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Hip-Hop at Fifty: An Elegy

A generation is still dying younger than it should—this time, of “natural causes.”

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The Message

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

There is, in this world, an ambivalent space reserved for revolutionaries who die in their beds and rappers who die of natural causes. From hip-hop’s inception, what has distinguished it from other forms of youth culture was its certain awareness of mortality. Rock music, for instance, mourns a group of heroes who died at twenty-seven: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain. But part of the resonance of those deaths is that they came as a shock, and even acquired an aura of romance that hip-hop could never indulge. Their deaths reflected inner turmoil, most during a time of war and social violence, but the violence was not primarily directed at them. That’s not the case with hip-hop, an art form crafted in places where it was not unheard of for twenty-seven-year-olds to perish. Here was an artform largely pioneered and dominated by the demographic that is most likely to die as a result of violence in this country: young Black men.

The year of Kool Herc’s party, there were nearly sixteen hundred homicides in New York City; a disproportionate number of those killed were Black and brown, and a disproportionate number of them died in neighborhoods like the one where hip-hop drew its first breaths. This was the New York of “Taxi Driver” and “Death Wish,” the New York of the untouchable drug hustler Nicky Barnes and the morose slouch of a metropolis sliding into decay. In the beginning, hip-hop mostly featured lighthearted party fare and braggadocio, but, in a comparatively short period of time, it began focussing on weightier social themes. In 1982, just a few years into the history of commercially produced and recorded hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released “The Message,” a parable of ghetto life that concludes with the preordained death of its subject and the haunting final line “Now your eyes sing the sad, sad song / of how you live so fast and die so young.”