It’s telling that “classic hip-hop” isn’t a term that one hears as regularly as “classic rock” or even “classic soul.” Given where the genre is both in terms of current status and historical significance, hip-hop’s classic period should be much more elevated. And that classic period can’t just include the mainstream hyper-visibility of the post-Death Row landscape; it must also recognize that the six years prior to The Chronic are just as essential to how we would come to view hip-hop as a genre of music. It’s time to fully recognize classic hip-hop as an era and elevate that stretch from 1986 to 1998 that shapes so much of the genre. And it’s time to dump “old-school hip-hop” as a catch-all term for anything that happened before 2Pac and Biggie rose to prominence.
It’s been 40 years since “Rapper’s Delight” announced hip-hop’s transition from Bronx block parties to the pop charts. Even the most casual rap fan can give you the cliff’s notes version of why that single is important, but so much hip-hop from those early days has been left to languish in obscurity. Even “Rapper’s Delight” was the culmination of almost a decade of hip-hop gestation as a live artform performed at uptown block parties and eventually downtown nightclubs. Those who created this art before it was put on records -- names like DJ Kool Herc, Coke La Rock, Lovebug Starski, Grandmaster Flowers and DJ Hollywood -- have practically been written out of that history altogether. Our affection for “old-school hip-hop” is often arbitrary or connected to nostalgia, and the term itself evokes something antiquated and novelty. After decades of marginalizing hip-hop’s early days and “golden age,” maybe it’s time to rethink -- and perhaps outright discard -- the idea of “old-school hip-hop.”
The term “old school”, as used by casual fans and media, doesn’t just refer to the “yes, yes y’all” energy of early hip-hop -- nowadays it just as often means Golden Age hip-hop that emerged in the wake of Run-D.M.C., and Def Jam acts like LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys launching the rap industry to more consistent and visible heights. Though characterized as rap’s “new school” at the time, late-'80s artists like Big Daddy Kane, Eric B. & Rakim, EPMD and MC Lyte are considered “old school” today, and with them being much more well-known to casual fans than the late-'70s/early-'80s wave of hip-hop artists like the Cold Crush Brothers or Spoonie Gee, they’ve become the “pioneers” to an audience that wasn’t truly paying attention to hip-hop until it’s uber-mainstreaming in the late 1990s.
But the erasure of these acts from hip-hop’s earliest era on wax -- and the stigma of “old-school hip-hop” as a blanket term -- has hurt hip-hop’s canonization. That’s why the term “classic hip-hop” should be more prevalent and embraced. Because we have to undo the damage done.
As vague a distinction as it may be, “classic hip-hop” is fitting because hip-hop’s “classic” period is just as extended and diverse as classic rock’s or classic soul’s. Recognize hip-hop’s first wave (1970s thru 1984) with the same reverence given to 50s rockers; and acknowledge the original “new school” or “Golden Age” (1985 - 1992) as the first half of its classic period -- à la classic rock circa 1966 through 1973. The post-Chronic years up through the rise of Mafioso rap, southern rap and the shiny suits of the mainstream’s “jiggy” phase (1993 - 1998) are the second half of the classic hip-hop era; mirroring the latter half of classic rock’s reign (1974 - 1980) when the music was becoming more hyper-commodified, rock star excess became cliche, arena rock reigned supreme and albums were breaking sales records.
Taken from Run-D.M.C.’s commercial breakthrough in the mid-1980s to hip-hop’s pop culture ascension in the late 1990s, this period represents a decade and a half that saw the genre move more into album-centric territory (with widely hailed, stylistically-broad classics), saw the aesthetic and sound of hip-hop diversify and splinter into various subgroups (gangsta rap, political rap, pop-rap, alternative rap, etc.), and saw its cultural sway go from niche to omnipresent. When one casually looks all the shifts in production, fashion, rapping and music videos, it may seem like 1998 is worlds apart from 1985 in hip-hop, but that shift is no broader than the three-minute songs and jangly guitars of 1966 in rock vs. the leather pants, heavy drums and light shows of 1978. Our lens for rock music remains broad while the way we see hip-hop eras is distressingly narrow -- too often tied to superficial signifiers and personal nostalgia.
Unlike rock music, hip-hop’s image has remained undeniably Black from its inception to now -- as it sits atop popular culture and drives an entire industry. As white rock artists came to dominate the genre’s mainstream face, white institutions embraced rock’s edification. Stars like Paul Simon and Eric Clapton weren’t just on the cover of Rolling Stone, they were on the cover of People. As rock became less counterculture and became just American pop culture, it was given a broader lens by media that wholly recognized its nuances -- both stylistic and generational. By the 1980s, a “rock fan” could be a 45 year old Boomer or a 15-year-old Gen Xer --and they both could find their favorites in the most visible platforms.
