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While rock luminaries like Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan still attract fans (some who weren't even born by their heydays), the best artists of rap's golden age ('86-'93), barely rate a footnote in its annals. Some, such as Rakim, Jungle Brothers, Melle Mel and Slick Rick, seem more likely to get arrested than strike an album deal, while others — like KRS-One, Public Enemy, Kool G. Rap, and Pete Rock — continue to release music in near obscurity.
"It seems like we sort of spit in the face of the people that got us where we're at," says Jedi Mind Tricks MC Vinnie Paz, who discovered rap as a Philly teen in the early '80s. "We're one of the few cultures that doesn't respect its predecessors. People like Marley Marl, Stetasonic, or Grandmaster Flash. All these people were unable to sustain careers the way those old rock artists have."
Many have commented over the past couple of decades how rappers' careers should be measured in dog years. To some extent, it reflects the form's youth-heavy persuasion, with its braggadocio and focus on self-possessed, larger-than-life characters that appeal deeply to disaffected teens looking for a sense of identity. Certainly the success of gangsta rap engendered a cookie-cutter mentality among the music labels to the detriment of those not packing gats, slapping hos, or rolling in bling.
"There's very little craft put into anything these days, whether it's food, art or cars," continues Paz. "I think the music reflects that. All these big hits — you never hear from them again. It's like everyone's named 'Lil' or 'Young' something. They all have hit records with tons of ringtone sales, and then you never hear from them again."
Another part of the problem lies in hip-hop's relative youth. From the early pioneers to the golden age to g-funk, gangsta, crunk, and hyphy, the sound's greatly bound by the time and circumstances of its creation. Nor does it act or feel particularly beholden to its past like rock acts.
"You can't sit a kid down right now that's 11 or 12 and show him [A Tribe Called Quest's] Low End Theory, 'This is what real shit is.' They'll go, 'I don't get it.' You have to be part of the time to get it," says rapper Aceyalone, who founded the influential Freestyle Fellowship in L.A. during the early '90s.
So maybe we can't expect today's tweens and teens to wistfully reminisce about the first time they heard Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions or De La Soul's Three Foot High and Rising. But what about those who were there, where's their loyalty?
"Do you stop liking hip-hop?" Aceyalone asks. "Do you switch hip-hop? 'I used to like Public Enemy, Fat Boys, this-that. I also was into Tribe. New stuff ain't what I like.' What are you going to do, keep playing your old music forever? Or you going to listen to newer cats? Or listen to older cats still playing the same music?"
They're unanswered questions. Perhaps throwback bills like Friday's show with Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, Sugar Hill Gang, and Chubb Rock will become staples of the nostalgia circuit alongside '70s icons like Styx, Journey, and Eddie Money. Could LL Cool J be hosting a hit-studded revue at Caesars Palace on the Vegas Strip in another decade or two, like a latter-day Tom Jones?
"Young hip-hop is always going to be what young people are concerned about, and that's going to be how they look, how they feel — identity stuff, validation, immediate gratification," Atmosphere's MC Slug says. "But I do believe there's going to be a place for the older guys, and not just on some Vegas tip."
Slug believes the music's future lies in the very thing that established its identity — the storytelling. "We're only 10 years removed from having 40-year-olds who grew up on nothing but rap. Literally nothing but, and they're still going to want to hear it, but they're going to need it to talk to them about what they're dealing with in their life right now," he says. "I don't imagine there's going to be songs about prostate cancer, but I do think that the storyteller will be there. In fact, I'm banking on it."
Chuck D once called rap the "black CNN," but for the moment, he and his elder peers are valued like old newspapers — good only for recycling. Time will tell whether there's enough interest to justify an evening edition.