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Who rules hip-hop’s past?

Biggie or Kool Herc? As a cultural juggernaut hits middle age, two parallel visions emerge for what “classic” should mean

From top left, clockwise: Public Enemy, NWA, Pete Rock, Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C., Eric B. and Rakim, Nas, Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang Clan, Grandmaster Flash, Snoop Dogg, Afrika Bambaataa. Inside group, from top left, clockwise: Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, 2Pac, Jay-Z, The Treacherous Three.
From top left, clockwise: Public Enemy, NWA, Pete Rock, Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C., Eric B. and Rakim, Nas, Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang Clan, Grandmaster Flash, Snoop Dogg, Afrika Bambaataa. Inside group, from top left, clockwise: Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, 2Pac, Jay-Z, The Treacherous Three.

T wo weeks ago, the city of Houston welcomed a new radio station called The Boom to its airwaves. The Boom plays hip-hop, but not today’s urban hits: Its playlist is all songs from the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, by artists like Dr. Dre and 2pac. In declaring itself the nation’s first major-market “classic hip-hop” station, The Boom is jumping with both feet into waters already tested by Los Angeles’ pioneering KDAY, which relaunched itself in 2009 as a hip-hop “originals” station; the Sirius XM channel Backspin; and Boston’s own Hot 96.9, started last year, which plays a mix of hip-hop and R&B “throwbacks” alongside a smattering of current music.

The arrival of classic hop-hop as its own category represents a cultural turning point: Just as rock and roll once did, a rebellious art form profoundly associated with youth has reached a moment in its life cycle when a significant number of its fans—and all of its founding fathers—are decisively middle-aged. Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the series of Bronx dance parties that brought hip-hop into existence. This year, both surviving members of the legendary rap group Run-D.M.C. turn 50.

“It’s the graying of hip-hop,” says Reggie Ossé, a former lawyer for Def Jam Recordings now in his late 40s, who interviews hip-hop elders like Chuck D on a popular podcast called The Combat Jack Show.


For some fans, the arrival of this new phase is a kind of vindication. “People were once really skeptical about whether hip-hop was going to last,” said Terri Thomas, the operations manager at The Boom in Houston, and a former Boston resident. “This puts an exclamation point on the answer.”

But it also signals that hip-hop is now a genre with a meaningful past, one that is fueling a debate within the hip-hop world about which parts of that past really matter to its story. What we’re watching in 2014 is a musical movement writing its own history in real time, just as rock and jazz once did, and deciding what future listeners will regard as the genre’s canon.

One version of hip-hop’s past is the one you can hear on the classic radio playlists: mostly big hits by artists like Snoop Dogg and the Notorious B.I.G., the brightest lights from a period when hip-hop exploded onto MTV and made headlines with its East Coast-West Coast beefs. But at the same time, a grass-roots preservationist movement of a different character has formed, in order to celebrate the art form’s very early days—when DJs like Afrika Bambaataa played live sets in outdoor courtyards and groups like the Treacherous Three wore red jumpsuits, puffy jackets, and Kangol caps. A museum chaired by Bambaataa and dedicated to “the groundbreakers, the earthshakers and the stars” of hip-hop is projected to open in the Bronx by 2017.


The extraordinary success of hip-hop makes the questions raised by its aging more than a debate among insiders. Hip-hop generates billions of dollars per year and has expanded artistically in ways that Fab 5 Freddy and Grandmaster Flash—55 and 56 years old, respectively—could have never imagined. At stake is not just the legacy of individual rappers, or an argument over what “real” hip-hop was and should be, but who gets credit for an art form that has grown into a genuinely global cultural force.

No one knows when sculpture began, or where the first blues song was played, but hip-hop is an art form with a birthday: Aug. 11, 1973, when an 18-year-old DJ named Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell agreed to help his sister throw a party so she could make some money for new school clothes. As author Jeff Chang describes in his history “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” Kool Herc and his sister charged 25 cents for girls and 50 cents for boys, and a friend was hired to flick the light switch up and down to approximate a strobe light.

