Highsnobiety / Bryan Luna

This piece appears as part of our initiative on Identity & Representation, a six-month-long project highlighting different facets of identity and how they shape the practices, conventions, and conversations happening in the Highsnobiety world. Head here for the full series.

In genres varying from rock & jazz to electronica, upcoming artists and their predecessors have reached an impasse that’s founded on mutual respect and a gradual passing of the torch. In hip-hop on the other hand, belligerence reigns on both sides of the fence.

The ideological and stylistic disconnect that birthed J. Cole’s “Middle Child,” this conflict has lingered over the past half-decade and led to an unprecedented perspective shift. In previous eras, there was an ascribed culture of respect for your forebearers that was, generally, acknowledged as a rule of thumb. Then, we flash forward to February 2017 and observe the development of an irreconcilably different frame of mind.

Among the biggest tastemakers of the current era, Lil Uzi Vert headed to Twitter and laid down his feelings on the preceding age bracket in no uncertain terms.

“S/o all the young rappers. Remember the old must die.”

Highsnobiety / Justus Dutra

Inflammatory as it may sound, the Pennsylvanian MC wasn’t alluding to some physical turf war with the previous generation. Instead, what this since-deleted tweet called for is the large-scale invalidation of traditionalism within the more contemporary, freeform space.

Sent out days before he’d inform Ebro that “if you pull up one of those old beats, I’m not rapping on it”, this rejection of all that came before is born of the same stubborn resolve that led MC Ren to brand the modern hip-hop oeuvre as “times of bullshit and simple concepts. “

The product of a sweeping generalization, the abolitionist rhetoric of Uzi — which is shared by artists such as Lil Yachty and Kodak Black — is one that’s often attributed to ageism. Defined by Dr. Hannah Swift of the University of Kent as “the stereotyping of and discrimination against individuals or a group of individuals because of their age”, its application in hip-hop implies that a rapper’s right to participation comes with a preassigned expiry date.

However, whether or not hip-hop’s elders have been shunted into a state of marginalization by this growing epidemic is nowhere near as cut-and-dry as some would have you believe.

Make no mistake, youth is a treasured commodity in the hip-hop sphere. Deemed the best to ever do it by various metrics — and inarguably in fiscal reward — the diminishing effect of age on an artist’s relevancy is something that JAY-Z has explicitly discussed.

Getty Images / Craig Barritt

“Rap, in particular, is a young man’s sport”, Hov told The New York Times. “It’s about the gift of discovery, when it’s fresh and new, and it’s like, this is the hottest song ever. I stood in that window a really long time. But…. I don’t think people are still looking to me as like, the thing.”

Defeatist as that remark may seem, Jay qualified that his position was still unassailable as he’d became “like Ralph Lauren.” Anchored by his pre-existing name value and prestige, Jay’s remarks may dispel the notion that older rappers can’t retain their status but doesn’t speak to those who fall foul of populism. Left annexed on the outskirts of success by Jay’s remarks, his privileged vantage point makes no concessions for ways in which the art of discovery can be safeguarded beyond your twenties.

As editor-in-chief of DJ Booth and VP of Content Operations and Artist services for Audiomack, Brian Zisook has a panoramic view of the hip-hop industry. Based on everything he’s observed, “Z” informed us that the concept of older artists being condemned to the scrapheap is one that’s avoidable through self-awareness.

“Hip-hop is seen as a young man’s sport because the Billboard Hot 100 is made up of mostly younger acts. Younger acts typically have younger fan bases, who are in-tune with the behavior of the streaming consumer and spend more time listening to new releases. This isn’t ageism at work; it’s life”, Brian contested. “For an older act to succeed, they must stay true to the artistry that gained them notoriety in the first place. They cannot chase trends or sounds or try to ‘fit in.’ Any attempt to do so will likely lead to failure. The path to niche success is owning your voice and your lane, even if it’s the road less travelled.”

