A Youthful Expression: The Issue Of Aging With Hip Hop
As we all age, we must reconcile the youth-driven culture of Hip Hop with mortality and outwardly embracing the concept of physically and mentally maturing.
“I love all the rappers today, but it’s hard to defend this shit. It’s hard, man…it’s hard to defend, ‘I got hoes in different area codes. It’s hard to defend, ‘Move bitch, get out the way.’ Well as you can see, there’s a bitch in his way that he needs to move…” –Chris Rock, “Smack Her With A Dick (Rap Standup).”
Chances are, if you grew up in the ‘80s, you watched at least one of the infamous “buddy cop” movies from the Lethal Weapon series starring Danny Glover and Mel Gibson. Before Gibson was making drunken anti-Semitic rants, he rose to fame through an onscreen partnership that saw him take the role of a psychotic LAPD sergeant Martin Riggs alongside Glover’s character, Roger Murtaugh. So what does any of this have to do with Hip Hop? During Lethal Weapon’s peak, Murtaugh would often find himself in physically and mentally challenging circumstances, and he’d inevitably deliver his signature catch phrase with perfect timing.
“I’m too old for this shit,” an exasperated Murtaugh would always say. If you’re old enough to remember Lethal Weapon, then you’ve probably looked at Hip Hop and had a few “I’m too old for this shit” moments yourself. I think this happens for any number of reasons. By and large, I don’t think growing older with Hip Hop has ever traditionally been outwardly embraced. But why is this the case? Is there any statistical or anecdotal evidence to support why rappers closing in on the age of 40 would want or need to appeal to teenagers? I feel like we’re being sold these false concepts of “youth” and “coolness” by rappers whom young people would traditionally deem old. All of this makes me wonder if Hip Hop is still or has ever been as much of a youth-driven culture as we have historically assumed.
The Business Of Appealing To Young Hip Hop Fans
“I’ma keep it all the way hood, I been livin’ in my third childhood lately / Smokin’ a lot of spinach lately, hanging out at the strip club lately / I used to give niggas playa prices and juggs for the bricks / But now I be giving discounts, for hooks and verse licks…” –E-40, “Understandz Me.”
Whenever we see a rapper in their 30s or older doing some age-inappropriate behavior like “Stanky Legging” or just generally playing themselves, it’s tempting to assume they’re trying to court the younger, music-buying audience. It’s been a long-held assumption that teenagers have the most disposable personal income, and thus, they buy the most music. But according to a 2012 study by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), people over the age of 40 still buy the most music. Data can always be manipulated to support any argument; and again, that doesn’t mean the 40-year-olds buying the music are the ones setting the trends.
“I feel like most cultures—as far as entertainment—are usually youth driven,” offered Craig G, via a recent phone interview. It’s worth noting, Craig, who emerged in the late 80s as a member of the Juice Crew with Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie, named his most-recent album, Ramblings Of An Angry Old Man. “I believe people should grow with Hip Hop. On my last album, I purposely did that not to alienate a whole demographic, but more so to embrace a demographic that I feel was being forgotten. Just because you turn a certain age doesn’t mean you don’t love Hip Hop anymore; you just might not like what’s popular and in your face as far as Hip Hop is concerned.”
Looking at the data yields some interesting facts about who is at the forefront of the most visible, mainstream, Top 40 Hip Hop you see on television and hear on terrestrial radio. During the week beginning October 20, 2013, the average age of the rappers on Billboard Magazine’s R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart was 28.1. That’s taking multiple contributions from the 40-plus crowd of Jay Z and Eminem into account, but also factoring in younger members such as Drake, YG and Rich Homie Quan. If we look at Nielsen’s Broadcast Data Systems chart for Hip Hop/R&B songs with the most radio airplay, the average age is slightly higher at 31.5. Again, we’re looking at participants that range from the age of 46 (R. Kelly) to 19 (the average age of the members of Migos).
Youthful Expression: Is Hip Hop Still A Youth-Driven Culture?
“Some Rap pioneers be crackheads / When they speak, you see missin’ teeth / Silver chain with a silver piece / Niggas your grandfather age / They pants still hanging down they leg, talkin’ about they ain’t paid / And they hate you, ‘cause they say you ain’t paid dues…” —Nas, “Carry On Tradition.”
So many things have changed the interaction and intersection points of Hip Hop, that I’m not even entirely sure it’s accurate to call it youth-driven. Anecdotally, Kool Herc wasn’t a kid when he was hosting parties at Sedgewick and Cedar. But artists such as Soulja Boy or legendary Juice Crew member Craig G were literally teenagers when they gained national recognition. And the two emcees who will likely have the top-selling albums in 2013—Jay Z and Eminem—are both in their 40s. And both Em and Jay were well into their 20s when they crossed over into the mainstream. This isn’t an all encompassing statement I’m trying to pass off as fact, but in my experience, the Hip Hop moments that usually crossover to the mainstream news cycle are often created by mainstream Top 40 emcees. I intuitively know that Hip Hop is not limited to what appears on various charts. And a true fan of the culture doesn’t let outsiders such as Billboard or Nielsen define anything. But when defending Hip Hop against an outsider, that’s sadly usually the direction the discussion takes.
As a fan of Tupac Shakur and De La Soul, I’ll never forget how uncomfortable it felt to hear ‘Pac say Posdnuos, Trugoy and Mase looked like Larry Holmes all flabby and sick on “Against All Odds.” But when ‘Pac threw those shots at De La Soul, most of us didn’t envision rappers on stage in their 40s. Tupac died at the age of 25, but he was presumably only a few years younger than both Trugoy and Posdnuos when he dissed them. The members of De La Soul are all hovering around 40 and still rocking shows today. Perception aside, what if ‘Pac truly took some shots at rappers in their 40s? Aside from occasionally seeing legends like Melle Mel trotted out, or catching Grandmaster Flash on “The Chris Rock Show,” there weren’t many outlets for rappers in their 40s back in the late ‘90s. That’s changed for the most part, but I still think there’s still a stigma attached to being a rapper in your late 30s or older.
