A Youthful Expression: The Issue Of Aging With Hip Hop

As we all age, we must reconcile the youth-driven culture of Hip Hop with mortality and outwardly embracing the concept of physically and mentally maturing.

“I love all the rappers today, but it’s hard to defend this shit. It’s hard, man…it’s hard to defend, ‘I got hoes in different area codes. It’s hard to defend, ‘Move bitch, get out the way.’ Well as you can see, there’s a bitch in his way that he needs to move…” –Chris Rock, “Smack Her With A Dick (Rap Standup).”

Chances are, if you grew up in the ‘80s, you watched at least one of the infamous “buddy cop” movies from the Lethal Weapon series starring Danny Glover and Mel Gibson. Before Gibson was making drunken anti-Semitic rants, he rose to fame through an onscreen partnership that saw him take the role of a psychotic LAPD sergeant Martin Riggs alongside Glover’s character, Roger Murtaugh. So what does any of this have to do with Hip Hop? During Lethal Weapon’s peak, Murtaugh would often find himself in physically and mentally challenging circumstances, and he’d inevitably deliver his signature catch phrase with perfect timing.

“I’m too old for this shit,” an exasperated Murtaugh would always say. If you’re old enough to remember Lethal Weapon, then you’ve probably looked at Hip Hop and had a few “I’m too old for this shit” moments yourself. I think this happens for any number of reasons. By and large, I don’t think growing older with Hip Hop has ever traditionally been outwardly embraced. But why is this the case? Is there any statistical or anecdotal evidence to support why rappers closing in on the age of 40 would want or need to appeal to teenagers? I feel like we’re being sold these false concepts of “youth” and “coolness” by rappers whom young people would traditionally deem old. All of this makes me wonder if Hip Hop is still or has ever been as much of a youth-driven culture as we have historically assumed.

The Business Of Appealing To Young Hip Hop Fans

“I’ma keep it all the way hood, I been livin’ in my third childhood lately / Smokin’ a lot of spinach lately, hanging out at the strip club lately / I used to give niggas playa prices and juggs for the bricks / But now I be giving discounts, for hooks and verse licks…” –E-40, “Understandz Me.”

Whenever we see a rapper in their 30s or older doing some age-inappropriate behavior like “Stanky Legging” or just generally playing themselves, it’s tempting to assume they’re trying to court the younger, music-buying audience. It’s been a long-held assumption that teenagers have the most disposable personal income, and thus, they buy the most music. But according to a 2012 study by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), people over the age of 40 still buy the most music. Data can always be manipulated to support any argument; and again, that doesn’t mean the 40-year-olds buying the music are the ones setting the trends.

“I feel like most cultures—as far as entertainment—are usually youth driven,” offered Craig G, via a recent phone interview. It’s worth noting, Craig, who emerged in the late 80s as a member of the Juice Crew with Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie, named his most-recent album, Ramblings Of An Angry Old Man. “I believe people should grow with Hip Hop. On my last album, I purposely did that not to alienate a whole demographic, but more so to embrace a demographic that I feel was being forgotten. Just because you turn a certain age doesn’t mean you don’t love Hip Hop anymore; you just might not like what’s popular and in your face as far as Hip Hop is concerned.”

Looking at the data yields some interesting facts about who is at the forefront of the most visible, mainstream, Top 40 Hip Hop you see on television and hear on terrestrial radio. During the week beginning October 20, 2013, the average age of the rappers on Billboard Magazine’s R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart was 28.1. That’s taking multiple contributions from the 40-plus crowd of Jay Z and Eminem into account, but also factoring in younger members such as Drake, YG and Rich Homie Quan. If we look at Nielsen’s Broadcast Data Systems chart for Hip Hop/R&B songs with the most radio airplay, the average age is slightly higher at 31.5. Again, we’re looking at participants that range from the age of 46 (R. Kelly) to 19 (the average age of the members of Migos).

Youthful Expression: Is Hip Hop Still A Youth-Driven Culture?

