How Has “Backpack Rap” Aged Two Decades Later?

“I defy anyone to listen to The Roots’ 1999 song ‘Act Too (The Love of My Life)’ and not get swept up in its transfixing horns and finger snaps.”
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Talib Kweli performing at North Coast Music Festival in Chicago on October 14, 2014.

Talib Kweli performing at North Coast Music Festival in Chicago on October 14, 2014.

When I was 16, a friend of mine introduced me to the movie Brown Sugar. Loosely inspired by Common’s 1994 song, “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” the film tells the story of a pair of childhood friends who come of age sharing a mutual love of hip-hop and, unbeknownst to them, each other. Deep down, I had a suspicion the movie wasn’t objectively good, but as a lover of hip-hop with a soft spot for romantic comedies, I loved it regardless.

Released in 2002, Brown Sugar came out towards the tail-end of a period in hip-hop’s evolution marked by an excessive amount of hand-wringing about the genre’s trajectory, and the movie is very much a product of this era. At one point, its main characters sit back to back on a park bench, taking turns reciting classic lyrics and reminiscing about “how hip-hop used to make [them] feel.” Dre, played by Taye Diggs, is a high-profile A&R who quits his major-label job to start his own record label because he deems their rap roster too inauthentic. Most egregiously, there is a scene where Dre delivers a toast to Sydney, played by Sanaa Lathan, and summarizes his feelings for her by saying, “You are the perfect verse over a tight beat.”

Re-watching it again recently, I realized how immeasurably corny this all is. It’s a small miracle the soundtrack still holds up:

This strain of late ‘90s/early aughts output, where consternation became a fixture of hip-hop’s worldview, was labeled at the time as “backpack rap.” Much like I grew up loving Brown Sugar, a younger me was just as enamored with this loosely defined subgenre. For every Roc-A-Fella banger I memorized, I was equally obsessed with a song released by the pioneering backpack rap label, Rawkus Records. For every popular song I listened to aspirationally, I listened to a less popular one that told me how stupid I was to aspire to the values implied by the former. It was all very contradictory.

Logically, if Brown Sugar has indeed aged as poorly as my recent re-watch indicates, then the same must be true of the music that inspired it. In the late ‘90s, we celebrated rap that bemoaned the increased commercialization and materialism of the genre as a necessary corrective to the gaudy excesses stemming from the shiny suit era. Today, it reads as the misguided whining of an out of touch generation, unwilling to evolve with the times.

Even a song like J. Cole’s “1985”—the 2018 KOD closer, upon which Cole took great pains to couch his criticisms of the new generation in empathy—was met with scorn. Most notably, it prompted YBN Cordae to release a response track called “Old N—s,” which fans widely celebrated for the way it rebutted Cole’s generalizations.

Meanwhile, Cole’s lecturing on this song is downright measured compared to the type you’d customarily hear on a late ‘90s backpack rap song. “In five years, youll be on Love & Hip-Hop,” he concludes the song, issuing a warning to the younger rappers whose music he considers pandering and ephemeral. It’s a far cry from Black Star, who, on their 1998 song “Children’s Story,” weave a satirical tale of a hypothetical rapper they believe is cynically exploiting the genre for gain. The song ends with this rapper being murdered after lyrically misrepresenting his lifestyle. At least in Cole’s version of events, the rapper winds up gainfully employed.

This trope wherein backpack rappers wildly exaggerated—and/or neglected to specify—the stakes of others’ failing to adhere to their puritanical ideals about hip-hop has aged poorly. Former doomsday predictions about the death of hip-hop seem absurd when you consider the genre’s relevance has only increased with time. Ill-informed critiques about how irreverent lyrical content reinforces harmful stereotypes are now correctly viewed as the talking points of misguided respectability politics ambassadors. “I aint tryin to see this hip-hop shit get vanished,” rapped Cipher Complete on “Bring Hip Hop Back,” his contribution to 1998’s Lyricist Lounge Volume One. Ironically, hip-hop is more visible than ever, while the rapper himself has vanished.

Given they could never quite pinpoint a specific boogeyman, backpack rappers often took the route of constructing strawmen in their lyrics to position themselves against. “Big rings, fat chains, and y’all quest for the same,” rapped Jurassic 5 emcee Marc 7even on their classic song, “What’s Golden.” That they never bothered to specify who “y’all” was didn’t seem to matter in the slightest. This apparent unwillingness to name names has had the effect of undercutting many of the critiques leveled within backpack rap. Listening back, it feels like watching a hypothetical person stage a political protest against “all the injustice.” It’s impossible to argue against, but it’s not exactly a cause to rally around, either.

Without tangible stakes or villains to fight against, rappers of this variety struggled to set themselves apart from the targets of their ire. For many, the solution they devised boiled down to just telling listeners directly. Ignoring the generally accepted maxim to “show not tell,” they dedicated entire verses to rapping about how good they are at rapping, attempting to prove they’re not like “other rappers.” The effect was to make these songs feel feckless: not unlike a motivational book written by an author whose sole accomplishment in life is publishing this book. 

Here’s one example from the 2000 Dilated Peoples’ song, “The Platform”:

Yo I bring flows more rare than black quarterbacks / I never got sacked, or pushed ten yards back / We could go rhyme for rhyme, line for line or track for track / And after that, the crowdll react

Of course, I’d be lying if I said I don’t still enjoy a great deal of this music. If you’re able to listen to backpack rap without hyper-analyzing the sub-genre, it’s possible to appreciate the considerable lyrical and musical talent frequently on display. I defy anyone to listen to The Roots’ 1999 song “Act Too (The Love of My Life)” and not get swept up in its transfixing horns and finger snaps.

Sadly, this is as much a part of the problem as it is a saving grace. Backpack rappers lost sight of the plot precisely because they viewed hip-hop through a reductionist lens of production and lyrics that didn’t scale well. As Phonte raps on Little Brother’s 2005 song, “Not Enough,” “Dope beats, dope rhymes, what more do yall want? With all due respect to Phonte, this is a pretty underwhelming pitch for a contemporary rapper. Imagine how impossible it would be to keep up with today’s volume of rap music if these were your only two screening criteria.

Taking inventory of how hip-hop has evolved to keep up with this saturation, it occurs to me there are so many more levels upon which to engage with the genre now than backpackers could’ve ever anticipated. Artists are continuously coming up with new production techniques, experimental cadences, and diverse subject matter, all of which cater to an incredible variety of preferences. 

While this music varies in popularity, there’s hardly a hip-hop monoculture for traditionalists to rail against anymore. The best they can do is shake their fists at “mumble rap,” throwing this term around as a loose pejorative for a subgenre that doesn’t exist. Carving out a large enough fan base to make a viable living in rap is a tall order and—supposing it’s within reason—artists who have the capacity should do what it takes to make this happen.

It’s worth remembering that Rawkus Records was founded by James Murdoch—the son of a literal cartoon villain, Rupert Murdoch—yet it was an incubator for the career of Talib Kweli, regardless. Dead Prez, a group that was almost militant in their firm stance against “selling out,” just released a clothing collaboration with Supreme. We aren’t relitigating their legacy en masse. 

Approximately two decades on, perhaps the enduring lesson of the backpack movement is that hip-hop is dynamic and resilient enough to have never needed it. 

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