“It’s not for me to be on stage at 35 still trying to rap,” said Slum Village co-founder T3 during a March interview with HipHopDX. “But I think Rap is getting old, and I think you will see that. I don’t think Jay Z is going to ever stop. I don’t think a lot of people are ever gonna stop as far as that. This is the first time I’ve ever seen Rap grow up, and it’s okay. You can be old and young at the same time for a change, and maybe 10 years ago, it wasn’t so cool to be old. Most rappers I know are at least 30. If you look at Jay Z, Kanye, Eminem and 2 Chainz, all of them are at least 30. You’ve still got your young cats, but they’re few and far in between. The old guys are kind of running the game.”
Again, on an anecdotal level, T3’s statements ring true. When you look at the artists operating successful joint-ventures and ancillary businesses, names like Jay Z (Roc Nation Sports) and Dr. Dre (Beats by Dre) come to mind. And statistically, him saying, “The old guys are kind of running the game,” falls in line with the average ages from both Billboard and Nielsen. So are we talking about people who set precedents in the business world or people like Lil B, Hurricane Chris and/or Lil Wayne who set cultural trends? Chris was one of the originators of “Ratchet,” while Wayne fancies himself as the inventor of the term “Bling.” And Lil B’s eschewing the major label system for a viral onslaught of YouTube videos speaks directly to the RIAA’s decision to incorporate digital audio and YouTube streams in calculating the sales of digital singles. Cultural trends are easily and often co-opted into the more dominant popular culture and the business world, but the entities are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
The 40/40 Club: Agendas Of Hip Hop’s Elder Statesmen
“Fat titties turn to teardrops, as fat ass turns to flab / Sores that was open wounds eventually turn to scabs / Trees bright and green turn yellow brown, autumn caught ‘em / See all them leaves must fall down / Growing old…”
–Andre 3,000 “13th Floor/Growing Old.”
So if people 40 and older are buying the most music, and the statistical evidence supports the opinion that people around the age of 30 create most commercially successful Hip Hop, I struggle to understand why it often feels like there are a number of artists close to 40 rapping in a manner to appeal to teenagers. Naturally, as we get older, we have different experiences and our priorities change. And I assume—at least on my end—that fuels how I currently feel about Hip Hop. I don’t simply gravitate to a rapper that talks about the superfluous aspects of getting older, but rather how we all feel about coming to grips with our mortality and our added responsibilities. As much as I hate the tried and true Nas versus Jay Z comparisons, the two emcees offer distinctly different approaches toward how they view aging. On “30 Something” Jay bragged about being “young enough to know the right car to buy, yet grown enough not to put rims on it.” And while custom rims on a luxury car has traditionally been a gaudy sign of “new money,” that’s very much a statement rooted in the superficial aspects of what it means to age within Hip Hop culture. I say this with the concession that there have been times when Jay touches on the deeper side of addressing his age, such as “Allure,” “Somewhere In America” and the majority of Watch The Throne. But, by and large, I think he’s chosen a broader, shallower approach, and that’s why he continues to appear on the charts.
Conversely, I think about the following bars from Nas’ “A Queens Story:”
“Now I’m the only black in the club with rich yuppie kids / Sad thing, this is the top, but where the hustlers went / No familiar faces around, ain’t gotta grab the musket / It’s all safe and sound, champagne by the bucket…”
Here Nas not only touches on how getting older looks, but also how it feels. As a listener, I can appreciate that Nas made a song about feeling out of place and unfamiliar in a nightclub. This is clearly not the same guy with the mink, pouring out Cristal with Puff in the “Hate Me Now” video. And that’s not to say there’s even anything wrong with being in the club. But the general consensus is, when the mid-30s come knocking—no one wants to be the old, balding guy in the club still getting bottle service. It’s not that the surface material that initially made Jay and Nas appealing doesn’t appeal to me or presumably any other person in their 30s or 40s. I just think it’s a matter of having our perspectives change with age. Different things are important.
And maybe that’s at least one of the reasons why I sometimes feel myself getting less inspired by the current Hip Hop scene. I’ve been infatuated with Hip Hop music and culture since the second grade, when I used to sneak off and listen to N.W.A. Some 25 years later, a lot of the love is still there. I’m fortunate enough to be able to say that Hip Hop literally pays my bills, and I’m still in love with many of the things that originally hooked me when my big brother turned on “Dopeman” on our raggedy YORX boombox back in the day. Like many of my peers at and over the age of 30, I find myself doing a facepalm when some dumbass gets a duck tattooed on their face or an idiot rapper allegedly kills his friend as part of an Illuminati sacrifice. Luckily, with age (hopefully) comes wisdom, perspective and an ability to focus elsewhere.
“I spent years complaining about bad Hip Hop instead of championing the good stuff,” Craig G added. “Who’s the dude that just signed to TDE?” he asked, in reference to Isaiah Rashad. “He’s sick, yo! There’s a lot of lyricists down South, and I used to be guilty of sleeping on them too. But instead of complaining, look around, and you might be surprised. Instead of complaining, champion the good stuff. That’s more of what comes with wisdom and getting older. I don’t hate anybody anymore. I’m an angry, old man, because I have to watch what’s happening. Of course that’s gonna make me angry. But you know what makes me feel better? I have to at least big up the people that are dope. For every bad Hip Hop release, there’s like two or three great ones.”
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @OmarBurgess.