“Some Rap pioneers be crackheads / When they speak, you see missin’ teeth / Silver chain with a silver piece / Niggas your grandfather age / They pants still hanging down they leg, talkin’ about they ain’t paid / And they hate you, ‘cause they say you ain’t paid dues…”  —Nas, “Carry On Tradition.”

So many things have changed the interaction and intersection points of Hip Hop, that I’m not even entirely sure it’s accurate to call it youth-driven. Anecdotally, Kool Herc wasn’t a kid when he was hosting parties at Sedgewick and Cedar. But artists such as Soulja Boy or legendary Juice Crew member Craig G were literally teenagers when they gained national recognition. And the two emcees who will likely have the top-selling albums in 2013—Jay Z and Eminem—are both in their 40s. And both Em and Jay were well into their 20s when they crossed over into the mainstream. This isn’t an all encompassing statement I’m trying to pass off as fact, but in my experience, the Hip Hop moments that usually crossover to the mainstream news cycle are often created by mainstream Top 40 emcees. I intuitively know that Hip Hop is not limited to what appears on various charts. And a true fan of the culture doesn’t let outsiders such as Billboard or Nielsen define anything. But when defending Hip Hop against an outsider, that’s sadly usually the direction the discussion takes.
As a fan of Tupac Shakur and De La Soul, I’ll never forget how uncomfortable it felt to hear ‘Pac say Posdnuos, Trugoy and Mase looked like Larry Holmes all flabby and sick on “Against All Odds.” But when ‘Pac threw those shots at De La Soul, most of us didn’t envision rappers on stage in their 40s. Tupac died at the age of 25, but he was presumably only a few years younger than both Trugoy and Posdnuos when he dissed them. The members of De La Soul are all hovering around 40 and still rocking shows today. Perception aside, what if ‘Pac truly took some shots at rappers in their 40s? Aside from occasionally seeing legends like Melle Mel trotted out, or catching Grandmaster Flash on “The Chris Rock Show,” there weren’t many outlets for rappers in their 40s back in the late ‘90s. That’s changed for the most part, but I still think there’s still a stigma attached to being a rapper in your late 30s or older.

“It’s not for me to be on stage at 35 still trying to rap,” said Slum Village co-founder T3 during a March interview with HipHopDX. “But I think Rap is getting old, and I think you will see that. I don’t think Jay Z is going to ever stop. I don’t think a lot of people are ever gonna stop as far as that. This is the first time I’ve ever seen Rap grow up, and it’s okay. You can be old and young at the same time for a change, and maybe 10 years ago, it wasn’t so cool to be old. Most rappers I know are at least 30. If you look at Jay Z, Kanye, Eminem and 2 Chainz, all of them are at least 30. You’ve still got your young cats, but they’re few and far in between. The old guys are kind of running the game.”

Again, on an anecdotal level, T3’s statements ring true. When you look at the artists operating successful joint-ventures and ancillary businesses, names like Jay Z (Roc Nation Sports) and Dr. Dre (Beats by Dre) come to mind. And statistically, him saying, “The old guys are kind of running the game,” falls in line with the average ages from both Billboard and Nielsen. So are we talking about people who set precedents in the business world or people like Lil B, Hurricane Chris and/or Lil Wayne who set cultural trends? Chris was one of the originators of “Ratchet,” while Wayne fancies himself as the inventor of the term “Bling.” And Lil B’s eschewing the major label system for a viral onslaught of YouTube videos speaks directly to the RIAA’s decision to incorporate digital audio and YouTube streams in calculating the sales of digital singles. Cultural trends are easily and often co-opted into the more dominant popular culture and the business world, but the entities are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The 40/40 Club: Agendas Of Hip Hop’s Elder Statesmen

“Fat titties turn to teardrops, as fat ass turns to flab / Sores that was open wounds eventually turn to scabs / Trees bright and green turn yellow brown, autumn caught ‘em / See all them leaves must fall down / Growing old…”
–Andre 3,000 “13th Floor/Growing Old.”

