How Hip-Hop’s Generation Gap Became a War for Its Soul

Times change and sounds change. Genres and cultures change. But the constant sniping between old heads and younger hip-hop fans is only selling the music short.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Much has been said about “today’s rappers” and what they are (and aren’t) doing for “the culture.” People are very, very worried about the proverbial “state of hip-hop.”

But that’s not really new, is it?

Common’s 1994 classic “I Used to Love H.E.R.” helped re-establish the rapper formerly known as Common Sense after he’d debuted two years earlier as a wisecracking speed-rapper from Chicago. “…H.E.R.” was one of the first major hip-hop tunes that looked back through the genre’s history and pondered where things were headed. At the time, fifteen years after “Rapper’s Delight,” Death Row Records was at its height and Bad Boy was rising fast. Mainstream hip-hop had become increasingly obsessed with guns, blunts and “bitches and hoes” misogyny. Common wasn’t sure if hip-hop had sold its soul.

Fast forward almost 25 years, and people are still asking the same question. Except now they regard the era Common was so concerned with as if it represents the greatest period the genre’s ever seen.

Whether one agrees or not, there’s no harm in celebrating a genre’s “classic” period. But treating the contemporary as though it’s at odds with the classic has bred hostility between the hip-hop generation that worships at the altar of DJ Premier and J. Dilla, versus the kids who grew up in the era of snap music à la D4L and first-wave trap sounds like Young Dro and Waka Flocka Flame. In the fall of 2017, for instance, legendary producer Pete Rock waged a war of words with Waka Flocka after Waka called out hip-hop elders for distancing themselves from younger artists and not imparting wisdom or respect. In many ways, Rock’s rebuttal reflected the kind of contempt that led to Waka’s dismissal.

“Im [sic] gonna defend my older heads and tell you your not equal," Pete wrote on Instagram in November. "Be as disrespectful as you want. Your not doing what we did, havent accomplished what we accomplished. Our generation didnt experiment with pills or syrup or anything synthetic. Its already written in history. Rock n Roll hall of fame, hip hop hall of fame and museums. Where are you at in any of that? The problem is yall never had respect from the jump. WE ARE THE REASON YOUR WHO YOU ARE AND DO WHATEVER IT IS YOUR DOING! Pay homage to who was before you. Problem is also yall want us to accept music that dont move nothing but the young, when you making music its to inspire everyone not just your era."

This isn’t the first generation of hip-hop elders to be dismissive of the young ‘uns. The biggest fallacy in the way we approach this particular generation gap is presenting it as though hip-hop was a monolithic, single-minded culture prior to the emergence of trap music or “mumble rap.” That may be a convenient belief for hip-hop artists, fans and commentators whose perspective is New York-centric, but the rest of the country has always been quite diverse in rap tastes and approach.

Grandmaster Caz was one of hip-hop’s first truly great lyricists. As the standout MC of the Cold Crush Brothers and an uncredited ghostwriter on “Rapper’s Delight,” Caz helped set a standard for the clever quips of hip-hop’s late Seventies and early Eighties vanguard of rhymers. In an interview late last year, Caz was asked how he felt about the current crop of “mumble rap” stars drawing criticism from older heads.

“I’m happy for them. It’s all good. Anytime [a] black man get out of his situation and improves it, I’m good with it, I’m happy for him,” Caz told VladTV. “Now, as far as putting them in a category with lyricists or like true hip-hop people, nah—they’re a different breed of people. They’re a different generation, they do a different thing, they have a different agenda and their influences come from different places. So I’m not mad at them. Just don’t say they’re me or they’re Melle Mel. Because they come from a whole different thing. And as far as that mic is concerned, they don’t do nothing close to what we used to do or continue to do.”

But Caz also shared his thoughts on a generation of rappers that led to a controversial shift in hip-hop. The emergence of West Coast gangsta rappers in the late 1980s drew some scorn from the previous decade’s “Yes, yes y’all” generation for seemingly disregarding the pillars of hip-hop in favor of glamorized crime tales, violent street fantasies and degrading rhymes about women. Caz acknowledged that he wasn’t happy about those artists’ impact.

“N.W.A., I thought they were great for what they were doing,” Caz explained. “But I thought they were a definite detriment to our people and the message they was giving out.”

The same year that N.W.A. dropped Straight Outta Compton, political rap superstars Public Enemy released their own masterpiece in the monumental It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Over the next three years, both groups would climb to the top of hip-hop’s hierarchy, even crossing paths in Ice Cube’s guest appearance on Public Enemy’s classic “Burn Hollywood Burn” and Chuck D and Flavor Flav’s appearances on Cube’s classic 1990 solo debut, AmeriKKKa’z Most Wanted. The quirky idiosyncrasies of the Native Tongues collective also became a part of hip-hop’s vocabulary via the Jungle Brothers in 1988 and De La Soul in 1989. The rise of gangsta rap didn’t instantaneously eradicate what had become a wildly varied landscape in hip-hop—in the same way that “mumble rap” hasn’t silenced more artistically ambitious approaches today.

