For decades now, rap has been the vehicle for driving a decidedly urban American dream narrative — a Horatio Alger-esque tale of rags to riches. And according to Jay-Z, you can be "right next to De Niro" and still be "hood forever."
But instead of the hood, what if you spent your life "down in TriBeCa" or up on the West Side or out in Greenwich? What can you possibly rap about if you've summered in the Hamptons and not Harlem?
Your father may be an Academy Award-nominated actor (Chet Haze's Tom Hanks) or the founder of a billion-dollar fashion empire (Rich Hil's Tommy Hilfiger); or, quite possibly, your grandfather ushered in an era of rock music (Pablo Dylan's Bob Dylan), and now you want to be a rapper. Seriously?
Questions aside about their impetus or inspiration, this odd lot of celebrity-progeny rappers has become a phenomenon worthy of mention in the New York Observer, the Huffington Post and the United Kingdom's the Guardian, among other news outlets.
The humor of the situation abounds: amateur rappers of celeb paternal origin comparing themselves in grandiose fashion to cultural heavyweights like Motown founder Berry Gordy or bona fide billionaires, like Virgin's Richard Branson. And of course, there are the illustrative tales of a tumultuous Connecticut life.
It would be careless to presume that there's some unspoken prerequisite to being a rapper today, as if the rap contagion floats only in the skies over Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City or the South Side of Chicago. I spent afternoons watching Aubrey Graham's wheelchair-ridden Jimmy Brooks character zip across my screen on Degrassi well before drowning out to Drizzy on the Red Line. Drake's snappy bars and hypnotic pseudo-rap crooning probably didn't come from attending day school. And for that matter, Kanye's comfy suburban-Chicago upbringing is not considered the petri dish of rap superstardom.
While there may not be a surefire formula to becoming a successful rap artist, one thing seems constant: talent. I'll avoid a pedantic spiel on race and wealth, but it's not unreasonable to scrutinize when the offspring of white affluence adapt a genre of music previously appropriated by blacks as a means of civil protest.
But I digress. Here are three rappers with quite the unconventional pedigrees. Spoiler alert: No matter the paternity or bank account, Hil is worth the listen, Haze is wonderfully amusing and Dylan, well, you just have to see for yourself.
Who: Chet Haze, 21
Child of Actor Tom Hanks
Behind the music: Tom Hanks' budding lyricist of a son doesn't feign some hood life, so there's little grit to his rap. In his Wiz Khalifa remix "White and Purple," he reps his school, Northwestern University, while rapping about a cushy student life in Evanston, Ill. Haze's "West Side L.A." plays like a contemporary hip-hop take on something straight out of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, with lofty descriptions of the good life in sunny Santa Monica, Calif. — Pacific Palisades, to be exact.
With four of his songs swarming their way around the Internet — including the pop-heavy, Swizz Beatz-produced ode to his hometown "Hollywood" — opinions are strong, venomous and divisive. Well, as the astute aphorism goes, "haters gonna hate," including the professed arbiters of anything and everything at Gawker. But why are we so opinionated about a collegiate thespian-turned-rapper?
Who: Rich Hil, 20
Child of Designer Tommy Hilfiger
Behind the music: Let's call the tattoo-laden Hil the head honcho of the white-celebrity-progeny rap game. He's a far cry from the seersucker-donning Hamptonians who adorn his father's fashion ads. A proud Nutmegger who reportedly went on hip-hop field trips as a young teen flanked by a family bodyguard, according to the New York Observer, Hil understands where he grew up as well as his station; he just doesn't agree with them. "Not everybody from Texas got a f—-ing cowboy hat, you know?" he told the Observer.
Hil's atmospheric and heavily produced style is like an overexposed picture — there's beauty in its distortion. Hil aspires to be the best rapper to come out of Connecticut, and he just may be. His unadulterated and morose verses and beats are kin to those of friend and Toronto-based R&B crooner the Weeknd, whose shout-out, legend has it, recently got Hil signed to Warner Bros.
But whether you're listening to him spill his soul on "Love My Love" or drop a few ill bars on "Cookies & Apple Juice," it's easy to see his jump into rap as contrived or disingenuous. Hil's transformation from a mere affluent offspring to one with street cred may have come only after tattoo sleeves and court-ordered rehab, but there's some amount of talent there. And that raises the question: Who and what define rap and hip-hop today?
Who: Pablo Dylan, 15
Grandchild of Singer-Songwriter Bob Dylan
Behind the music: This kid's certainly not shy about riding on the coattails of his grandfather's blues-rock fame. Dylan's "Top of the World," off of his mixtape 10 Minutes, is an unabashed 3-1/2-minute attempt at Drizzy-esque crooning, with verses rife with gratuitous immodesty. In between "reinventing sound," Dylan lets us know that "bitches always hate [him] 'cause they knew they couldn't get some." In "I'm on One," Dylan lets listeners in on his life as a VIP, including his love of Patrón shots.
I'm less offended by Dylan's underage appreciation for the delicious blue agave libation than I am by his overwrought attempt at passing off rubbish as gold. But then again, hip-hop hasn't taken much to modesty — maybe rapping about sex and booze is the perfect in for a 15-year-old. If Jay and Yeezy can do it, why can't Dylan?
Joshua R. Weaver is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.