No Respect For Hip-Hop’s O.G.s: Why Many Legendary MCs Still Need to Hustle

While forgettable white “classic rock” acts like Steely Dan and the Eagles pack stadiums, some of the biggest names in rap history are forced to slum it in clubs. What gives?

John Davisson/Invision/AP

Imagine Billy Joel, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Led Zeppelin embarking on a 32-city tour together. Picture the legions of aging Baby Boomers who would throw heaps of cash at the chance to hold their lighters in the air and watch four legendary classic rock acts do their thing on the same damn stage. Imagine the monstrous shows around the country at mega-venues like the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden.

In 2013, hip-hop luminaries LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and De La Soul hit the road together for the “Kings of the Mic” tour. One of hip-hop’s most consistent hitmakers with over 20 years of smash singles in his repertoire; the titans of political rap who have one of the best live shows in the genre; the gangsta rap godfather whose first three albums alone can fill up a set list; and the Native Tongues’ longest-running act. When these icons of classic hip-hop hit the road, they were booked into venues like the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan, The Fox Theater in Atlanta, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. These are respectable amphitheaters, but a far cry from 20,000-seaters like The Garden.

Thirty-six years after “Rappers Delight,” hip-hop still has not been allowed to graduate to a cultural standing that mirrors what’s transpired for majority-white rock acts as that genre neared the four-decade mark. The artists who should be considered the legends of hip-hop’s most creatively fertile and culturally potent era—the “Classic hip-hop” period from 1987 to 1997—have not been elevated to the status of pop culture icons in the vein of a Dylan or Springsteen. There are no Scorsese-directed Rakim concert films released to theaters. No retrospective EPMD boxed sets. Nas has never graced the cover of Rolling Stone. VIBE and XXL are out of print. Without the sort of media onslaught that accompanied rock’s second generation as it moved into middle age, classic hip-hop’s biggest names have been reduced to just “old-school rappers” who used to be hot in the ancient times—that sepia-toned yesteryear before Jay Z was turning dope tales into dollars.

For all the conversation about hip-hop’s ascendance and status as the dominant musical and cultural influencer of young people over the last 25 years, it’s still disseminated in a way that conveys a disregard of its artistic legacy—and thus, hip-hop’s elders are not being perceived in a way that properly recognizes their respective artistic genius.

These veteran rap icons don’t book huge venues because there just isn’t a large enough audience for their music. And for this, we have radio to thank.

Classic hip-hop radio is just beginning to gain traction in Middle America, but where on the FM dial would anyone have been able to readily hear Big Daddy Kane or the Geto Boys on a regular basis over the last 15 years? In The History of the Eagles, Glenn Frey said that classic rock radio was the reason why a generation too young to remember Hotel California firsthand became fans of the Eagles’ music in the ’80s and ’90s. Veteran hip-hop artists haven’t had their music and images imposed on the collective pop culture consciousness the way that the Baby Boomers’ favorite rock icons were plastered on every TV screen, and music shoehorned into every commercial. When the Eagles reunited in the mid-’90s, they sold out the biggest venues around the country. Next month, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony will be playing the Wilma Theater in Missoula, Montana. Capacity is 1,067. Tickets are about $30.

Want to see Steely Dan with 7,000 other hip dads in New Jersey this summer? Probably going to run you at least $70—if you buy early, that is.

Documentaries like The Tanning of America speak to the cultural impact of hip-hop, but American culture isn’t all that “tanned” when, for instance, we’re still fairly surprised that a hip-hop album is nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys—at this point in its history, hip-hop should be fairly dominant in the popular music categories at mainstream awards shows. After all, we’re talking about two generations of adults who’ve grown up with hip-hop. “Johnny B. Goode” was released in 1958; 33 years later, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the rock anthem of a new generation. But no one viewed rock music as some exclusively “young” genre in 1991. It wasn’t still being treated as a juvenile art form that functions solely to market the culture of “cool” to young people; it was a firmly entrenched, multi-generational cultural phenomenon. It had gone through a multitude of incarnations and permutations, had crossed borders and aesthetics. Kurt Cobain was an icon, but his importance didn’t obscure the major figures who had come before him—he was recognized as the latest musical descendant of a renowned pedigree. The history wasn’t diminished in any way by his stature.

With hip-hop, and the way the media has promoted and commented on hip-hop, that lineage hasn’t been elevated and the art hasn’t been recognized. Classic era hip-hop artists not named Snoop or Nas have been reduced to a mere footnote; a respectable preamble to the more “flossy” multi-platinum/multimedia hip-hop stars of post-1997 popular culture. The Web has kept everyone hyper-aware of virtually every major hip-hop figure that has emerged since the late ’90s; fans knew about every DMX arrest and every Jay Z business move. We know about the legacies of 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. largely because of how their tragic deaths have mythologized them as artists, but for virtually every other hip-hop legend of the ’80s and ’90s, contemporary rap fans have seemingly no awareness of their music and little understanding of their place in hip-hop history.

Until hip-hop media and pop culture decide that this music matters, the gap won’t ever close. With so many options online, there’s still little or no effort to elevate hip-hop in a way that recognizes the scope and variety of its history. Artists, songs, albums, and eras are left in the dustbins of history without a place for them to be continually connected to our consciousness—no popular radio stations, no music TV shows, no major magazine covers. Maybe all of those platforms are “old media,” but they still seem to do quite a bit to keep pop icons on our minds. Because Public Enemy is somewhere right now playing a theater and kicking ass, while Rush is reaping millions to suck in an arena.

And no one should be happy about that.