Hip-hop has-beens sink to new lows to reach old heights

OPINION - Hip-hop hasn't had a blueprint for what its aging stars are supposed to do once the demand for them dies out...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

It wasn’t that long that nothing about Warren G being surrounded by a colorful array of beautiful, 20-something women would strike you as odd. Yet, nearly 20 years removed from the peak of his popularity, it seems strangely fitting that the same suggestive imagery isn’t just a day on set at a music video but an ad for a male enhancement product that has “the Regulator”’s seal of approval.

Hip-hop is being forced to act its age and unfortunately for some, that age is in the middle. So how are some of the genres former stars handling the transitions from headliner to has been? That really depends.

As hip-hop weathers its mid-life crisis, the avenues for those who once dominated the genre seem limited to little more than banking off the novelty of their sheer existence or the nostalgia of those who have their peak frozen in time.

So what are aging rap stars to do? There are a few well-worn paths for hip-hop’s no-so relevant:

Click here to view a Grio slideshow of relevant rappers over the age of 40

The pulpit. From Kurtis Blow to Rev Run and Ma$e after them both, leaving the fast life and following a higher calling makes perfect sense. Few gigs offer the adrenaline rush of being the center of attention coupled with the power of saving souls thrown on top. But its also a dangerous situation to place someone who is used to extravagance. What happens when the humble, man of the cloth starts to indulge and his new life quickly resembles the one they once lived?

The penitentiary. If finding God wasn’t on the artists’ post-fame agenda, this is one place that will offer the time to reflect on the decision. By now we all understand that the 80s were a hectic time and a lot of things went down then that couldn’t be accepted as cultural norms today.

Face it, the biggest stars you can think of all have a story or two from the inside and hip-hop’s no different. Like Mystikal or Shyne recently, think about how many rappers you haven’t heard from in forever that are behind bars right now penning that memoir they’ll start shopping before they’re even released. Or turning their negative situation into a positive by finding the, aforementioned, God and schooling ‘young cats’ on how not to end up where they are. Some are even attempting to record new material from the inside.

The circuit. Say the first two are too extreme or they’ve already been checked them both off the former rap star checklist, then a legends tour/professional conference circuit is an option. Using the term legend very loosely, these tours have been great career second winds for some of your favorites. Frankly, what would Special Ed and others be up to if not for tearing through a set that features that song they rocked the hell out of when they were 18, in whole in the wall venues or hotel ballrooms across the country. And the community eats it up. It makes the fans feel good to still see them going and the artist feel good to see people still connect. What a win-win.

These shows seem to attract the artists who aren’t so hard up for cash that they’re willing to do just about anything, instead they’re itching for a little extra scratch and certainly aren’t against leaving the day job they settled into to chase one last payday on the road.
Reality television. The fame bug is a tricky thing. The more obsessed one is to pursue it, the more heavily we watch for the train wreck and former rap stars are all over the opportunity. Thanks in large part to VH1, its been proven we’ll watch the big names we grew up do just about anything, from Flavor Flav finding love to MC Hammer being a dad and Young MC just losing weight.

While these shows won’t be making any of its stars an A-listers, it does give the careers of all involved a little steam to climb out of the hole it was in.

Certainly an upgrade from doing commercials for local car dealerships or check cashing establishments, reality TV is what many just trying to get their names out there are probably shooting for.

The exceptions. As with anything, there’s exceptions to the rules. Some of hip-hop’s most engaging figures have navigated a changing landscape and pursued second careers that kept them relevant beyond a notebook full of hot bars.

From Ice Cube to Jay-Z. Ice T to Queen Latifah and Will Smith, there’s no doubting the marketability of even the most controversial artists of the past. Who would’ve guessed that “crazy, mother f**ker named Ice Cube” would be the patron saint of black family comedies and family sitcoms? And others are following suit trying to get their second lives off the ground before the music industry money dries up.

There’s one problem with this method. Once someone has conquered two fields they tend to get the rap bug again and well, no one can tell them those days are over until it’s woefully too late. (Remember Will Smith’s “Switch”?) They aren’t rapping from the same place anymore. Their struggle is no longer the struggle of their fan base and well, those forgettable albums soon fade from memory when their agent wisely books them for a role in a summer blockbuster.

The gone and forgotten. Probably the worse post-hip-hop stardom lane to be in, these artist are still plugging away with music and no one notices. Their discographies show them consistently dropping albums every couple years and are almost always followed immediately by a loud, a surprising. ‘he still raps?’ This lane shows either an actual passion for creating music or a stubbornness to accept that they will never be as big as they once were.

Oblivion. They’re some figures from rap’s past that are 100 percent ok with the concept of never doing another show, selling another record, signing another autograph or being in sort of public figure. They quietly fade away content with their 15 minutes and resume the lives they were destined for had rap not been a speed bump in their road.

Hip-hop hasn’t had a blueprint for what its aging stars are supposed to do once the demand for them dies out but there are certainly plenty of options for everyone from the one hit wonder to aspiring entrepreneur.