Most cultures hold their elders in high regard. It’s safe to say that mainstream rap in its current form is not one of them. In today’s hip-hop landscape, pioneers are typically dismissed and marginalized by the mainstream, trotted out once a year during VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors and then conveniently forgotten.
There is a sense that aging rap artists need to “move out of the way” or “stay in their lane” to make way for new artists, as if classic rappers could be any further out of the way than they already are and new artists were actually worth getting out of the way for. One has to wonder why rock artists are revered well into old age while their rap counterparts are generally ignored and then branded “angry and bitter” when they object to being tossed aside like yesterday’s garbage.
Rockers aren’t told to move aside and make way for the next generation. They’re regarded with a level of respect and awe that often borders on hero worship, because listeners understand that people age and styles change, but quality music is timeless. The Rolling Stones, who have been together since 1962, still sell out stadiums. Acts such as Steve Miller Band, Allman Brothers Band and Fleetwood Mac can still pack arenas and amphitheaters, and their shows attract multiple generations of fans. Classic rock and adult contemporary stations keep the catalogues of “old” rockers in heavy rotation, and artists like Bob Dylan and Tom Petty still land on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
The nationally televised 12-12-12 fundraising concert for Hurricane Sandy victims proved yet again that rock artists with AARP cards remain relevant; the lineup was stacked with classic acts like Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, The Who and Paul McCartney. No, hip-hop and rock are not the same, and there’s no attempt here to equate the two. Although they’re both young genres with roots in rebellion and angst, they’re also different styles of music that appeal to fan bases of different sizes. Most rap artists will never claim the number or breadth of fans that major rock acts like the Rolling Stones do. But a rock-to-rap comparison isn’t exactly “apples to oranges” either.
While the size and makeup of rock and rap fan bases differ, it stands to reason that if quality artists in one genre can still garner radio play, media coverage and respect well into old age, then quality artists in another genre should receive similar treatment.
Yet classic rap artists are typically treated like they don’t exist. There are few, if any, terrestrial classic hip hop stations; the most we can get for throwback music in Boston, for example, is a half hour of hits from the ‘90s and early 2000s at lunchtime, or whatever might play on college radio. The Hip Hop Gods tour that Public Enemy headlined late last year was universally ignored by major media outlets, even though Chuck D is as important to hip hop as someone like Bob Dylan is to folk and rock, and Public Enemy is one of the most groundbreaking groups in all of music.
Local rap radio stations will proudly promote live shows for 2 Chainz and Trinidad James, but barely mention tours by rap legends like Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane, who helped to create the genre these stations are busy milking for its last dollar. Artists like Jay-Z, Kanye West and Eminem have managed to maintain superstardom well into their 30s, but they are the exception and not the rule.
Most aging hip-hop artists — Ice Cube, LL Cool J and Queen Latifah, for example — have chosen to branch off into other endeavors like film and product endorsement to stay relevant. It’s nice that Chuck D and LL got to close out this year’s Grammy Awards, but considering how infrequently hip hop pioneers perform on a national stage, it was baffling to see them perform an unfamiliar new song rather than a medley of their classic hits.