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Hip-hop media shares the blame for perpetuating that impression, though—for both shouting “fire” in a crowded room and for selling hip-hop’s landscape short by pandering to the lowest common denominator. The platforms tasked with disseminating this music to the masses decided hip-hop could only exist in a single space, instead of broadening the lanes for all types could flourish. Suddenly, diverse perspectives and approaches were devalued by most mainstream platforms, as popular rap became more uniform and anything that didn’t fit the image was relegated to “underground” or “backpacker” music.

But for almost a decade now, the landscape has changed. This isn’t the heyday of gangsta rap or the ringtone rap nadir of the early 2000s.

Kendrick Lamar is the most critically acclaimed artist in hip-hop; Drake may seem to be a much more explicitly commercial rapper, but so was LL Cool J. Regardless, Drizzy isn’t “mumble rap,” nor is J. Cole. In the same way that “Whoomp! There It Is” made chart-toppers of Tag Team, or the way Coolio became one of the biggest-selling rappers of the 1990s, poppier acts now see a lot of shine and success in terms of airplay and visibility. The deterioration and commodification of radio has made the situation worse in terms of variety, but the internet gives fans all kinds of other options for finding new music. Lil Yachty isn’t the dominant voice in hip-hop—he’s just one voice. Why act like any particular subset of hip-hop represents some wholesale change in the genre when there is such variety?

I thought they were a definite detriment to our people and the message they was giving out.
Grandmaster Caz on N.W.A.

Trap music and “mumble rap” are not the enemy. No more than gangsta rap or bass music were before them. Hip-hop has never been a monolith. When you fight for “the culture,” is it only the culture of B-boys in the south Bronx as it looked decades ago? What about the culture of Memphis or Vallejo? Do we recognize how multi-faceted and multilayered this rap thing has been and continuous to be? There is no need to try and force an entire culture into a narrow box. An artist like Future won’t ever be confused for a wordsmith, but he isn’t trying to be. Neither were Luke or Nate Dogg. They were still hip-hop. And they didn’t negate their more lyricism-driven peers.

Elders like Pete Rock and others voice their disdain for what they feel the game has become. But these younger artists are torchbearers for the music that spoke to them. That may not be what you celebrate personally, or what you regarded highly in years past. A forty-something hip-hop head from New York may not fully understand how much a Gucci Mane or a Jeezy means to another generation. But it’s arrogant to not even attempt it. As much as “real hip-hop heads” may love Boogie Down Productions or Gang Starr, that music never necessarily spoke to everyone either. Whose hip-hop “experience” has more validity?

Younger hip-hop fans and critics must also realize that the genre has value beyond what they may love today or even what they grew up with. For those who even consider becoming commentators on the music, there has to be more love and more commitment to knowledgeable critique. All eras of hip-hop are vital; each is a beautifully creative depiction of Black youthful expression. If you write about hip-hop, recognize the significance of presenting this music through more than a haze of nostalgia. Canonize and document where we’ve been, are and are going. Hip-hop’s early years matter, its classic era matters and its contemporary success matters. It’s all a part of the tapestry; youthful pomposity shouldn’t blind anyone to that.

This current rap generation gap only means that, for arguably the first time, the generation that saw hip-hop make the leap to mainstream dominance is contending with being told they’re irrelevant. This has happened to other rap generations, but more people were listening to hip-hop from 1996 to 2003 than ten years prior. And ten years before that, hip-hop came through block parties rather than recordings. Fans during the career heights of 50 Cent, T.I. and Lil Wayne in the 2000s didn’t seem all that interested in artists from the late 1980s/early 1990s, but there wasn’t constant chatter about their dismissive attitudes either.

Now, the generation that came of age when the hip-hop of the late 1990s/early 2000s dominated pop culture is contending with the dismissal of an era of music that was quite visible and more accessible across the board. It seems more outrageous because more people know enough to get mad. But if you didn’t care enough about Slick Rick to ever listen to an album, it’s hypocritical to blast a generation of kids who don’t really care about Biggie.

Times change and sounds change. Genres and cultures change. What has to be constant is respect for what came before, and an appreciation for what comes after. It won’t all appeal to everyone, but there can’t be such a premium on a single era, region or take. Hip-hop is a decades-old, global phenomenon. It’s gone through an abundance of permutations, and will continue to do so. Mumble rap doesn’t define it, but it isn’t trying to. These are just young creatives expressing themselves.

And that’s the common thread. If you don’t understand the music, visit the scene. Go watch how the kids react to it. Whether music inspires or serves as escape, it has value. Getting lost in the sound is still what it’s all about. The music is still taking listeners on a journey.

Don’t deny this generation their trip.