The Small, Hot Argument Across Hip-Hop's Mini-Generation Gap

Collection Glenn Fuhrman, New York; © Kehinde Wiley
Collection Glenn Fuhrman, New York; © Kehinde Wiley

Ten years ago, I wrote a piece on hip-hop nostalgia.

I was against it. Mainly I was mad that the global indie hip-hop underground—of which I had counted myself a die-hard member, to which I had given my ‘tween, teen and especially my early adult years to—was beginning to turn on itself. By 1999, it was hardly cutting-edge to be underground anymore, not when the best music was coming out of New Orleans and Virginia and, maybe even more insulting to hard-core heads, was selling by the trailer loads. Lauryn Hill was making the cover of Time, hip-hop was peaking in market value, and the true believers were losing their religion. Post-Pac and Biggie, everyone was listening to Wu-Tang Clan's "Can It All Be So Simple" a little too hard.


The '90s were over, and so this is what the younger me wrote, "As the indie hip-hop underground has become more ideological–that is, better able to declare what it dislikes, who's in and who's out–it has become less vital. It is understandable; the tension between underground props and massive success is healthy. But this generation, so deeply inspired by Q-Tip's rule No. 4080 (‘record company people are shady’), is dangerously close to its limits.” Was I a bad-ass, truth-telling critic? I was only months away from my own brief, doomed personal immersion in the millennial hip-hop bull-market (fortunes were not quite made). And then after the Towers fell and the market did, too, I went and wrote a hip-hop generation history.

Way to have it both ways, Chang!

Has hip-hop grown up? Duh. It always has because we always do. Every time the ex-kids who feel like they reinvented it get a little older, the new kids behind them start turning it into something else. How do the older ones react? They holler about "Hip-hop is dead"—the first time someone said hip-hop was dead was in 1979, the year "Rapper's Delight" came out. Meanwhile, the shorties have new clothes, new slang, new dances, new styles, new art, new music. Hip-hop still ages gracefully—we see you Erykah, Ghostface—and remains indecipherable to 30+somethings—whose knees never jerk the way they're supposed to. The rest is just a small, if hot, argument across a mini-generation gap.

Maybe age has softened your intrepid reporter, but I like that I can share the world with both Joe Conzo and the Bronx pioneers, and Nick Conway and his Yale students.

‘Cause all this, too, as a friend of mine likes to say, will pass.

Here's to the new day when we all, old and young, wake up and see some kids of color from somewhere we least expected doing something like it was the first time all over again, and we can only muster up the exasperated and intrigued reply, "What the hell was that?"

Jeff Chang is a 2008 Ford Fellow in Literature.