Why Rap Doesn’t Age Well

“These kids don’t appreciate music from last week, let alone ten years ago!”

This is something that a lot of people – artists in particular – like to complain about. It’s a valid point though. Any mention of ‘older rappers’ in the media draws the inevitable comparisons with the Rolling Stones, who continue to tour despite that the fact that they’re all over 100 years old (not to mention the fact that Keith Richards has been dead for the last 25 years). Classic rock albums from Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd and The Beatles continue to be discovered and enjoyed by each new generation of music fans – or at least those who take the time to study their shit – while many staples of great hip-hop long-players are relegated to the occasional blog post on knowyaraphistory.blogspot.com (note: may not be a real URL).

The problem seems to be that one of the things that makes good hip-hop so much better than any other modern form of music is the fact that it’s always on the cutting edge. ‘Newest, latest’ as Buggin’ Out once exclaimed. The downside with having the brand new slang and speaking on the topics of the day is that it can also date the record horribly. Also, featuring the dance craze of the minute? Not such a great idea when people check your clip in five years time. Although I haven’t attempted to convert any teenagers to the sounds of Critical Beatdown, Criminal Minded or Long Live The Kane in recent times, I can just imagine the blank stares and calls of ‘Meh’ that would greet these landmark releases. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Biggie Smalls is now considered ‘old school’…but I digress. Truth be told, I can understand why nobody would want to listen to Sir Mix-A-Lot‘s ‘Beepers’ for a number of compelling reasons – not least of which is the fact that nobody has used a beeper since 1994.

Even beyond the subject matter, the relatively lo-fi sound of a lot of 80’s rap can seem world’s apart to someone weaned on super-slick modern beats and R&B hooks, while the extra-lyrical techniques of old might scare off the more attention deficit, raised on easily digestible, dumbed-down punch-lines and ‘witty’ wordplay. Public Enemy must sound like something from the prehistoric era to a kid who enjoys rappers who have feelings and cry when girls break their hearts. Does Breaking Atoms still sound as fresh to me as it did when it dropped just because I can associate it with that moment in time and still appreciate the impact it had? Could somebody who had never heard rap before throw on Schoolly D and enjoy it in the same way? Or is everything before Illmatic and Enter The 36 Chambers strictly for old timers and archivists now?

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32 Comments so far
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Come on. Any intelligent listener knows that keith, nas, kane, are all “modern” in their rapping and lyricism. The beats on those albums are timeless, because the sound resonates through time because the meaning is true.

Comment by QBD1 08.03.10 @

“..to a kid who enjoys rappers who have feelings and cry when girls break their hearts”


This is exactly why I HAVE to listen to 20-year old songs.

(except for MC Shan’s Left Me Lonely, of course…)

Comment by Frost Gamble 08.03.10 @

word.we da dinosaurs.and them kids are dull like they never been.whuteva man.

Comment by swordfish 08.03.10 @

Production wise Public Enemy are still years ahead, and lyrically their topics are still pertinent; the issue isn’t about whether the music ages gracefully, only that it fades to black as it does so.

Ho ho.

And there’ll always be a steady contingent of teenagers fanatically devoted to the classics – Lord knows a visit to any old-school rap video on Youtube will reveal such.

Comment by A.S. 08.03.10 @

Interesting post Robbie. The problem is that the original artform in its prime (from the time Marley/Ced Gee discovered the SP somewhere in the mid/late 80s) doesn’t really exist anymore. Sure there’s still cats like Marco Polo, but that really is throwback rap, in all honesty. Hiphop is just notorious for not recognizing heroes, and that’s because hiphop has never been claimed by the rightful ‘owners.’

Comment by O.N.X. 08.03.10 @

The Chronic is bound to be some kid’s Dark Side of the Moon in 10 years. I don’t really agree with your opinion.

There’s plenty of kids listening to a Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang, and 90s indy Hip-Hop. The difference between them and us is that we watched it all unfold and understand everything in its context; for them it’s just music they haven’t heard before.

I think you give young classic rock fans too much credit. Very few delve deeper than what would be on a greatest albums of all time list. 20 year olds are showing up for Premier shows. Young kids are showing up at events like Rock the Bells. Hip-Hop hasn’t diverted from tradition when it comes to later generations catching on.

Younger audiences are what keeps a lot of classic rock and jazz artists in business 30 years later. Same thing is going on with Hip-Hop. Take a look at the Hip-Hop section on Reddit:


Most of those posters are probably in their teens or early twenties.

