The Golden Age of Hip-Hop Is Now

Everybody wants their own golden age. The problem is you never know it when you see it.

Illustrations by Austin Swinburn

Golden ages in popular music are the farthest thing from rare; in fact, they’re so common that the value of the gold has been debased and we’re left with age after age of pure lead. You can pick any year from the end of the second world war to today, and it’s bound to be in somebody’s idea of a golden age. Pop music has become so fragmented, so balkanized, so plagued with genres and micro-genres that it’s impossible to pick a period that doesn’t figure into someone’s definition of greatness. The thing about golden ages, though, is they tend to be things that you remember rather than things you experience; everyone talks about the ones they were part of, way back when, but nobody’s willing to step out on a limb and talk about the golden age that’s going on right now. History is too unpredictable; the future is too hard to anticipate. What seems like musical genius now might strike us as embarrassing ten years from now, just as sure as the bands we’re barely aware of today are going to end up as part of our personal mythology once critical consensus solidifies their status as innovators in a decade’s time.

Rap, in particular, seems astoundingly resistant to the sort of grand pronouncements that rock has been around long enough to invite. Fatback dropped the first rap single in 1979, but DJ Kool Herc threw his first jam in 1973, making hip-hop music 30 years old at most and 24 years old at least. Hip-hop’s been to college and is out on its own, and still people treat it like it’s only a little kid. Sure, there’s those who recall fondly the oldest of the old school, and call the days of Bam and Flash and D.ST the first golden age. Plenty of people will pinpoint the moment when the MC came into his own, the moment when Run and D.M.C., L.L., Schoolly, and the Fat Boys brought the mic to the front, as the glory days. Other pocket eras have their partisans – the Native Tongues fans, the revolution crews of the late ‘80s, the hydrogen bomb that got dropped on hip-hop from the unlikely environs of Shaolin in 1993 when Enter the Wu-Tang hit. But after that, and the embarrassment of riches that followed with so many outstanding Wu solo efforts in ’94 and ’95, there’s a feeling that the well runs dry for hip-hop. Did rap really take a nosedive après-Wu? Has the well really run dry? Isn’t it safe and smart to back off the premature notion that we are, in fact, experiencing a golden age of rap music right now?
Hell, no.

Bobby SimmonsAnother funny thing about golden ages is that, by an amazing coincidence, they always seem to consist of the stuff you happened to like when you were young. That this is exceedingly weak, there can be no doubt, but that this sort of rose-colored retro is unavoidable is likewise beyond argument. You can’t escape your raisin’ no matter how impeccable your tastes. For some, that golden past happened when they were young; for others, it happened years before they were born. But it’s a rare thing for someone to look around them and say “This is it. This is the moment. Now is the time.” Take (to pluck at random one of what could be hundreds of examples) the mid- and late 1980s. Looking back to those days and to the post-punk music – of Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, R.E.M., Camper van Beethoven, Big Black, the Minutemen, and Sonic Youth, to name a few – that now characterizes the period, it didn’t seem, well, coherent at the time. There were a lot of great bands, sure, but it’s only with hindsight that we give them a name, that we recognize how important they really were, that we unify them in a useful rubric.

But is it really just hindsight, or was something really happening? And is that comparison really random, or is there some similarity that might support the quixotic claim that hip-hop is experiencing an identical renaissance right now? The circumstances are maybe a little bit more apt than might be expected from this kind of tortured rock-critic analogy. The post-punk explosion happened roughly 25-30 years after the first appearance of rock ‘n’ roll, just as today’s golden age of rap comes a good quarter-century after the foundations of hip-hop. The mid-1980s saw the birth of independent record labels which attempted, for the first time, to break away from the majors which had almost entirely dominated rock; it’s not too difficult to see that happening now, with maverick indie-rap labels like Def Jux and Rawkus challenging the domination of the musical landscape by the bigs in the same way that SST and IRS provided some of the earliest viable alternatives to the traditional labels in their day.
And, perhaps most tellingly of all, the appearance of a vital, dynamic independent/underground rap movement follows a period of relative stagnation in the genre. Just as punk devolved into a cartoon and the airwaves were dominated by degraded electro-pop ‘new wave’ in the early 1980s, leaving music fans eager for something to punch through the gloss, the Wu-Tang explosion of the mid-‘90s has faded, giving way to several years in the wilderness, sustained by the radio preeminence of overhyped mediocrities like the Cash Money Millionaires, fatuous party-poseurs like Puff & the Family, and endless iterations of bling. The rap world now is ready, as was the rock world then, for something to break out. They got lucky. So did we.

