By Cheo Hodari Coker, Deadline.com
Editors’ Note: This guest column by former Luke Cage showrunner and Creed II writer Cheo Hodari Coker is part of Deadline’s series commemorating the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop on August 11.
In 1999, Yasin Bey — then known as Mos Def – dropped the seminal album "Black On Both Sides." The first song, "Fear Not Of Man," still gets me every time I play it. It's a classic – — just as powerful now as the first time I heard it two decades ago. A meditation on everything Hip-Hop is…and isn't.
You know what's going to happen with hip-hop? Whatever's happening with us. If we smoked out, hip-hop is going to be smoked out. If we doin' alright, hip-hop is gonna be doin' all right.
We are hip-hop. Me. You. Everybody.
So the next time you ask yourself where is hip-hop going, ask yourself – where am I going?
Twenty-four years later, as we celebrate hip-hop's 50th birthday, the music finds itself at a crossroads. Where is it going? Respect is up, sales are down. What's going on?
The reason people my age are so nostalgic about hip-hop's Golden Anniversary is because hip-hop was something older white folks predicted wouldn't make it past the early 80s.
Remember the Pet Rock? Big League Chew? The Chia Pet?
All of them had better odds of surviving than hip-hop. (Although, strangely enough, Big League Chew is still around).
Anytime you saw rappers on television when I was a kid, it was a punchline. A novelty. The last thing you would ever expect is for Queen Latifah to have a dramatic CBS TV show (her second hit series) or for former "Copkiller" singer Ice-T to be playing a cop for twenty-five years, the longest-running male series actor in history. For Will Smith to win Best Actor — although all anyone thinks about now is him slapping hip-hop comedian Chris Rock—all while interrupting Questlove and former hip-hop journalist Joe Patel winning an Oscar for Best Documentary, which was a victory for all of hip-hop itself. Hip-hop, in fact, has never been more celebrated. Former pariahs are now perennially wealthy.
Dr. Dre, NWA's sonic mastermind, lives in a 40-million dollar house and is mixing the hottest record in the world that may never come out, and he doesn't really care because, even after his divorce, he's still sitting on almost half a billion – and probably has still Apple stock left over from the Beats by Dre sale. Snoop has gone from being charged with murder to making a killing as a product spokesman who can sell anything to anybody. Death Row is the label that still pays him because he now owns it — and if you peeped the "Mount Westmore" record or any of his features, it still flows his ass off.
Jay-Z is a billionaire "Business…man." He has more Grammys than he can shelve, Basquiats on the walls, and former Presidents and current sports commissioners on his speed dial. And still the master of the triple entendre whenever he decides to jump on a mic.
Biggie, the only rapper Hov idolized, is an icon.
He's got a statue with a Gold crown at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. And him wearing the crown as the universally accepted King of New York makes him reign eternal in ways that have only expanded since his death. Nas? He is a multimillionaire investor and still making incredible – credible – records in his 50s. He's rap's Sinatra – he might be getting better as he ages.
2Pac. It isn't dead.
His body may have been cremated, but his spirit rises anywhere there is injustice, just waiting to be used – like a folding chair on a riverboat dock. The subject of books, documentaries, museums, and even college courses, he'll be studied like Mozart. In fact, Biggie and 2Pac are deities, not unlike Bob Marley or John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. Bigger than mere musical stars, their images evoke a vibe, a mentality, a world perspective, a culture. If the last time we celebrated hip-hop's birth twenty-five years ago it was about giving the Hercs, Grandmaster Flashes, and Bambaata's their flowers, my generation's X-Clam is now getting the bouquets. Busta Rhymes and LL Cool J are still rock big arenas – and have highly anticipated records coming down the pipeline. Even with Dove's death, De La Soul's catalog is finally streaming and popular, offering new opportunities for the previous generation to discover arguably the most intricate hip-hop record ever made – 3 Feet High and Rising. 50 Cent is selling out arenas based on albums older than half the ticket buyers, like the Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead before him.
That's the thing. Hip-hop is no longer an outlier. It's the mainstream.
On one hand, it's easier than ever to find hip-hop movies and documentaries on streaming. With a click of a button, you can turn on the Criterion Channel and watch seminal movies like Wild Style and Style Wars, or turn on Netflix and watch Hip-Hop Evolution or Ladies First. Notorious and Straight Outta Compton (one I was credited with working on, the other uncredited) are both streaming. But it goes deeper. Now there are shows, by history and function, like The Wire, Snowfall, the Power franchise, and Atlanta that ARE hip-hop because of the worlds, language, and characters they capture and create with actors, scripts, and cameras in that immersive way a classic album once did.
(Don't believe me? If you're a rap novice, listen to Raekwon's "Only Built For Cuban Linx." Segues included. Confused by the coded conversation in front of "Striving For Perfection"? Watch Season 1 of The Wire. Listen to the record again – Oh! They're discussing buying their product wholesale at a discount with an out-of-state connection and using the additional profit to expand a nationwide empire. I get it. It's Stringer Bell and Logan Roy. How clever.)
Ryan Coogler told me that the worldwide success of the first season of Luke Cage and its use of Wu-Tang made it easier for him to not have any resistance when Black Panther used Too Short's "In The Trunk" and had a Public Enemy poster on the wall of Killmonger's childhood apartment — much the same way I used the success of the AM rock soundtrack of Guardians of The Galaxy to convince then Marvel TV boss Jeph Loeb that I wanted to use classic rather than current hip-hop.
You can't even get on a Peleton bike or treadmill without seeing workouts dedicated to Pharell, A Tribe Called Quest, Bad Boy Records, and a host of other 90s emcees. It's not revolutionary — it's obvious.
