Sunday, January 29, 2012

Black Boys and the Golden Age of Hip Hop

Rap fans and historians have often commented on the Golden Age of Hip Hop--a time period generally designated as occurring between the mid to late 1980s and the early to mid 1990s--when several landmark albums and significant artists appeared. Commentators have given extensive attention to prominent rap artists and groups of that era, including A Tribe Rakim, Called Quest, KRS-One, Public Enemy, Nas, and many more.

But what effect, I've wondered, did the Golden Age of Hip Hop have on  young fans and especially black boys who were listening to the music at that time? In what ways did the influence of that Golden Age manifest in the works those boys would produce as men?

A few notable examples stand out to me.

Colson Whitehead (b. 1969) and Ta-Nehisi Coates (b. 1975) have produced several writings that give nods to rap music and particularly to different phases of the Golden Age of Hip Hop. In his memoir The Beautiful Struggle  (2008), Coates writes about his childhood in Baltimore and regularly highlights the value of rap in his life and for shaping his consciousness.  Whitehead's novel Sag Harbor (2009), set in the summer of 1985, features a group of black boys who pay close attention to new developments in rap of the time period--the dawn in fact of the Golden Age. 

Aaron McGruder (b. 1974) also demonstrates a strong interest in the rap music produced during that revered time period, which is most clearly reflected in his comic strip The Boondocks. Often, his critiques of the contemporary rap scene of the early 21st century were based on the standards and achievements of the Golden Age era. In addition, his main character Huey Freeman reflects the spirit of the 60s, especially with allusions to Malcolm and the Black Panthers, in the ways that Public Enemy did.

McGruder, Coates, and Whitehead were in their teen years during the Golden Age of Hip Hop. It's worth noting that several prominent rap artists, including Rakim, Biggie, Nas, TuPac, and others, born during what I've called "the golden birth years" from the late 1960s and early 1970s, were also teenagers. Some of them were witnesses and contributors to the era's music.

If we were writing a history of the cultural productions that significantly shaped the imaginations and verbal interests of black boys from the mid 80s to the mid 90s, we would be inclined to consider the Golden Age of Hip Hop.

Black Boys, Imagination & Dungeons and Dragons

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