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Hip-Hop at Middle Age: Rap Pioneers Reflect

Trailblazers of the youth-oriented musical movement talk about their journey, and the road ahead

collage of dozens of the famous faces of hip hop with artists such as queen latifah, snoop dog, missy elliott, will smith, salt and pepa, jay z and many more

Illustration by Sean McCabe

Part of the AARP Hip-Hop at Middle Age series

En español | What began as a New York City youth movement in the 1970s has gone on to become a global phenomenon. The first rap records were released 40 years ago, born out of a do-it-yourself urban culture where DJs replaced bands and kids expressed themselves by crafting raucous rhymes to flow over the records’ beats. Now many of the genre’s pioneers are in their 50s and 60s and, having launched a music revolution, have set their sights on other fields—film, TV, business, even the ministry—and conquered those as well. Like it or not, you can’t ignore it: Hip-hop is the most popular music in America. Believe the hype.

Hip-Hop, or rap, grew outside the music establishment and was not embraced as “real music” for years. It emerged in the ’70s and ’80s as a positive, empowering voice for working-class African Americans at a time when many were struggling economically and dealing with the rise of a drug epidemic. People latched on to rap because of its sonic force. The songs had power. And the rappers stepped onstage wearing clothes that looked like what people in the audience were wearing.

Where R&B, with a few exceptions, had been about love and focused on melody, hip-hop was all about being cool and loving rhythm—the underlying beat and the rapper’s voice, which became another line of rhythm in the mix. It was new, audacious and cocky. For inner-city black audiences, early rap seemed like a realistic depiction of their world, and they appreciated the no-holds-barred look at their streets. As white audiences discovered rap, they found it thrilling, too; like a movie, it was a visit to another world. And like rock ’n’ roll, and blues and R&B and soul before it, hip-hop followed the tradition of much of America’s popular music—invented by black musicians for black audiences, then crossing over to a wider market. Plus, the early superstars were larger-than-life characters: LL Cool J, Run-DMC, Public Enemy.

HIP-HOP ARTISTS IN THE ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME

 

  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, inducted 2007
  • Run-DMC, 2009
  • Beastie Boys, 2012
  • Public Enemy, 2013
  • N.W.A., 2016
  • Tupac Shakur, 2017

Hip-Hop has developed into a rich musical culture, thanks to those pioneers, with performers worldwide now showing off the complexity of their rhymes, their diction and their sense of rhythm. The music dominates the pop charts, is studied in universities and often wins the top Grammy Award categories—even a Pulitzer Prize, for Kendrick Lamar, in 2018. And hip-hop has also provided the foundation for hugely successful careers in other fields.

  • Hollywood: Will Smith, 51, is one of the top box office draws of all time, but some 30 years ago, he was a skinny Philadelphia kid rapping about how his parents just didn’t understand. Queen Latifah, 49, has appeared in about 40 films, plus had a lead role on the sitcom Living Single and a daytime talk show. She was even a CoverGirl model. She got her start, though, throwing down rhymes, including on her gold album Black Reign. Ice-T, 61, played a detective on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for two decades, yet his career began in gangsta rap and thrash metal; some police groups once condemned the pointed commentary in his music.
  • Business: Jay-Z, 50; Dr. Dre, 54; and Sean “Diddy” Combs, 50, are among the richest musicians in the U.S., with estimated net worths at or approaching $1 billion. Hip-hop offered them a path to success, from humble beginnings to stardom behind the mic, to business empires that include fashion lines, electronics, technology and liquor brands.
  • Media: Snoop Dogg, 48, who rose up through the West Coast gangsta rap scene of the ’90s, hosts a network game show and a cooking program with Martha Stewart. LL Cool J, 51, an early rap star who is an actor, too, has been host of the Grammy Awards five times and programs a hip-hop channel on SiriusXM satellite radio.

To make it in rap, you had to be smart and strong, entrepreneurial and savvy enough to navigate an industry full of sharks. And you had to create a big persona that was still authentic to you. So, moving to the screen or boardroom is not that surprising. “I think that people who were able to make that transition did so because they were basically acting,” says music critic Nelson George. “As people get older, I would say what they’re actually doing is manifesting other parts of themselves that didn’t fit the hip-hop mode.”

On August 11, 1973, Kool Herc, an 18-year-old DJ who had grown up in Jamaica (the island nation, not the neighborhood in Queens), hosted a “Back to School Jam” in the rec room of the building where his family lived in the Bronx. He charged admission because he wanted to make some money so his younger sister could get new clothes for school, and he also served as the entertainment. Herc talked into the microphone, saying little rhyming phrases over the beats. That’s it—the origin of hip-hop.

