Old School, New School, “Sad School”: Definining Hip Hop in popular culture for a brand new generation…

by Marcus K. Dowling


I remember having a conversation in 1991 discussing a mythical battle between The Juice Crew and the Native Tongues. My best friend at the time swore that Big Daddy Kane was a better emcee than Q Tip, and that if Biz Markie and Kool G. Rap ever did a record together, that it would effectively render De La Soul useless. Of course, this was later followed by a discussion as to if the Juice Crew’s “Symphony” was a finer record than the seven minute Native Tongue family remix of De La Soul’s “Buddy,” featuring the combined talents of De La, A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers, Monie Love, and Queen Latifah. Such “old school”/”new school” discussions were really quite the norm at this point of my life, and, by 1993, when I saw Run-DMC rocking African medallions instead of gold chains in the video for “Pause,” I was fully and completely aware that the game had changed, and that rap music had become inclusive and evolved. Such hope for evolution and change isn’t the case however in 2009, as the evolution, and seeming lack of inclusion from old school, to new school, to what I’ll refer to as “sad school,” has made hip hop music in the latter half of this year as entertaining, controversial, valid, pop culture leading and commercially viable as ever before.


Between  Jay Z stating on Blueprint 3‘s “D.O.A.” that he wants to “wear all black and Versace shades,” and the fact that Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2 debuted at #4 on the Billboard Album Chart last week without any national radio airplay for 22 tracks of lushly visualized urban portraits of felonies and aggression, it’s rather clear that the classic vanguard of hip hop isn’t really ready to move over and accept the highly regarded Class of 2009. In fact, in the world of blogs and general public discussion, the heat has returned, and we’ve definitely returned to my favorite world of 1991. However the New School/”Sad School” debates are frankly on a different level, as well, nobody ever intimated that the Black Sheep couldn’t rap, and people looked at Afrocentrism and loving peace as cool, funky, strange and different.

From Drake, seemingly the industry’s future of commercial hip hop, to Wale, DC’s charismatic rhymesmith, to the less serious LA sensations the New Boyz who have “Jerked” their way into the national consciousness, and a good number more, the backlash to the extremely self reflective and highly self critical hip hop stylings and urban bohemian fashion choices of the new denizens of rap music is unique and noteworthy. It seems to come from a place of concern for the continued maneuvering of hip hop into the status of absolute permanence into the broader cultural mainstream. Hip hop, in this author’s eyes, has succeeded in this quest, and, as well, the releases by Jay and Raekwon are far more important than anything else released all year, as it has created volume and depth to music’s most relevant and cache creating creative form in an era in which history is synonymous with irrelevance.

Those that remember the history of hip hop are the most in trouble with this shift to the mainstream in these times of rapid change where a feint, if negligible appreciation of the past is appreciated. The bravado is gone. The alpha male chest beating isn’t there. Sure, LL Cool J is hip hop’s most legendary loverman, but this man was ripped, chiseled and jacked, and previous to “Hey Lover” had threatened to crush other emcees “like a jellybean.” Drake in a Mr. Rogers sweater and skinny jeans is the kind of guy that LL beats up and “Best I Ever Had” is the song he raps and sings to the girl that LL stole from him. The lyricism isn’t the same either. Before we heard the Wu Tang Clan, Jay-Z or Eminem, we’d never heard people rap with that type of intensity blended with intelligence ever before. On “As I Em,” Asher Roth, the new Caucasian wanna be superstar, merely one album into his career, gives up the case and admits that, well, he’ll never beat Eminem. Crazy, clearly not a part of hip hop’s established definitions, and sadly in many ways definitely makes him, as great as he could ever become, second rate to a legend.

The hardest part for me in assessing hip hop these days is the fawning attitude the “sad school” has toward the established legend emcees. It’s almost as if in creating a culture of digital openness and full disclosure, we’ve removed the ability for the developing talents to ever appear as large or as relevant as their predecessors. It’s hard for me to even regard the Class of ’09 as ever deigning to walk on the same level as a Raekwon or Jay-Z because, well, I know too much. I hear too much. Nothing about Wale is more special about Wale than anything else if I can read about his every move on Twitter. Sure, I’d love to see him succeed, but, in my eyes, what it took Jay-Z 20 years to do, it’ll take one of the newer emcees just as long to do on a financial level (because the game is different), but on a level of respect and ultimately, untouchable legend status, it’s well, a little harder when I feel like I can touch you every second of every day. In full, a major part of this author’s concept of a legend comes from my concept of the hero, meaning that we never get to see our heroes in three dimensions unless they WANT us to. The second you see your hero (and by extension they whom you see as legend) as JUST a man or woman, the power, mystique, magic and, sadly, ultimately, celebrity is gone.

