As hard as I try not to, from time to time I sound like the old school dude stuck in the past when it comes to lamenting the state of hip hop today versus its alleged glory years of the late 80s-90s.
For so many, music is a soundtrack for one’s life journey… the first dance, the first kiss…the first… So it stands to reason that older people would have a stronger infinity for music that defined either their youth or at least their most memorable moments.
There is no denying that Hip Hop in the 80’s and 90s was filled with great music and artists that made classics that not only endure, but keep a party going to this day. Rakim, KRS, Tribe, De La, NWA, Dre, Snoop, Cube, Jay Z, DMX, Nas, Geto Boys, Wu Tang, Run DMC, Beastie Boys are just a few of the artists that brought Hip Hop out of the shadows of the hood to international renown and influence.
The 80’s and 90’s was a great time for the music and just as, if not more, importantly for the culture. The new millennium brought in great artists as well from Lil Wayne (who technically went platinum as part of Hot Boys as well as solo in 1999), Eminem to Kanye to Fab, but as time went on and the music’s reach and influence was truly global, Hip Hop in the 2000s started to look and feel very different than what earlier generations were used to.
Before I try to explain some of the differences, let’s first get rid of this fictional narrative that all old school Hip Hop was so much better and purer than the current state of the genre. “The Rappin Duke” and “The Pee Wee Herman” are just a sampling of the horrible nursery school level rap that existed and was popular back in the day. They are the predecessor to “Laffy Taffy” and “Stanky Leg”. While bad Hip Hop records in the 80s and 90s may not have been the rule they were far from the exception. Arguably, today bad Hip Hop records may not be the exception, but it would be a lie to state that there isn’t really good music and artists that represent the genre today.
So what if anything has changed? That’s a complex question with multi-layered answers. I will try and tackle a few. I will do the first with an analogy. All of those unfamiliar with professional basketball, bear with me. Prior to the NBA having an influx of players declaring themselves eligible and coming to the league directly out of high school, it was routine that most played several years of college ball in preparation for their jump to professional competition.
Many of the greatest names in the game had significant college tutelage, adding to their physical maturity as well as their skill level before turning pro. Michael Jordan (3 yrs.) Kareem Abdul Jabbar (4), Tim Duncan (4), Magic (2), Larry Bird (3 plus 1 year working), Hakeem Olajuwon (3 plus 1 redshirt year) Patrick Ewing (4), Allen Iverson (2). There are many other examples, but you can see that most of the game’s greats had put time in college honing their crafts before turning pro.
There have subsequently been players that went directly from high school to the NBA that had great, even legendary careers, but for every Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Lebron James there have been 3 or 4 more Sebastian Telfair, Kwame Brown, and Eddie Curry or even guys like former NYC legend Lenny Cooke, who was never even drafted after being labeled can’t miss.
The correlation to Hip Hop is that in the 80s and 90’s when guys were dependent on labels to make and release records, there was a much more difficult time to even getting signed. Guys often honed their crafts over many years, with some of the biggest rappers having gone through years of rejection before finally getting put on. Jay Z was turned down from multiple labels before finally starting Roc A Fella.
Rap artists were generally only signed by A&R’s with their potential to successfully produce full albums in mind. Today A& R’s technically exist, but most labels no longer spend any money or resources on actually developing artists. Artist’s are signed based on radio or releasable and ready singles, with the rap artists’ ability to actually produce enough tracks for an album an afterthought.
There are guys (and women) that clearly have the talent. Some are putting in the extra time and tutelage to get better at their craft. Drake put out three mixtapes before eventually signing to Young Money. His third mixtape featured two singles (Best I Ever Had” and “Successful, featuring Trey Song) that were both certified gold. Yet, with an emphasis on ready made singles and little to no artist development, many of today’s artist, however talented may not be putting in the time that so many others before them did. It is clearly a debatable point, and one that only partially offers any explanation for the differences in Hip Hop today versus the 80s and 90s.
A more direct and definitive explanation is money. In the 80s and 90s there was still not a lot of money in Hip Hop. Do not get me wrong, successful artists could still buy nice jewelry, a car or two and move out of the hood, maybe even purchase a house, but Hip Hop, for most had not replaced the NBA, NFL or hustling for guys looking to achieve their fortune.
It was definitely looked upon more and more as a way “out”, but the trickle down economic effects of the art form were not as universally felt as it is today. New artists were not getting 35 to 40 grand a show with only a single out. Most artists were not getting paid endorsement deals from multi-national companies. There was no social media in which your popularity base was more important in determining your ability to monetize your “brand” and landing on some reality show and making appearance fees rather than the ability to actually sell and perform music.
I argue that because money was not as plentiful back in the day, artists were more involved for the love of the music and the culture. Again, it was still looked at as a way to get paid, money just was not necessarily the primary motivation.
I think the reason that so many of the artists sound so similar today, is that much like Pop music, there is a formulaic method to what makes Hip Hop music popular and will get played on the radio today. Khaled may have the Keys, but everyone else seems to have gotten the memo of what radio and pop culture want the music to sound like.
I am glad artist’s today are getting paid, though much of what they show the public is rented and unsustainable fronts, in the fake it till you make it generation they are just putting out music and personas needed to get paid. I do not knock anyone’s hustle, but when money is the primary motivation, creativity often suffers.
The bottom line is that Hip Hop is not dead. It is still evolving. All of the music has never been good at any particular time. I think that there are many really good creative young artists of this generation who you just haven’t heard from because they do not sound like everyone else. Though Hip Hop is as internationally popular as ever, the formats in the states that push the genre’s visibility may be more limited than ever.
People do not necessarily look for the “good” music that is out there…they instead wait for someone to introduce them to the YG’s and Young M.A.’s. I may not love it all but I listen to new music all the time. The reality is that “back in the day” I didn’t love all the music then. Sure, the music and the times are different, and while I may identify with earlier 80s and 90s Hip Hop more, I have stopped myself from being automatically dismissive of today’s music. Good music is… good music and if you do not close your mind the younger generation should go back and explore the best of what the old school had to offer and the older generation needs to keep an open mind and ear for the best of what today’s Hip Hop has to offer.
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to read the “10 most Important Hip Hop Acts of all Time” and others in diaryofamadmind.com
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