Comment by haroon 08.03.10 @


Great piece and one which, as a music writer for a midwest-based alternative weekly, I have written about many, many times. I think the analysis goes a bit deeper than you suggest, however. Part of the problem is that rap is still perceived by many as “young people’s” music. How many people do you know who, in their late 30s and 40s, have abandonned rap for more (in their eyes) mature forms of music – i.e., jazz, neo soul, reggae, etc. The result: as P.E. KRS, Kane, Kool G., et al grew older, than fanbase either disappeared, or simply saw them within the context of when they BEGAN making music – i.e., the late 80s and early 90s (therefore not allowing them to grow as artists…) Conversely, rock artists matured alongside their fans, which means that the fanbase of a Rolling Stones, Who, Zeppelin, etc., could range from the 60+ year old rocker to a 16 year old Guitar Hero wannabee. Unfortunately, with hip hop we have no equivalent. I have my theories on why… but of course, I will save those for a book I’m working on about this very topic! (smile)… Good read though…

Comment by Icy Rhodes 08.03.10 @

Rap is dated music, everyone had their own sound, no one tried to make the same album everytime, but it so happens that the early nineties saw a level of originality unseen that we lack today

Comment by maad 08.03.10 @

Perfect Example:

I can go to Wal-Mart (the largest retailer of compact discs nowadays… sad but true) and pick up every Beatles album, a lot of Pink Floyd’s discography, and older selections from Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. Even 70’s classic rock like AC/DC and Kiss are always well stocked. But lets take a look at the “rap/r&b” section. (Which is a mistake in its own right).

Classic r&b albums are most definitely found there; Marvin Gaye, Aretha Frankilin, and yes, 70’s joints by The Commodores. Its not exactly crate diggin’, but the old guard of the genre is represented well.

Now lets take a look at the hip-hop section: Rick Ross? Yes. Nation of Millions? No. Eminem’s latest? Yes. By All Means Necessary? No. Jay-Z selections? Sure. Illmatic, 36 Chambers, Stricly Business, Follow the Leader? Never, no, not ever. Lil’ Wayne? Unfortunately, absolutely.

And it isn’t because Wal-Mart has a conspiracy against selling hip-hop titles. The newer stuff is available in non-edited formats. I can go and pick up plenty of titles that are chock-full of sex, thugged-out imagery, and f-bombs galore.

The fact is, a company like Wal-Mart would gladly keep at least some of these classics in stock IF THEY WOULD SELL. The pioneers all warned future rap artists (and in a lot of cases, sold out themselves… “Afro Connections at High 5” ahem!) AGAINST going hit-pop and it happened anyway. Now, the readership of unkut is not going to be most likely representative of the average hip-hop fan; and thats a damn shame. But thats the truth, Ruth.

The point is, in my humble opinion, is that hip-hop fans in general are fickle. Mix-tapes used to be a pause/un-pause art form done by the heads who wanted to tell their peeps, “check this shit out.” Now mixtapes are bullshit DJ promo’s that only serve to dilute an artist’s bona-fide catalog. In turn, they de-sacredize their releases, and then become unimportant. Or such as the case of say, Rakim, they disappear from the scene in what seems to be decades at a time, and then turn around and drop a turd on ’em.

This isn’t rocket science, but I think, and I could be wrong, that it really comes down to the artists and their material. The classics are the classics and they’re being unduly ignored, for sure. But the hip-hop industry itself failed to heed its own warnings and over-saturated the market with sub-par product. To quote DJ Scratch, “remember when there used to be more rappers than fans?”



Comment by J 08.03.10 @

The Wal-Mart example might be a bad one. The rock albums you cited crossed over into pop. You won’t find Ramones, Sex Pistols, or Dead Kennedys at Wal-Mart either. That just means people who know real music don’t go looking for it at Wal-Mart.

Comment by haroon 08.03.10 @

what were the sales stats for Led Zepplin II? What were the sales stats for Critical Beatdown.

There is your answer.

The music industry had become way more commercial by the 1980’s, capitalism in full effect. Prior to this, music wasn’t about money, and people and artists had the chance to make decisions based on what they feel. Imagine if The White Album was number one on the charts right now, instead of Soula Boy or whoever, it seems ridiculous right?

Dark Side of the Moon was just THAT much more widely accepted at the time than any real hip hop release ever was, probably due to the accessibility fact, also the budget they had to push it with bigger record labels, etc. etc.

Apples and Oranges yo, but I feel where you’re coming from.

Comment by Jesse 08.03.10 @

I think a major reason is the origin of the music. It was developed by a young, black, urban society in part as means of rebellion – that just isn’t applicable once you reach a certain age.

Another issue is that, since hip-hop only really matured into such a phenomenal form of music in the late 80s to early 90s, we’re only just now starting to see artists and fans who are middle-aged. I guess artists have to learn to adjust to create music for that age group (theirs).