The New/”Sad” debate is different entirely because, well, it seems as if the debate wouldn’t be so prevalent if the established veterans didn’t see in the youth a lack of quality control that damages their growth. On Blueprint 3, there may be no better touch than Jay-Z carefully anointing those he feels are not so far gone as to still be groomed, corralled and nurtured, able to grow without having to depend upon the thoughts and beliefs of websites and blog responses for their development as artists instead of gaining strength from fellow emcees. It’s the classic case of the mover versus the moved, and when the man who has clearly positioned himself as the chief mover in the history of your industry sees possible future legend status in you, it’s quite clear that you follow his lead. Or, you become Charles Hamilton, the Brooklyn emcee who is the greatest example of what happens when quality control goes wrong, as after rapping about Windows Media Player to acclaim, then claimed to have an album produced by J Dilla, and was slapped in the face by an ex girlfriend on You Tube, to now, being without a record deal, having been dropped by Interscope Records. Score one for the veterans.

In final, we’re shifting popular culture’s definitions of hip hop here, and it appears that the Class of 2009, no matter what you feel about them, are here to stay. However, it is wonderful in the creation of beneficial conflict to see such commercially viable and appreciable releases from industry veterans. Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon: End of the Day may appear to some to be a festering pile of meandering slop, but at least there is something new, relevant, and solid out there like Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx out there for classic hip hop heads to compare and contrast against. I am of the fervent opinion that there will be no resolution and ultimate acceptance in this argument as was the case in ’91. Hip hop’s grown to unbelievable levels of stature, and the game is large enough to sustain both sides equitably. The arguments to follow for the future, exciting and intriguingly confrontational to say the least.

  • T. AKA Ricky Raw

    Quck thing: in your first paragraph you seem to be painting the Juice Crew/Native Tongues debate as a new school vs. old school debate. But The Symphony, 3 Ft. High and Rising and Jungle Brothers first album all dropped between 1987 and 1989. They were all contemporaries. At the time they were all new school, just different subgenres within the new school. The Juice Crew, with their dapper dress pants, turtlenecks, matching (bootleg) designer sweats and Bally shoes were kind of GQ most of the time while Native Tongues were afrocentric, but both were radical departure from what came before (the Kangol/Adidas/track suit/sneakers era). Unless I misread what you were saying and you weren’t trying to frame the Juice Crew vs. Native Tongues debate as new school vs. old. In that case disregard all that.

    Bit moving on to the next point, YOU ARE 100% RIGHT ABOUT TWITTER. Celebs in general are giving themselves too much transparency, to the point fans actually believe they are friends with these celebs. Today’s Twitter drama with everyone and their mother clowning Bow Wow is a perfect example of this, the young knucklehead is bragging and boasting on Twitter all day and overexposing the hell out of himself and reaching the point where fans think he’s on the same level as them. If a celeb has a twitter page, they should update it rarely and make sure its clear that its managed by some PR flack or assistant and not something they use religiously. You really nailed it there.

  • T. AKA Ricky Raw

    By the way, seeing as how you have Charles Hamilton up there in the pic, did you see this?

    I know the dude was molested, homeless for a while, had a hard family life and was hard on drugs for a bit too, but this guy broke down some science that actually made me feel a little sympathetic to him.

  • Stone

    To me any type of diveristy in hip-hop in 2009 is a good thing. For Cudi and Rae to be on opposite ends of the spectrum yet still top the charts bodes well for the musical spectrum in the future.

    And for the record, I’m down with the “sad school” of hip hop. I’m tired of black males having to adhere to stereotypes. Why can’t black males have emotions?

    As for Charles Hamilton, his record comapny failed him. He was allowed to market himself and subccumb to the pitfalls of any young kid with an active imagination and a unrestricted Twitter account. If I had a label I would pick him up in 6 months. He still has fans.

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