50 Years Later, Is There Anything Left Of Hip Hop?
2:54 PM EDT on August 28, 2023
I went to hip hop’s 50th birthday party, and all I got was a collection of insipid lists. And a new Sprite commercial. To be fair, there were also the usual puff pieces. The New York Times detailed “How Hip Hop Conquered the World.” But I’ve been with it almost every step of the way, and have witnessed hip hop less as conqueror than conquered. At best, it was absorbed into the world—and here the “world” means mainstream America. Hip hop assimilated. And that always comes at a cost.
Hip hop at 50 is dealing with that cost; it has reached its midlife crisis. It took the corporate job, bought the Ferrari, left its family, and hit the dating apps. It found new crowds, and is still going out to the clubs, but no one has the heart to tell it that just maybe it isn’t the coolest motherfucker in the room anymore. It has also done the lamentably cliché thing of veering conservative as it aged. There’s a fascinating story to be mined from this mid-life crisis—but few are telling it.
The mainstream press has never paid hip hop more attention than in this moment, yet has never seemed less informed or less invested in examining and explicating what lies before it. The slapdash lists are more about marketing and giving people something to shout about than any genuine appreciation for or reckoning with hip hop history or culture. We can’t stop talking about hip hop, but we aren’t saying much of anything. Why is that?
Part of it is inevitability. As Succession’s Logan Roy proclaimed, "money wins." Greg Tate (RIP) wrote that story on hip hop's 30th birthday. In December of 2004, Tate assured that "twenty years from now we'll be able to tell our grandchildren and great-grandchildren how we witnessed cultural genocide: the systematic destruction of a people's folkways." Back then Tate laughed at the people who gathered for a birthday party when, in his view, they were really presiding over a funeral. Hip hop had died, the moment it fully married into global hyper-capitalism.
Of course, people have been declaring hip hop's death for so long, and with such enthusiasm, that it has become as hackneyed a trope as any in the discourse. Back in 1984 Tony Van Der Meer, in his intro to David Toop’s book The Rap Attack, wrote, “It’s very simple: Hip hop has become a public relations and marketing strategy that promotes and sells products to the youth.” Again: in 1984. Van Der Meer saw Wild Style and was like, “It’s a wrap.” Hip hop hadn’t even seen its Golden Age!
What Van Der Meer saw was the initial decay of a vibrant local culture, composed of several sub-cultures, that encompassed fashion, graffiti, live DJing, breakdancing, precursors, influences, and near-sanctified locations that existed in tandem as an organic movement. Once the record deals, videos, and movies were brokered and created, hip hop shifted from something happening to just some new shit to sell.
A harsh assessment for sure, one perhaps so idealistic as to be ultimately useless as a measure of hip hop's worth and its subsequent journey. But it can’t be denied that a distinctly black American counterculture has made the transit to mainstream, and in the process erased significant parts of itself and its history. We've seen it adjust to new audiences, and watched the original audience adjust to that adjustment. In the 50th year of hip hop, both Van Der Meer and Tate have been vindicated several times over. Tate wrote, “If we woke up tomorrow and there was no hiphop on the radio or on television, if there was no money in hiphop, then we could see what kind of culture it was, because my bet is that hiphop as we know it would cease to exist, except as nostalgia.”
Even the term hip hop—which Van Der Meer and Tate knew to be multifaceted—has mostly shrunk down to mean "the popular shit people saw on TV and heard on mainstream radio." Rich Purcell, an English professor at the University of Mississippi, affirms this idea: “The hip hop I knew was a culture. It was capacious. It was unwieldy. It was more than rap. To conflate it with rap music is the easiest and most reductive way to discuss what hip hop is.”
But fuck it, let’s conflate and reduce. Even in the narrow terms of current hip hop discourse: What does it mean when the most original, populist, counterculture arts movement of my lifetime doesn't seem to have anything meaningful to say anymore? And hardly anyone has anything interesting to say about it on its 50th birthday? And why can’t anyone admit that hip hop, at 50, is losing its damn mind?
