The Rise Of Adult Contemporary Hip-Hop

 “You can’t talk about slinging crack rocks and having a wicked jump shot. The left digit in your age is a four,” Questlove of The Roots says with eery frankness. “You can’t talk about, ‘What up, boo? Come around my way.’ Your subject matter has to be a lil’ bit different.”

Straight up…a lot of Hip-Hop fans are sick and tired – tired of “candy-coated” songs with nursery rhyme-inspired hooks and redundant talk about diamonds, cars, and women. Rap’s diverse styles have their place within the genre, but some fans are calling for music with more meaningful content that speaks to the triumphs and struggles of everyday people.

With the popularity and longevity possessed by some rappers, such as LL Cool J, members of Wu Tang Clan, The Roots, and Jay-Z, both old and young rap fans are slowly growing accustomed to a maturing hip-hop sound. And, as rappers and fans alike evolve gracefully to the beat, an emerging market for rap aficionados is taking shape.

Adult Contemporary Hip-Hop is defined as rap infused with content relevant to rap’s “mature” listening audience.

The ACHH rap movement isn’t so much about age as it is about satisfying the evolving tastes of rap fans of all ages.

After more than 30 years of evolution and accolades, rap – even old school – has substance these days, and its core urban market has grown up along with it.

Rapper Dres from Black Sheep fame – who is making a comeback with a new solo CD called From the Black Pool of Genius – is relishing in the buzz about his grown man sound. His album features collaborations with MCs such as old school Native Tongue posse members Q-Tip, Dave from De La Soul, and Mike Gee from the Jungle Brothers on the track “Birds of a Feather.” To older rap fans, Black Pool may sound a bit like nostalgia mixed with plain good MC’ing and production; to newbies, it will be a brand new experience – what Dres calls “nouveau-retro.

Dres of Black Sheep – “Doin It Wrong (Remix)” Produced by Jim B.

To boot, after all these years, Dres is making cheese off of hamsters dressed as old school MCs – dookie ropes, Tims, and all – as the Kia Soul car makers pay comedic homage to his nearly 20-year-old pop classic “The Choice is Yours.”  (Click here for the video) Teenagers who rocked to Black Sheep’s critically-acclaimed debut Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing in 1991 are now in their 30s, and are employees, parents, and voters who are calling for something new.

“I do know that [back then], we were staying very true to ourselves in making music,” Dres says during an AllHipHop interview in Manhattan, “much more so than the formulaic blueprint today, where cats do something that proceeded them that worked.” He says he comes from a place where MCs purposely tried to do something that sounded like nothing else: “That’s where you got your accolades, as opposed to today.” ACHH may serve as a new blueprint.

The original DJS and MCs in the 1970s Bronx who gave birth to the rap genre are nearing 50. Even the pioneers of the 1980s – MCs like Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube – have surpassed the 40-mark and now celebrate fatherhood and finer living, as opposed to Gucci and gangbanging. Kane is reportedly set to release a CD this year recorded with a live band, and Special Ed is making a comeback, too. Some believe that the aging of Hip-Hop is lending to the rise of Adult Contemporary Hip-Hop.

Questlove from The Roots says that while hip-hop has traditionally been sold as a youth-based culture, he doesn’t necessarily agree. “This is the first generation that’s going to have a hard time dealing with midlife crisis,” he tells AllHipHop. “It’s like what do you talk about when the left digit in your age is a four?”

Questlove Talks About Breaking 40

Artists and record labels are taking notice of the budding ACHH movement, and some are pondering the possibility of a new ACHH division or award category, as they search for ways to bring in sorely-needed industry revenue.

Sha Money XL, the new Senior Vice President of A&R for Def Jam Recordings, acknowledges that Hip-Hop is maturing and noted that “one of the best rappers alive is 40. Back in the day, we used to look at 40 like it was old, but it’s really not.”

