It’s Just a Preference: Old and New School Hip-Hop

Hip-hop has been around for over 30 years and in those years, it has changed. A lot. Beginning with the break beats and sing-song flows to the frenetic, boundary pushing sounds we have today, there’s a lot about hip-hop we can admire. As hip-hop has evolved though, some of its history and culture has been pushed to the side for popularity and the veneer of ‘cool.’ I’ve even argued that hip-hop is now pop music by another name. It’s no longer just music played at a basement party or a popular subculture, it’s global.

Although the popular genre of music has changed a lot since its beginnings, hip-hop heads and purists still hold that hip-hop is an art form and any meaningful creation of that should respect history and convention. Beyond the music, hip-hop is a culture created by Blacks and Latinos in the 1970’s. With its own tenets – rap, DJ-ing, breakdancing, graffiti and knowledge – hip-hop is almost like a religion. When it started getting mainstream recognition in the late 1980s and early 1990s, hip-hop kept true to those tenets.

However, the newer artists don’t have the same love for that era of hip-hop. In February, in an interview on Hot 97, Lil Uzi Vert didn’t want to freestyle over old school beats such as DJ Premier’s production, refusing to rap over “them old beats”, citing that he’s a “rockstar” instead. The show’s host, Ebro, was not with it. (Video – 11:17)

To be fair, Lil Uzi Vert is not the first person to think this of “old school hip-hop.” There’s a generation of fans whose sensibilities don’t lean towards the golden era and who generally prefer music that they’ve grown up with. They’re not all too interested in past records that have informed the records that they listen to now. They just want to dance and have fun. Who can blame them?

Last year Vince Staples got into a heated argument with Queens rapper Noreaga on Twitter for his thoughts on rap culture’s love for 90’s hip-hop. His stance: he didn’t grow up with that music and music of the 2000s inspired him the most.

In recent months, it’s been made clear that newer hip-hop fans are not always looking to the titans of their genre any more. They’re also inspired by other kinds of music and other art forms. Pink Floyd, MGMT and Ratatat inspired Kid Cudi. Mykki Blano points to GG Alin and Madonna as influences. Lil Uzi Vert even references Marilyn Manson, and later in the interview, lists Kanye West’s polarizing 808’s and Heartbreak as inspirations. These artists are pushing farther past the conventions of traditional hip-hop, and for some, it’s difficult to consider them a part.

Gargled lyrics, sing-song, syncopated and disjointed flows are a major departure from what hip-hop was just even five years ago. For all his popularity and success, even Drake still hasn’t been able to shake off the negative comments about his extensive use of singing. Hip-hop however, is a genre that has been evolving since its inception. Traveling outside the Bronx, rap and hip-hop culture have experienced changes in varying regions: Houston rap, New Orleans bounce, Bay Area rap, all the way to Grime in the UK. Hip-hop itself was born from reworked disco, funk and soul music.

In a conversation about A Tribe Called Quest’s new album, We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service, on the New York Times’ podcast, “Music Popcast,” journalist Touré talked with Times’ music critic Jon Caramanica, about older hip-hop fans not having music that speaks to their interest.

“We haven’t truly seen an adult grown wing of hip-hop really develop,” said Touré, “the concerns that you are discussing are not of interest to a 45 year old.” He went on to say that rock, pop and jazz music breed music for older audiences, but not hip-hop (although there are rappers of that age that could).

In 1995, Afrika Bambaataa, credited as one of the founders of hip-hop, said in the now defunct Bomb Hip-Hop Magazine that older rappers will be the ones to destroy hip-hop because of their “ignorance” of hip-hop.

“To myself (Afrika Bambaataa) there is only one school and that’s the learning, evolving, going through the different phases or cycles school of hip-hop.”

It's Just a Preference: Old and New School

Hip-hop is always evolving. The golden age of hip-hop was characterized by its creativity, innovation and break from the norm. A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Kid n’ Play, Rakim, Too Short and Run DMC were groups with very different sounds who were all successful. That same history can be seen today with artists like Future, J. Cole, Young Thug, Young M.A., Chance The Rapper, Skepta, Gucci Mane, YG and a host of other rappers sharing the same market with varying styles. We can debate for hours on their ability to make good music, but it cannot be denied that they are moving culture.

However, it’s hard to understand how someone who is creating music doesn’t at least have respect for those who were integral in making the art they’re making today. It’s like a jazz musician not caring for Miles Davis or Dave Brubeck, a classical pianist having no regard for Debussy or Chopin, a R&B/soul singer not knowing about Whitney or Patti, or a pop artist forgetting about Madonna or Michael. It almost comes off as arrogant.

For all the fun that art and creating can be, there’s still a great deal of seriousness that consumers and creators have for the work that is produced. For some hip-hop fans, hip-hop and rap aren’t frivolous ventures. For over 20 years, hip-hop was pushed to the margins as a fad that would slowly fade away. Almost 40 years later, hip-hop is not only a mainstay in popular music, but influences cultures on a global scale. The resilience is what has kept it here and is exactly how hip-hop started in the Bronx, a movement brewing at the hands of disenfranchised youth who were continually pushed aside in their efforts to make music and have fun. In this context, perhaps a lack of respect is what’s lacking for the work put in by veterans against all odds to make hip-hop what it is today.

For many fans of hip-hop, a rapper’s bars are what separates them from one-hit wonders and legends. That may still stand true. Rap is still changing and the good artists stay relevant but regardless of talent, there’s a game to be played in order to stay relevant. Some fall through the cracks like Craig Mack and some sustain a career against all odds. Hip-hop and what it is today is hard to define. Is it a sound, is it a feeling, is it music, is it culture, is it something else? Who knows if even KRS-One can answer those questions. However, one idea holds true: preference runs the rap game. Older fans of hip-hop don’t want to hear about what hip-hop artists today are rapping about. Younger fans of hip-hop can’t relate much to hip-hop music made before their time and it’s fine. Whatever the preference, hip-hop’s got a little something for everyone. Everyone will get in where they fit in and ride the wave.

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Chinwe Oniah