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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Golden Years of Hip Hop

I found this interesting article on aging hiphoppers. Makes you think! What will those again rappers be doing 20 years from now?

The Star: Canada

Two summers ago, a week before the Rah-Rah-Let's-Forget-About-SARS concert, I was discussing the lineup (AC/DC, The Rolling Stones) with my friend Andy. The essence of our talk came down to one conspicuous and harsh detail. "Andy," I said, "There's nothing sadder than an old rock and roller."He laughed and nodded affirmatively, "Too true."And yet, people went. Almost half a million Torontonians and tourists swarmed Downsview Park to witness a leathery musical allsorts of a bill. In spite of how poorly these icons of rock had aged, how ridiculous these old dads appeared, sporting leather pants and singing songs about hot sex and big balls, the crowd ate 'em up.Will hip hop fare that well?Sure it will.Hip hop, not just the music, but the related spider web of fashion, style, idioms, film and television it continues to produce, is the filament of contemporary pop culture.It's our generation's zeitgeist, the equivalent of rock in the '60s.The idea of it growing old is as comical and horrifying as the thought that one day we'll grow old and tired, trying to explain to our grandchildren how we left factory-placed stickers on the brims of our hats and flipped up the collars of our shirts, because that — like Grandpa Simpson's onion hanging from his belt — was the style at the time.

Hip hop is inextricably linked to the time of our lives when we're most fluent in lingua pop cultura. Read: Most of your friends know things like, "The Neptunes produced Justin's `Like I Love You'," and "Tupac and Biggie are like oil and water, and dead." Its aging progress will likely be a combination of the unnoticable/fan-forgiveable. At least until a new genre becomes a cultural force; nothing made rock and roll sound like dad's music as much as hip hop has.So how to chart this progress? Forget following myriad splinter classifications like conscious, crunk and grime. You chart the aging process of hip hop by observing the genre's icons. Picture Snoop Dogg at 70, smoking weed to stimulate his appetite, not his flow, and driving his Caddy not to the club but to bingo. Actually, wait, bad example. Snoop's going to look pretty good when he gets older because he already has this sort of "stylish old man" thing going on. Alligator spats? Hot with two T's. He's the one rapper who can pull off almost any look.

But try this: Look at yourself in the mirror and picture one of your grandparents in your shoes. No lie; Gramps ain't going to look so fresh in Jordans.In hip hop's future, some old heroes will become clowns, like living cautionary tale Flava Flav. The Public Enemy hype man went from being one of the groundbreakers of the genre to a gooney, cracked-out caricature of his former self, nodding his way through Season 3 of The Surreal Life and its ill-advised spin-off, Strange Love (which chronicles Flav's topsy-turvy love affair with Sly's former wife, Brigitte Nielsen).And there'll be those acts that'll never truly change, like The Beastie Boys, whose lead single "Ch-Check It Out" off 2004's To The 5 Burroughs doesn't sound out of step with any track off of 1992's Check Your Head.Then there'll be artists like Jay-Z: "I don't wear jerseys, I'm thirty-plus / Give me a crisp pair of jeans, n---- button up."

Jay-Z couldn't be clearer on "What More Can I Say?" He's no kid anymore. He's moved on. Fixing himself up to look sharp and live life as a slightly older, wiser man who's chosen to step away from the microphone.His Black Album was (ostensibly, save for a moment of weakness on a Linkin Park mash-up) his farewell to being an MC and a prequel to his part in an ownership bid for the New Jersey Nets. He's also the president of Roc-A-Fella Records, the man in charge of the Roc-A-Wear clothing line, and — the big coup — he's the freshly appointed president and CEO of Universal's Island Def Jam imprint, (home to DMX, Ludacris, Ashante, Ja Rule, etc.) There's a hip-hop progress report to follow. P. Diddy's career path is much the same. Between the Sean John clothing line, the Bad Boy label ownership and the acting, he's set himself up for business ventures beyond just throwing down his own rhymes and beats.The danger for P. Diddy and co. is the chance they'll lose that mainline to credibility that gave them the fan foundation to achieve their success.

But hey, who's got the time to be concerned about street cred when you're hanging with Ashton and telling America to "Listen up and hook into that inner child" while introducing a song from The Polar Express at the Oscars?Of course, not every icon is going to root himself in the spotlight. Look at Dr. Dre. He's single-handedly responsible for popularizing and mythologizing gangsta rap on 1992's The Chronic, but he's since spent most of his time developing the Aftermath record label, ushering in Em, 50, and now The Game. It's a smart move on his part to focus on identifying young talent and step back from centre stage (while staying visible in the wings) and acting as a handler for new sex symbols and trend setters.

There are, however, acts like Beyonce, Missy, Outkast and Eminem who'll transcend the limitations of age and, if they so desire, will be able to tour for the rest of their lives regardless of how they look up on stage (if Mick Jagger can still wear leather pants and sell tickets, who's to say Missy can't rock a tracksuit 'til 2040?).Proof: Some of the highest earning musicians as reported by Forbes at the end of 2004 were Bruce Springsteen ($64 million U.S.), The Rolling Stones ($51 million) and The Eagles ($43 million). Their fan bases, once young, now have the cash flow and nostalgia to fuel high-price reunion tours and merchandise sales.

It'll be silly when this happens in 15-20 years, sure. Horatio Sanz' and Jerry Minor's recurring SNLcharacters, old school rappers from 1972, Kid Shazzam and Grandmaster Rap, are prescient Ghosts of the Future on the issue: "When we rapped, we didn't rap about givin' your man friend fellatios. We rapped about good stuff, like sneakers."Well, okay, it probably won't be quite that silly.But just as rock and roll is at its most visceral and exciting as a young man's pursuit, so is hip hop. And just as our parents and their peers gladly suffer the high kicks of rocking skeletons, we'll welcome the slouched, be-hoodied shoulders and arthritic hands clasped around mics.Because even though we're not going to be cool forever, maybe, just maybe, through our music, our own youth might.That's what we'll tell ourselves, anyway.

What I do is kick them in the pants with a diamond buckled shoe!
~~Aileen Mehle~~

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