Do Hip-Hop Legends Really Live On Forever?

In the wake of the death of legendary rapper DMX, writer Najma Sambul reckons we need to do more to keep the music of hip-hop legends alive.

Both the hip-hop industry alongside millions of fans are mourning the devastating death of DMX, the legendary rapper who last Friday passed away at just 50 years of age. A statement released by the family of the rapper – born Earl Simmons – broke the news of his death to the public, while his long-time record label Def Jam Records released a tribute to their client on their website. "DMX was a brilliant artist and an inspiration to millions around the world. His message of triumph over struggle, his search for the light out of darkness, his pursuit of truth and grace brought us closer to our own humanity," the statement read. "DMX was nothing less than a giant. His legend will live on forever."

But will it?

Be honest. When was the last time your music streaming platform (for example, Spotify) recommended some of DMX's classic hits like "Party Up (Up In Here)" and "X Gon' Give it To Ya"? Unless one of their algorithms took you to 'old school hip-hop and RnB', chances are it didn't. I know what you're thinking: hip-hop as genre is all about new music. It's not streaming services' responsibility to ensure hip-hop like DMX makes its way to our ears. And while it's true that listeners do to some extent drive what streaming services do, they're also calling the shots.

When I open up my music streaming app (I use Apple Music, do not laugh) and search 'rock 'n' roll', the playlists I'm offered are: 'Classic Rock Essentials', 'Rock (Today's best and past favourites)' and '90's Rock Essentials'. In other words, you're given a pretty good cross-section of the genre throughout history. Do the same for hip-hop, though, and you're inundated with newness: 'New Hip-Hop', 'Hip-Hop hits' (predominantly if not all new tracks) and further down, 'Hip-Hop/ R&B Throwback' (a playlist that curates music from the mid to late '90s and aughts). Granted, there are some classics in there. But considering the breadth and scope of what the genre has produced over the decades, it's abysmal.

Of course, it's never easy to compare genres like hip-hop and rock. Their core fan bases would probably say this isn't a fair comparison because of the reach that rock has. Rock bands, for example, still tour well past what the doctor recommends. (Rolling Stones, I'm looking at you.) But in 2018, data monitoring company MRC Data (formerly Nielsen Music) dropped stats showing that for the first time ever, R&B and hip-hop had surpassed rock as the most-consumed genre of music in the US.

Yup, the stats showed that in 2020, R&B and hip-hop accounted for 30.7% of all on-demand plays. This numberr is based on 'album-equivalent sales', which include physical sales, digital sales and streaming services. And across audio and video combined, the category took 31.1%. In some ways, this shouldn't be surprising. You may remember that Drake beat out The Beatles in 2018, and more recently, Madonna, for artist with 'Most Top 10 Hits On The Billboard Hot 100'. (His Beatles' tattoo moment was a bit extra and cringeworthy, but I guess you gotta fight for your place as a hip-hop artist.)

In comparison, rock claimed only 16.3% of audio streams, most of which were driven by old school rock legends Queen and Fleetwood Mac for their albums Greatest Hits and Rumours respectively.

None of this is to say that rock artists aren't deserving of recognition, respect and streams. Of course they are. But why aren't hip-hop artists treated with the same veneration? It is now the most-listened to genre in the US, yet we don't even come close to respecting hip-hop legends as much as we do rock legends. When hip-hop and rap icon Missy Elliott performed at the Superbowl in 2015 with Katy Perry, younger viewers on Twitter didn't even know who she was, to which the Queen and living legend playfully responded on Twitter: "the new kids think I'm a new artist &I'm bout 2 blowup."

Imagine not knowing who Missy Elliott is. Embarazzing. The woman who brought us "Sock it to Me", "Get Your Freak On", "Pass that Dutch" (hello, Mean Girls) and the unforgettable "Work it". And that's only just scratching the surface.

When prolific artists like DMX and Missy Elliott are being forgotten while they're alive, what chance does their art stand when they die?

There's also a massive PR machine that keeps rock relevant to this day known as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And there's this weird provision that allows a small number – I mean a tiny number – of hip-hop acts to be inducted. As it stands, six hip-hop acts have been inducted. And yes, on the one hand, rock 'n' roll is an attitude; a spirit that rap artists can and do embody. DMX's iconic set at Woodstock in 1999, just him in his red overalls rockin' out and hyping up a sea of thousands of people was so rock and roll that white people started a mosh pit to "Ruff Ryders Anthem".

On the other hand, rock is a completely different genre of music. Legends Gene Simmons and Ice Cube exchanged a few words on Twitter about NWA's induction into the Rock & Roll hall of fame in 2016 with Ice Cube pointing out that Black artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Chubby Checker shaped the genre of rock 'n' roll as we know it. "Hip-hop needs its own hall of fame, on this level. And you know, we'll put in a couple of rock and roll acts."

That's where the non-profit Hip Hop Hall of Fame Museum comes in. Outlining their mission on their website, they say:

"The Hip Hop Hall of Fame Museum is to promote and preserve the past, present and future of hip-hop music and cultural arts, and to highlight the role of hip-hop music & culture in the broader urban culture and explore its social impact in the world."

The group first emerged as the Hip Hop Hall of Fame Awards TV Show in the '90s, airing on BET and showcasing hip-hop royalty like Run-DMC and Grandmaster Flash. It was founded by business entrepreneur, James 'J.T.' Thompson, who said: "The purpose of the TV show was to be like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They had 25 years' worth of shows before they were able to open up their museum. That was the trajectory we were on. So that got cut short."

On their Twitter page, the group announced that a Hip Hop Hall of Fame Museum and Hotel Entertainment Complex will be coming to Manhattan, NYC in 2022. And it's about bloody time.

Hip-hop has transformed from its beginnings in the 1970s to a multibillion dollar industry. It remains an undeniably fundamental part of music history and Black culture in the US; constantly pushing boundaries and re-inventing itself with new, fresh drops. Not only has hip-hop birthed subgenres like trap, alternative hip-hop, gangsta rap, battle rap, it's shaped other genres, boasting a global reach that extends from the UK to South Korea (and of course, Australia).

If we really want our hip-hop legends to "live on forever", then immortalising them and their cultural impact in a museum dedicated to hip-hop is long overdue. If you can make so much off of Black artists and African-American culture, corporations have a responsibility to keep them as relevant as they do rock. In the words of DMX: "First we gon' rock and then we gon' roll."

This is an opinion piece written by Najma Sambul, a Somali-Australian writer from Melbourne. On the internet as @najsambul.

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