And while hip-hop has always been male-centric and oft-times misogynistic, there have been female influential emcees from rap's very beginning, from The Sequence and Sha-Rock of the Funky Four +1 –who bucked the trends, fighting to earn respect not as anomalies but as accepted equals.
The success and foundation laid by Roxanne Shante, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Digable Planets' Ladybug Mecca, Foxy Brown, Lil Kim, Lauryn Hill and Remy Ma has made it possible for the Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, Nicki Minaj, Ice Spice, Cori Leray, Rapsody, Kash Doll, Little Simz and Lattos of the world to have true critical and crossover commercial breakthroughs, in many recent cases out-streaming their male counterparts.
They can't call rap a fad anymore. There's too much money involved now. The multiracial coalition that got Barack Obama elected twice wouldn't have been possible without the hip-hop generation. The music that was something created from nothing changed everything.
So the battle was won, and all the boxes have been checked, right? Maybe. Maybe not.
So, we won? Right?
Maybe. Maybe not.
"So the next time you ask yourself where hip-hop is going? Ask yourself – "Where am I going?"
Every sound coming out of my son's room is a syncopated gunshot. Not just a beat that has staccato gunshot rhythms — actual gunshots. The rappers' names are as interchangeable as the monotonous beats. Choppa This? Lil that. Babywhoever. They're coming from Detroit. Stockton, CA. Memphis, TN. Fuck a melody. Fuck nuance. Only nihilism and death. Despite all the success and the money, rappers have a five to 32 times higher rate of homicide than any other genre. And the number of rappers who have been murdered over the last few years in pockets of Chicago and New York and down South is astonishing.
Rap music is street music. Period. And it's always had a gangster element, on or off mic. But there was always art to it. It's the musical difference between a Scorsese flick or security surveillance footage. Ridley Scott's multi-angle battle sequences or a drone strike Factual isn't always artful — and rap will never apologize for that.
You know what's going to happen with hip-hop? Whatever's happening with us.
If I decry Sexyy Red's reductive "Poundtown" against Lil Kim's comparatively quaint "Big Mama Thing," I sound like Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights complaining that he was making adult films with lighting and scripts and that the video age would just be crass, artless loops of pornographic money shots. The irony is just…palpable. Times pass everyone, including me.
The victory of this new generation is that they don't need their rappers to be anything but rappers. They don't look to them as politicians, thought leaders, or a generational voice. They don't need anyone standing on a soapbox because they can Xeet, Spill, or Thread to their heart's content.
We needed conscious hip-hop to make us read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Assata, Bobby Seale's Seize The Time, and Frantz Fanon's The Wretched Of The Earth because no one else was going to counter the false narrative that Civil Rights were over now that Martin Luther King had a national Holiday.
As former hip-hop journalists, we hung on every politically tinged interview that Chuck D, Paris, Boots Riley, Tupac, Sista Souljah, and many others gave us because one of our own was never going to be elected to higher office. We depended on Dead Prez to speak truth to power. No one else cut through the noise.
Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Pusha-T, and for ten minutes (ugh) Kanye West expanded the sonic and lyrical boundaries of rap – Kendrick especially had Chuck D's insight, Rakim's presence, and Jay's swagger, with Dr. Dre's commercial sensibilities and became the soundtrack of Black Lives Matter.
Generation Z knows they're not politicians. They're rock stars. My rap generation rapped about not getting high while selling Escobar's coke. This Adderall generation happily sniffs Columbian powder – or sniffs and swallows anything else the Sacklers offer as an alternative.
They don't move and shake. They stand still as "influencers."Who needs a movement when people can "follow" on their phones?
When KRS-One at this year's Essence Fest says, "What people call rap or hip-hop today is a disgrace to our culture," I'm now old enough to agree with him but young enough to see the anger in my kid's eyes when I say the same thing about their hip-hop.
Hip-hop is youthful culture, and it's up to every generation to define things for themselves. And one day, as they mature, they'll understand their true power.
This newfangled rap? I don't feel it in the same way because these kids aren't talking to me. That's not their problem – it's mine. And that's how it should be. My son is going to college, and he'll bring his nose with him. (Public Enemy stans get the Dad joke I just inserted).
Nancy Wilson sang my grandmother's blues ("Guess Who I Saw Today"), Aretha sang my mother's ("I Never Loved A Man..”) Lauryn Hill sang my generation's blues ("Ex-Factor"), And now Sza sings theirs ("Kill Bill"). She's not the first woman contemplating an unfaithful ex. But now I'm old enough to understand and appreciate the nuance of each perspective about the same old thing.
Swing begat bebop begat blues begat funk begat hip-hop, drill, and every damn thing else. When the smoke clears? Africa. That's where the rhythm is from and returns to. From Fela to Afrobeat, it's all one cycle. Even slavery's Middle Passage never killed the drum.
Rap is the same way. Gil Scott Heron for my father, Rakim for me, BabyTron for my son. Nothing is gone. The sound has changed. The spirit remains. The nuance of it will be there when he's ready for it.
And anytime I'm not listening to A Tribe Called Quest's "Midnight Mauraders" or Gangstarr's "Hard To Earn" or Souls Of Mischief's "93 to Infinity", and I'm not the old man telling people to get off my musical lawn, there's Griselda Records waiting right for me.
That's why hip-hop will never die. It grows with you if you give it time.
And to the youth? To Quote Denzel at the end of the extended version of American Gangster: "Even a fool gets to be young once."
May hip-hop 25 years from now be at its core what its spirit remains — forever young.