As tragic as the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls were, they also created openings rather than voids. It left a generation of young and upcoming artists battling for those coveted top spots. Artists who were so street, you hesitated to even call them artists. The mid to late nineties was a tremendous time to be a fan of hip hop as we were given artists such as Jay-Z, DMX, The Lox, Big Pun and Eminem. These artists and many more carried the flag for hip hop from the mid to late nineties right into the 21st century, while paving the way for those behind them such as 50 cent, Fat Joe Kanye West and the rest of Roc-A-Fella records.
When I was in High School, Roc-A-Fella Records was more like a movement than a record label. Hallways were filled with kids wearing Roc-A-Wear coats and State Property shirts, with Air Force Ones and S Dots on their feet. I don’t know if it’s just because of the fact I’m from Philly but the signing of Beanie Siegel and the rest of State Property turned hip hop on it’s head. People I went to school with couldn’t wait to tell you how they grew up on the same street as Beanie or The Young Gunz. If Jay- Z and Roc-A-Fella backed an artist during this era, their success was almost guaranteed.
The music was gritty, aggressive and if I’m just being honest — violent. For me though it never inspired or promoted actual violence, it was more like a documentation of the lives of the people who grew up so similarly to so many of those I went to school with. The music was a creative non violent outlet for the aggression pent up in so many of us. It stood for something and had meaning.
The early 2000’s would be responsible for the re-emergence of artists who established themselves as hip hop legends in the early nineties such as Nas and Dr. Dre. After the massively successful introduction of Eminem in 1999, Dre would go on to also release his second studio solo album The Chronic 2001. Nas released Stillmatic, which featured the now infamous Jay-Z diss Ether which led to one of the better known battles rap would go on to see.
I don’t know when it happened but somewhere along the lines, the music changed. It lost it’s meaning and feeling. It stopped being about the talent and culture. Many, including Jay-Z himself on his track D.O.A (Death of Auto tune), blame the voice changing technology of auto tune for the decline but to me, it’s more than that. The music seems to have lost it’s soul and I can’t help but feel the fans themselves are as much to blame as the new generation of artists. There seems to be no message at all in much of the music and very few people seem to mind. Anything with any evolution to it at all seems to go unappreciated while the mindless matter seems to go on to be massively successful.
As blessed as I’ve been as a music fanatic to be a part of the rise of some of these legendary musicians, it’s painful to watch them release new music I appreciate just as much as I did their old stuff and watch it get publicly picked apart by both new and older fans alike.
Jay-Z has a classic line where he tells anyone who misses what his music used to be about and can’t appreciate his growth as an artist, to buy his old albums. Jay released his 4:44 album earlier this year and as successful of a release as it was, it was still massively criticized by a generation of fans who want the 47 year old, hundred millionaire, father of three to still be rapping about the dope he hasn’t sold in over twenty years. Or Eminem to still be rapping about the drugs he no longer does. It’s just an era and generation I don’t understand or want to be a part of.
Nas has a line on his eighth studio album, appropriately titled Hip Hop is Dead where he sums up my frustrations perfectly in saying “So if you’re asking, ‘why is hip hop dead?’, there’s a pretty good chance, your lame ass, corny ass, is the reason it died man. You don’t give a fuck about it, you don’t know nothing about it…”
Growing up, I recall the older generation not understanding the new music and our lack of appreciation for older artists from their time. Maybe that’s all it is, I’ve just grown into the old embittered hip hop fan who is overly critical of the new music he doesn’t understand and overly defensive of the artists he grew up idolizing.