Comment by Ross 08.03.10 @


“Never Mind the Bollocks…” and a Ramones “best of” are both available at your local Wal-Mart.

I’m talking what we would consider slam-dunk classics here, anyways. Public Enemy is to Bob Dylan as the Dead Kennedys are to Masta Ace.

I know the Wal-Mart comparison is highly over-simolified, but its a good example nevertheless.

And I don’t give any credence to the “they don’t wanna here a young black blah blah blah.” That argument had its time, but is now just a self-denegrating cop-out. In 2010, the suburban Nickelodeon kids are rockin’ 50 Cent on the ipods their parents bought them for Christmas.

Wal-Mart and its shareholders are ill concerned with where the music or the message is coming from. They’re concerned with the same thing you and I are:

The Bottom Line.

Comment by J 08.03.10 @

The problem is not Wal-Mart,Robbie posted a book called-Def Jam INC:on this site a short time ago,the last few chapters discussed how in the late ’90’s and early 2000 the labels merging into essentially 1 or 2 majors as opposed to the previous 11,would allow them to control catalogue albums at their whim.Simply put,if[they]can decide if and when”classic”HipHop material is released,then you have an audience that never heard of Master Ace or Large Professor never hearing of the aforementioned,thus allowing Lil wayne,Eminem,B.O.B etc.to be released with no alternatives for die hard or potential fans now refered to as”purist”and backpackers.

Comment by R.Jones 08.03.10 @

As for me,I ain’t never letting go of the culture or that original Boombap,I spend my freetime browsing used cd spots,yard sales,and old book stores for lost and rare bangers.I worked in music retail for years,I watched our vendors give my particuliar store the run around when i tried to order cd’s by-Poor Righteous Teachers,Brand Nubian,and Lakim Shabazz,only to be told their projects had been “deleted” from the system,so there is definitely a conspiracy against conscious & Classic HipHop titles.-Peace

Comment by R.Jones 08.03.10 @

Many good points on this topic. Most music genres are “youth based” and Hip Hop is no different, in my opinion the practitioners of the culture were usurped by the commercial aspect of what the industry became. I would never begrudge an artist from getting paid and earning a living from their art, but when the main goal of emceeing is getting paid, the creativity and essence gets lost to a corporate mindset.

When I was growing up in the Bronx, Hip Hop was about being innovative and cutting edge, whether you were an artist or a consumer/fan of the art in all of it’s various manifestations (graf, b-boying, etc.) The culture dictated it’s own code of ethics and realities. When emceeing was the element that was crowned worthy of being elevated above all others and the profit motive took precedent over all else, Hip Hop music was compromised to what we have now.

The claim that Hip Hop is only “youth music” is bullshit, artists can grow and mature just as any other music; if artists continue to make quality music they will receive support. Everyone wants to make money like Diddy, 50 or Jay and that is not realistic, not in any artform. I think many vets are realizing they got away from the truth of what Hip Hop represents and are not concerned about ” I gotta sell platinum every time I drop”. If you make quality joints and cater to your base, as an artist, you can make a good living for yourself and family. Like Jadakiss and Styles said “we ain’t millionaires, we thousandaires, with millionaire respect.” Get in where you fit in.

Comment by bronxbred 08.03.10 @

I just gotta say that my 5 year old son digs BRass Monkey and Mixalot’s Posse. I play hiphop for them every single car ride. Once they get older, I hope they dig into my collection further and discover “Low End Theory” or “Death Certificate”

Comment by cenzi 08.04.10 @

If you parallel the ageing of rock/rap artists, some examples to cite would be Chili Peppers and Incubus. With both there is an obvious mellowing with every album (Chilis now do stress-relief exercises before gigs instead of speedballs) but the music hasn’t gotten worse – they’ve both possibly jumped the shark now but certainly their best work was of this century.

Comment by Ross 08.04.10 @

The media promotes this thing about the youth being better because they can exploit their greenness. How you going to exploit the experienced who knows his rights? SUDDENLY HE IS OLD AND “DIFFICULT”

Comment by Tom Dice 08.04.10 @

I think some of the Golden-Era stuff can still be appreciated by younger generations, but anything before then just sounds too dated to younger ears now.

Even by the mid nineties, kids who started listening to rap via Wu-Tang and Snoop would hear stuff like, I dunno, The Show or Step Off and be like “this sounds like Wham Rap!”

