?
While there remains plenty of quality rap music on radio airwaves and record store shelves, there was a period when nearly every hip-hop record that hit stores was, if not a revolution, at the very least a treat. While any of you can argue for days as to whether I'm the most qualified person to state this fact, the reality of the situation is that I'm more qualified to argue it than 95% of the music reviewing community on Epinions. To what can you attribute this particular burst of ego? Well, we can start with the fact that I was alive and an actual record-buying citizen during this period. Add in the fact that I was part of the first generation to grow up immersed in hip-hop culture and the fact that I grew up in hip-hop's mecca of New York City, well...you can figure out what I'm trying to say. Young cats can't really argue this point, because they're listening to older rap music through the filter of what exists now. It's akin to someone my age listening to rock music of today and coming to the determination that The Beatles weren't important. What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that in order to have a valid viewpoint (the proper viewpoint?), you kinda had to be there as it was happening.
The sense of discovery during those days was amazing...to be around while hip-hop took form as a major artistic and commercial force was something truly special. Even in the early days, I remember there being a sense of discovery when my aunts and uncles played 12-inches of Kurtis Blow's "Christmas Rappin'" or Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" (still the most important rap record ever made). I remember sitting on my stoop as my teenage cousin rhymed "Sucker MC's" by Run-DMC over and over again with all the excitement he could muster. While you just kinda went along for the ride if you were in the midst of the experience, the number of paradigm shifts that occurred during the years 1986-1995 were amazing. Remember when rap first broke nationwide in '86 with Run-DMC/Aerosmith's collaboration "Walk This Way"? Most folks still thought hip-hop was a fad, folks talking noise over loud drumbeats, then pacing back and forth on stage, grabbing their nuts. There were many acts that completely killed that image and set the stage for many of the popular artists of today.
You want me to list those acts and albums that had not only historical significance but infinite replay value? I could go on forever. LL Cool J became hip-hop's first real sex symbol and became the first rapper to truly navigate the uncertain waters between street credibility and mainstream acceptance. Rakim set new standards for rhyming, bringing a jazz musician's flair for rhythm to the game, using not an instrument but his own voice (probably thanks to his jazz musician parents and his aunt, who was the popular singer Ruth Brown). Big Daddy Kane emerged on the scene as the first "punchline MC", influencing acts from Redman to Eminem to Jay-Z. De La Soul brought a whimsical, sarcastic flair to the proceedings, while Public Enemy articulated righteous urban rage better than any act in any genre before or since (if not for P.E., there would be no Rage Against The Machine). 3rd Bass became the first white acts to receive universal acceptance in the hip-hop community, while vague outsiders The Beastie Boys turned the relatively-new concept of sampling into an art form with 1989's "Paul's Boutique".
Although they were laughed at back home in Brooklyn (the jheri curl and hair relaxer jokes were endless), NWA and Ice-T broke open the California rap scene and made the gang violence issue known nationwide. Up until the early Nineties, most people in the rest of the country didn't know or care what a Blood or a Crip was. Cypress Hill (a group everyone I knew swore was from New York) almost singlehandedly made blunt-smoking one of hip-hop's most touched-upon topics. A Tribe Called Quest helped bring live musicianship to the table with "The Low End Theory", which featured live (not sampled) bass playing from Ron Carter, while acts like Digable Planets delved further into actual jazz. Arrested Development (remember them?) were the first hip-hop act from the South to make an impact, then a couple years later, OutKast actually proved that cats from the South could rhyme. Naughty By Nature proved that pop hooks and hardcore lyrics could merge peacefully (and let's not forget, drama-schooled Tupac stole much of his pretty boy/thug image from NBN's Treach), while Nas & Biggie capped off hip-hop's "golden era" by introducing the streetlife narratives that just about every popular MC has emulated since.
I think there are two factors that made that era as special as it was. The first, obviously, is that a lot of these developments had no precedent. I mean, seriously, what was the last hip-hop album that came out that was completely innovative and blew your socks off because you'd never heard anything like it before? Has there been one made in the 21st century at all? I doubt it. While acts from Common, Kanye West and The Roots have all made classic albums in the past couple of years, they're drawing on a pre-existing template rather than creating the template. The only remotely new development to occur in hip-hop this decade comes from artists like Nas and Jay-Z, who are respectively (and respectfully) attempting to mature with their audience rather than attempting to pander to the callow, youthful crowd that bought their popular records and are now ten years older and not so concerned with street life and hustling anymore.
The other reason that the music made during the golden era is so special is simply that it wasn't easily accessible. For those that don't have the benefit of being local, please know that New York City, the birthplace and standard-bearer of rap music, did not have a hip-hop radio station until 1994. If you were a "head" in the late Eighties or early Nineties (and you were looking for something a little more hardcore than the Heavy D that got played in the daytime on the R&B stations), you had to wait until 8 or 9 PM on Friday and Saturday night, when DJs like Red Alert or Chuck Chillout did mix shows on the local radio stations. I would set my cassette player on record and tape the entire show on a 90-minute tape, editing out the commercials.