In the ’70s, rap caught hold in the Bronx and then spread throughout New York City, mostly through parties in public parks. A DJ could create the music by mixing records together on two turntables, no band needed. Eventually, MCs (masters of ceremonies) took over the rapping duties from DJs. Over time, the raps became longer, more clever and more intricate, which inspired more sophistication. It was a hypercompetitive culture that demanded that rappers try to outdo one another—you had to rhyme quickly, you had to find rhyming combinations no one had heard before, you had to rap over the beat in a way that made you sound like another drum within the mix, and you had to say things that made the crowd cheer or think or lose their minds. It became a game in which rappers battled to see how well they could tell stories through rhyme, to earn respect in their community.

In 1979 and 1980, the first rap records were released, including “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five followed with “The Message” in 1982. Run-DMC released albums that went gold and platinum, starting in 1984.

“We wanted to have fun and play music, but we had no resources,” Darryl “DMC” McDaniels says. “We had no real estate and no money. We took our Studio 54 to the streets.”

“I didn’t want to be typecast. I didn’t want to be the guy who was always, ‘We need a gangster, call Ice Cube. We need a thug, call Ice Cube.’ I wanted to be a real actor, so you never know what I’m gonna do.” 

— Ice Cube

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, as hip-hop expanded to the West Coast and to neighborhoods such as South Central L.A. and Compton, the music took a harder turn, even as it was gaining popularity. Largely a product of the times, gangsta rap has been mostly toned down over the years. And so have those who practiced it. As an MC with the best-selling group N.W.A, Ice Cube was a scowling, streetwise revolutionary. Now Cube presents himself as a family man, writing screenplays and starring in films such as Are We There Yet? and Barbershop. It’s a turnabout that seemed unthinkable, given his past image.

“I always looked at it as natural growth,” Cube told me in a recent interview. “I didn’t want to be typecast. I didn’t want to be the guy who was always, ‘We need a gangster, call Ice Cube. We need a thug, call Ice Cube.’ I wanted to be a real actor, so you never know what I’m gonna do.” He also said that he wanted a broad audience: “I don’t want a guy looking at his son, saying, ‘Do you know who that is?’ I want the son saying, ‘Oh, that’s Ice Cube. I wanna go see his movies!’ ”

Another way many rappers find success later in life is by becoming ministers, which allows them to still be onstage, getting that star-fan interaction, though in service of a higher cause. Run is now “Reverend Run”—he was the officiant at my wedding. MC Hammer turned to preaching in the late 1990s. Blow is also an ordained minister. I phoned him at his home. “After being around hip-hop and the entertainment industry for years,” he explained, “I began to say, What’s it all about? The more money I got, the more I wanted. The more drugs I got, the more I wanted. The more sex I got, the more I wanted. Then I sat down one day and said, Wow, is this it? Is this all that life has to offer? So I picked up the Bible.”

Blow said that being in the pulpit is a lot like rapping onstage. “Sometimes I get some traditionalists that holler and say, ‘This is not a show. When you’re in church, this is not a show, buddy.’ But if you ask me, it’s the greatest show.”

Nelson George points out that these rappers turned ministers were making the same leap as singers before them, such as Al Green and Solomon Burke. “Back in the day,” George says, “once an R&B singer’s career was over, you better believe half of them sang gospel records or became preachers. I just feel like this is history repeating itself, for rappers to do that. The lives that these folks led when they were younger were often wild. The church is always a sanctuary.”

But what of those who stay in the game and keep rapping? Like many who ply their trade in popular music, eventually they become mature adults in a youth-oriented industry. Should they follow in the footsteps of classic rock acts such as the Who, perennially on tour­—even as they belt out the line “I hope I die before I get old”?  

Says George: “I run into a lot of artists from that older demo, and the ones who have managed to have a good life, at some point they gave up on competing and accepted where they were. They know there’s an audience that wants them to do the stuff they did when they were young. Fans don’t really want to hear new stuff.”

Chuck D of the legendary rap group Public Enemy called me on his way to the airport. He’s a regular visitor there, flying to gig after gig on his tireless journey. Still filled with the drive that propelled him to fight the power in the ’80s, he has continued to tour regularly around the world, not just with PE but also with a new band, a fiery hard rock/rap supergroup called Prophets of Rage.


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“I’m not the dude that’s going to sit on a boat and take a vacation,” he explained in that deep, commanding voice—the voice that plainly expressed the frustrations of millions of African American youths (Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps) while appealing to a broader generation of Generation Xers right at the moment they were ready to take on the world. At 59 years old, Chuck D still brings the noise: “I don’t do vacations. I’m into music. That’s what I do.”

I asked him, “Do you want to be onstage in 10 or 20 years?”

“If I’m in good shape in 10 years, then yeah,” Chuck told me. “I do it pretty well now, but on the other side of the 50-yard line, anything can happen at any time. It’s all about maintenance. But I want to be able to stand in front of the audience and give them a show that has them saying, ‘I was really entertained.’ And I think I can do that forever.”

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