Hip-Hop Is Old But Your Favorite Rapper Is Too Young to Die
In the span of two weeks in April, hip-hop lost DMX, Black Rob, and Shock G. Their ages were 50, 52, and 57, respectively. Fans could barely show proper respect for one fallen rapper before the next one passed. I won’t belabor the specific details of their deaths here, as the circumstances behind them are only now becoming fully documented—but also because the telling of them is painful. Besides, this isn’t a eulogy. It’s a plea.
For a time, the fatal shootings of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. seemed to have a chilling effect on hip-hop, drawing a line at what was an acceptable cause of death for iconic, game-changing rappers. But when you die before the age of 60, there are no acceptable causes of death. There are causes, but we cannot reason with them. They make no sense.
As fans, in our hearts, we fix our idols at an age based on their album covers; in our minds, we know that if we’re aging, they must as well.
This is probably why conspiracy theories about the aforementioned deaths in the hip-hop community are so abundant. Those who knew the deceased want to believe that they could’ve saved them with a phone call or an intervention or letting a down-on-their-luck icon sleep on their couch for a week. Those that didn’t know them refuse to believe that someone so much larger than life could have been felled by the same thing that took out their co-worker last year. Like the death of anyone else who’s had an influence on our lives, we don’t want them to go away. Even if we weren’t always thinking about them while they were living, we subconsciously hoped they would at least grow old.
Despite the now common (if misguided) parade of conspiracies after hip-hop deaths — claims that Diddy is responsible for Black Rob’s death, that Eazy-E contracted HIV via tainted acupuncture needles—there’s no actual rhyme or reason to who dies when. There are, however, indicators. Every year, one or two rappers of some note die a violent death, yet, contrary to their reputations, hip-hop artists are not by and large dying in a hail of bullets. The real causes are more common, more prosaic: drug use, poverty, homelessness, and unaddressed long-term illnesses factor into most of the hip-hop deaths we’ve seen in the last few years.
How many rappers would still be here if health insurance was part of their label contract? What if the retirement of rappers was handled like the retirement of most professional basketball players, planned and with some measure of grace?
Usually, rappers die two deaths. First, they fade from favor, then from neglect. Most of hip-hop’s pioneers who made their name in the 1980s and 1990s aren’t producing records with any regularity, if at all, and they certainly don’t receive the same support they had in their heyday. Putting out new music is seen as a young artist’s game. The waters of the music industry are too treacherous to risk whatever life they’ve been able to carve out for themselves after years of being ripped off.
It’s a testimony to the talent of hip-hop’s builders that they did so much with not only so little, but at such a young age. Your middle-aged Black colleague is annoyingly passionate about the era of hip-hop they grew up with because the most powerful art movement in the world over the last 40 years was created by people who looked and acted just like them. I personally went to school with 10 DMXs, five LL Cool Js, and two X Clans. We were buying the albums of people who could’ve been our cousins (which was a popular claim to make for those trying to score before the evidence age of the internet).
If you think the message of the singles “Self Destruction” and “We’re All in the Same Gang” seem a little archaic now, note that the current average age of the rappers who appeared on those records is 52 years old.
As fans, in our hearts, we fix our idols at an age based on their album covers; in our minds, we know that if we’re aging, they must as well. And when we come across them in a random social media moment — too often when they are in a valley of their lives — we must recognize that our minds were right. They are gray-haired. Their faces carry the lines of a life lived in extremes. They have lived long enough to worry less about where the party is at and more about how to pay the house note.
MF DOOM died at 49. Craig Mack died at 47. Phife Dawg died at 45. Prodigy died at 42. Ol’ Dirty Bastard died at 35. J Dilla died at 32. Big Pun died at 28. Mac Miller died at 26.
There were no guns involved.
Asked about being the last surviving member of The Fat Boys, Kool Rock-Ski said, “The legacy of The Fat Boys is solidified,” and he is 100% correct. Rock-Ski, Prince Markie Dee, and The Human Beat Box laid several bricks in the foundation of hip-hop. Two-thirds of the group have passed on: The Human Beat Box at 28, and Markie Dee this past February at 52. No one can ever see a Fat Boys concert again. If you want to know how beatboxing broke into the zeitgeist, you have to go to that first record and put on “Stick ‘Em.” The man who did it is no longer here to tell that story. He died in 1995. He did not die from a bullet. He died literally larger than life, larger than his spirit could hold.
Let’s keep it real: Many rappers didn’t expect to get this far, and there’s something in that realization that everyone who loves the art form should push against. No small part of hip-hop is the glorification of struggle and death, so it won’t be easy work, but it is work that must be done if we don’t want to keep laying flowers decades before we can deal with the implications. Rap music isn’t young anymore. We will see more cherished legends pass into that great cypher in the sky.
Hip-hop is dying, and it is not. It’s dying the way that all foundational things must to make way for the new. So, hip-hop is shedding.
It’s time for hip-hop to get comfortable with the concept of legacy in a way that actually honors the artists it holds up before no one is holding them up anymore. We must find ways to preserve not just the legacies, but the people.
But it’s also not dying in the way that The Fat Boys can never die, or DMX, or Black Rob, or Shock G can never die. And yet, a secure place in an eternal stream of recordings isn’t good enough anymore, at least not right now. It’s time for hip-hop to get comfortable with the concept of legacy in a way that actually honors the artists it holds up before no one is holding them up anymore.
We must find ways to preserve not just the legacies, but the people. Otherwise, we will look up in 20 more years and the practitioners of the form won’t be anything like the people who created it. And at a mere 50 years into its history, there will be no originators left to point out why that’s a problem.