Similarly, until Dr. Dre exploded in 1993, hip-hop videos were a rare find on MTV and BET. Now, even VH-1 plays Ludacris videos. Back in 1991, all you were getting on VH-1 was Michael Bolton. Except for the hour a day you got of "Rap City" and "Yo! MTV Raps", hip-hop's video presence was next to nil, unless you had the benefit of having local public access shows, which we did in NYC with "American Hot Video" (co-hosted by Bobby Simmons, drummer of Stetsasonic, the original hip-hop band half a decade before The Roots) and "Video Music Box" (which, stunningly, still runs in the NYC area nearly a quarter-century later). The point I'm making with all this random-seeming reminiscent is that hip-hop was almost like a secret. Pre-internet, pre-hip hoppers getting Platinum records as a matter of course, you almost felt like you were part of a secret society-a secret society that rejoiced when Tribe's "Low End Theory" somehow went Gold in 1992.
Although rap music is now a cultural (and financial) behemoth in a way that it wasn't fifteen years ago, you can't really argue the fact that some of the soul is gone. Former drug dealers enter the rap game to get paid. Back in '88, there really wasn't any money to be made in hip-hop-unless you were Run-DMC (wait, they got jerked). OK, The Beastie Boys (wait, they got jerked too). OK, OK...there really wasn't any money to be made in hip-hop unless you were LL (hell, even Will Smith went bankrupt back in the day). It sounds hippy-dippy, but folks did it for the creative expression at least as much, if not more than they did for a paycheck. Now, even the cats that appear to be in it for the music have an outlet that allows them to profit handsomely (if not, then Common has no excuse to be doing those GAP commercials). Even folks like Hammer had to have been in it at least partially for the music, simply because there was NO precedent for Hammer's initial success!
Now, there's a template. Get big-name producers, find a hot R&B singer or an A-level rapper to sing a chorus or drop a guest verse on your record, shake well, and there's your recipe for a hit hip-hop record (it pleases me much to see that formula backfiring so much lately-maybe it'll shock some folks into being creative again). Even among indie/backpacker/"underground" rap, there's a sameness to it, an overwhelming self-righteous "f*ck the mainstream" sentiment that's gotten really stale over the years. Everyone's following formulas, and no one's ballsy enough to break rank. That results in uninspired music that will be completely disposable ten years from now. Listen to "One For All" by Brand Nubian (which came out in '91) and listen to T.I.'s "King" (which came out last year), and tell me which of the two has more replay value. There are a million and one factors you could blame it on, starting with the music industry's growing reliance on the bottom line as opposed to artist development and continuing on through performers more concerned with finance than artistry, but the fact of the matter probably is that hip-hop's glory years were a moment in time that will never be duplicated again. The game has changed too much, and there's no new ground to be broken. All that can be made are refinements, and I'm not trying to knock the current artists that do provide quality music on a regular basis. I am however, saying that those types of artists are becoming fewer and farther between. Much of what exists nowadays can fall into one of several categories: old-school classicism, "adult contemporary" rap a la Jigga and Nas, boho-intellectual rap both "commercial" (Kanye, OutKast) and "uncommercial" (name "underground" rap artiste here), rap that reinforces just about every negative stereotype about black Americans (Lil' Wayne, Young Jeezy, Clipse) and straight-up Stepin Fetchit shuckin' and jivin' like The Black Eyed Peas (it's hard for me to ascertain which of the latter two is actually worse). So much hip-hop nowadays is regimented, fitting into one category, that it seems plastic, soulless, calculated in a way that even the most pop-centric of old-school hip-hop (Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Salt-N-Pepa, Kid 'n Play, Hammer) isn't.
Nas is about two years older than me-we came up in virtually the same era, only a couple of miles apart. Everyone in the hip-hop industry is making a big stink about whether, as his latest album title indicates, "Hip-Hop Is Dead". Man, I don't even think Nas thinks hip-hop is dead, but I DO think he's trying to breathe a little bit of life into an art form that's become the musical equivalent of the phrase "fat and happy". A lot of the hunger and revolutionary spirit that marked the "golden age" has gone. So, no, hip-hop isn't dead, but it's becoming very far removed from an era in which it was most alive, and that's a damn shame.
I've written a lot less in terms of hip-hop reviews than I probably should have, but why should I when Dayo is around? Quite simply the most informed and talented hip-hop writer on this site, just about every review he's written is essential...and he also provided me with the kick in the *ss I needed to write this essay. Thanks dude.
Now I feel comfortable pimping out some of my "golden age" hip-hop reviews:
Raising Hell-Run DMC
Follow The Leader-Eric B. & Rakim
Power To The People & The Beats: Greatest Hits-Public Enemy
Mama Said Knock You Out-LL Cool J
The Cactus Album-3rd Bass
De La Soul Is Dead-De La Soul
The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick-Slick Rick
The Very Best of Big Daddy Kane
The Very Best of MC Lyte
Illmatic by Nas
Ready To Die by The Notorious B.I.G.