Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Golden (Birth) Years of Rappers

If you were a Black male born in the late 1960s and early 1970s and you had remarkable poetic/verbal skills, it was perhaps better that you work on writing rap lyrics as opposed to writing poetry.

Ok, other things mattered, like being born in New York City. But beyond factors such as where you were born and the crew you ran with, there were some optimal birth years.

In a previous entry, I wrote about why being born during the 1930s mattered so much for success in black poetry. When thinking about the history of rap and some of its most influential figures, I couldn’t help but notice the group of guys born in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Consider the birth years of the following 25 rappers:

KRS-ONE 1965
Slick Rick 1965
Dr. Dre 1965
Rakim 1968
Kool G. Rap 1968
Big Daddy Kane 1968
LL Cool J 1968
Will Smith 1968
Jay-Z 1969
Ice Cube 1969
Diddy 1969
RZA 1969
Q-Tip 1970
Raekwon 1970
Scarface 1970
TuPac 1971
Method Man 1971
Snoop Dogg 1971
Black Thought 1971
Biggie 1972
Common 1972
Nas 1973
Mos Def 1973
Big Boi 1975
Andre 3000 1975

I'd be hard-pressed to develop a list 20 rappers as influential as that group born prior to 1965 and after 1975. Sure, I can name a few here and there, but a list of 20 born outside that range that tops their collective influence?

As some of you die-hard rap fans will quickly point out, my list of rappers born during that time period is clearly incomplete. Forgive me, as I was only naming 25 or so folks that came to mind off the top of my head. Run and DMC were born in 1964, by the way. And, if you’re curious about the most famous white rapper, Eminem was born in 1972.

So, what was it about being born between roughly 1965 and 1975 that equipped those 25 folks I mentioned with special advantages?

The birth years for those rappers matches, almost perfectly, the height of the Black Arts Movement, which was led by poets. The Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s gave black poets an incredible and unusual boost, but by the late 1970s, things were unfortunately getting back to normal in the world of literature, which somehow meant a considerable decrease in how the market was, at least, in relation to black poetry.

Interestingly, as the landscape for black poetry became bleaker, some new and exciting developments were taking place in music with the emergence of rap music and hip hop culture in general.

Now, there’s really a class of rappers who took the stage before many of the ones I mentioned. And that’s really the point. The first wave of rappers provided a model, blueprints. They also gave people like Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, and Diddy, to name a few, clear examples of what worked and what didn’t work.

These guys were then able to really maximize all kinds of opportunities. If you were a young guy born during the late 60s and early 70s and you were paying close attention to rap's early developments in the late 70s and throughout the 80s, then you were primed to really stretch out in the 1990s.

You’d be ready and capable of producing something with your crew like Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) (1993). Or you’d be ready to produce something like Illmatic (1994) or Ready to Die (1994) or Only Built for Cuban Linx (1995) or Reasonable Doubt (1996)

The guys benefited too from a recording and entertainment industry that was willing to invest in (ok and exploit) this whole notion of BMR, you know, black men rhyming. The investments carried over from music to television and movie deals. Ask the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air about that. Or holla at Cube.

There was more, of course. There was this rich black culture, including music, perspectives/folklore, language practices, and oratory. Ah yes, black language and oratory.

It’s worth noting today, on May 19, the birthday of our man Malcolm , that quite a few cats born in the late 1960s and early 1970s were the sons of men and women trying to wrestle with the tragic death of one of our most powerful, charismatic black historical figures.

One way to deal with the loss of Malcolm was to instill or try to instill in little black boys some principles associated with toughness and a worldview to overcome by any means necessary.

Consider how many Muslims are on my list above. Rakim, Raekwon, RZA, Nas, to name some. Consider too that Tupac was the son of a Black Panther. A large number of the rappers listed above are “conscious” in the spirit of Malcolm.

And even those who aren't conscious in that most notable Malcolm kind of way are still rooted to him vis-à-vis who? Yep, Detroit Red.

Birth Years & Age Matters

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