Thank you for everything, hip-hop

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Welcome to the 50th year of hip-hop.

Or, well, 50 years and one week, I suppose. Depending on whom you ask, the prevailing thought is that Aug. 11, 1973, is the true birthday of the artform. DJ Kool Herc. The Bronx. A pair of turntables. If you know the story, you know the lore. Some argue the genre kicked off decades before that. Others claim ownership in other ways – the first original song, the first block party, the first … you get it. If you read about music on any consistent basis, my guess is you’ve been coming across a slew of hip-hop-focused think pieces, essays, appreciations and everything in between recently. Fifty years is a big deal. You could never give rap music enough flowers.

I love hip-hop. I’ll take Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint” over Nas’ “Illmatic” any day (though the former’s “Reasonable Doubt” eclipses both records in my eyes). Erik B. and Rakim’s “Paid In Full” is as landmark a collection of music as anything that’s stood next to it since the day it was released. I’ll happily overpay to see Lauryn Hill show up two hours late to perform “The Miseducation Of …” from front to back more than once (and I already have). Kendrick Lamar is untouchable. And I’m old enough to remember when Kanye West went by more than just one name and was lionized as perhaps the most interesting voice of a generation before The Bad Times came.

These things are not necessarily earth-shattering revelations on any scale for anybody. By in large, they are common opinions for most who like to listen to the music consistently, and because it’s celebrating half a century this year, everyone is opining on it from every angle at all times. I concede that there isn’t much room left to add to the dialogue — especially from a translucent-skinned balding middle-aged male who works at a military newspaper for a living.

Still, the anniversary of the music got me thinking about a few things about the genre that continue to inspire me to this very day. There was a time — I’d say from about 2003 to maybe 2013 — that I was super-duper into rap music. But, as it goes, time, circumstance and responsibility often get in the way of things we love and our once-burning blaze for something turns into a pile of smoke for reasons impossible to explain. “Life” is typically the answer given, and there’s not much more to add to that.

But, man, did this artform leave an impression on me. To be fair, it still does. And it’s because of as much that I thought I’d offer up a quick list of five things that I’m thankful hip-hop music gave to me — as undeserving of its brilliance as I’ve been. It’s a love list, really, defined by personal memories and tastes rather than objective context or historical reflection. Why? Because there isn’t a better time to say “Thank you” than now, 50 years into this stuff. So, let’s go.

1. “Rapper’s Delight.” Even coming from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, I will forever recall “Rapper’s Delight” as the thing that inspired me to gravitate toward this specific kind of music. The radio edit. The extended version. The 15-minute extended version. Even from a young age, I knew I had to pick up the album because I knew I needed to learn each and every one of those words. It was good, clean fun — or at least so my pre-teen brain thought at the time. Plus, that bass line is forever iconic. “Good Times” is a classic in its own right; “Rapper’s Delight” made the sample of it timeless. So thank you, hip-hop, for adding some culture to a curious sixth-grader whose life lit up the second he heard this song.

2. Fade To Black. To this day, if I need a kick to the backside or a healthy dose of inspiration, this 2004 documentary about the making of Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” and subsequent “last concert” at Madison Square Garden (my, how hindsight compromises that context) works better than any drug a doctor can provide. Rick Rubin looks like a genius. Ditto for Pharrell. Timbaland is a mad man. Jay’s backing band, led by Questlove, is insanely tight. And the flashes of what Kanye West is about to do to the hip-hop world at the time are fascinating to watch as he briefly pops up in the studio. It only has a 58% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.9 out of 10 on IMDB, but damn if this doesn’t continue to sit as my favorite music DVD ever, no matter the genre. So, thank you, hip-hop, for giving me something like that to watch during times when I need something like that to watch the most.

3. The Mixtape Era. I’m sure mixtapes are still a thing in the hip-hop community, and I’m sure there’s so much I’ve missed in the last five years alone. But especially if you came to the music over the last 20 years, you’ll know there was a time when mixtapes by everyone from Freeway to Lloyd Banks to Terror Squad ruled the day and those days were so much fun. Remember when Eminem went to war with The Source? How about the hype surrounding G-Unit and its members outside of 50 Cent? The Beef DVDs? DJ Whoo Kid? It felt like a dangerous time in hip-hop and there weren’t enough years separating that time from Biggie and Pac’s deaths to make fans entirely comfortable with the rhetoric on some of those mail-order-only collections. Still, thank you, hip-hop, for ultimately working your way off that edge and back to happier times … if only for a little while.

4. Blowing Up Barriers. For a lot of music fans, it kind of/sort of feels like hip-hop has been around forever … or at least for as long as we can remember. It hasn’t been, of course (“50 years” and “forever” seem far apart). And yet despite being ingrained in both pop culture and pop music, the Grammys didn’t even decide to give an award for Best Rap Album until 1996. That’s 23 years after the genre was invented and that also seems like quite a long time considering the impact it had in those 23 years. The award went to Naughty By Nature’s “Poverty Paradise,” and believe it or not, Skee-Lo’s “I Wish” was also a contender for the same award that year. Twenty-seven years later, and look at how far the music has evolved. The sub-genres it’s created through the years have been remarkable — and the growth of inclusion has been nearly as impressive. Cardi B became the first female hip-hop rapper to win the same award in 2019 while the Best Rap Performance Grammy went to Beyonce and Megan Thee Stallion in 2021 for “Savage.” While there’s always room for improvement, there’s no denying that this is an entire section of popular culture that has no issue breaking doors down. Just listen to how much you hear of it in pop stars in all walks of life these days. So, thank you, hip-hop, for taking no prisoners.

5. Future. Both the rapper and the reality. It’s a long way from the Sugarhill Gang to Travis Scott, but the evolution of the artform serves as a reminder of how prolific the genre truly is. Just like the distance between Chuck Berry and Foo Fighters might seem immeasurable, the versatility of hip-hop music is reason enough alone to believe that it’s never going away – which, by the way, is a wonderfully essential thing. As pop culture continues to shift, so does this music, and for that, it deserves the celebration it’s receiving this year as the commemorative events continue to unfold. So, thank you, hip-hop, for ensuring us fans that you’ll never disappear by always setting trends, growing your canvass and building your tenacity for the future. Here’s to the past 50 years — and here’s to 50 more.

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