Soon Kool Herc’s parties were the talk of the South Bronx—not only because he played great records, but because he was doing something nobody had done before: finding the parts of the songs that were the most fun to dance to, and looping them using two copies of the same record so they’d play continuously. Herc also talked to the crowd over the beat, the way he’d seen DJs do back in his home country of Jamaica. As DJs inspired by Kool Herc’s style proliferated, their music became the center of gravity for an entire New York subculture, with characteristic style, slang, and dance moves. At the end of the decade, this subculture exploded onto the national stage with the release of Sugarhill Gang’s chatty, hammy hit “Rapper’s Delight.”


What initially seemed like a musical fad persisted and grew, migrating from the Bronx to MTV and high school dances across America. The genre’s basic framework—beats mixed on a pair of turntables with someone rhyming over them—proved capable of astonishing, even obsessive, reinvention. The music took lightweight pop turns and fist-waving black-power turns; its producers began weaving rock and jazz sounds into its increasingly sophisticated beats. It introduced gritty, iconoclastic voices like NWA and Public Enemy into mainstream culture, and produced much-mocked pretenders like Vanilla Ice.

For such a young and youth-driven culture, hip-hop was surprisingly quick to develop a preoccupation with its own past. As rap became a business, looking backward became a way to stake one’s claim to authenticity, invoking a purer time when hip-hop was about house parties and neighborhood freestyle battles. In 1987—eight years after “Rapper’s Delight”—a 25-year-old rapper named Just-Ice waxed nostalgic about the old times, when “the boys would come running/ to hear big beats that were shocking and stunning.” The old times, at that point, were just over 10 years old.

Some thirty years later, the desire to protect this version of hip-hop’s canonical past has matured into a full-fledged preservationist movement. On the Combat Jack podcast, Ossé often interviews influential rappers and producers from the 1970s and ’80s—in part, he said, so that people who didn’t experience hip-hop history have a chance to “taste it, smell it, and touch it.” That same spirit has inspired the planning of not one, but two hip-hop museums in the Bronx, both still in development. The past two years have seen the emergence of backward-looking tours like the Hip Hop Gods Classic Tourfest Revue, and Kings Of The Mic, starring LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and De La Soul.


Hip-hop, from ‘classic’ to the present

To illustrate the debate over what really constitutes the canon of hip-hop, here’s a brief tour from the old school through the commercial hits of the 1990s to today’s myriad directions. (Note: some of these videos may contain language or images offensive to some viewers.)

Perhaps the most striking example of hip-hop preservation is the Hush Hip Hop Tour in New York, which sends busloads of visitors into the city to see historic sites like Biggie’s old doorstep and Rucker Park, with actual rap pioneers serving as their guides. One guide is a rapper named Reggie Reg, whose Crash Crew debuted in the mid-1970s. “The tours keep the culture alive for a new generation,” Reg said. “It’s about giving people that history, and setting the record straight so that 20 years from now they’re not saying Lil’ Wayne and 2 Chainz were the founders of hip-hop.”

And yet, there is more than one way to define a past when you have 40 years to draw on, and with the proliferation of commercial radio stations dipping into hip-hop’s archives, we’re seeing another one in action. Instead of merely paying homage to the genre’s origins, these stations are operating from the principle that “classic” can mean whatever the audience says it is—whatever is beloved, as a KDAY spokesperson said in an e-mail, by “everyone who wants to feel and relive their memories.”


Hip-hop is not the first genre of music to go down this road. In 1985, as rock and roll entered its third decade, radio stations once devoted to playing new records by bands like Pink Floyd and Steely Dan had to recognize that those bands were either gone or no longer producing enough new music people wanted to hear. From this insight came a new format, “classic rock,” playing narrow lists of time-tested songs by crowd-pleasing acts like the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, and Led Zeppelin. The format evolved over time: “At the very beginning, we steered away from what is known as ‘corporate rock,’” said Fred Jacobs, who is credited with starting the country’s first classic rock station, “only to learn that for a lot of people that is every bit as legit as Clapton and the Doors.”