Comment by MF 08.04.10 @

“… tell you the truth James Brown was old…”

I agree with Icy Rhodes and Bronxbred equally. Some of the albums I loved in the nineties when I was younger sound really dated now. They were aimed at teens, and some instances, made by teens. Our music tastes mature with age and the jazz tracks that were once hard to listen to are now appreciated with a different ear.
The music industry is a different beast to the one that gave us a generation of artists that we as grown men have seen come and go, along with the boom bap sound we all clearly love (hence our interest in this site!). Agreed that there’s a large portion of dated sounding stuff from the hip hop of old – production and lyrically – but the same can be true of the majority of genres, rock or whatever. Prog rock anyone? Jungle? Disco?

Living in a time where we are bombarded with a variety of mediums – living in a throw-away society, jumping on the next new thing, iFads and an unhealthy celebrity obsession spoon-fed by the media etc – I think we are told more than ever what we should and shouldn’t like. Hip hop used to be a cutting edge artform, but it lost it’s way when various artists sold out to fit in with the increasingly corporate world. Some of us clearly lost the faith in it… the fact that many an artist contradicted themselves, going from positivity to gangster to bling. That was hard to take as we got older.

Re rap not ageing well. I disagree. Young or old, real fans will search out the realness, the truely great albums and some aspiring rappers/producers might even be influenced by them. Also, what might be unfashionable now, might be the flavour of the month the next. These things always come in cycles. A good album is timeless, regardless of when it came out. Breakin Atoms yes!

Comment by M.Turn 08.04.10 @

I was only interested in rock until I was about 16, when I started to gradually become more interested in rap, up to the point when it was totally dominating my listening, as it still does now at 25. But the point is that I didn’t get into the rap that was around at the time, I got introduced to it via the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, and from there to NWA, Big Daddy Kane and all the greats from the late 80s/early 90s. Stuff from that period, and the mid-90s NY stuff is still my main listening.

Having said all this, I am perhaps atypical in that I’m a middle class, white English dude from a village, who never much listened to the radio or watched video channels, so I wasn’t exposed to much “urban” music as a kid. This meant that when I came to hip hop I came to it fairly fresh, and without many preconceptions. I just found the stuff from the so-called “golden era” to just be more inventive and raw than a lot of the stuff around now. I do listen to new hip hop but it tends to mostly be stuff from artists who’ve been around a while. I guess that’s why I gravitate towards Unkut.

Comment by Mag7Music 08.04.10 @

The good news is there’s still plenty of quality stuff coming out form new artists. They’re just indy and don’t get the kind of media attention we’re used to these days – like during the 90s for everyone bar Coolio and House of Pain.

Check out AOK Collective (2 Hungry Bros., 8thw1, P.So (P.Casso), Homeboy Sandman…) or Diamond District (Oddisee, XO and yU) for examples of modern hip-hop influenced by the golden era but with something new to offer.

Comment by Ross 08.04.10 @

Those types of artists will attract newcomers and send them on to the stuff from the 90s too (most modern indy rappers represent their influences verbally or musically).

Comment by Ross 08.04.10 @

Rap has aged Super Well. We have an art form thats been ongoing since the mid 70’s;been on wax since ’79 and it’s still going strong. (Although I feel that the energy is a trickle of what it once was.)

Every one had their own favorite time period. I’m partial to pre-’83; ’85-89, and ’92-’99. And because we all come to it at different times in our lives most of it has context to the artist and to us the listeners.

It’s been my 1st choice of music for over 30 years. And my whole style is full grown.

I also noticed that recently there have been all types of hip hop legend concert/shows that bring out the old heads who look nothing like the dude in the caption.

Comment by BKThoroughbred 08.05.10 @

Part of the problem with listening to early Hip Hop is that artists didn’t release albums. They released 12″s. A group like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 released four or five 12″s that were classic songs. When they finally released an album in 1983, there were several R+B songs and ballads that were aimed at the R+B market. They released another album in 1984 which wasn’t that good either. Same with Sugarhill Gang and Kurtis Blow. They released great singles but their albums were pretty weak.

All that is to say that if you are really interested in early rap music (79-87) there’s really not that many albums worth owning. Good rap albums didn’t really start coming out until 1984 (Run DMC, Whodini, Fat Boys) and there were only a handful. LL Cool J and The Beasties dropped classics in 1985 and 1986.

It seems that production got better when people started sampling and the albums got better. In 1988 you had Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Eric B and Rakim, Stetsasonic, Big Daddy Kane, Ultramagnetic MCs, Ice T, Salt N Pepa, The Jungle Brothers, Eazy E and EPMD all released classic albums in 88. That’s the year Yo! MTV Raps came out and labels figured out how to market and promote rap music.