Fifty years down the line, you can start this
Cuz we'll be the Old School artists
And even in that time, I'll say a rhyme
A brand-new style, ruthless and wildBoogie Down Productions, "I'm Still #1"
When KRS-One promised to say a rhyme “50 years down the line,” who would’ve imagined just how wild his style would be? This past July, the man who wrote “Black Cop” and “The Sound of the Police” performed a half-baked freestyle for a former black cop turned ethically unsteady mayor at a press conference that kicked off the hip-hop-at-50 block party series in New York City. That’s … some wild shit.
A week later, the man who gave us “Buck tha Devil” and “[Fuck] You and Your Heroes” rode through “the hood” with Tucker Carlson and waxed cynical about the COVID-19 vaccine. Ice Cube has been flirting with right-wing talking points for a while now, while leaving the tiniest bit of room for plausible “both-sides” deniability. He levies harsh critiques against the Democratic party while conducting business with Steve Bannon. The rapper who once warned us not to aspire to be “just like Jack—‘cause Jack is calling you a nigger behind your back” is in cahoots with the whitest of white dudes who seem likely to call someone like me a nigger to my face. That’s … some wild shit.
Jay-Z, who has been recording Robert Kiyosaki–style Rich Dad Poor Dad rap albums in his later years, went from aiding Bruce Ratner in expediting Brooklyn's gentrification to bringing bitcoin to Marcy while cosplaying Basquiat. When people noted his status as the apex capitalist predator of hip hop, leveraging his and our cool and our purchasing power and values to enrich himself and then jump ship, he cynically equated the term capitalist to anti-black, racist slurs. He also recently made a joint album with Jay Electronica—a militant NOI devotee who had an affair with a literal Rothschild heiress! That’s … some next-level wild shit.
Both the hip hop mainstream and underground/alt scenes are teeming with anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists encouraging black people to abandon “the Democratic plantation.” You can find Freddie Gibbs on Joe Rogan’s show; you can find Rogan on Gibbs’s latest album. The other day Griselda affiliate Benny the Butcher took a break from recounting all the plugs he met to pledge fealty to Trump. Ransom is making songs from the perspectives of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Samuels.
Killer Mike is glad Reagan died. Killer Mike is expressing affinity for Candace Owens. Killer Mike is in conversation with the Dalai Lama. What the fuck is going on here?
Hip hop—like the essential oil and marijuana businesses, among so many other counterculture subcultures—is clarifying that while it has historically seemed spiritually progressive and rebellious, it’s politically all over the place, prone to paranoia, drawn to conspiracy theory, and increasingly embracing self-centered crackpot pseudo-intellectualism from all corners. While it has always been the case that hip hop has showcased diverse political ideas, and flirted with the establishment, it once had a sense of what it was and where it was located in relation to the establishment. No longer. What we took to be an anti-establishment ethos might’ve devolved into an anti-social one.
This isn’t some condescending view from a lofty perch. To borrow from Michael B. Jordan all those years ago: "This shit? This is me, yo, right here." I grew up smack dab in the middle of hip hop culture. My cousin is Kool Keith from Ultramagnetic MCs (just saw him two weeks ago at the family picnic); Kurtis Blow is a family friend; my uncle Vernon was a well-known b-boy; several of my cousins are aspiring rappers. We were there in the parks and housing projects, at the shows, and in some cases in the street crews, from Harlem to Fort Greene, participating in the culture, pushing it forward.
Which is why I can look at hip hop at 50 and say: This is some wild shit. What the fuck is going on here? Even worse, it is now precisely what it abhorred in its incipience: conservative, white-flattering, and, maybe worst of all, predictable. Hip hop in 2023 is utterly formulaic. Check Instagram and you can see any number of white women mouthing drill verses at weddings. Everyone knows the viral dances and can replicate the flows. I never imagined hip hop would be so cute, so safe, so generic.