So if people 40 and older are buying the most music, and the statistical evidence supports the opinion that people around the age of 30 create most commercially successful Hip Hop, I struggle to understand why it often feels like there are a number of artists close to 40 rapping in a manner to appeal to teenagers. Naturally, as we get older, we have different experiences and our priorities change. And I assume—at least on my end—that fuels how I currently feel about Hip Hop. I don’t simply gravitate to a rapper that talks about the superfluous aspects of getting older, but rather how we all feel about coming to grips with our mortality and our added responsibilities. As much as I hate the tried and true Nas versus Jay Z comparisons, the two emcees offer distinctly different approaches toward how they view aging. On “30 Something” Jay bragged about being “young enough to know the right car to buy, yet grown enough not to put rims on it.” And while custom rims on a luxury car has traditionally been a gaudy sign of “new money,” that’s very much a statement rooted in the superficial aspects of what it means to age within Hip Hop culture. I say this with the concession that there have been times when Jay touches on the deeper side of addressing his age, such as “Allure,” “Somewhere In America” and the majority of Watch The Throne. But, by and large, I think he’s chosen a broader, shallower approach, and that’s why he continues to appear on the charts.

Conversely, I think about the following bars from Nas’ “A Queens Story:”

“Now I’m the only black in the club with rich yuppie kids / Sad thing, this is the top, but where the hustlers went / No familiar faces around, ain’t gotta grab the musket / It’s all safe and sound, champagne by the bucket…”

Here Nas not only touches on how getting older looks, but also how it feels. As a listener, I can appreciate that Nas made a song about feeling out of place and unfamiliar in a nightclub. This is clearly not the same guy with the mink, pouring out Cristal with Puff in the “Hate Me Now” video. And that’s not to say there’s even anything wrong with being in the club. But the general consensus is, when the mid-30s come knocking—no one wants to be the old, balding guy in the club still getting bottle service. It’s not that the surface material that initially made Jay and Nas appealing doesn’t appeal to me or presumably any other person in their 30s or 40s. I just think it’s a matter of having our perspectives change with age. Different things are important.

And maybe that’s at least one of the reasons why I sometimes feel myself getting less inspired by the current Hip Hop scene. I’ve been infatuated with Hip Hop music and culture since the second grade, when I used to sneak off and listen to N.W.A. Some 25 years later, a lot of the love is still there. I’m fortunate enough to be able to say that Hip Hop literally pays my bills, and I’m still in love with many of the things that originally hooked me when my big brother turned on “Dopeman” on our raggedy YORX boombox back in the day. Like many of my peers at and over the age of 30, I find myself doing a facepalm when some dumbass gets a duck tattooed on their face or an idiot rapper allegedly kills his friend as part of an Illuminati sacrifice. Luckily, with age (hopefully) comes wisdom, perspective and an ability to focus elsewhere.

“I spent years complaining about bad Hip Hop instead of championing the good stuff,” Craig G added. “Who’s the dude that just signed to TDE?” he asked, in reference to Isaiah Rashad. “He’s sick, yo! There’s a lot of lyricists down South, and I used to be guilty of sleeping on them too. But instead of complaining, look around, and you might be surprised. Instead of complaining, champion the good stuff. That’s more of what comes with wisdom and getting older. I don’t hate anybody anymore. I’m an angry, old man, because I have to watch what’s happening. Of course that’s gonna make me angry. But you know what makes me feel better? I have to at least big up the people that are dope. For every bad Hip Hop release, there’s like two or three great ones.”

Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @OmarBurgess.



  • Robert

    I find that when I start debating people about hip hop and if you are critical of the latest stuff, people will say, "Oh, you're old and you don't know what you are talking about. But, if you do the math you find that if the average hip hop fan is 18, they were born in 1995. But look at what you missed, you missed Newcleus doing "Jam on It", you missed RUN DMC's come up, you missed the age of the 12 inch, you missed Public Enemy, hood movies, Too Short performing at Freaknic in 1994, Notorious Big on Howard's campus in 1993, Chronic, Niggaz4Life, "Fight the Power", the Native Tongues, I could go on. I won't knock what is going down now, since I am not that narrow minded, but there's so much history how can you dis the people who lived that reality?

