TRACE Investigates

Back in the 90’s, hip hop was an exciting form of musical expression with newcomers who were young, hungry and had stories to tell.

Remember fresh-faced Snoop bouncing on the beach while letting everyone know that there was “so much drama in the LBC?” And Nas, handsome as ever and finally able to buy a beer legally, capturing the vibe of this golden age with his now classic “Illmatic” album?

Let’s rewind to 1992. Child rap duo Kriss Kross burst onto the scene with their debut album “Totally Krossed Out.” With the help of a barely legal Jermaine Dupri, 13-year-olds Chris “Daddy Mac” Smith and Chris “Mac Daddy” Kelly produced “Jump,” a major hit that helped their album reach quadruple platinum status.

Soon after, 20-year old Da Brat started making waves of her own after winning a “Yo! MTV Raps” contest. With the help of, once again, Jermaine Dupri, she released her first album “Funkdafied” in 1994. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard rap albums chart and Da Brat became the first female rapper to have a platinum album.

Then came Lil Bow Wow. In 2000, the 13-year old hit the ground running with his first single “Bounce With Me.” Lil Bow Wow drove teen girls crazy with his family-friendly lyrics and managed to sell over two million albums with his debut “Beware Of Dog.” Cheesy or not, Lil Bow Wow (and his slightly-less-successful musical nemesis, Master P’s 12-year-old son, Lil’ Romeo) managed to capture the attention of millions of fans worldwide and give hope to young, wannabe rappers. Even Lil Wayne, who considers himself the “greatest rapper alive,” made his rap debut with The Hot Boyz in 1997 when he was only 15 years old.

Fast forward to 2009. Nowadays, the 21-and-under generation of rappers who have made a recent impact includes the likes of Soulja Boy, New Boyz and… no one else comes to mind. When looking at the stats it’s easy to see that the nature of the game has changed. The majority of rappers are now 30+ certified grown folk. What was once a youngster’s game is now a grown-up’s sport, with few representations of urban youth in the mix.

So when does it become a problem that the art form that originally gave the inner city youth an outlet of expression and a voice no longer serves its primary function?

Enter Soulja Boy Tell Em. Though he’s often criticized for ignorant lyrics, the 19-year-old has attracted a slew of fans by creating a carefree, just-want-to-have-fun persona. His single “Crank Dat” encouraged people all across the U.S. to “Supaman dat hoe” in Youtube videos. Dance crazes and catchy, repetitive lyrics have kept his songs in the clubs, given him number one hits and sold millions of ringtones.

Thanks to his business savvy, Soulja Boy managed to break his way through the barriers of the “old boys” club that the hip hop industry has become. And you can’t help but wonder if a large part of his success, despite what many consider to be a lack of quality material, is due to the fact that his fans feel like he’s one of them.
Perhaps young people, who are the largest consumers of music, feel validated by seeing reflections of themselves in the media. Perhaps it makes them feel somehow relevant and worthy, like they have a place in the world.

However, teen-sensation artists are no longer the rule but the exception. Jay-Z, Biggie and Puff Daddy were just a few of the ‘90s young cats that had 14-year old girls sounding as hard as they could trying to spit memorized lyrics to their favorite rap songs… But nearly 20 years later, many of these names still reign supreme.

Jay-Z is arguably the number one MC in the game. The rest of the pack (including deceased rappers Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur) can be heard in regular radio rotation and if not, are still very media relevant regardless of whether or not they have an album out. Although a new generation of rappers – think Kanye West, Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane and 50 Cent – have come onto the scene since then, many of these chart toppers belong pretty much to the same generation as the veterans.

So, as Nas controversially proclaimed, is hip hop (as an art form) slowly dying, or simply aging?

The genre has become popularized and is officially integrated into mainstream media. With the shift of hip hop audience seems to have come a shift in focus from clever rhymes to dollar signs. Because of this materialistic trend, it seems like if a young rapper does manage to make it to radio he’s likely accompanied by an infectious beat and/or supplementary dance move. Who cares what his reality is or what he has to say… let’s dance! Alternatively, labels seem more willing to push an established, consistent artist sans club banger. That’s one point for proven acts like Jay-Z, zero for the newcomer.

So if hip hop is supposed to represent the voice of urban youth, they seem to only be whispering now. In the meantime we have Young Jeezy, Young Buck, Young Dro, Lil Jon and Lil Boosie shouting at the top of their lungs. These men are by no means untalented but they don’t exactly live up to their namesake. Aren’t you supposed to drop the “Lil” or “Young” passed a certain age, like Bow Wow did?

In a youth obsessed industry where many rappers fight fiercely to live up to the character they were 15 years ago, the actual youths are few and far between. Where’s Jermaine Dupri when you need him??

Written by Shaira Brereton

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