And that brings us to the other major factor in hip hop’s death as a culture: It lost control of its own discourse, which guarantees incoherence and dilution. The tension between discourse and content—which plagues all art and media, all public intellectualism, and even the individual in ways most of us didn't foresee—has proven fatal. Expertise is de-incentivized: You don’t have to know what you’re talking about when the attention economy demands and rewards constant chatter. Criticism has been mostly discarded in favor of boosterism and listicles.
In some ways it’s a brave new world; in others history is simply repeating itself. Watch an interview with jazz drummer Art Taylor, or read his book Notes & Tones, then pay attention to hip hop discourse in the mainstream: Every seemingly cliché warning from my aunts and uncles about the parallels between hip hop and jazz is starkly affirmed. Just as Taylor identified with jazz, the people most invested in hip hop culture lost control of it. They only held control so long as it wasn't generating real money. The moment it was mainstream American music: POOF! Taylor talked about missing the days he’d play at a bar and talk to the pimps and prostitutes over a drink during breaks. The money wasn’t there, but the people enjoyed the music on its terms, and discussed it in ways that made sense.
I made the mistake last week of listening to a podcast about hip hop at 50 hosted by a black dude who made his bones as a music critic. It was off-putting to find his perspective so limited to specific artists from a specific period. He spoke confidently and personally about how New Yorkers felt, but I was confused because I took issue with nearly every point he made. Then a friend reminded me he’s actually from the suburbs of Boston. As the podcast neared its end he identified Big L as the first major hip hop death. I laughed out loud in horror. Forget Scott La Rock and Trouble T-Roy—Big L didn’t even predecease Tupac and Christopher Wallace. What are we talking about when we talk about hip hop? Who’s doing the talking? For whom? And why?
At this point, most are talking to flatter the delusions of the new, expanded audience. To allow them access on their own terms. Anything that exists long enough in America to have a legitimate history becomes subject to this: The goal of our hyper-capitalist society is to flatten, standardize, and refashion anything counterculture into something that serves its bottom line. It could be MLK, Pat Tillman, or Che Guevara (with bling on)—depth and accuracy matter less than the salable aesthetic; the actual spirit of any movement matters less than whether you can tailor it to satisfy (and in some cases manufacture) a sense of nostalgia. Of course, nostalgia is history without moral reckoning. That’s precisely its appeal. In this case it rewards a fetishization of black culture without the burden of appreciating or even understanding it.
The New York Times is particularly frustrating in this regard. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent civil unrest, the profiles of “black creatives” and oddities felt endless. These did little to nothing to advance any real moral reckoning, but I imagine it gave white readers an artificial and comforting feeling of decency to read about so many interesting negroes, while demanding no effort toward social reparation. It’s reading that prioritizes the reader while marginalizing the issues that spurred the need for the profiles’ creation. It’s empty and sentimental. It erases as it pretends to illuminate.
A few years back I stared in astonishment when the Times ran a story about white 20-somethings and the burgeoning culture of beatboxing. Beatboxing! A very basic improvisational art that quite truly almost every negro my age in my building practiced was being Columbused 25 years later, described in the paper of record as having journeyed from a party trick to being tied to Hamilton. It recalls all I’ve read about jazz history, an art built on the talents, perseverance, blood, and breath of orphans, of dispossessed and disenfranchised savants—playing in the windows of storefront churches, or clubs the performers were barred from frequenting as guests—many of whom died penniless, from the pains of life: from racism, harassment, poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism. Look at the faculty pages of music departments that teach jazz across the country today. Look at the critics. Americans generally want blackness without black people. Public Enemy’s song title "The Anti-Nigger Machine" springs to mind. And when that machine revs up, good night, Irene. Hip hop will get there, because it is inevitable.
A good friend asked me the other day what the last universal classic album was. And we talked about how difficult it is for such a thing to exist when you have no meaningful criticism, less and less expertise, and an uninformed market that consumes the art while disdaining the artist. The people consuming and fêting hip hop rarely have anything worthwhile to say about it. The audience and media want credit for acknowledging and engaging with black art, but they don’t respect the art and its roots enough to do the knowledge.