  • ryan31

    In my opinion,people grow up on certain trends from hip-hop. So realistically they usually listen to artists with similar concepts or style if they continue to listen to rap. It usually takes me a while to get used to new Rappers unless they are Kendrick Lamar quality...

  • O.Z

    Please check this out & support real rap Www.soundcloud.com/ozblanco/sets/2nd-mixtape-preview


    Good written article. LOL @ the pic of 88-Keys & Kanye on the set of the "Stay Up" video.

  • buuda

    well written article,i also feel that for every bad hiphop release,there are two/three good releases around the corner

    • JaKe Moola

      It's great to grow with the culture. I've noticed the less I listen to mainstream artists, the better. I'm not 30 yet, but I'm more concerned with personal growth, sacrifice, and life lessons.

  • Dorian Gray

    Yes hip hop is youth driven or the "brand" of it is but everything is youth driven. Fashion is youth driven, Film is youth driven in general Pop culture is and always has been youth driven and hip hop happens to be at the forefront of it. But when we are talking about the genre of music, 90% of the artist on the radio, people dont know their name only their song. The most recognizable names in Hip Hop are still Jay-Z, Eminem, Tupac, 50 Cent You ask anyone to name rappers and i speaking of people who dont listen to it these names will pop up. 20-30 years from now these names will probably still pop up with maybe a couple of new ones. But these are the names that people remember will be what represents the genre. If you think 80's New Wave, its like, Tears for fears (or just their songs shout and mad world), The talking heads, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Duran Duran. if you think Blues, Lighting Hopkins, R.L Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Jimmie Hendrix who crossed genres as well. I can go on for any genre, I dont listen to heavy metal but i know 2 artist, Metallica and Judas Priest. I think we are taking things out the context, The RADIO is youth driven, and plays youth driven music that does not men that what played on the radio is an accurate depiction of the movements going on in a genre of music or culture. In fact, most cultural movements happen outside of the media scope, until its recognized 5,10 20 years later. thats just how it is. I think the problem is we are still fighting over the definition of Hip Hop. What constitutes authentic hip hop, what can we include what should we discard, and not really giving Hip Hop the liberty to create other genre's because of this purist mentality.

  • 70's Baby

    Fortune and Fame at 40 something would be nice, especially considering that person would be well pass their 10,000 hours needed to perfect the craft.

  • Oz. F

    I'm actually excited about hip-hop in general this day and age. Think about what has happened to other genres when they were handed to the next generation. you look at rock in the 90's for example and the next generation started churning out shit like punk, deathmetal. Or how the next generation of salsa music turned into reggaeton or disco is todays house music. For all of these examples the genre itself was inherently changed to something completely different, but hip hop on the other end had a succession that left it practically intact.

  • chillthrillz

    there needs to be balance in the distribution of,hip hop for all age ranges,,,,when you young and full of cum the world is your oyster,once you get older more people depend on you wether it be a wife ,kids, etc...cant just rap about anything gotta make sense, because there is nothing worst than an old fool,,,there is a market for older rappers,HEAVY D,, god rest is soul, is the example of grown and mature rap,,,no matter your age everyone can listen to him,,however the people that control most of the out put of hip-hop are only about the dollar, and a lot of these new rappers fall for the gas straight out the gate. once the labels did away with artist development and these artist started making music in their crib shit got twisted, now everybody think they the next shit of the night,,now its quantity over quality,with no direction whatsoever, the reason for hiphop is for peace love unity and knowledge of self and a good time at the same damn time lol.,,now the power of the dollar is the main reason a lot of these young cats want to rap, and most of it is cookie cutter rap, monkey see monkey do. and to be totally honest,there are some dark forces that are fucking with they positive image of hiphop by standing behind the freedom of speech law,and saying some wack ass shit on a track to blind the truth to the youth. basically the devil is liar and narcissism is at a all time high in the hip hop culture, a lot of these new millennium rappers are pawns in the grand scheme of things and they dont even know it

