The 17 Year Old: The God Of Rap

“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.”– Isaiah 11: 6 There are few things I enjoy more than building with the youth (from the perspective of a late 30-something and the […]

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.”– Isaiah 11: 6

There are few things I enjoy more than building with the youth (from the perspective of a late 30-something and the purposes of this article that would be teenagers and those under 25) about rap music – their personal favorites, what they are listening to on the radio, the latest gossip and rumors, aka ‘I heard that Drake…’; and when, where, and how they enjoy it all (technology/websites etc…).

I do it for a few reasons – one, I’m concerned about what influences our young people, two, because it helps to renew me, and three, because this age group, to some, is the ‘holy grail’ of business – the supposedly most valuable market segment of the Hip-Hop generation. Therefore as they go – or as the mass marketers would like to take them – is where the rap industry is headed.

For sure, this is one of those subjects that separates the Ideologues (those who want the culture and industry to become more conscious but are frustrated because their activism is ineffective) from the Entrepreneurs (those who understand that consciousness is protected or destroyed not just by political consciousness but by the science of business).

What separates these two groups, as I define them, is their grasp of culture, demographics, and the laws of marketing, which always limit how fast or slow change comes to an industry, or an entire people.

Let me explain.

A few years ago I served as a strategic consultant to Dave Mays – at that time of The Source magazine. It was a great experience and one you can read about it in more detail in my book, The Entrepreneurial Secret. Dave brought me in to help bolster the political content of the magazine and to advise on some aspects of its business model. In our very first meeting I asked him to identify for me the core market for the magazine. He told me that according to the business surveys and marketing research that had been conducted the prototype of the reader of the magazine was a 17-year old male. That perspective was not exclusive to The Source – it still dominates most of Hip-Hop media to this day. We would build with one another with that marketing fact always looming large in my mind.

From the perspective of radio, I once had a dialogue with a program director in a major market who carefully explained to me the importance of the 18-24 listening audience – a group major advertisers crave more than a meth fiend needs a dentist. He explained to me how careful DJs and show hosts had to be with the subject matter they discussed and the variety of music they played in order to not lose the attention of this crowd. In other words – they can’t get into ‘deep’ subjects and certainly must not deviate from the playlist.

From the perspective of TV, I simply offer the 106 & Park rule. If you ever wanted to find the dividing line in rap music marketing, it is in studying this popular BET show. Unless you are in the music industry and have a professional interest, you can bank on the fact that it is overwhelmingly the youngest members of the Hip-Hop generation who watch this program (which is closely connected to the major radio playlists). In 2007 I accompanied Bomani Armah, whom I was consulting at the time, to the BET studios for his memorable appearance on the show, and what struck me was how young the audience was – 14 and 15 year olds, and all girls. What also stayed with me was how the same young ladies who were fawning over the R&B music were so inquisitive and interested when the subject of Bomani’s controversial ‘Read A Book’ came up and during his interview (you could have heard a pin drop). To me, Bomani’s interview with Rocsi and Terrence J is a blueprint for how to be entertaining and interesting to the youngest and oldest members of the Hip-Hop community.

So, one of the biggest challenges facing the industry and culture is how to reconcile the fact (which many still don’t publicly acknowledge) that while the rap music business model is geared to teenagers, the music’s impact lives on, culturally, in an older generation. As consumers, fans, and artists we have been trained and conditioned to serve a marketing construct – The17-year old – only interested in the entertainment value of song, dance, and celebrity while as producers, parents, and leaders we desire Hip-Hop to become a more mature expression with political impact and social consequence.

We don’t want to stop becoming fans of the music, and yet we are forced to, to some degree, because the magazines, websites, and broadcast programming continue their loyalty to a somewhat mythical being – a construct of what we once were in time, but are no more – The 17-Year Old.

Many, in the older generation, have different ways of dealing with the contradiction and dilemma, usually becoming walking contradictions themselves.

Some genuinely train their ear to the latest sound or force themselves to like whatever is new. Others become bitter critics of everything new and celebrate ‘the good ‘ol days.’ Others try to position themselves as activists who claim to represent Hip-Hop and the youth, yet spend most of their time criticizing the music that the youth are being conditioned to like (spending hours arrogantly differentiating between ‘rap’ and ‘Hip-Hop’ while denying that the only reason people listen to them today is because of the popularity of ‘rap’). Others – still in the business – compartmentalize their professional lives – claiming allegiance to a golden conscious era while making money promoting the materialistic filth that the golden era condemned.

The worship of the 17-Year Old God is both a gift and a curse.

Part of what makes Hip-Hop or rap music attractive is that it has found the fountain of youth because of its cultural commitment and marketing focus on the very young. This dynamic makes even the oldest person have to stay on their toes, just to stay relevant. From another field one can see this from the current episode of ‘Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel’ on HBO, which features Tom Izzo, head basketball coach at Michigan State University. Very involved with the college students on campus who support his team, the 55-year old Izzo has dressed up as Dracula and King Leonidas, been lowered down from the ceiling of the indoor arena where the team plays and ridden into the arena on a motorcycle and a host to wild applause and acceptance from students in their teens and early 20s.

When asked ‘When are you going to grow up? Why do you do these things?’ Izzo answered, “God, I hope never. I hope never.”

He then added, “I think when you are in a profession where you get older but your clientele stays the same (age)…it’s a way to stay connected.

The curse?

On the other hand, the pre-occupation with the youth, at its extreme, actually breeds immaturity into the culture.

There is constant pressure because of the insights and seldom seen influence that the marketing scientists have on record labels, radio stations, and media outlets to make music that only appeals to your instinct to dance; to make videos that titillate the sexual desire; and ‘dumb down’ information and news when time demands serious analysis, investigative reporting, and presentations that aren’t politically correct.

So, how will this change?

Please just do me this favor, stick to our little plan

And f— the money, just keep my little man (by your side)

And show him his hope

He gonna think he know how its goin’

But show him the ropes

And if you bring him to the Gucci store, show him the loafs

Hood ni—s, I’m just showing you growth, but I’m still right (by your side)

Jadakiss, ‘By Your Side’

In only one of three ways – either the mind of the 17 Year Old is respected and appreciated by the current establishment of artists, advertisers, labels and outlets for what she or he truly are – maturing males and females who are capable of more than just being fascinated by material goods, sex, violence and gossip. Or, a new more independent-minded establishment appears that shows one can make money by doing so, and by not forgetting about a world of former 17 Year Olds who have lost their connection to an industry and art form because it did not mature with them.

The third possibility is much more painful – economic decline, social upheaval, even revolution, that creates circumstances and living conditions that make the industry’s current business model (geared around consumer goods, sex, violence, and gossip) totally irrelevant, forcing the 17 Year Olds to deny the commercial religion that has been built up around them. In this personality cult driven world, there may be nothing more powerful than a person denying they are worthy of worship.

You can see this to a small degree already as rap music, talk shows and programming has had very little insight to offer on the serious events we’ve been living through this past decade and young people turn to the Internet and one another via a still as yet to be dominated by advertising social media for insight.

Until we learn to speak the language of an entire generation (not just its youngest members) and promote the best of the culture in the past, present and future tense (without leaving the youngest members behind), the industry that has formed around them will be a source of death as much as it has been a source of life.

I can love and learn from 17 Year Olds, and even follow them, but I can’t worship them.

And I don’t think they want us to…

Cedric Muhammad is a business consultant, political strategist, and monetary economist. He is also a former GM of Wu-Tang Management and a Member of the African Union’s First Congress of African Economists. He is author of the book, ‘The Entrepreneurial Secret’ ( He can be contacted via e-mail at: cedric(at)