I heard cultural critic Bomani Jones on a show lamenting the loss of colloquial voice in hip hop: Now there’s a universal voice, and the verses sound and feel like a string of buzzphrases. Any song could be by anyone from anywhere. The songs convey a shallow, one-size-fits-all black cool. It’s hip hop muzak. On another podcast JPEGMafia and Danny Brown talked about how impossible the old methods of beat-making were, and how layered the rapping. Hip hop these days can be made more quickly, easily, and cheaply, and can spread farther faster. Anyone, anywhere can do it, without vetting, and find an audience. Culture can’t evolve, or even be sustained, under these conditions. Culture is about collective communion, uplift, and rescue; culture is not about the solitary production of an approximation of itself for consumption.
Hip hop in 2023 is mostly something to be leaned on for credibility. It gives the illusion of hipness to regressive ideas. Hip hop has become ornamental. Biggie is on Old Navy and Gap t-shirts. American Capitalism, like the reaper, is always lurking. It will consume your culture, no matter how subversive, and sell it back to you at a higher cost, as a box containing nothing.
Having been there since its infancy, I can say hip hop has never been more warped, absurd, hilarious, and incoherent. It has never been less of an organic culture, or more a commodified circus; it has never been less black or less anti-establishment. Yet, somehow, it has never taken itself more seriously. Which is, indeed, deeply American. More morbid than that, a significant portion of the black audience has adopted the white gaze. White acceptance, once anathema, now buys one an enduring credibility with an increasingly aspirational black audience.
Someone close to me was homeschooled in an evangelical household—wasn’t allowed to listen to any music that wasn’t religious. She explained to me that she worries about her lack of taste in music. Some genres, like hip hop, she finds especially challenging to decipher. The cadence, the slang, the speed of speech. But she loves the Hamilton soundtrack. As someone who has consumed music obsessively across nearly all genres for my entire life, I was horrified by the idea of being deprived of music until adulthood. It made me think of how long and complicated the process is to build taste, to understand culture—how long it takes to even understand what either means, both on the personal level and more widely. So many years of consumption; experiential knowledge; perspectivism; the balancing with and bouncing off history that we call contextualizing. It brought me to a chilling thought: What happens when the people who lack all that in a certain area are setting the standard for what has value there?
A 41-year-old white woman from Iowa who didn’t listen to rap until five years ago sat across from me at a bar and let me know that "Album of the year is between Kendrick and Pusha T.” NPR proclaims the opening bars of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” “the darkest, most nihilistically dejected thing you’ve ever heard.” Two white dudes are explaining to me via ESPN that a Jadakiss bar about Sam Cassell was “for the streets.” They identify as “veteran storytellers in the hip hop space.” To paraphrase Shawty Lo: Must be two streets; must be two hip hop spaces. Maybe that’s why my favorite moment of the year that hip hop turned 50 was Tek—who’d finally had enough of a doltish, overzealous podcast host in a tacky shirt, who was angry about Smif-n-Wessun’s friendship with Tupac—shutting down the bullshit discourse.
It sums up my sentiments about the New York Times puff pieces, the lazy podcast conversations, my uninformed older white colleague who dismissed my critiques of Hamilton, and all the supposed “veteran storytellers in the hip hop space.” We was there—you wasn’t fuckin' there!
So let’s blow out the candles. Hip hop is 50, and leaning more Andrew Tate than Greg Tate. The popular music has sounded—for a long, long time—like prosperity gospel, and too many of the rappers are sounding more like megachurch pastors than artists or insightful street reporters. Hip hop has aged, but it hasn’t necessarily matured. Like a lot of people I know, one of the things it has lost over the years is its ability—or maybe its willingness—to self-assess.
These days, hip hop figures are into “giving flowers.” It has become self-congratulatory in the very way the institutions that once locked it out always have been. We celebrate each other because we rubbed elbows. Because at some point we made a dollar together. Because it affirms tribalism. We celebrate each other for almost every reason except art and culture. Those have become afterthoughts.