This past weekend I lost an argument about the nature of hip hop to my seven-year-old son.
What can I say? I'm humbled. Though I'm not sure if that's because I am a rapper who has toured, put out albums and won awards, or if it's because he's seven.
What set us off was a TV commercial for The Hip-Hop Dance Experience, a video game for Xbox 360. The ad featured a collection of people bumping and grinding like they were in a nightclub. I remarked "That's not hip hop."
My son took exception. "How is it not hip hop?" he asked. Sufficiently satisfied that I was about to school my household's Grade 2 student, I hopped on my high horse and proclaimed "Hip hop is MC-ing, DJ-ing, breakdancing and graffiti writing. I didn't see any of that in that commercial."
Without a beat my son replied, "Obviously it is hip hop if it looks like hip hop." Darn. Good point. The culture is whatever the people who make up the culture say it is. Am I really that out of touch?
I should have seen this coming. There were warning signs. Like the time a couple of months ago when my friend P-nut and I stood outside a Grippin' Grain party complaining about the high-waisted pants the women inside were wearing. Kids these days.
Then there was the time I realized I liked every single song being spun at "old-school night" at a bar on Corydon. And there was the time I took my son to a rap concert and I realized everyone else in the crowd was 13 or younger. Old man, take a look at your life.
The good news for me is that hip hop now has a "golden age" category. I discovered this not too long ago when I travelled to California to take in Rock the Bells. RTB is a hip-hop festival that features a lot of contemporary artists but really shines the spotlight on rappers like Ice Cube, DMX, Common and others popular back in the good old days. Back when the most famous Kardashian was O.J.'s attorney. Back when Justin Trudeau was just somebody's son. Back when Apple made awesome products nobody bought. Bitter? I'm not bitter. Get off my lawn!
I realized hip hop had grown up at Rock the Bells when I saw my favourite rapper, Nas, perform. It was a hot California night. People in the crowd were sticky with sweat and had been waiting near the stage for way too long. Everywhere, that strange Winnipeg Folk Festival smell wafted through the air. Finally, Nas stepped on stage and tore through the intro to his new album, followed by N.Y. State of Mind, a hip hop classic the audience rapped along to verbatim. Represent, The Message and other songs he performed that night helped to shape my conception of artistry, not just for hip hop but for all poetry and music. Beyond that, these songs were my solace when I had tough times as a teenager.
Surprisingly though, what really moved me was his new material. On a song like Daughters, he raps about struggling to be a good father, just like I am. On Bye Baby he yearns for a decent relationship with his ex-wife. Not with the name-calling bravado you might expect from the machismo-laden hip hop culture, but from a humbled, mature perspective. Amen, brother.
This music that was the soundtrack to my youth now provides the original score to my adult life as well. Signs of hip hop culture's maturity abounds. Rappers like Jay-Z and Sean Combs have successfully made the transition into members of the business elite. What's next, an openly gay rapper? Singer Frank Ocean's recent mention of a past same-sex relationship suggests that day may not be far off.
Twenty years deep into my love affair with this music and culture, the things I'm doing are different than when I started listening to it. Today I'm raising kids, building a career, learning how to be an anchor for the people around me. Yet hip hop is still here, telling me the same thing it did back then: I hear you, I am your voice, I understand, because I'm going through it, too.
My love for hip hop is stronger than ever. Even if I don't always recognize what it is these days. Now would somebody turn off that damn Gangnam Style?
Wab Kinew is the Director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Winnipeg and an award-winning hip hop artist.