In the early 1990s, as hip hop was gaining ground as an art form, rappers almost all fit one mold—wiry, black youths who boasted about girls, guns and money. Today, these topics and types remain at the top of the genre, but hip hop has grown to encompass more variety, thanks to legends like Biggie, Tupac and a cadre of underground MCs who shifted the public view of what a rapper looked like and discussed. Still, despite innovations in hip hop, including cross-over collaborations and more authentic subject matter, hip hop remains dominated by the young—forty-something rappers are rare and often dismissed as a irrelevant.
Should age mean anything? Many commentators have faulted the attention give to youth in innovation, and a recent New Yorker article that looked at the fallacy of youth as innovators, as in fact creatives reach their height at varying life stages. Still, as long as society views age as a defining characteristic—almost every standard form has a blank for age—we are unlikely to move past this limiting stereotype.
Rappers from many racial and socioeconomic backgrounds are no longer an anomaly. But even once respected rappers lose “street cred” as they age. Slug, MC of rap duo Atmosphere, is now forty-one, and releasing his twenty-somethingth record (counting both EPs and LPs) on Tuesday, May 6. Yet even with his previous record, 2011’s The Family Sign, many critics wondered how much longer he could hold onto his following, as talking about failed relationships and alcohol abuse goes over less well when the speaker is middle-aged.
Part of this bias is endemic to society. Because we associate certain lifestyles and milestones with certain ages, we confine the ideas and perspectives we will accept from people who have lived for longer years. By restraining creativity this way, though, we prevent true innovation—while plenty of rap songs about breakups and the even death of a parent exist, why not open our listening acceptance to rap about mid-life crises and the death of a child?
Some might argue the hip hop audience is young and better relates to material from young MCs. Still, many of today’s current middle-aged MCs grew up on hip hop. Crews such as Run-DMC and KRS-One produced rap in the 1980s, so original fans of those groups are also well into their forties. Hip hop today is one of the most established musical genres, and its audience is not limited to teens, twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings (who too are aging).
This problem is not unique to hip hop. As many articles point out, we prejudice youth over wisdom and experience in many creative spaces. Yet in some arts—such as dance, when the physical prowess that accompanies a young body is necessary—this prejudice at least contains some grounding in reason. In music, and especially in hip hop, which arose as a disruptive innovation to challenge the status quo of society and speak for underrepresented groups, the idea that only the young have something relevant to share is unfounded.
The commercialization of hip hop, which has burgeoned in the last decade, stands in the way of innovation. Now that a successful business model exists in the hip hop space, talented rappers often mold their differences to fit this tried and true standard, rather than speak their truths. Mainstream labels are still wary of signing stereotype-smashing artists—hence the lack of both older and female MCs.
The current challenge lies before both the MCs and their audiences. MCs have to be willing to take risks, and if record companies won’t back those risks, to produce music through alternative models as the Rhymesayers (an underground label collective) and Ryan Leslie (who released his first record, through independent distribution, in his thirties) have done. Audiences must be open to those risks, and stop considering a rapper as played out once he shows a few grey hairs.
Hip hop must stay true to its roots as a disruptive social and musical influencer and continue to question its role and norms. As KRS-One said in his 1988 track “My Philosophy”:
I haven’t come to tell you I got juice
I just produce, create, innovate on a higher level
I’ll be back, but for now just seckle!