  • A Person

    Interesting read, personally, I would say that hip hop definitely has lost its path, especially lyrically. That said, there are people from this younger generation that make conscious and intelligent music, I mean, as an 18 year old myself, especially one who really doesn't care much for what the media and society tell me what I should be (i.e. partying, drinking, drugs, hook up culture, etc), it does take effort to find mentally stimulating work, but the fact is that it does exist. In some ways, maybe as a listener, I am mature beyond my years, or am just passionate about hip hop in general, but it does seem that I relate much more to artists that dedicate themselves to the craft, rather than those that are in it for the lifestyle that is presents. But yea, overall, it does seem as if hip hop is youth driven, given that the market for hip hop music is younger than for other genres (ex. rock, Soul, R&B, Classical, Blues, etc), and the ability to cross over into pop, relatively easily (ex. Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Drake, etc). Personally, in my world, and to my ears, I have always wanted to see innovation and creativity, whether an artist is popular or not, and I generally love to let an artists lyrical skill do the talking instead of their sales numbers or whatever stat you want to discuss. There is a place for all this stuff, but the perception of hip hop seems to have fallen off, especially given that the most popular artists in the genre generally use the same formula, over similar sounding beats, with similar lyrics and the same emphasis on catchy hooks, and really, this thing just bugs me, because I love an artist that is on some intellectual shit, or that can tell a good story, painting a picture for the listener (Roc Marciano, Freddie Gibbs, Kendrick Lamar, CJ Fly, Jay Rock, etc), and I mean, obviously my taste leans more old school, but I always figured that if something is good, the stuff coming after it should be just as good if not better, and I have yet to see that from a lot of these mainstream artists nowadays. And really, when it comes down to it, age shouldn't matter, because hip hop is a lyrically driven genre about experiences, ideologies, and life, which really allows for a lot of leeway creatively. Sorry for ranting, just wanted to give my perspective on this as someone that genuinely has love for the craft and wishes to learn more every day.

    • A Person

      I see where you are coming from with that, and really, I don't mind boasting if it comes from an artist that has the lyrical ability to back it up (i.e. Rakim, Nas, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, all the greats really), but you definitely are right about shitty artists bragging a lot. I actually occasionally write some rhymes, since I decided to explore that side of hip hop, came up with this gem the other day lines 3-8 from one of my verses "and about those wack rappers that somehow got deals/Even though rhyming is their achilles heel/With their ignorance that makes it rigorous/To listen to the bullshit that they give to us/Cause lyrically their constant mimicry/Metaphorically asserts inferiority" I mean, to me, those lines (as wack as they may sound, I don't consider myself a great writer), sum up the state of hip hop in the mainstream, its all about the image they project rather than the skills, and I feel like we as listeners haven't been as critical as we should be of many of these artists. That said, hip hop in the underground is amazing, and its great to see a lot of these artists just making music for themselves based on what their experiences are (i.e. Freddie Gibbs, Joey Bada$$, Roc Marciano, Homeboy Sandman, etc), lots of talent, its just too grimy/complex/intellectual for the someone who just wants to zone out and not think when they listen to music, which is unfortunate, but I mean, as long as the artists are making dope music, I am gonna be happy, just wish that others knew what they were missing out on.

    • Chris S

      Good post man. You could be a staff writer for a hip hop site. I see where you're coming from. I'm a couple years older than you and I can definitely tell some of the songs I liked when I was 12, 13, and 14 are growing old on me. I like them now for the time period it takes me back to, not the music itself if that makes sense. One thing I noticed now is the best rappers (in my opinion) aren't as up front about their talent as the shit ones. Like you said, they let their rapping to the boasting. And when they do boast on a track, they usually talk around it or phrase it in a way that proves their point even more. What sounds better and more believable: "I'm the best rapper alive"- Wayne or "I got a way with words like I got away with murder" - Lupe But Lupe and Eminem (for example) seem to be rapping more now about how they are better than everyone. And they say it up front - which kind of appeals to younger, less in-tune listeners.