Baby Boomers have always been a particularly large demo to market to, and -- as evidenced by the classic rock radio format, the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and an adult contemporary-driven TV music network like VH1 -- the industry recognized this early, and has been selling their nostalgia back to them for decades. Younger listeners have been exposed to their parents’ tastes via movies, TV soundtracks and ads. Pre-1995 hip-hop is not only Black, it’s Black Gen X. And Gen X has never been as lucrative to cater to as their parents -- or as Millennials are now. It’s all worked against hip-hop’s canonization.
Rap music isn’t the first music to evolve rapidly, and it won’t be the last. The leaps in production, presentation and approach between 1960 and 1970, for example, are glaring, but we’ve never allowed the emergence of P-Funk to obscure Sam Cooke; we wouldn’t stand for The Temptations being dismissed for the sake of uplifting Earth Wind & Fire. We don’t bury the '60s because the '70s happened -- by the 80s and 90s, it was all considered "classic." We have to encourage a similar approach in hip-hop, or the genre loses its heritage and any sense of lineage gets devoured by an ignorance that suggests hip-hop only matters as first-hand nostalgia, as opposed to edifying it as part of an essential musical canon.
As rappers posting their own Top 50 MCs lists has become a consistent sort of Twitter event, many of these lists have skewed heavily towards the mid-90s through to the 2010s -- and Golden Age mainstays like Rakim and KRS-One, while still mentioned by die-hards, have become less prominent on lists from younger rappers like Troy Ave, or even commentators like DJ Vlad. The obvious argument to make is that as time moves on, older artists will mean less to younger fans and observers. But considering how many lists of the greatest guitarists still have Jimi Hendrix at No. 1, almost 50 years after his death, one has to acknowledge how canonization can account for how we see a genre’s history and helps to ensure pioneers aren’t forgotten.
Classic hip-hop has not been elevated culturally in the same way as classic rock -- especially the earlier half of classic hip-hop from the late 80s/early 90s. As a result, a generation of hip-hop fans has little-to-no attachment to it; they can only celebrate these particular artists from a place of historical gratitude -- as opposed to having a real connection with the music. For the earliest rappers, the divide between them and contemporary audiences is much more glaring. It’s not hard to understand why: pre-Run DMC hip-hop was largely a New York City-centric affair, and so many of those artists barely made music videos and weren’t played very much on national radio. Today’s fans simply don’t know who they are.
And the evidence is there. On a streaming service like Spotify, early hip-hoppers have relatively small followings. With the exception of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (more than 545,000) and Kurtis Blow (over 170,000), most don’t crack the 100,000 mark. Important acts like The Funky Four+1 (24, 105), The Treacherous Three (4,510) The Cold Crush Brothers (7,918); and even mid-80s artists like Whodini (207,991) Fat Boys (84,339) just haven’t been given enough of a mainstream spotlight for the general public to flock to their catalogs en masse.
Classic hip-hop radio also hasn’t been a sustainable format in the same way that classic rock has remained for decades -- and with younger fans getting their music on-demand via streaming services or YouTube, they are less invested in platforms that would present them with music they wouldn’t have known to search for on their own. So much classic rock and soul was kept in younger generation’s ears via popular compilations of music from the '60s and '70s, but today, its a format that doesn’t really exist anymore. You won’t see TV ads for collections of early or “Golden Age” rap classics.
Changing the language will go a long way towards recalibrating how we see the early years and the classic years; but we also have to change the approach of hip-hop media. When 70-year-old rock legends like Bob Dylan and Neil Young can still make the cover of major magazines, but 50-something hip-hop legends like Chuck D and Rakim can’t, it speaks to how we see this music. When the Eagles can still play arenas but Bone Thugs-N-Harmony play theaters, it’s a telltale sign that even hip-hop acts that were multi-Platinum sellers at their peak are not being held up as generation-spanning icons in the same way that the rock generation has been.
For all of its commercial clout and cultural sway, hip-hop can’t seem to break the perception that it’s forever tied to youth culture and trendiness. Celebrating the legends doesn’t negate or undermine the current wave, it reminds everyone of just how deep these waters run. Celebrating the canon -- in significant and consistently visible ways -- pushes hip-hop as a whole into a more central place in popular culture. And considering how old the genre is now, and considering how much it already influences, isn’t that where all hip-hop should sit?