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Is the “old head” critique of modern hip hop warranted?

In hip hop, as is often the case with many topics, there tends to be a glossy and/or rosy eyed view of the past; and an endlessly wagging finger about the present state of the genre.  The identity of hip hop seems to be under such a rapid evolution that even the artists of the 90s and early 2000s are absolutely confused and, in some case, terrified by what they are looking at when they peruse the likes of Lil pump, NLE Choppa, Lil Uzi Vert, etc.

The colorful hair, the colorful language, the beats that border on mid tempo EDM, with zero crate digging needed (and less royalties paid out, luckily for the artist)…and the lyrical content slides into 4 word phrases repeated over and over, and lyrical cadences that become reminiscent of a child’s lullaby.  Or so, this is what typically passes as the view of new hip hop by the older, past mid 30s aficionado.  

The trouble with this understanding is that hip hop does not live in a vacuum.  It hasn’t even been linear from the point of it’s inception.  With the conscious route that many hip hop artists have taken, the “braggadocio” styles and more vulgar styles have been developed in tandem.  

The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” , which tends to be considered the first breakout hip hop hit  to hit the top 40, has always dealt with the cloud of contentious origins.  One of the rappers charged with possibly being behind the creation of that hit is Grandmaster Caz…at least in terms of writing the lyrics Big Bank Hank recited on the track.  When you study Caz’s early lyrics, developing his sound as hip hop was just getting started, you find yourself losing the sense of vanilla nostalgia you may believe was ever present in hip hop during the early 80s.

There’s a steady climb in braggadocio which starts to create a divide in hip hop, setting itself apart from notable characters like Grandmaster Flash and “The Jungle” which is a conscious hip hop song, providing socio-political commentary on the state of the black community at the time.  

As we all understand, as the years pass, all genres begin to see a step towards the extremes.  Metal gets faster and brasher; rock gets moodier; and hip hop bathes itself in the success of not only industry recognition and label money, but also the fast cash of the crack epidemic which could make a king out of anyone ruthless enough to join the game.  Boasting of lyrical skill and attractiveness morphs into boasting of sexual prowess, violence and gang connections.  

Today’s music is just the latest outcropping, steeped in decades of tradition.

So what does the “old head” really tend to contend with in the younger generations?  

Oftentimes, it appears that the common grievances are the introduction of drug culture.  Whereas, the rappers of the 80s and 90s boasted of selling drugs, they found it insulting to take drugs.  Drugs were for junkies; and taking drugs made the user synonymous with a junkie.  However, they are missing the connection that hip hop made with EDM, not only in the sound but also trends.  The nightclub/rave culture seeped in (arguably, even around the time of PM Dawn), making the psychedelic experience more welcome in hip hop culture.  One must note that, even in today’s music, no one is boasting of taking crack or heroin.  This is still understood as taboo, even though the argument could be made that the mention of abuse of pharmaceutical drugs such as Adderall and Percocet is akin to those very same street drugs.  

Another typical critique is the frustration with the lack of lyrical prowess.  What is particularly humorous about this critique is that it echoes early hip hop, where there was already a divide and critique between the more conscious rappers and the “party rappers” who were less inclined to impart a “conscious message” to the listener.  The party rapper was simply trying to increase the energy of the partygoers and encourage a good time.  

So it would seem that the grievances of the present have always been here.  All genres evolved.  They had to.  

I’m an avid lover of boom bap but could we really extend its potency past nearly two decades without a little experimentation?  Has the human race ever stagnated on anything past a decade or two?  

Hip hop is what we made it.  It may not have been the intention to make the wild haired Lil Uzi Vert, who is liable to post a trending dance, wearing a purse and rapping about sweating off a perc…but the arbiters of hip hop sowed a seed.  

Rather than curse the outgrowth, we might all do well to nurture it towards health, with understanding and acceptance.  


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