The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Nov 052012

I’ll wear your granddad’s clothes
This is f***’n awesome!
I look incredible.
I’m in this big ass coat
From that thrift shop down the road.

OK, let’s all get our minds of the upcoming election with something completely different.  This post requires just a bit of wind up. In 2006, Bill Strauss and I wrote a book with Pete Markiewicz, Millennials in the Pop Culture.  Somewhere along the way in this book, we explain that every new entertainment genre develops through distinct generational phases.

So to get this started, let’s think back on, e.g., rock ‘n roll. Silent Generation bands got it going in the 1950s, performing mainly to Silent youth fans (Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Elvis). By the 1960s, as the popularity of rock music grew, the Silent were performing it for mainly Boomer youth fans (Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul, & Mary). By the 1970s, Boomer bands were performing it for Boomer youth, often first-wave performing to last-wave (Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin). By the 1980s, Boomers were performing it for Xer youth fans (Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Madonna). And then by the 1990s, Xers started taking over as performers (Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers) to younger Xers as their fans. And so on.

The point here is that every phase is characterized by some very new innovation in style, mood, or theme. Think, e.g., how the emergence of Boomer fans in the mid- to late-60s made possible the huge emergence of protest rock, soul, and “acid” rock—unknown in the ‘50s, and pushing the “generation gap” to its acrimonious apogee. Or how Boomer performers in the ‘70s gave rise to a new privatism and hedonism unknown to Silent song writers. Or how first-wave Gen-X fans in the ‘80s made possible the new energy and pragmatism of “new wave.” And let’s not even talk about the dark pall of edginess and death descending over the ‘90s once Xers started performing for Xers… Such was the intense collective self-derogation of Gen-Xers that no one even wanted to be “mainstream”—hence terms “alt” and “grunge” rock were born. Along with colors like plaid brown and Raider’s-Jersey black. And so on.

OK, forgive me for this long digression.  Now let me extend this schema to hip hop as an entertainment genre. Hip hop too has had its generational phases, only these have occurred just about exactly one generation behind those of rock:

Phase 1: During most of the 1970s, rap was performed by Boomers for Boomers (“old school” MCs like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang). Hip hop remained an informal and largely unprofitable “street fad”—with a huge emphasis on spontaneity and urban authenticity.

Phase 2: In the 1980s, the genre accelerated once Boomers (like legendary promoter Def Jam’s Russell Simmons) started performing to Xer youth. That’s when Platinum “rap” albums began making real money. Hip hop began pushing the edge on violence, sex, and drugs—and acquiring its trademark edge and swagger. Late in the ‘80s, Boomer performers like Ice T and Public Enemy’s Chuck D (along with some first-wave Xers like Dr. Dre) harnessed hip hop to a critique of white racism and calls for a new-style black assertion. Hip hop had become a national “wedge” issue.

Phase 3: In the early ‘90s, a new and younger batch of Gen-X performers emerged who would eclipse the remaining Boomers, dominate the rest of the decade, and take hip hop to unprecedented levels of notoriety and, ultimately, acceptance. All were born between 1968 and 1972—including MC Ren, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, P. Diddy, Notorious B.I.G., Eminem, Missy Elliott—and thus came of age at the height of the violent urban crime wave of the early ‘90s. In their first hit CDs, many glamorized “gangsta rap” and pushed the hip hop lifestyle to outrageous extremes of brutality and cynicism.  Several (most famously, Tupac and B.I.G.) perished in shootouts.

Phase 3.5: The tone started changing in the late ‘90s, with the rapid decline in urban crime and the arrival a new generation of Millennial fans. The most popular hip hop artists began blunting their edges, lightening their messages, accepting their prestige, and taking pride in—even boasting of—their success and affluence.

Phase 4: Since 2000, a gradually aging galaxy of rap artists has been performing to virtually all-Millennial youth audiences. In the early 2000s decade, hip hop was at last accepted by mainstream corporate America (recall Micky D’s break-danced-themed “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign) as a legitimate genre–much as Ronald and Nancy Reagan legitimized rock music twenty years earlier (in 1983) by defending the appearance of the Beach Boys on the Washington Mall. By 2004, billboards began showing rap stars dressed in suits reading the Wall Street Journal. By the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, later-wave Gen-X performers (born, 1973-1981: 50 Cent, Nas, Ja Rule, Ludacris, Kanye West, Ma$e, The Game) were emerging from the shadow of their fabled “elders,” who were now in their mid-30s.

