The Golden Age of Hip-Hop Is Now
Golden ages in popular music are the farthest thing from rare; in fact, theyre so common that the value of the gold has been debased and were left with age after age of pure lead. You can pick any year from the end of the second world war to today, and its bound to be in somebodys idea of a golden age. Pop music has become so fragmented, so balkanized, so plagued with genres and micro-genres that its impossible to pick a period that doesnt figure into someones 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 nobodys willing to step out on a limb and talk about the golden age thats 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 were 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 decades 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-hops been to college and is out on
its own, and still people treat it like its only a little kid. Sure,
theres 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, theres a feeling that the well
runs dry for hip-hop. Did rap really take a nosedive après-Wu?
Has the well really run dry? Isnt it safe and smart to back off
the premature notion that we are, in fact, experiencing a golden age of
rap music right now?
Another 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 cant 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 its 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 didnt seem, well, coherent at the time. There were a lot of great bands, sure, but its 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 todays 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; its 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.
One of the reasons its so hard to see a golden age when its happening is that the people bringing it to you dont really seem to have that much in common.
One of the reasons its so hard to see a golden age when its happening is that the people bringing it to you dont 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 didnt sound a lot alike. They were of different backgrounds, different social and geographical origins; they played different music. There wasnt even a tremendous amount of crossover among their fans at the time. It wasnt until we had the perspective of distance and the interpretive insinuation of critics 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, todays sounds of the underground are often nothing alike. If theres 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 hes not close to being a universal. In this golden age, the unifier isnt beats (the lush production of Quasimoto cant be mistaken for the sparse, skeletal sounds of Aesop Rock) or lyrics (Aceyalones brilliant layers have nothing in common with People Under the Stairs old-school minimalism) or even vocals (the thick, sinister, slow rasp of Cannibal Oxs Vast Aire is in marked contrast to the rich, effusive warmth of Jurassic 5s Charlie 2Na). The unifier is a realization that rap has grown up, that its matured, that its 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 theres 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 youre 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 latters Quality Control is the record the Boogie Boys or Stetasonic might have made if theyd been a lot more talented. The poetic collage of Aesop Rocks lyrics and the rapid-burst spitfire style of Blackalicious Gift of Gab can compete with the giants of the past. El-Ps 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 Ds 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.
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. Its 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 couldnt 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 hasnt, the indie-rap world isnt
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 doesnt become the rap worlds version of Steve Albini,
it will come as a surprise.