[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
Before “the rap game” became the operative cliché, there were freestyle routines in park jams and rec rooms. Chef Raekwon once described it as a “hobby that he picked up in the lobby.” That's probably the most accurate way to describe the art form's early days, when teenagers too indigent for instruments forged an entire culture by shattering all musical rules and protocol.
It was 40 years ago last month that an 18-year-old South Bronx DJ named Kool Herc threw the party widely considered to be hip-hop's big bang. For the next decade, most of the best rappers and DJs were too young to legally sip Ballantine ale. But somewhere along the way, the industry flexed its power to determine who could innovate. Accordingly, the teen rapper increasingly became a commodity to be molded and marketed to the right demographic.
For every Nas, Mobb Deep or Outkast — wunderkinds who emerged fully formed out of the dungeon — there were many more like Lil Romeo, Lil Bow Wow, or Lil' Zane. Often mentored by Svengalis, the latter bunch allegedly had their lyrics ghostwritten and their gimmicks prefabricated.
Of course, the truth usually is more complicated. In the wake of Kriss Kross, the early '90s yielded often-overlooked teenage talents like Illegal, Ahmad, Shyheim and Da Youngstas. Even if their albums were often unmemorable, they dropped minor classic singles and rapped impressively. Hailing from Beverly Hills, The Whooliganz never got their debut album released, but the Tommy Boy-signed duo launched the career of The Alchemist (the Weekly's third greatest all-time L.A. hip-hop producer).
Once the bubble popped around 1995, teen rappers usually were considered artistically lightweight, save for occasional outliers like Foxy Brown and Minnesota freestyle champ Eyedea. The principal exceptions came from Louisiana, where the tradition was kept afloat through Cash Money's B.G. and Lil Wayne, Trill Entertainment's Lil Boosie and Webbie, and pretty much any rapper named Young.
Starting with Soulja Boy's 2007 ascent, the last six years have seen things come full circle. Enabled by home recording technology and the ease of self-promotion via the Internet, a new teen rap hope seemingly pops up once a month. You can point to Lil B and Odd Future as pyromaniac torchbearers. Like the early pioneers, their rise was built on ignoring orthodox thinking and convention. They did what teenagers do best: break rules and flout authority.
Descend into Tumblr or YouTube and you'll find innumerable videos made by kids who can scarcely grow facial hair. Chicago's Chief Keef turned 18 only last month but has been regionally famous for the last two years. New York has produced a crop of teen rappers — often indebted to the '90s — like Joey Badass, Haleek Maul and Bishop Nehru. Locally, a 16-year-old rated rookie named Dakota Chris recently dropped a very promising debut EP, No Doubts or Limitations.
The most gifted of them all might be Chester Watson, a 16-year-old phenom from St. Louis, who describes himself on Facebook as a “producer, playwright and rapper.” Like all teenagers, he and his Nu-Age crew are products of the Internet. A generation ago, his influences might have been largely limited to the Midwest. Instead, his rapidly evolving style bears traces of the L.A. underground: those who record for Stones Throw and Brainfeeder, and Odd Future's Earl Sweatshirt.
All of the aforementioned artists have different styles, flows and even decades from which they draw inspiration. However, they share a teenage hyperactivity, a sense of not giving a fuck about which rules to break, and the willingness to build their careers outside of major-label channels.
Tastes and trends inevitably shift, as they should. But the attitudes of old school and new school aren't all that far apart.
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