“Look at these new jack kids. They don’t even know what song this is, and it’s sad.”
I’d heard that statement a million times over. I’d said it myself a million and five times. But this time, for whatever reason, was different. I’d just finished DJ-ing,opening up for DJ Premier at the Soundset festival in May of 2012. And as I stood off to the side in the 1,000 degree tent, sweat-soaked from shirt to drawers, nodding my head as Preemo dropped the jazzy, yet beautifully morose intro for the Group Home LP he produced from 1995, an attendee around my age uttered that magic phrase that actually froze me in my tracks for the first time.
That’s when the doctor walked into the office holding the x-ray with the malignant tumor on it and sporting a somber face: I was officially part of the first generation of folks raised on hip-hop as recorded music to get…[gasp]…old.
As I scanned the crowd, the arithmetic made it even more obvious: About 40% of the people in that tent looked like they’d be cramming for the SATs when they got home from Soundset. Some that I met after my DJ set stated they couldn’t make it to that night’s after party due to curfews and age restrictions. I turned my internal calculator on. That’d make their year of birth about… 1996. Group Home’s album may have been available via special order at the record store in Mall of America when their parents were deciding whether or not they should drop a brat. I thought it was pretty cool young kids were nodding to a dope beat they didn’t know, but I guess the complainant had a point. If you were a teenager in the ’90s and didn’t know which song came after “Zig Zag” on the Car Wash Soundtrack from 1976, that’d be pretty Goddamn sad, too, right? Or does that sound a bit ridiculous?
Only a certain demographic can truly understand why [N.W.A] were considered so dangerous once upon a time. You had to be there to “get it.”
The Soundset epiphany kind of reminded me of an episode 20 years earlier, when I had the fellas over the crib during the summer of ‘92, right after my freshman year of high school ended. When I pulled out Kool and the Gang’s “Give It Up” and Young Holt Unlimited’s “Queen of the Nile” and played ‘em back to back, everyone bugged at how the funk and jazz record combined to form the backdrop for what was the hottest joint of the moment, Eric B. & Rakim’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique.”
“That’s fat,” said T-Bone. “You should use some more shit off those records.”
T-Bone had no interest in learning about Kool and the Gang drummer, “Funky” George Brown, or asking me about this mysterious Young-Holt Unlimited group. They were before his time. He just liked the samples. Those two to four second audio grabs were fat. When EQd right, they bumped in the jeeps that passed us in the street. That was it. He didn’t ask me for a tape dub of the first Kool and the Gang LP to bump on his own, but he was down to loop up their shit. Aspiring producers and DJs like myself cared about that stuff. But our casual rap fan peers? Nah. If a sample was fat, it was fat. Who gave a fuck about the original source? The original source was before their time, their parents’ music. And when you’re a teenager, your parents’ music is corny. We snatched pieces of it and made it ours. It was different now. “Don’t Sweat the Technique” was our locker room music, not “Give It Up.”
So as I reminisced on T-Bone’s insouciant stance on the DNA of early ’90s hip-hop records while simultaneously examining the all ages crowd at Soundset, I finally and firmly accepted the fact that the generational disconnect will always exist. Music from the past is largely enjoyed and preserved by those who lived through it upon its release to the public and felt its impact. They first absorbed it immediately upon its creation. They’re old enough to look back on the music and its associated time period as a point of reference to where the world is in its current state. Vietnam, Reaganomics, Watergate, crack, The L.A. Riots, New York’s state of being a racial powder keg in the late ’80s – each had a soundtrack. Younger folks who dig deeper and are more intrigued by music than their peers appreciate stuff from all genres and all eras. But they’re in the minority, and although they may appreciate the music itself, they’ll never fully comprehend what surrounded it or the circumstances it was made under. Some of our “Golden Era” innovations in style have come back around – Gumby haircuts are actually popular again. But N.W.A. is no longer dangerous. Ice Cube’s penchant for getting lost in his movies and Dr. Dre’s overpriced headphones make the group seem damn near humorous in hindsight. I once played “Fuck The Police” during a college music course I taught at my alma mater; my students thought it was hilarious and fun. Only a certain demographic can truly understand why the group and song were considered so dangerous once upon a time. You had to be there to “get it.” Furthermore, rap has always been propelled by youth and rebellion, so fewer older artists in hip-hop will be revered by the youth than in most other genres of music.
And despite all signs pointing to the merciless beating of a dead horse, we continue to wail away. Check the comment sections for any online hip-hop article related to beef between artists of two eras or start a rap debate in any black barbershop: “old,” “broke,” and “bitter” are words I’ll bet a kidney on popping up. KRS vs. Nelly, Lil’ Kim vs. Nicki Minaj, Common vs. Drake, Ice-T vs. Soulja Boy, Pete Rock vs. Lupe Fiasco, etc. – all the same. Had Twitter existed in 1991, when Biz Markie’s album was pulled from shelves for illegally sampling Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again,” you can’t deny that 14-year-old Biz fans like myself would be tweeting:
Gilbert O’Sullivan is a herb #Broke #Bitter #OldMan
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