Hip-hop's Big Bang exploded four decades ago this week at a party that Kool Herc threw at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx, N.Y. The legend goes that this was the first time someone had ever scratched turntables while an MC rhymed over a breakbeat. It was from that humble, late-summer party — admission was 25 cents for ladies and 50 cents for fellas! — that a whole movement would be birthed.
This young person's music, powered mightily by braggadocio and irreverence, is now 40 and undeniably middle-aged. (It may have been that cliched angst about aging might be why Jay Z tried to outslick Father Time a few years ago: 30's the new 20. Then later he was claiming to be "Young Forever." You protest too much, my dude.)
And so it seems kind of fitting that the biggest news in hip-hop this week was Kendrick Lamar's verse on an unreleased Big Sean track called "Control." His lyrics got a lot of attention mostly because he called out a bunch of other youngish 20-something rappers and boasted that he was better than all of them. (Lamar is hip-hop's reigning Big Thing, and deservedly so: After making noise on mixtapes, his proper debut album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, was at or near the top of just about every Best of 2012 list.)
There's nothing especially notable about Kendrick bragging that he's better than other rappers; that's what rap has been for much of its 40 years. Kendrick just named names. But, interestingly, he also named the names of the rappers he felt represented the standard by which he should be judged.
I heard the barbershops spittin' great debates all the time
Bout who's the best MC? Kendrick, Jigga and Nas, Eminem, Andre 3000...
Lamar's line here is an allusion to a Jay Z lyric on "Where I'm From," a song that came out when Lamar was only 10 years old. And if you're putting together a Mount Rushmore of hip-hop's greatest active rappers, you could do a whole lot worse than Kendrick's list (even if we account for the glaring omission of Black Thought and the fact that Jay Z lost his fastball several albums ago). But all of those dudes are over 40 or racing toward it.
Kendrick is simultaneously challenging and paying his respects to his elders. You gotta wonder how these guys, who necessarily position themselves as outsiders and upstarts, feel about now being the establishment.
The Village Voice's Chris O'Shea smartly hit on the dilemma facing this youth-obsessed game as all of its leading lights move into middle age alongside the genre. But as these graying rappers — and their graying audiences — shift their attentions, these elders might (again) help reshape hip-hop's parameters.
DMX—if he can get himself together—could certainly produce some stirring insight into the uncomfortable realization that people's worst enemies often lie within. There are definitely people out there who would love for Lauryn Hill to explain what she has been through since the late '90s. Nas and Jay could both fill volumes exploring the complexities of fatherhood.
By accepting the reality that they are older, these MCs could alter rap forever. Rapping about raising kids might make them seem soft, but at 40 years old, you are soft. As for the theory that this type of material wouldn't sell, most of these rappers have already solidified their place in history—why not take a chance?
The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney are still getting it in, in their 70s. But there was a time when a 40-year-old rock musician would have seemed ridiculous — you were supposed to die tragically or politely fade into obscurity, eccentricity or fogeydom. So it was with hip-hop, and the Jay-Nas-Andre set will be the first wave of great rappers who will have to face the indignities of growing old in a really public way.
So what will hip-hop look like when these current superstars become staples on oldies stations and throwback playlists? Designer dad jeans? Bars about the size of one's 401(k) and the importance of getting enough sleep?
We're all about to find out.