The bottom line is that most record labels and radio stations make money by staying on top of trends. And while the ACHH trend is growing, MCs like Jay-Z have to blend mature lyrics with pop hooks and catchy beats to cater to a wide range of rap fans. Some insiders believe the industry will always lean heavily toward a younger, fresher sound and artist pool.

“I still have to cater to the youth,” says Sha Money XL, “because those are the ones that are really running to the concerts, running to buy the CDs. That’s the generation that we have to focus on, so I can’t just turn my back on the youth, even though [ACHH] is mostly my generation of people. But I feel like this should become a new genre for those old hip-hop heads that really want that adult contemporary hip-hop sound…there should be someone who caters to that.”

Forty-year-old rappers may exist, but Sha Money XL says not to expect any brand-new 30- and 40-something artists to break through. Besides, as he points out, there are plenty of existing rappers, both young and older, to fill the market. Until there is a change, Sha Money XL applauds Jay-Z for having already cornered the market on everything including ACHH, and he anticipates Jay-Z as “the world’s first billionaire rapper – not billionaire entrepreneur – but billionaire rapper.”

Rolling Stone magazine recently described mogul Jay-Z and his maturing style as working “the space between Roc Boy and society man, name-dropping Cosa Nostra and Obama.” On a similar note, LL Cool J’s new track “LLovely Day” manages to keep the icon’s youthful, sex symbol status intact as he drops lines like “Wedding bells jing-a-ling/ let the champagne spill/ we both grown/ we both pay our own bills.” The song samples the well-known “Lovely Day” tune written by Bill Withers, an artist whom most young rap fans have likely never heard of.

LL Cool J – “LLovely Day”

Stepping into the ACHH realm has its risks, though. Wu-Tang veteran Ghostface took a gamble with a mostly R&B inspired album in 2009 on Def Jam entitled Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City. As of December 2009, the CD had only sold about 43,000 copies. Similarly, when Jay-Z tried to overtly demonstrate his maturity on Kingdom Come, the results were mixed. Thee days, Jay admits changes are needed, but it has to happen naturally.

“I think the problem with people, as they start to mature, they say, ‘Rap is a young man’s game,’ and they keep trying to make young songs. But you don’t know the slang — it changes every day,” Jay-Z told Rolling Stone last month in a July cover story. “You can visit the topic, but these young kids live it every day, and you’re just visiting. So you’re trying to be something you’re not, and the audience doesn’t buy into that. And people wonder why [they’re not selling]. ‘I made a great Southern bounce song!’ You’re from New York, and you’re 70! Why are you bouncing?”

Even 50 Cent altered from his usual beef-n-brawn lyrics in recent years, with songs like “Baby By Me” on 2009’s Before I Self Destruct, featuring a fictional “white picket-fence” life with wifey Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child as they raise triplet boys. 50’s change in tone didn’t reflect greater album sales – BISD was his lowest selling album since his career skyrocketed, selling under 500,000 copies in the U.S. On top of that, he caught flack from some of his hardcore fans.

For others, rappers like Wale and Canadian-born, Young Money artist Drake are finding success while filling a mature void, defying the notion that ACHH is age-restricted. On “Find Your Love” Drake croons, “Too many times I’ve been wrong/I guess being right takes too long/I’m done waiting, there’s nothing left to do/But give all I have to you” – not the typical content for a rapper his age. However, at 23, part of his rise to meteoric status, with most credit coming before he ever signed a deal, is due to his unique content and wide age appeal.

Dres describes Hip-Hop today as a “teenager” – on the verge of growing up, but still holding on to some of its youthful ways: “When you’re a teenager, you kind of have a good idea about a few things, but the biggest thing you don’t know is that you really don’t know anything.”

He adds: “Fast forward to today, and we’ve got all of these millionaires and hundreds of thousandaires that would rather spend [money] in the name of shining…Adult Contemporary Hip-Hop is an opportunity for us to make Hip-Hop what it’s supposed to be…something that’s very self-sufficient and empowering.”

 

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