Highsnobiety / Bryan Luna

When considering the testimony of Zisook, there is one dissenting MC from Detroit, Michigan that instantly springs to mind. After his career began in earnest at 26, Danny Brown steered into the notion that his age was anomalous, entitling his third album Old and lampooning the tropes of retirement in press runs that saw him eat apple sauce and play solitaire. Named among the XXL Freshmen at age 30, the release of 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition saw the conjecture around his status as a late bloomer finally conclude when his appeal became undeniable.

Described by Dr Hannah Swift as the “product of prescriptive norms that older people shouldn’t behave, act or dress in ways reserved for young people”, Danny’s decision to flout the tenets of ageism and forefront the uniqueness of his style meant that it eventually went from a recurring talking point to a non-factor. Through his rise to prominence, Danny transcended the perception of what a 30+ year old rapper should look or sound like, thus fashioning his own normative behavior and corroborating Zisook’s claims. For other examples of artistic perseverance overcoming age-based scrutiny, consider the recent successes of the 36-year-old Rapsody, the unfaltering upward trajectory of an over-40 2 Chainz or the renewed fascination with a 41-year-old, post-Clipse Pusha-T that birthed last year’s defining album in Daytona.

Then, we come to the other route to sustained vitality. Whether it’s Run the Jewels, Freddie Gibbs & Madlib or MF Doom and an array of cohorts, collaboration can serve as an unconscious byword for reinvention. Cloaked in the bombast of comic book imagery, Czarface epitomizes the revitalizing effect that branching out can have for tenured artists. Comprised of 7L & Esoteric and Wu-Tang Clan’s Inspectah Deck, the supergroup has allotted all parties a new gust of critical and commercial acclaim, spawning 7 projects in just 6 years. Unfettered by originally breaking out in the ’90s, the trio found a reframed conduit to resonate with audiences.

Yet, as he expressed to us, Esoteric perceives discrimination on both sides as well as citing compositional shifts that have exacerbated the difference between generations:

Highsnobiety / Rahul Gowthaman

“Ageism is a two-way street, but one side seems to have more traffic on it”, decreed the Massachusetts rapper. “the younger kids appear to be dismissive of older heads in a way that’s unique to hip-hop, but I admit it’s amplified by what we see on the internet. That’s not always the judge and jury, I have younger friends that have their interest piqued by older artists and vice versa. Sometimes vets might ignore the talents younger kids employ that previous generations didn’t tap into, such as focusing on melody instead of bars. When you focus on melody, the lyrical content tends to suffer, and content is what a lot of veterans judge an artist on,” he concluded.

As prone to closed-mindedness as their younger counterparts, Esoteric’s remarks point to something pivotal. Just as young rappers can create unencumbered by the scorn of their elders, all evidence suggests that when older MCs do the same, the result can be just as emphatic.

Just weeks after he enabled J.Cole to commune with the late Guru on “Family and Loyalty” from Gangstarr’s first new album in 16 years, DJ Premier provided us with the perfect summation of why he’s done his utmost to keep himself at the fulcrum of the game. From Gangstarr through to helping shepherd Nas to worldwide reverence and later, fostering a bond between New York & Detroit by co-conspiring with Royce Da 5”9 on Phryme, channeling his creativity into music long since surpassed a want and edges closer to an intrinsic need for the legendary turntablist and producer.

“I have always looked at hip-hop from a culture perspective”, Preemo declared. “You can never outgrow that. As for my hunger to still do it, it’s like loving your kids and your wife and never wanting to see those unions and relationships end. Stay in the know but always do what feels right in your soul.”

In keeping with Zisook’s comments, DJ Premier’s logic argues that authenticity and self-awareness are the most pivotal attributes in the arsenal of any hip-hop artist with longevity on their agenda.

Although the new breed gets younger by the day, hip-hop itself has reached middle age as an artform. 42 years and counting, this milestone naturally makes the generational dissimilarities more apparent than ever. However, as proven by those who’ve hurdled the alleged stumbling block of growing older, ageism in hip-hop can always be avoided so long as it is never internalised. In fact, through carving your own artistic path and remaining open to new opportunities, the law of diminishing returns need not apply.

Words by Robert Blair