A Rare Run for Hip-Hop’s Young
It’s hard to think that some of our favorite rappers are quickly approaching 50 years of age in this scary fast continuum of time and space. Dre’s already reached the midway point and the late, baby-faced West Coast pioneer Eazy-E would’ve have turned 52 this September.
But it seems like Rap has sustained itself by constantly churning out young prospects who come to dominate the genre as whipper snappers from the late 80s to mid 90s once did. “New” would be a better word than “young”. Some, like the big boss dawg Snoop, have dominated all the way through while new blood has evolved the sounds that come from the depths of the sea, back to the block. Upon taking a closer look at rap and the ages at which most emcees reign, one will realize that it is not as much of a young man’s game -como futbol- as it seems. Hip-hop’s best, K Dot (27), J. Cole (30), Lil Wayne (32), and Kanye (37) are no spring chickens and were not even that when they reached the helm.
In fact there has only been one run and two eras, if you wish to break them down that way, that ever produced a slew of creme de la creme adolescent rappers concurrently. This goes back to the aforementioned years from the late 80s to the genre’s first nadir following the deaths of Pac and then Big. Why has it been so hard for the youth to do like young Yasiel Puig and Mike Treezy Trout and dominate the game so young, you ask? Let’s take a look back at what we were presented throughout post-Reagan years and it will become a lot more clear.
It all begins with the facilitators of this whole shit; DJs. Eric B.’s talent search turned up Rakim who, at 18 years old dropped one of the most influential and still essential projects known to the genre that soon spread like P-waves throughout the world. As opposed to the elementary bars that lacked syllables and flat-out flow, in Rakim came with some of the first modern raps that formed the archetype for rap cadences that still haven’t died out. Let us not disregard LL Cool J who’d sold millions of albums by the time he was 22 but, frankly, the emcees bars were still simpler and way less cool than Rakim’s latte-smooth voice. Almost one year after the summer submitted to “Paid in Full”, Bed-Stuy’s own Big Daddy Kane etched his own hieroglyphs on the wall with “Raw” and the following LP “Long Live the Kane”. Inflections were just one way BDK had the game switched. Grade A, metaphors similes (“while my rhymes stick to you like Skippy and Jiff”) and the introduction of twisting pronunciations to make ends rhyme were groundbreaking and before the age of 22, the world had three cuts in their eyebrows ready to wil’ out. The influence was immense.
‘Round this time, the west sat back brewing with Ice-T (no pun intended, I swear) as its senior representative. But under the auspices of LA Riots of two decades before, the emergence of street gangs, and the preceding rap scene, Compton discovered that it had something to say which also sounded damn good over Dr. Dre basslines! At last, the world had NWA, aka a medium to expound on the narrative of the West Coast: its ruthless and often nonsensical violence -including that of the police, its thorough knowledge of the dope game, the outright lunacy of the place that was just recognized for knowing how to party, and how well -and often- they could cuss. While Dre and Eazy were 23 and 25, not old by any stretch, Ice Cube, boasting writing credits on every “Straight Outta Compton” track, was just 19 when the group’s debut dropped. Ren, the second leading writer was one day younger than Cube, who had yet to get colder (as an emcee, if you didn’t get… square-ass square butts. Pun totally intended).
Once NWA’s fervor lulled, highly likely due to the group’s immaturity, thus inability to handle stress and contract specifics, Ice Cube continued murking shit while Dre went on to supervise the emergence of rap’s baby boomers into the next decade as he discovered a 19 year old Snoop Dogg in the midst of mastering the sampling of Parliament-Funkadelic himself. And by the time Snoopy, succeeding East Coast emcees as well NWA, turned 21, the LB’s own had enough clout to move 800,000 tapes and CDs during its first week, making Doggystyle the fastest selling rap album to date. While Rakim was smooth, Snoop reinvented “cool”… Or he was just the first rapper to smoke that much tree before getting behind a mic to deliver that sedated, creamy, Cadbury flow.
Snoop wouldn’t be the only padawan flying under Dre’s wings. After the success of singles “Keep Ya Head Up” and “I Get Around” on the Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z, the 21 year old Tupac Shakur was poised for success but the young activist of sorts didn’t not take control of the game, where he was remained, until Suge Knight and Dre released the -recently released- monster on “California Love”. By the time Pac was shot dead, at the age of 25, his masterpiece “All Eyez on Me” had sold over 5 million albums with two number one singles.
Unfortunately the senseless murder of he and his one time associate, Biggie Smalls, which can be attributed to the still impressionable mindset of Pac, whose persona had changed from the conscious rapper to unapologetic gangster, cut this unmatched reign in rap short.
Before Biggie was gunned down at 24, he too had established himself as a pioneer of the genre, expressing vulgarities, frankly blasphemous and taboo in the rap community. While it had become perfectly fine to rap about the murder of an enemy, Biggie had no quips with dishonoring thy mother in bars or toying with the idea of suicide, catching the entire world by surprise. Also in New York at the time a 21 year old Nasty Nas was doing his best to rival Pac’s conscientious stylo, putting Illmatic in the conversation with Ready to Die and AEOM as the most important albums in Rap history. He likely could have stopped there and maintained the legacy we respect him for now.
Also in the Mecca of Hip-Hop were bubbling acts like Wu-Tang, whose members averaged 23 years of age when the 36 Chambers dropped. Tip and the Tribe were getting seriously experimental at just 21 years old, while Outkast first got trippy at the age of 19 though not recognized for their revolutionary approach until ATLiens dropped when the duo was 23. The game truly belonged to the YRNs and has been back to that point since.
Of all these youth being propelled to the top of the genre though, one common trait is shared by them all and it has much to do with the age of the genre as it was still forming, making the ability to introduce something new way easier than it is today and infinitely easier than it’ll be tomorrow. Molds could be broken much easier as Rap had yet to crystallize. Tribe’s samples were eloquent and groundbreaking like no other, Big Daddy’s command of a measure lead the way for young Hov, and without Biggie’s introduction to the grimiest shit put on wax at the time, Eminem would have a much steeper hill to climb before we respected his envelope push.
Debut after debut, it is becoming increasingly hard for rappers to incept the industry. Now it requires lots more maturity and knowledge -especially, self-knowledge (Know Yourself)- to introduce rap fans to something they’ve never had before. An altered or more vivid perspective is required to wow an A&R or label, which speaks to a higher level of rap’s pervasiveness that deals with the saturation of the market.
As more young guys opt for rapping as a hype dream over breakdancing, playing ball, or what alternatives young homies have in the hood -and elsewhere, it’s harder to stand out for your bars. So when an emcee is discovered for his wavy trippiness as A$AP Rocky was at 24, or when Kendrick gets recognized for his lyrical fluency at 23, it is only then when would-bes jocking for Dr. Dre and Drake’s attention have been outdone.
Crazy to think that the next rappers to run this game will have offers something better, or at least different than what Kanye, Kendrick, J. Cole, Eminem, and Drake are offering right now. For all we know 30 might become the next 20… Shit, look at Childish’s rise as a hailed emcee, he’ll be 32 in September.