Can Rappers Grow Old In Peace? Why Ageism Is a Neverending Debate in Hip-Hop

BET’s essay series, Uncomfortable Conversations, dives into the ongoing, difficult topics that have dominated and plagued hip-hop for decades. Here, we tackle stereotypes around ageism as we advance the culture.

Andre 3000 is a consensus pick as one of the greatest rappers of all time. But the ATLien has always been aware of what he perceives as his musical mortality. In 2014, he shared a quote that would arguably end up being just as recognizable as any of his lyrics. “Even just the origin of the word hip-hop; first you have to be hip. The older you get, you get further away from the hipness,” he said in an interview with the Recording Academy and HardKnockTV.

At the time, Dre was speaking about his role as Jimi Hendrix in the biopic All By My Side, painting a metaphor of an older rapper looking like an old boxer who can no longer keep up in the ring. When artists try to imitate new styles, Dre said, “it becomes embarrassing, at a point.” He added, “I’ve seen my heroes not be as cool.”

For years, growing old in hip-hop has been a death sentence — ammunition for opponents to tear artists down, and a cue for listeners to lose interest and move on to whoever’s fresh and new. Hip-hop has often been referred to as a sport, and the analogy continued with age: artists enter the game spry and musically athletic, and there’s a finite clock ticking down to a point where their bodies begin to betray them. Why was longevity ever so devalued in hip-hop in the first place, though? And can a rapper ever grow old in peace?

Often, the lack of appreciation has revolved around relevancy — and who gets to measure it. When hip-hop was created in the seventies, it was the product of resourceful Black and brown kids in the Bronx who rejected many of their elders’ societal standards. That pushback was exactly what the culture needed, and it wouldn’t have lasted if it wasn’t for young people invested enough to keep it going. But as much as the youth have been the heart and soul of the music for decades, hip-hop has historically failed to revere its elders. Some of these gripes have been based more on sounds, styles, and content than age, but it often boils down to youth. Each generation of fans seems to believe the image of hip-hop from their upbringing is the purest, most authentic version of it, and that subsequent generations ruined it. The one constant is that the youth has always been the big joker: they control the genre's sales, trends, and future. But younger rappers have too often used age as their trump card.

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Throughout much of the 2000s, when rappers accused younger contemporaries of compromising the spirit of hip-hop, some artists were dismissed simply because they were older. In 2002, Nelly dissed KRS-One on the “Roc the Mic” remix, a response to the Teacha’s “Clear Em Out,” which blasted commercialism in hip-hop. “You the first old man who should get a rapper’s pension,” Nelly jeered on the song. Six years later, when Ice-T scolded Soulja Boy for ruining hip-hop, the latter recorded a hilarious video teasing the gangsta rapper-turned-Law & Order costar about his age. “Nigga, you old as fuck!” Soulja Boy exclaimed in his very Soulja Boy way. (Ice-T was then 50, and Soulja was 19.)

“You’re old” is still a go-to retort these days. Last year, DJ Akademiks perpetuated hip-hop’s ageism in one of his many Twitch rants. “Have you seen any of these old rappers really living good?” Akademiks asked rhetorically. “Them niggas be looking really dusty, I kid you not.” Veterans like LL Cool J, MC Lyte, and Busta Rhymes held him to task.

As hip-hop has approached middle age, that sort of ageism has slowly begun to wear away. After decades of younger artists getting their feet held to the fire, only recently have they begun to show reverence for their elders by sampling them, doing interviews on their budding media platforms, and performing with them. And older artists are returning the favor the same way rappers always have: by creating powerful, potent music that lends to their experiences.

There’s no singular way to age gracefully, but we’ve seen plenty of examples. Bun B has embraced his role as a rap elder statesman in flying colors: he’s recorded an album’s worth of music with the younger Big K.R.I.T., stayed active with his own projects, and has used his position to speak out about the Tory Lanez and Megan Thee Stallion shooting, but he has also begun a career as a restauranteur, presumably to take up his time as he begins to slow down musically. Styles P has announced his impending retirement as a solo artist, stating that he’s planning to continue doing collaborative projects with The LOX while focusing on his mission to improve health in Black communities with his Juices For Life and Farmacy For Life brands. LL Cool J has largely transitioned into Hollywood, but he’s maintained his hip-hop presence by taking over the Rock The Bells brand to put on festivals and empower other veteran artists. And Snoop Dogg has become a multimedia powerhouse of his own, with successful forays into TV, film, and business, while continuing his musical presence as an executive with Def Jam, purchasing his old label, Death Row Records, and taking on various artistic identities over the years. Still, it’s one thing to age gracefully when you’ve enjoyed meteoric highs, and have seemingly found other ways to cash in on your legacy. It isn’t as easy when your contributions aren’t recognized often and residual income isn’t as accessible.

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With hip-hop celebrating its 50th birthday in August, at the least, rap’s OGs have had a wide lane to perform in front of large crowds. But how much would these artists have gotten their dues without a flashy anniversary moment? And how much respect will they get after this year’s occasion is over?

Melle Mel is one pioneer who’s advocated for his era of hip-hop, as the rapper who made Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” one of the genre’s most important records. But Mel has come across to some fans more as a hater than an innovator. When Billboard and Vibe published a list of the 50 Greatest Rappers of All Time in February 2023, Mel took various potshots against younger acts in an interview with the YouTube channel Art of Dialogue. He argued that Kendrick Lamar shouldn’t have made the No. 2 spot, suggested that Lil Wayne’s use of autotune dents his GOAT credibility, and that despite Eminem being “obviously a capable rapper,” that he only had a top-five spot on the list because he’s white. Mel was No. 48 on the list.

