Ever since Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became the first commercially successful rap song back in 1979, Hip-Hop has been recognized as the voice of the impoverished youth. But in the four decades that have passed, Hip-Hop has grown up, matured, and evolved. Yet the culture still deals with its fair share of ageism, which implies that there is an age cap for artists who want to deploy their craft.
Back in 2015, a then-24-year-old Young Thug stated that he refused to purchase a JAY-Z album because of their difference in age.
“If you’re 30, 40 years old, you’re not getting listened to by minors,” Thugger said in a Billboard interview. “Like, JAY-Z has some of the sickest lyrics ever, but I would never buy his CD, just because of my age and because of his age. By the time I turn that old, I ain’t gonna be doing what he’s doing.”
Jay-Z on stage. / Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images
A similar sentiment was shared by a then-39-year-old André 3000 in a 2014 interview on HardKnockTV, in which he suggested that MCs can age out of Hip-Hop. “First you have to be hip, and the older you get, you get further away from the hipness.”
On the contrary, the so-called “old heads” of the culture have proven that dopeness doesn’t have an expiration date and neither does the audience that grew up listening to them. In March, 43-year-old Jay Electronica released his long-awaited debut album A Written Testimony with 50-year-old JAY-Z riding shotgun for more than half of the album. The release was lauded on social media for an exceptional display of lyricism, but that finding turns out to be far from uncommon in seasoned artists’ work.
“I don’t think Hip-Hop was initially viewed as something that you could grow old in,” says 41-year-old Phonte, who has spent nearly two decades in the rap game as a solo artist and part of rap group Little Brother and R&B outfit the Foreign Exchange. “Rap music was viewed as something that had a limited shelf life to begin with. It wasn’t ageism as much as it was rap music outlasting the expectations, demonstrating longevity, and people being able to grow with the music.”
Unlike sports, in which aging plays a major role in diminishing athletic ability, the art of rhyming depends more on the mental than the physical. The concept of outlasting expectations as an elder statesman in Hip-Hop is key, as several MCs have been demonstrating exceptional rhyming ability deep into their fourth decade on this planet.
At age 48, Black Thought nearly collapsed the internet with his blistering 10-minute freestyle on Hot 97 radio with Funkmaster Flex in 2017. To date, it has more than 10 million views on YouTube. Not to be outdone in the lyrical dexterity department, 42-year-old Royce da 5’9” sent social media into a frenzy with his LA Leakers freestyle in February of this year, which followed his critically acclaimed eighth studio album The Allegory.
Despite rhyming for more than two decades, Royce states that he never once considered leaving rap because of his age. As a matter of fact, he’s hungrier than ever and is arguably putting out his best work in his 40s.
“It’s possible that I might have thought about how long a rap career could be,” says Royce da 5’9. “When you are 20 years old, you think 30 is old as fuck. But then you get there and realize that it isn’t as old as you thought it was.”
Royce da 5’9” on stage. / Photo by Kevin Winter/WireImage for MusiCares
It turned out, the Detroit MC and rapper’s subject matter matured with his age. For someone who, admittedly, “wasn’t rapping about shit” early in his career, Royce’s personal and artistic growth was epitomized on his 2018 album Book of Ryan, in which he opened up about his childhood, his alcoholism, and his father’s drug addiction.
“You should always be growing, and your perspective will mature as you age,” Royce says about how the aging process has assisted in his artistic development. “Any career that requires longevity is going to require some kind of reinvention.”
Today the list of relevant MCs over the age of 40 who pump out quality continues to grow.
Missy Elliot speaks on stage. / Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images
Aside from JAY-Z, Jay Electronica, Royce, and Phonte are the likes of Eminem (age 47), Busta Rhymes (48), Fabolous (42) Jadakiss (45), Styles P (45) Fat Joe (49), Common (48), Raekwon (50), Missy Elliott (48), Kanye West (43), 2 Chainz (42) and Pusha T (43), among others.
It would also be naive to suggest that older Hip-Hop fans simply stop listening to music. Instead, they look for content they can relate to, which is why songs like Phonte’s 2018 “Expensive Genes,” in which the worries are less about the haters out to get him and more about genetics and age-related health concerns that resonate with a demographic that has a different set of life experiences than its under-30 counterparts.
Simply put, Hip-Hop is growing up.
“There’s a whole demographic that is still hungry for music but is not being served,” Phonte explains. “It’s wrong to suggest that the 35-plus crowd doesn’t spend money because, to be honest, they are the ones who have the money to spend.”
What has also helped MCs over age 35 is that the internet has a direct-to-consumer approach that didn’t exist when record labels determined what would appeal to rap fans. And, for the most part, labels targeted a younger audience and neglected the rap tastes of those over 30.
“There’s no filter now between the artist and the consumer,” Phonte says, noting that a record label “wouldn’t have a clue” how to market a song like “Expensive Genes” in the early 2000s. “You can go direct to your audience and you don’t have to worry about a record label telling you what a hit is. The audience can decide what they like based on their tastes.”
One way Hip-Hop might avoid these misconceptions is by providing subcategories that guide listeners to artists that suit their musical tastes.
“Hip-Hop deserves the same care that rock deserves because we are now looking at a genre that is over 40 years old now,” says Phonte. “Rock can have several definitions and subcategories, but rap doesn’t get that. There is no role for what could be considered adult contemporary Hip- Hop. It’s there for the taking and wide open, but it’s going to take someone to invest in it and show that there is truly an audience for this.”
As rap music reaches its third- and fourth-generation fans, the idea of identifying artists by subgenres could help market MCs to the appropriate audience. Just like a middle-aged, married rap fan with children may have no interest in rhymes about partying and hustling, younger fans might not be intrigued with parenthood and good credit raps.
The bottom line is simple: Hip-Hop has no age limit for entry.
* Banner Image: Eminem on stage. / Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia