Is hip-hop's golden era—roughly 1986 to 1993—finally entering its baby boomer-style classic rock cash-in phase? You know, that moment when its legends get real comfortable with being legends, take their history to the road and remind everyone that their rapping was so much better and more important than the rapping going on right now.
But should that even be a concern? Especially given that it's true: Very little hip-hop in 2013 can top the music LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Public Enemy and De La Soul put out in their prime. They're all part of the Kings of the Mic Tour, which comes to the Durham Performing Arts Center on Sunday. (Opening sets by old-schooler DJ Chuck Chillout and local hero and true school torch carrier 9th Wonder round out the bill.)
First, a quick overview for those '90s and, gasp, aughties youth who don't know why the music of these over-the-hill rappers remains so vital or, possibly, who they even are. There's LL Cool J, a still-furious MC who pretty much created crossover appeal when he bleated over Rick Rubin smack-rap such as "Rock the Bells" one moment and whispered "I Need Love" the next. Ice Cube bridged the gap between reckless gangsta rap and high-minded social commentary, first with N.W.A and later as a solo artist. Public Enemy were the original noise-rappers and creators of the most sonically adventurous rap album of all time, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Contrarians De La Soul challenged even the open ears of late '80s rap fans with the affable next-to-the-hood charm of 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul Is Dead and Buhloone Mindstate.
For rap fans getting up there in age, consider how younger people might look at this lineup. When LL Cool J's onstage, however fervid he remains, he's probably the guy from grandma's favorite CBS procedural, NCIS: Los Angeles. Or he's the Robert E. Lee-repping dude on "Accidental Racist," a recent, baffling collaboration and attempt at viral controversy with country singer Brad Paisley. The looming shadow of Flavor Flav's incredibly embarrassing reality-show career threatens to overshadow any Public Enemy performance. And Ice Cube is now better known as a charming Hollywood actor—the police captain in that 21 Jump Street remake and Calvin from Barbershop. If De La Soul are afforded a high profile at all anymore, it's for their appearance on the 2005 Gorillaz hit, "Feel Good Inc."
Bundled together, though, these legendary MCs add up to a perfect snapshot of hip-hop's still-influential golden age. And there's something quite admirable about just how specific the Kings of the Mic's lineup is to what was, arguably, the most important rap era ever. There are no bigger, better names from this time period who could be added to the bill, and as a result, it feels like an event.
Contrast that specificity with the similarly nostalgic Rock the Bells tour, which bridges the gap between past and present rap but plays fast and loose with time and context. Rock the Bells often feels like one of those dad-bait rock shows that crams together disparate acts from slightly different eras because most of the attendees won't know the difference. (There's also talk that Rock the Bells 2013 will feature hologram performances from Eazy-E and Ol' Dirty Bastard.)
By comparison, Kings of the Mic's careful, mindful curation is admirable. So what's the problem, then?
Well, following its golden era, hip-hop got infected by a particularly vicious strain of nostalgia, and it's worth challenging. Those raised on LL and others spent the late '90s complaining about Puff Daddy and then Jay-Z; in the 2000s, they threw their hands up at Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy. Today, rap radio is cursed because 2 Chainz or Future pop up a whole bunch. Such grousing stifles a genre that built itself on work-with-what-you've-got pragmatism and a decided lack of sentimentality.
"Stuff sucks now" talk often dominates rap legends' new music as well. Ice Cube wisely refuses to play this game, but that isn't true of the rest of them. LL Cool J called his new album Authentic, which implies that the rest of rap is not. Come on, dude. De La Soul's new single, "Get Away," predictably bemoans rap's dearth of lyricism in 2013 and references a Wu-Tang Clan track from 16 years ago.
In 2011, as Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Otis" was building steam, Public Enemy's Chuck D released a freestyle corrective called "Notice—Know This," which chastised rappers for not taking on social issues. It seemed to misread Kanye and Jay-Z's album Watch the Throne, a black power-tinged, "by any means necessary"-informed celebration of success. Kanye maybe still got the message: His recent single "New Slaves" takes on the prison-industrial complex without couching its message in crowd-pleasing conspicuous consumption.
That said, despite their cranky demeanor at times, these artists are carving out a veteran-friendly lane that is necessary. Many of rap's legends were afforded notoriously short careers, and hip-hop history hasn't received a real hagiographic treatment on a mainstream level yet. The lucrative world of reissuing, which helps to recalibrate the canon and gets records of the past back into the conversation, has for the most part skipped over hip-hop.
Blame disinterested rap youth content with the radio, but also a transitional period when record stores became almost entirely of the indie-leaning High Fidelity variety rather than the mom-and-pop types that had always helped move hip-hop. Kings of the Mic, then, is a living, breathing history lesson; ideally, it will result in more seminal MCs getting back out there and finding an audience.
Something else to remember, however. Yes, the golden era was a thrilling zeitgeist grab that coalesced with MCs and beatmakers everywhere doing stunning, never-to-be-topped work. But the legalities of sampling were not yet parsed, which allowed for a no-holds-barred creative renaissance. And rap wasn't yet the moneymaking machine it would become by the late '90s, so artists simply had more freedom. Major labels hadn't cracked the code of selling rap out, so they took whatever came their way—which, at that time, was the ungoverned political fury and creativity of the guys on the Kings of the Mic bill.
The result turned hip-hip into a paradigm-shifting cultural force, for better and for worse. But rather than continue to wish hip-hop still looked like it did in, say, 1991, it's better to identify the golden era as a strange moment that probably should've never been able to happen—but did. And then embrace that weird late-'80s/early-'90s glitch in the milquetoast music industry by reliving it on Sunday night. Just leave 2 Chainz and Kanye out of the conversation, please.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stars of hip-hop's heyday keep the faith."