  • 80s baby

    Hip Hop is over 30 years old. By now everyone's grown up with Hip Hop, it belongs to everyone. The same thing happened with Rock n Roll and look at Paul McCartney, he's 71 years old and he just dropped the hottest album he's made in 30 years. So expect a Jay Z album in 2030. Hopefully by then, the Hip Hop community is a little more open minded

  • Anonymous

    Pretty much Hip-hop in the 80's and 90's was controlled by the older generation. The music had political messages, social commentary, and conscience lyrics. Even the young dudes were on the intellectual tip (ex. 19 year old Nas's Illmatic). Today Hip-Hop is controlled by the younger generation. The messages are about partying, sex, status, and image. Its reverse evolution and eventually when the fan base today grows up and matures they will not want to hear the simpleton music that they support now. Its The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button.

    • A Person

      I do agree with you to an extent, but I actually think hip hop today is controlled by the media and execs that want to increase sales by taking advantage of this younger generation, that is just the message that sells in modern day America. But yea, I mean, I am 18, relatively mellow, not really into partying for whatever reason. I will say this though, the hip hop heads of this generation really know their stuff, and that gives me hope for the future of the genre. Its always cool to see people passionate about the craft, and it does make me smile when I see people that care about hip hop as much as I do.

  • dedeej

    This age thing is really getting booring!

  • DVillan

    Besides young or old, if the music don't make your head nod, you are wasting our time and hurting my ears

  • DVillan

    I'm 45 and been with hip-hop from the day Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight first hit the streets and everyone was trying to learn the lyrics to be cool. Fast forward to 2013. Its okay to still like hip hop; I may not like what's being pushed by the machine, but lyrics and concepts that make you hit rewind and beats that get stuck in your head for days will never change. Mainstream or underground, you cant fake genuine talent.

  • Mable Labombard

    upto I looked at the check four $7647, I didnt believe that...my... cousin really taking home money part time at their laptop.. there brothers friend has been doing this for only about 16 months and just cleared the dept on their condo and bourt a new BMW. like this-----> http://smal.ly/GbJ3v

  • 1eihtZX

    great piece well written

  • DAD

    This is def a true article. I just turned 27, not an old head, but I can see myself having the old man mentality when I hear new shit. I hate being that guy that hates every new artist and compares everyone to people from the past, but I think that comes with age. You always hear people saying they dont make music like they used to, and thats true of every genre. I think it's more true that people are afraid of change and dont want to admit that different isnt bad. New is usually different, which is what makes it new. As we get older we don't take the time to appreciate new artists the way we should. We miss a lot of gems cause we are too stuck on comparing it to what we grew up on. Perfect example is all those that are stuck on "gangsta" rap music from the days of 50 and G-unit. Every time I read an article with 50 he sounds like a bitter old man talking about the young guys, but really music just passed him and he refused to grow as an artist.

  • Anonymous

    Well said and well received Craig G

  • Da Gawd

    I agree with Craig G..There's a lot of good hip hop out there that's not being heard.Craig's last album was pretty decent and didn't get much pub,even on this site

  • M

    thanks for the article. I'm 27 and feeling like so much of hip hop is too retarded for me now.

  • eurgh

    Old ass niggas need to bow out my nigga

  • Anonymous

    Its hard to be a fan of hip-hop today if you grew up in the 80's or even 90's because intellectually, lyrically, and musically hip-hop is on the decline. We swapped out intelligent street narrative for ignorant materialism and success talk. As an adult i want to continue to grow intellectually and when i listen to todays hip-hop it really doesnt move me or excite me at all. It just sounds so dumbed down and unintelligent. I want my mind to grow so thats why most mainstream rappers dont appeal to the so-called "true hip-hop" fans. Its just a clash of age groups.