The Graying of Hip-Hop

The Positive Side of Hip Hop

Woodrow J. Hinton

Imagine a 60-year-old man standing in a grocery store checkout line with a portable CD player blasting a classic Mos Def and Talib Kweli mixtape. That will be me in 20 or so years, unable to shake the strong hold that Hip Hop music has had on me since I first heard Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank and Master Gee throw down in '79. As improbable as the premise might sound, it would be no different than our current elders enjoying a Sarah Vaughn or Dizzie Gillespie compilation CD. Why should Hip Hop be any different?

Those of us now in our 30s represent Hip Hop's first generation — too young to completely abandon Hip Hop culture, yet too old to let it define the way we live, dress and speak. Many of us are old enough to remember a time when there was no Hip Hop (at least, not in the currently popular sense of the phrase), so we're a tad protective of it. Some of us have turned our backs on Hip Hop culture the same way a frustrated parent might shun a wayward (and, perhaps, chemically-addicted) child who gets into trouble everywhere he goes. In either case, coming of age during the dawn of the Hip Hop era means that we are now likely more concerned with downsizing, childcare expenses, mortgages and 401(k)s than with procuring the latest release every Tuesday after work.

However, a few of us still fiend for the hypnotic loops, soulful samples and tongue-twisting metaphors that characterize good Hip Hop music, checking the "word on the street" (i.e., office cubicle or water cooler) for long-anticipated release dates so that we can fit them into our monthly budgets. While many "Hip Hop old heads" prefer poetry slams and socially conscious Hip Hop (i.e., The Roots, Common, Blackalicious, Black Star, etc.), others still bounce to the latest from 50 Cent, Jay Z, Eminem, DMX and other commercially popular, not-so-positive artists.

Either way, the music we listen to — alternative, underground, mainstream or hardcore — is rooted in the same raw energy that was the impetus for this culture over 25 years ago. Hip Hop culture is here to stay. Shouldn't we be, too?

Younger people who fit snugly within Hip Hop's target demographic often view us with a sense of amazement as we cast aside life's daily pressures long enough to nod our heads to the latest joints while sporting our "corporate casual," not-too-loose fitting attire. Then there's our anti-Rap contemporaries who suggest that we are desperately trying to hang on to some fragment of the youthful freedom that continues to slip away from our lives.

And some of our elders ... well, never mind that Hip Hop is only a modern-day manifestation of the African tradition of storytelling and oral history. Some of them just don't get it. I even find myself trying to justify my love of Hip Hop by proclaiming that I only listen to "positive Rap." Yet the fact that I eschew the typical video-friendly themes found in most Hip Hop music elicits only blank stares from those who still associate Hip Hop with the thug stereotype that the media has sold to us for several years.

Does Hip Hop have an age limit? Ask veteran rapper KRS-One, whose lyrical style and battle skills have continued to evolve since Boogie Down Productions first dropped the classic Criminal Minded in 1987. Rakim (formerly of Eric B and Rakim) was years ahead of his time when he first entered the game in the mid-'80s, and he continually appears on "Best Lyricists of All Time" lists. LL Cool J is still equally comfortable rocking the mic and the silver screen; Biz Markie recently ended a 10-year hiatus with the release of his new CD, Weekend Warrior. And Gang Starr's The Ownerz is widely considered one of the best releases of 2003. All these Rap legends are at least midway between 30 and 40 years of age. This is Longevity 101. Shorties and roughnecks need to take notes.

Hip Hop elders have a responsibility to preserve the true elements of this culture for our young people so that they understand and appreciate its history and purpose. Notwithstanding this important obligation, it's still OK to nod our heads to our favorite Hip Hop joints. Those of us still passionate about our music have a favorite morning-commute CD that puts us in the right frame of mind for the challenges that lie ahead. For some, Classical music serves this purpose; for others it might be Jazz, Classic Rock or the Motown sound. For me, it's straight Hip Hop.

And I don't see that changing for a long, long time.

KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.

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