Image by Alex Cook
In the past 24 hours, Vince Staples has made some people very upset by departing from the accepted doctrine that The 90s are the best thing ever. It all started from a video on TIME about the 90s being overrated, in which he made such seemingly uncontroversial statements as pointing out that he never listened to the Spice Girls and explained that the first song he remembered listening to was Lil Bow Wow’s “Bounce With Me,” which came out in 2000. He went on to sing Bow Wow’s praises, extoll the virtues of Pokemon, and point out that the height of Jay Z’s career was, in fact, after the 90s, which is empirically true.
Now, one might assume that a 22-year-old rapper explaining that the first song he remembers listening to came out after the 90s were over would help people understand why the 90s don’t hold quite the same allure for him as they do for some people. He also began the video by saying “I don’t remember any of it because I was a baby.” But, nonetheless, the online masses took exception to the charge, and people jumped into his Twitter mentions to argue about 90s hip-hop in particular, setting off a series of dry, jokey rebuttals about Vince’s preference for music that is only about half 90s hip-hop (i.e. “Niggas telling me I wouldn't exist without 90s hip hop as if I don't have a mother or father.”). XXL picked up the video with the headline “Vince Staples Thinks the ’90s Are Overrated,” which prompted N.O.R.E., a notable 90s rapper who presumably does not consider himself overrated, to tweet angrily about Vince’s lack of respect. This led Vince in turn to defend his music taste, tell people to listen to more Soulja Boy, point out that he never actually said hip-hop from the 90s was overrated, and ultimately flippantly conclude “What year did Too Short drop blow the whistle ? That's my favorite year in hip hop.”
Vince seems to have resolved things with N.O.R.E. at least, but the respect for the 90s debate is one that pops up every so often: You may remember earlier this year, when Young Thug mentioned to GQ that he would never buy a Jay Z CD “because of my age and because of his age” and got a similar Mention-quisition going. The idea that this rapper, whose music sounds almost nothing like 90s New York hip-hop and has repeatedly said that pretty much his only influence is Lil Wayne, might not be paying appropriate homage to the genre greats was apparently too much for some people to handle.
And so on and so forth: It’s basically a rite of passage for rappers to explain how important Nas and 2Pac were to them, even though the average rapper in their early 20s right now was in diapers when Illmatic came out, if they were alive at all. That makes sense to some extent: The industry insiders who check you off on your hip-hop litmus test are now in their 30s and 40s and grew up when Nas, Biggie, and Jay Z were the red hot center of the zeitgeist. Maintaining the legacy of New York hip-hop in particular is part of the job for people like Hot 97’s Ebro Darden (who also waded into the Vince Staples argument yesterday, pointing out the 90s influences of young fans’ favorite artists, with a remarkable amount of patience for the kid curious about the link between the 90s and outspoken 90s rap revivalist Joey Bada$$). And obviously, those artists were all vastly, vastly important to the development of the genre and, perhaps more importantly, to its rise as a commercial force. There would be no 22-year-old rappers right now if not for those artists.
That’s why, when a young rapper like Vince Staples (who, incidentally, makes music that actually does not fall unrecognizably far outside the sonic mold of that era) points to something else as a formative influence, people assume he’s either trolling or being an idiot. But even if hip-hop wouldn’t exist as it does without certain people’s influence, that doesn’t mean that every younger artist needs to be beholden to them. There’s still likely a straight line from the 90s to those artists; it just happens to have been distilled through their actual influences, the artists they listened to as teenagers. And if you were a teenager in the mid-to-late 00s, you grew up listening to Soulja Boy, Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, and Kanye. Period point blank. That’s what was on the radio, that’s what people were talking about, and that’s what was at the cutting edge of sonic innovation. Maybe you were a little artsy and ahead of the curve and got into Kid Cudi and Lil B.
