At 28 years old, I’m in a unique position to fondly remember the “golden era” of hip-hop without being attached to the point of cynicism. I love DJ Premier and ATCQ as much as the next dedicated hip-hop head, but I’m also able to listen to Young Thug and Lil Yachty without my blood boiling.
Sure, there are still instances in which I’m left puzzled by the deliveries and aesthetics of some of today’s newer artists, but by and large, I’m able to experience the latest incarnations of hip-hop without feeling all too threatened by their successes.
For the generation before me, however, there’s a pervasive mentality that the music of today’s youth is somehow the downfall of hip-hop culture, stemming from a complete lack of knowledge and respect regarding their musical forefathers.
It’s the same tinge of fear and discomfort I feel when I hear some of Yachty’s more out-of-pocket deliveries or anything XXXTentacion has released, but for those that were entrenched in an era of hip-hop that housed the Native Tongues Posse, Wu-Tang Clan and Gang Starr, that tinge is ever-present and increasingly uncomfortable.
In a 1999 Toronto Star article entitled "A Softer Kind of Hip Hop Gathers Steam"—which isn't currently available online—author Nick Krewen interviewed veteran producer Jermaine Dupri about the current state of hip-hop, and JD’s comments about the youth’s respect for history sound right at home 18 years later in 2017.
For Dupri, the current trend reflects more than anything the fact that kids are ignorant about the history of rap. ''The young kids don't care. It's sad. You've got a whole new generation of hip-hoppers like little kids that don't really know about it and don't really want to hear about it,'' Dupri laments. ''To the generation growing up now, Master P is their Run DMC. Old school rap for them is Kriss Kross and that's seven years ago. Afrika Bambaata is old school for me. There are generations of it.''
The “current trend” that the author was referencing likely refers to artists like Lil Wayne—whose debut album Tha Block Is Hot was released that year—and similar artists who today are seasoned veterans in contrast to a whole new generation of history-defying youth.
Jermaine’s comments show that even in a year that brought us now-classic debuts like Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, Eminem's The Slim Shady LP and Pharoahe Monch’s Internal Affairs, there was an underlying fear that the youth of the genre and their lack of knowledge of hip-hop history would eventually be the downfall of the culture. Of course, in the nearly two decades since JD provided his assessment of rap's generational gap, hip-hop is still going strong despite that fear being more prevalent than ever.
The youth of any culture has and will always be somewhat neglectful of their past, but it’s ultimately that very neglect that allows for innovation. If every new artist that came out today was still clinging to the sonic aesthetics of '90s hip-hop, we’d still be getting the same musical output nearly 20 years later.
Obviously, it’s important to school the youth on the contributions of those that came before them, and as we’ve seen with an artist like Lil Yachty, the youth of today isn’t entirely closed off to learning about and appreciating the history of the culture they’re currently benefitting from, they just don’t want to be stagnated by a fear of change that, in all fairness, has existed throughout the culture’s entire history.
In 1999, “old heads” thought Lil Wayne was going to ruin hip-hop, but he didn’t. Today, Lil Wayne himself is critical of some of the genre's newcomers, and in 15 years we’ll likely see Lil Yachty and XXXTentacion lamenting the latest direction of the culture. It’s a cyclical mindset that’s likely never going to fade, and it shouldn’t. That protective, watchful eye offers balance to the “no fucks given” attitude of the youth, which also isn't going anywhere.
At the end of the day, it’s just as important for the previous generation to be apprehensive of the contributions of the youth as it is for the new generation to smash all preconceptions of what the culture can and should be.
Just know that the sky isn't falling anytime soon.