How do you age in hip-hop? The tension between relevance and legacy
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“Relevant” is the most overused word in discussions about hip-hop today. It’s often misunderstood as a synonym for “good,” “impressive,” and other words that describe quality music. Fans speak of relevance to judge rappers based on their contribution or assimilation to the trends of the day. This tendency within the culture has helped to build a tough task for rappers, which is making music years after your career start that’s received well by fans. Many vets and legends in hip-hop maintain long careers. Yet these artists do so with varying degrees of visibility to the average fan.
The root cause of this variation is the way people understand relevance. One example is the relationship between major record labels and long-time rappers. As labels adjust to the ways that streaming and illegal downloads limit their revenue, their executives are primarily interested in artists that will almost guarantee a return on the money invested into the artist’s music and brand. For this reason, labels tend to sign and support artists that fall in line with what’s trending in mainstream America and are easily marketable due to things like looks and persona. In this process, long-time MCs often become collateral damage. Redman indicated such in his latest interview on the Combat Jack Show as he detailed how he and other rappers that have been prominent for at least a decade recently received much less support from Def Jam Records than the latest additions to the label. Here, the imprint that’s the historical foundation of great hip-hop indirectly told some of its top contributors that they were no longer a priority.
Due to situations like this, a lot of legends and vets become independent artists as they continue their work. This shift affords them the creative control to progress as they see fit and appeal to the fans that appreciate who they are already rather than younger fans that they have to win over. Others that remain on major labels are directly or indirectly prompted to add sounds and collaborators to their music that are popular with young fans, but might not mesh well with what the vets have to offer as artists. From here, the rappers walk the thin line that separates artistic growth and forced attempts at today’s trends.
The emphasis on relevance also complicates rappers’ ability to draw in fans. The Game once said, “You 38 and you still rapping? Ugh,” on “It’s Okay (One Blood)” to diss Jay-Z. Jay and Nas are the two clearest examples of rappers that have thrived in hip-hop despite such perspectives, but they’re exceptions when it comes to mainstream hip-hop. There are other rappers present in today’s scene close to Nas and Jay in age, but they make sure their age isn’t evident in their content and appearance. They do so because a lot of hip-hop fans either consciously or subconsciously look to relate to the artists they like and age factors into this relation. This tendency is understandable, but it leads some fans to dismiss or belittle music from vets — as well as other rappers — that differ from the fans’ tastes. Such behavior is detrimental to hip-hop. The genre is defined by its variety given the subgenres, identities, styles and topics of which it’s composed. This variety is not represented well in the mainstream, which is why people constantly critique hip-hop’s state. Hence, the business of hip-hop is a strong enough adversary for the music; there’s no need for fans of any age to unnecessarily limit the genre as well.
Everyone invested in hip-hop can benefit from understanding one thing: MCs with legacies are always relevant to the culture. There’s no expiration date for classic music, so their work always matters and can easily please new listeners. Their contributions have also pushed hip-hop to the point that the sounds and styles of fan favorites today are possible. Most importantly, the genre could have faded away in the ‘80s the same way Disco did at the start of the decade if it wasn’t for certain vets. With this in mind, more can be done to support these artists. Their wisdom and new efforts deserve to be highlighted on media platforms and their fans deserve to have radio stations that play their music.
As for the vets and legends themselves, there isn’t a universal formula for aging well in hip-hop. Some rappers strive to remain in the midst of the mainstream, while others are more concerned with maintaining the fan base that they’ve had for years. Certain artists are able to adjust to the times in a way that maintains their identity, while others struggle to find the right direction for their music. However, they all should be wary of chasing relevance in a way that compromises the legacies that they’ve already made. There are ways to get new fans with integrity, but there’s also nothing wrong with growing with your fans.