So how to sum up Phase 4? And where does it seem to be leading? Let me quote directly from our 2006 book—as far as we could see at that time:

Regardless of the age or generation of the performers, hip hop is changing during the Millennial youth era in a direction sometimes chided as “hip pop” or “pop rap.”  While rappers like Nelly or Lil’ Kim remind listeners that the genre clearly remains on the dangerous side of the Millennial experience, down and dirty is no longer cutting edge.  In theme, the new style is more open to humor, to manners, to commitment, to religion, and to success.  In sound, it has a denser and more digitally overdubbed “produced” feel.  Background melodies are returning.  The mood is often playful.  Often, today’s rap is hard to distinguish from rhythm and blues.

OK, here finally is where I would like to start a conversation on Phase 5 of hip hop—Millennial rap artists performing for Millennial fans. It’s now the 2010s.  And just to get the conversation going, let me start by introducing the following song by Macklemore (Ben Haggerty, born 1983), a white rapper from the Seattle area. This is—no joke–a rap song about how great it is to buy from a thrift store. I found this hysterical.  Thanks here to Bob Filipczak for the heads up:

Let’s get started. What’s Phase 5 about Macklemore?  I suggest the following:

> OK, he’s white.  Yeah, so were Beastie Boys, Kid Rock, Vanilla Ice, eminem, and a very short list of other Xers.  But among Millennials, hey, it’s no longer pioneering.  It’s just not any big deal.

> He’s very local, a big Seattle guy, often performing locally and writing songs about local culture heroes.  He recently performed a rap-obituary to legendary Seattle baseball announcer Dave Niehaus before 50,000 Mariner fans. Hip-hop meets major league baseball. Conventional loyalty to the community. Yes, Millennial.

> He’s grown his music, merch, and fanbase entirely on his own on the web, without any music label support. If you’re interested in his career, see this interesting bio-video. Sure, he’d love big money and a high national profile—but not unless it grows out of his own talent and connections. He’s clearly patient about success.

> He’s musically eclectic, wandering wildly from the austere Xer rap beat.  In “Let’s Dance,” he merges rap with EDM (Electronic Dance Music), which has become infectiously popular in his generation. I know that some would say EDM is like an auto-tuned cancer, but (again) no one can deny its popularity.

> Ever notice that Millennials just don’t do swag like Xers? It’s there, but somehow just doesn’t have the same don’t-care-if-you-die-or-I-die intensity.  Millennial rappers so often like to reveal their hopes, fears, and vulnerabilities that half the time they veer into R&B or self-deprecating satire. Macklemore talks freely about his problems with addiction—like it’s a real problem, you know, that with maturity he will eventually outgrow.  In “Thrift Shop,” he parodies the vintage hip-hop obsession with costly bling.

> He’s progressive about gender roles—unlike first-wave Gen-X rappers, who were often just about the most homophobic “gangsta” braggarts you could imagine.  Take a look at “Same Love,” certainly too polemical for my tastes (as a song), but a good idea of where his head is at. Meanwhile a new generation of female vocalists (most recently, Angel Haze, in a searing new take off on eminem) is using rap—of all genres—to take devastating aim at mysogyny and rape.

> Finally, let’s explore this whole “thrift shop” angle.  OK, it’s one thing for songs around 1990 to obsess over the luxuries I don’t possess, and for songs by 2000 over luxuries I do now possess. But now, young people can no longer pretend. Hey, we just can’t afford it, but maybe we can still be happy without it.

And if you still doubt that Millennials are turning hip hop in a fundamentally different direction than where Gen-Xers took it, let me just leave you with the following rap video—this one by last-wave Millennial Amor “Lilman” Arteaga (age 9), officially endorsed by the Brooklyn Borough President.

Yeah, that’s right you Xers, “pull ‘em up”!

We are indeed entering a new era.

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