The first Hip-Hop album I ever owned was 2 Live Crew’s Sports Weekend: As Nasty as They Wanna Be, Pt. 2. I purchased the controversial LP, on cassette, with my own money, likely from my confirmation, at a time when I should not have been allowed to make such a purchase. I was twelve.
The year was 1991, and in that year, record store owners were still being prosecuted for selling 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be, one of the first albums to carry the famed Parental Advisory label. Despite the warning, As Nasty As They Wanna Be had been deemed obscene and illegal to sell, ushering in an era of controversy that would see retailers arrested after selling the album to undercover police officers.
Think about this. In 1990, in America, record store owners were getting arrested for selling, well, records.
The qualitative return on this investment was beyond what I could have anticipated; just possessing this cassette made me a minor celebrity in the seventh grade. This was on the cusp of home tape dubbing being ubiquitous, and circulating this contraband to other seventh graders who might under the cover of darkness, steal blank tapes and dub them with the volume down after their parents had gone to bed. This was my adolescent equivalent of moving kilos of cocaine across international boundaries in a prop plane. It was a big deal.
What I didn’t know at the time was that the tape I would circulate to a number of trusted classmates, before ultimately being lent to Mike Gaffney and never returned (if you’re reading this, Mike, I still want that shit back), was historic not only because of the censorship debate it would spark, but also because of the time period it represented. This was Hip-Hop’s Golden Era.
The Golden Era of Hip-Hop is a time spanning roughly from the mid-late 80’s through the early 90’s, characterized by massive creative diversity, spawning many sub-genres, such as gangster rap, and the importance and impact of albums released. Any bucket grand enough to hold Erik B. & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Black Sheep, Gang Starr, Ghetto Boys, N.W.A., De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G. and so many others is deserving of the metallic moniker.
Overlapping the Golden Era is the Back Pack Era, a confusing term covering more or less everything that wanted to eschew mainstream hip-hop, appear as if eschewing mainstream Hip-Hop, or both, as well as worship of everything you’ve never heard of. Softer sounds like Jurassic 5 and art/nerd/sociopolitical activist acts like Mos Def are also included, despite wide popularity. This era is further confused by looking at it through the lens of the present day: how can you have a subculture defined by getting off on shunning the major labels if independent labels and artists are producing the lion’s share of music released?
Somewhere in all of this, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we see the emergence of Shiny Suit Syndrome. Taken from the literal costuming of Puff Daddy and Ma$e at this time, a cadre of (mostly) otherwise talented artists openly selling out with music that permeated clubs in this era, lacked depth and spawned some bizarre Hip-Hop + high fashion union that confuses me to this day. Black artists having white parties with Hollywood celebrities, and haute couture designers. Is this progress? In a scant few decades, Hip-Hop had gone from rhyming about oppression and lack of access to basic services like safe education, to glorifying a lifestyle that is inaccessible to most Americans.
Eventually the pendulum would swing back the other way, with Puffy retiring the shiny suit, correlatively though not necessarily causatively related to Jay-Z’s scathing “Shiny Suit Theory.” Though this music enjoyed tremendous mainstream popularity, it’s garishness and lack of substance would ultimately be its undoing. Give many of these albums a listen one short decade later, and you will find that song you thought you loved so much in the club is somehow stale, feels flat. Shiny suit music was about nothing; it spoke to a lifestyle that never really existed outside of the context in which it was created.
So where are we now? Now we’re in the Era of Irony, where those that are least likely to rap about polarized content (in either direction) are more likely to succeed. We are at a weird, ironic intersection where hipsters and Hip-Hop begin to become indistinguishable from one another, where SXSW hosts seriously unserious Das Racist, and you are as likely to see Hologram Tupac at Cochella as Bon Iver. Perhaps it a statement on culture, on perception (see this excellent Freakonomics podcast about NBA hipster glasses).
Alternative Hip-Hop is no longer alternative, and über mainstream artists like Drake and Chris Brown, who have arguably seen no more struggle than being a little sad sometimes and the end of their acting stints on tween series, are thugging each other in clubs over a girl Chris Brown beat at the height of his popularity. A parody of a parody of a parody.
Sure, there are some very legitimate and well-crafted releases these days. The problem is, everyone is a little too good of a lyricist, too good of a musician, too good of a producer. Smart collectives breaking off into their individual parts, everyone featuring everyone and being featured by everyone on everything. It’s all inside baseball. I’m often left being impressed, yet rarely moved.
How is it that Golden Era Hip-Hop was characterized by most albums moving you, while the Era of Irony is characterized by few? Why did those albums matter more? Many, though not all, of these artists were actual criminals. They grew up in the streets, rapped about it, and thus revealed a life and story with which people either identified or by which they were fascinated. Hence, there is an authenticity to these stories that can’t be touched. People were making music about their lives, not their images or their music. Because of the cultural climate at the time, much of Hip-Hop was sort of necessarily underground. Violent language and lyrics kept most of it off mainstream radio. Maybe it just felt more precious that way.