Given how many Americans grew up listening to hip-hop, said Michael Harrison, the publisher of industry trade publication RadioInfo, it’s no wonder stations like The Boom would be trying to repeat that success. As with the classic rock stations, the focus is on the hits the most people remember—and so, when The Boom debuted, the carefully focus-grouped playlist created for its first week was a mix of hits like Missy Elliot’s “The Rain” and less hallowed fare by flash-in-the-pan rappers like Chingy.

The Boom’s Terri Thomas explains that its definition of “classic” will depend on what listeners ask for. As lines are gradually drawn, a new canon will be born: The history of hip-hop as told not by specialists and pioneers, but by middle-aged American fans who grew up with hip-hop as the soundtrack to their youth.

“The word ‘classic’ is subjective,” said Thomas. “I witnessed that this weekend, when a song was played and someone on social media questioned whether it was classic. And, you know, there was a discussion—three people jumped in and shared their truth on why it’s a classic to them.” The song at issue: “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice.

Any debate about a canon is also a debate about who owns a culture. Hip-hop, in a sense, belongs to the world now, but it arose as the organic expression of a real urban community with its own concerns, identity, and values. “For aging hip-hop heads, the music, dance, and art of hip-hop literally changed the way they see themselves and how they experience the world,” said Murray Forman, an associate professor at Northeastern University who is studying aging in hip-hop as a fellow at the Hutchins Center at Harvard, in an e-mail. “As [they] construct their tributes and memorial events, they are invested in getting the story ‘right.’”

Few would argue with the idea that hip-hop’s New York pioneers should be remembered long after their heyday. Still, there’s also a kind of risk in preservation, in that it can unwittingly underscore just how much distance exists between the present and the past. “You’ve got a guy standing at the front of the bus and saying, ‘I was here from the beginning,’ but the very act of doing that almost turns it into an artifact,” said Mickey Hess, an English professor at Rider College and author of the books “Is Hip-Hop Dead?” and “The Nostalgia Echo.” “It kind of speaks to the fact that that culture is long gone, and that paying to go on the bus tour is as close as you can get to experiencing it.”

Even many old-school fans say there’s also a danger in being too doctrinaire about the superiority of the music’s founding values. By purist standards, the pop hits of the ’90s sound overproduced and trivial, while huge swaths of the contemporary landscape could easily be dismissed as well. After all, two of the genre’s biggest artists at the moment are a white Australian woman (Iggy Azalea) and a Canadian Jew who loves talking about his feelings (Drake). Nor would the flamboyant eccentric Young Thug, arguably 2014’s most exciting up-and-comer, have made much sense to the originators of two-turntables-and-a-microphone hip-hop. But he is also exactly the kind of artist who has always made the art form vital. Without the likes of Drake or Young Thug, or even Iggy, that moment in the South Bronx would have nowhere near so big a claim on history.

Reggie Ossé remembers a day several years ago when he was at home with his children, and a song came on by a new rapper named Soulja Boy. With its lazy rhymes and disposable lyrics, it didn’t sound anything like his idea of real hip-hop. But Ossé noticed his kids start dancing, and something shifted for him. “When I was a kid, the older generation was telling us there was no value in the stuff we enjoyed so much,” he said. “And watching my kids enjoy Soulja Boy, I thought: I don’t want to become that person.”

Now, Ossé tries his best to embrace the new—so much so that his kids, who were raised listening to their dad’s beloved classics, aren’t always sure what to make of it.

“I’ve instilled so much in the way of rap values in my kids, if I play a 2 Chainz song now, my eldest will look at me disapprovingly,” Ossé says. “And I’m like, ‘Dude, lighten up! I know I come from a quote-unquote serious period of hip-hop history—but...2 Chainz is dope!”

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail leon.neyfakh@globe.com.