Prior to 1988, Rap music was associated with breakdancing and grafitti and when breakdancing and grafitti died out, they couldn’t figure out how to market it. It took a couple of years but with music videos and rappers with gold chains they had an image to sell.

Sadly, the only place you can really acquire all of the early 80s rap songs is Ego Trip’s book of Rap lists from 1979-1998. They list the top 40 rap songs by year. If you can get that mp3 folder online somewhere you can listen to all of the early rap classics. Unfortunately, all of those songs are on different labels so it will probably never be officially released.

So if you are a teenager, or in your 20s and you don’t remember what 80s rap sounded like you can’t just go to the store and buy early 80s classic rap albums because there aren’t any. The classic rap albums didn’t start coming out until the mid to late 80s.

Personally, I think all of the groups I mentioned are just as good as, if not better, than the modern rappers (Jay, Nas, 50, Lil Wayne, Kanye, etc.) but you have to hear their best songs mixed together with the other stuff that was out at the time to appreciate it. I mean, if I make a mixtape of hot rap from 2005, I’d probably put one or two Jay songs, one or two Nas songs, one or two 50 Cent songs and one or two Kanye songs.

Likewise, if you were going to make a best of 1988 mixtape you wouldn’t play all Public Enemy or all EPMD, you’d put one or two EPMD songs, one or two Public Enemy songs, one or two Big Daddy Kane songs, one or two Eric B and Rakim songs, etc.

Basically, the only way to get somebody to appreciate the music of that era is to make a mixtape or a compilation of those artists so the listener can get an appreciation for the difference between what NWA was doing vs what Public Enemy was doing vs what Rakim was doing.

Comment by 5 Grand 08.05.10 @

Super co-sign on the knowledge 5 Grand dropped!

Comment by BKThoroughbred 08.05.10 @

Dj JS-1 has made some really dope tapes of vintage hiphop for ageing and flourishing b-boys to dig. Age, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Imo hiphop doesnt age better or worse than any other form of music. Theres good and bad music from all times in all genres. Respect the architects..
Two tapes from JS-1, first one with a lot of music from around the end of 1980, beginning of 1990s:
And this one with tracks from 1979 -1985:

Comment by PAS 08.06.10 @

An important question to ask ourselves is if we are actually doing enough to support the artists who are keeping our core hip hop values (Conservative Rap Coalition) alive. It’s hard to complain that our heroes are leaving us if we haven’t given them tangible reasons not to – like our dollars for their product. I’m guilty of downloading music from artists whose records I should be buying. I must be one of AZ’s biggest fans out there, but the reality is that I bought Doe or Die, dubbed Pieces of a Man and pretty much downloaded everything after that with a few purchases on Canal St when the bootleg CD era was fully popping. If he stops making music, I have to look myself in the mirror and say that for one of my favorite artists, I’ve spent about 12 dollars on legitimately obtaining his music in like 15 years.

RE: rap aging, I actually think that a lot of the 80s stuff aged fine. Beginning in the late 90’s is when more and more stuff seemed to have short shelf life. Thematically, the content that ages the worst to me, as I’ve gotten older, is that which is rampantly misogynistic… especially skits.

Comment by digglahhh 08.07.10 @

Yeah, 80s rap aged fine. Its the early 90s rap that didn’t age well.

Groups like Lords of the Underground, Das Efx and just about every other group that relied heavily on their visual image were hot at the time, but when you go back and listen to the actual music all you can think of is the video. Alot of early 90s rap that was popular at the time is unlistenable.

Comment by 5 Grand 08.09.10 @

Its an interesting thing to note that deejaying, breaking and graff writing don’t necessarily fall into the trap of being dated, but are instead more timeless elements of hip hop. However, rapping and/or beatboxing definitely does become dated. Don’t get me wrong, all of those artforms have a definite progression or evolution, but rapping definitely is not appreciated over time but depreciated (by some).

My gf is a teacher and she gets asked if she knows who biggie and tupac are, she laughs it off and tells em that she was listening to them before her students were even born. I think thats what kids or teenagers nowadays think is old school. Its really funny to me, because I think of Run DMC, Public Enemy, Rakim, EPMD, grandmaster flash & the furious five, cold crush, etc as old school. I think maybe in ten years time this whole debate will have changed and a lot of older rappers will be dead (like biggie and pac) which is sadly when the youth will pick up the music and begin to have respect for it. Hopefully it happens during rappers’ lifetimes so that they can see a whole other generation pick up the baton. Rock stays relevant because its not about being the freshest or coming with the newest shit that. Its more about respect for the artform and doing it just to do it and bring your own perspective. I think if hip hop artists and rappers did this today, their music might just end up being timeless.

Comment by gstatty 08.14.10 @

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