Slim Jesus top 5 rappers of all time pic.twitter.com/5iEhhPFsLz— DADITO CALDERONE (@TAXSTONE) October 23, 2015
And why shouldn’t those artists be your influences? You’re more likely to be influenced by the stuff you thought was cool when you were 16 than the stuff you thought was cool when you were five. And if you’re 19 or 20 right now, that’s what was cool when you were a teenager. In fact, at this point, you’re young enough to have been influenced by Chief Keef and A$AP Rocky. It’s not trolling; it’s simple math. It makes way more sense for a young Vince Staples to be enamored by the image of a similarly young Bow Wow rapping than for him to be obsessing over the depth of the lyrics of a guy who died when he was three. I’m five years older than Vince Staples, and the only 90s song I actively remember listening to in the 90s was the “Macarena.” Even if you were listening to hip-hop in the 90s, there’s as good a chance that you were listening to Will Smith and Kriss Kross as to Nas and Jay Z. Reference points aren’t as simple as the history books and the angry tweets like to make them.
That’s one of the worst parts of this whole Respect Your Elders and Remember The 90s debate: It does a disservice to all of the music involved. When people talk about the 90s, as Vince pointed out in the original video, they tend to be referring to the same small roster of artists and albums. Plenty of people at the time were much more interested in music that, whether due to geography or style, isn’t given the same canonical treatment: Mac Dre, E-40, 8-Ball and MJG, Three 6ix Mafia, UGK, Scarface, Goodie Mob, Master P, the Hot Boys, Kurupt, DJ Quik, Ma$e—the list goes on. Not all of that was exactly the type of lyrical, smash-in-the-Queensbridge-projects-door-with-your-ironclad-bars stuff the 90s are supposedly meant to inspire young artists to make, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important.
Even harping on the importance of 2Pac and Biggie with such self-seriousness flattens out those artists’ work. We love those artists precisely because they are multifaceted human beings, not just because they had carefully structured bars. For every “Suicidal Thoughts” there’s a “Hypnotize.” But what kid is going to get excited about that music if listening to it is treated like a homework assignment you have to complete before you can enjoy today’s hits? It’s a lot more fun to just jump on a couch listening to Future than worry about filling out your bingo card of Mobb Deep verses. You get people excited about stuff by being excited about it, not by shaming them. And the 90s had a lot of music worth getting excited about!
Perhaps the most insidious charge to this whole thing, though, is the idea that artists can’t make worthwhile art unless they have been properly steeped in one specific canon. While it’s true that nobody’s looking for a new rapper whose reference point for hip-hop begins and ends with Travi$ Scott, it’s also absurd to think that art is going to have any room to grow if the people making it are all expected to have the same four reference points. We know what hip-hop influenced by Nas and Biggie sounds like, and, with all due respect to the artists in question, nobody is listening to it (let’s dwell for a moment on Your Old Droog and the ridiculousness of wishing and wishing an artist would come along sounding like Nas and then, when one finally does that exactly, everyone is pretty much only excited until they find out it is not Nas). We’re starting to find out what artists influenced by Lil Wayne and Soulja Boy sound like, and guess what: We like that music. It’s new. It’s inventive. It sounds like nothing we’ve ever heard before. Just like all the great hip-hop that came before it.
Among the images that stuck with me from Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A. movie released earlier this year were the scenes of Ice Cube writing for Eazy-E and the shots of Dr. Dre DJing those early gigs: You could see these sounds that no one had ever thought of before coming into fruition. At the time, it was fringe stuff. Now, they are some of the most famous rappers ever. It’s great if a new generation of artists sees that movie and gets inspired. But hopefully their inspiration won’t take the form of sounding like their predecessors so much as acting like them. Hip-hop has always been a genre fixated on disrupting the past.
In the end, Vince Staples probably summarized the argument best at the very beginning of this whole brouhaha, with his comments on realness in the initial video: "Unfortunately hip-hop, we have a habit of copying each other. We pretend to be something that we're not,” he said, going on to add, “You can say my music is real, but what if I'm lying? What if I made all this up? Then what? If I made all this up it's not real. Someone saying they want to go to a party is real. They probably just want to have a good time. It's real to them. What's real? Real meaning urban and aggressive? Is that what we mean by real? Your life is your life, and no matter what it is, I think that should be what your music is about: Your outlook on life.” And if your outlook on life doesn’t involve listening to Nas, who cares? Nas had never heard Illmatic either.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.