“One of the reasons it’s so hard to see a golden age when it’s happening is that the people bringing it to you don’t really seem to have that much in common.”

One of the reasons it’s so hard to see a golden age when it’s happening is that the people bringing it to you don’t really seem to have that much in common. To return to my previous analog, listening to, say, Sonic Youth, Camper van Beethoven and the Replacements didn’t sound a lot alike. They were of different backgrounds, different social and geographical origins; they played different music. There wasn’t even a tremendous amount of crossover among their fans at the time. It wasn’t until we had the perspective of distance – and the interpretive insinuation of critic’s voices – that we could see that the things they shared bound them together more than their differences separated them. Their attitudes, approaches and intentions are what made them part of a movement, not the way they sounded. By the same token, today’s sounds of the underground are often nothing alike. If there’s a similarity to the distorted guitar that could be said to have held the indie rock of the mid-‘80s together, it might be überproducer El-P, but even he’s not close to being a universal. In this golden age, the unifier isn’t beats (the lush production of Quasimoto can’t be mistaken for the sparse, skeletal sounds of Aesop Rock) or lyrics (Aceyalone’s brilliant layers have nothing in common with People Under the Stairs’ old-school minimalism) or even vocals (the thick, sinister, slow rasp of Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire is in marked contrast to the rich, effusive warmth of Jurassic 5’s Charlie 2Na). The unifier is a realization that rap has grown up, that it’s matured, that it’s gotten to the point that it can not only maintain a lively underground the way rock could at the same point in its history, but also that said underground demanded challenging ideas, an experimental attitude, and a willingness to play around with the boundaries of the genre.

But there’s more to a golden age than good timing and a lot of theoretical vaporing. In the final analysis, only listening to the music can prove whether you’re really experiencing something great. So is the music of this alleged golden age of underground rap that good? You damn well better believe it. People Under the Stairs and Jurassic 5 are inventing old school all over again and making it better; the latter’s Quality Control is the record the Boogie Boys or Stetasonic might have made if they’d been a lot more talented. The poetic collage of Aesop Rock’s lyrics and the rapid-burst spitfire style of Blackalicious’ Gift of Gab can compete with the giants of the past. El-P’s production has pretty solidly established him as a legitimate peer of people like Dr. Dre and the RZA, in pure talent if not in record sales. People like Kid Koala, Q-Bert and the Avalanches have, in a few short years, redefined the role of the turntable in hip-hop. The erratic Roots and the sporadic Count Bass D are doing more to deliver on the promise of a rap/jazz fusion than their spiritual mentor, DJ Premier, was able to. Count Bass D’s cohort MF Doom (formerly Zevluv X of KMD) released an album without advertising or promotion, Operation: Doomsday, that is quite simply one of the best rap albums of the last 10 years, which became a sizable hit.

This last factor might be one of the most important. Two of the other factors that have to be considered when talking about a golden age of music are how much the artists influenced future generations of musicians, and what effect they had on what people listened to – what kind of an impact, in other words, they made on the charts. It’s obviously too soon to consider the former, but the latter is worth thinking about. Have any of these artists made a big impact on the buying public? With the exception of the Roots and, to a lesser extent, MF Doom, not really. And, seeing as how rap is still a very commercially-oriented genre, this might be used to argue that this so-called ‘golden age’ is a myth at best or a failure at worst. But is it? Perhaps hip-hop is changing. Rock music couldn’t really support much of an independent underground until the 1980s; now it can, and it does. The days when a band is judged a failure for not charting the top 40 are over in rock. Rap, too, may have finally reached a point where it can sustain the existence of an alternative. And, even if it hasn’t, the indie-rap world isn’t without its successes; previously fringe performers like Mos Def and Del tha Funkee Homosapien (with the Deltron 3030 album and his involvement with Gorillaz) have crossed over into mainstream success, and Kool Keith has enjoyed a popularity that no one familiar with his bizarre character and tendencies would ever have anticipated. If El-P doesn’t become the rap world’s version of Steve Albini, it will come as a surprise.
Of course, this could all be wrong. It could be a premature prediction based on a faulty analogy leading to a grandiose and completely misguided conclusion. History might humiliate us, and look back on the claims of the last three years as a golden era of hip-hop as one of the more ludicrous claims to come down the sewer pipe of music criticism. But even if that’s the case – even if what’s happening is nothing more than the production of a bunch of unrelated albums with no cohesive link, devoid of any overarching unifier – you could do a lot worse than to pick up all those albums, listen to how excellent they are, and have your own little golden age.


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