While the youthful face of what’s “hot” in hip hop is ever-changing, it seems that the face of what is truly popular in hip hop continues to show signs of aging. The pop-media might portray the genre as being a young man’s game, but the popularity of artists like Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Common and even 2 Chainz seems to say otherwise. Why is it that the average age of the most popular emcees and rappers is 30+?
The most obvious answer is, because hip hop herself just turned 39 years old on August 11th, 2012. That may seem like an odd answer to some, but those who know that a block party, DJed by Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell, at 1520 Sedgwick Ave in the Bronx, NY in 1973, was the birthplace of hip hop, are nodding in agreement. Is it, then, any wonder that as hip hop grows and matures, so do those who have grown up with her? As you can see in the chart above, many of the most popular and relevant artists today, were born just before, or shortly after, hip hop was. It appears then that those who grew up alongside and within the American subculture of hip hop, since or around day one, are most able to represent the culture to the greater American public. This answer is sufficient, but is there more?
If we step back and broaden our scope, we may get an even better understanding. Let us look at the creation of hip hop as an emigration. To emigrate is to leave one’s country, or place of residence, in order to settle in another country, or place of residence. Often times emigration takes place due to extremely harsh conditions in the place of origin and in hopes of opportunity in the desired destination. Hip hop was birthed on the tail end of the civil rights movement in America, and equality and justice were still things to be desired, especially in neighborhoods like the Bronx.
On the surface, Kool Herc was providing freedom for himself and those in attendance at any number of his block parties by creating a space wherein one might lose him/herself, finding relief from life’s many pressures, even if just for a few hours, in music and dance. But something was taking place below the surface as well. An emigration, from a nation which marginalized many of its sub-groups to a “nation” wherein those very sub-groups were being celebrated, was taking place.
After years of providing relief from the weight of life, in the 80‘s hip hop transitioned from a response to circumstance, to a proactive advocate for social change. Grandmaster Flash began addressing social issues with The Message and that legacy has been passed on through the voice of Rakim, Slick Rick, KRS-One, Public Enemy, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and many other rappers who have most likely donned the title, “conscious”. The rappers listed above are now in their 30’s and 40’s and were a part of the emigration from mainstream American society to hip hop. One might even say that they are conscious because they know the history of their culture and respect the great efforts that were required to establish said culture; it may have been considered irresponsible and disrespectful for hip hop artists not to provide social commentary and not to tell the story of what was going on in their neighborhoods. Not only did hip hop provide relief, now it gave the marginalized a voice.
The more years that separate hip hop culture from her painful birth, the less her inhabitants/members feel that pain. Some choose to remember and remain connected to the past, while many have forgotten and become numb to the pain. This same forgetting can be said of many second generation immigrants; parents flee extreme oppression and provide their children with lighter burdens than they bore, and their children often forget what was left behind and take for granted what has been given to them. The artists who are “hot”, which are typically the youngsters, have in large part forgotten the history of the art form they have been handed, and in turn have limited appeal, whereas artists whose careers have a sense of longevity are typically those who have been a part of, or stay connected to, the history of hip hop, giving them a much broader listenership and making them truly popular.
Jay-Z said that “30’s the new 20” in 2006, when he was 38 years old, and now at 44 he doesn’t seem to have missed a beat. Jay-Z and his 30+ year old peers seem to be comfortably reigning with no sign of letting up. In fact, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Watch the Throne” tour was the highest grossing hip hop tour in 2011, raking in over 45 million dollars. With popularity and success like that, will hip hop’s 30+ year old kings pass down their crowns any time soon, or will we continue to watch the average age of the most popular rappers increase?
Peace and Love,
*Note referring to: that of TRUE Magazine’s 10 “Best Albums of 2011”, 7 were by artists 30 or older.