Hip-Hop's Ageism Problem

Is there a place in hip-hop for aging rappers?

(Photo © Gabe Ginsberg/Getty)

In many parts of Africa, it's normal for young people to offer their seats to the elderly on buses, churches and even in their home. In Asia, the young cook for the old. The Jiukiukwe Indian tribe reserves a special set of conjugations so they can communicate with older relatives appropriately.

Hip-hop may be the only culture that still struggles to find room for the elderly. In fact, hip-hop celebrates youth almost to the exclusion of veterans.

One explanation for hip-hop's ageism issue is that the genre itself is young. With no reference point1 on how to treat older rappers, fans are simply making up the rules as they go.

Still, it's unacceptable that we tend to dismiss vets as old timers with nothing new to offer. If there was a study on the correlation between age and skill, I didn't get that memo. In fact, any such correlation would probably favor more experienced MCs who have had the time and practice to hone their skills.

I'm not saying that all veteran rappers should get a pass. Some are better off bagging grocery than trying to shake a few donks in the club, but that's a handful compared to the crop of veterans still making quality music. For instance, Brooklyn rapper Ka has been tight as Botox for many years now. Meanwhile, Snoop Dogg/Lion has been on cruise control for like a decade now. The only thing they have in common is that they're both over 40.

Approximately 82% of today's key players are 30 plus. If we force them out of the game, who are the exciting young MCs that will carry on tradition? Yes, there are some new rappers worth keeping an eye on, but I can't think of five better than Nas, Eminem, Black Thought or Roc Marciano? Just as hip-hop artists are getting up in age, rap fans are also getting older.

Given the room, veteran rappers are in a better position to cater to their more mature fan base than their younger peers.

It's also worth noting the role of record labels in keeping hip-hop green. Labels gamble on young artists and place bets on teenage demographics that might pay off over three-to-five year periods. Considering that most audiences eventually age out of the sound of the day, labels end up relying on veterans to craft those mega-hits and help recoup their losses.

So what's an old horse to do? For starters, bring your A-game. Don't get mulled by the young cob rhyming next to you.

Take Jay Z, for instance. When he's thoroughly inspired, Jay can make anyone seem like a guest on their own track. His verse on Kendrick Lamar's "Don't Kill My Vibe Remix" was so cold that Kendrick Lamar went back to the lab and sharpened his rhymes to avoid being eaten alive on his own song.

Respect should be based on artistic value and cultural impact, not age. If Nas is still making good music in his 50s, I'll keep buying his albums.

As Jay Z once said, everyone has a birthday.


(1No, rock isn't a good reference point because not all rock fans were thrilled to see a 65 year-old Steve Tyler trying to do the Michael Jackson spin.)