And after Eminem decided to lyrically swing back at him earlier this summer on a song that poked fun at his cantankerous demeanor and his muscular build, Mel responded with a song of his own that was somewhere between an early ’80s battle rap and a Saturday Night Live skit.

But if Mel wasn’t talking shit, would people have cared? Back in 2015, Macklemore made a song called “Downtown” that enlisted a crew of legends: Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz, and Kool Moe Dee. Melle expressed gratitude toward Macklemore, and resentment toward other artists for not doing the same earlier. “I know for a fact that J. Cole or Kendrick Lamar or Rick Ross or Jay Z or any of these cats, they would not have done it. Ever,” he told XXL that year. “If you're making records and you say you're hip-hop, you're supposed to have a connection to what hip-hop really is.”

MC Shan similarly lashed out at Nas earlier this summer.  Nas has repeatedly shouted out his fellow Queensbridge native for his impact, but Shan told him, “don’t mention my name again” after feeling snubbed in Nas’ Hip-Hop 50 festivities. Shan later apologized to Nas, saying that he got a call from God’s Son and that he had “jumped the gun” with his comments.

It could be a result of ageism and grumpiness or the relentlessness of the 24/7 news cycle. At the same time, hip-hop’s pioneers have rarely been acknowledged unless they’re taking potshots at younger artists. As Shamira Ibrahim reported in a piece earlier this month, many of hip-hop’s OGs haven’t been meaningfully or proportionately compensated for their cultural contributions — and some fans still see ‘70s and ’80s rappers’ work as primitive, which limits potentially lucrative opportunities. Some artists have been dissed because of their age, but Melle Mel is speaking about apathy — and that’s even worse. He may be a hip-hop grinch who makes horrible points, but there’s reason for some veterans to resent an industry that doesn’t respect their contributions.

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There’s a wide gap in age between Gen Z acts and Baby Boomers. In the aforementioned HardKnockTV interview, Andre 3000 implied that no one would want to hear him rap about his life. “Unless you want to hear about parenting, how it is with my 16-year-old,” he said, “and not wanting to go get prostate exams, at a certain point, what am I talking about?” But why not? Why not rap about parenting and health, when so many hip-hop legends are entering that stage in their lives? On 2018’s “Expensive Genes,” Little Brother’s Phonte raps about how poor diets and neglect can lead to early death. “We got the oceanfront view, but scope is so limited/’Cause young niggas be dyin' of old nigga shit,” he raps.

Over the years, Nas has rapped about losing his mother, raising his child, and the reality of divorce across multiple albums; on his newer collaborative projects with Hit-Boy, Nas shares untold stories for fans who’ve followed his career. On his most recent album 4:44, Jay-Z offers investment advice, speaks about family trauma, and raps about his mother coming out as queer while examining his ego's role in damaging his relationships.

Millennials will be middle-aged before we know it; when that time arrives, it won’t have been a one-step process. Rappers like Big KRIT, Kendrick Lamar, Megan Thee Stallion, Chika, Latto, and Tyler The Creator are evolving before fans’ eyes and more visibly than ever. Hip-hop is also showing more promise for more intergenerational respect. Nas just completed a six-album run in three years with Hit-Boy, a producer who’s 16 years his senior. Busta Rhymes and Swizz Beatz have taken young New York rapper ScarLip under their wings, and Missy Elliott has shown praise for rap duo Flyana Boss, appearing on a remix for their viral hit “You Wish.”

Young artists are also responsible for boosting their elders — and they’re beginning to do just that. Coi Leray, Jack Harlow, and Saweetie are using samples from popular ’90s and 2000s hits, and while some of the artists are being critiqued as unoriginal in their approach, in some instances, it can lead to stronger artist relationships: N.O.R.E. accompanied Armani White at the BET Awards to perform White’s N.O.R.E.-sampling “Billie Eilish,” and Busta has embraced the idea of homage by way of sampling.

But Gen Zers and millennials alike need to join forces to build an organization for hip-hop retirees. Whether the artists want to keep creating or retire, they should have a choice — and that infrastructure doesn’t exist yet. Swizz Beatz and Timbaland have given ownership stakes of Verzuz to artists who helped build it up, and LL Cool J has done similarly for other pioneers since he’s taken ownership of the Rock The Bells brand. But an official hip-hop union doesn’t exist yet (though there’s a musical union), meaning that hip-hop artists aren’t covered yet. In 2011, there was a crowdfunding campaign to help Kool Herc pay for medical bills — and he’s only one of the artists who hasn’t held formal coverage for his contributions.

But this conversation starts with appreciating the veterans through the music. And as much as Andre 3000 feels like he wouldn’t have much to say, he's often proven himself wrong whenever we have heard from him. On Kanye West’s “Life of the Party,” he pleads with Ye’s late mother, Donda, to send a message to his own parents. Dre further memorialized his mom with a pair of drops on Mother’s Day in 2018. One song features him singing. The other was an instrumental collaboration with James Blake. Andre 3000 has annihilated just about every guest appearance he’s had since he stopped actively releasing albums. And when Killer Mike hinted that Andre had an album completed this year, excitement reached such a fever pitch that Mike had to temper the announcement by claiming that he was “stoned out [his] mind” when he said it. “Y’all done took the joke too seriously,” Mike said in his retraction. Hip-hop hasn’t passed by its elders at all. As long as the artists keep growing, fans will do the same.

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