Dad Rock is a Thing. But What is Dad Rap?
In the ’80s, the Parents Music Resource Center put out a hit on rap. Rather, they slapped a sticker on it — one that read “Parental Advisory.” The committee and its new label were created to make parents aware of music it saw as angry, violent, and unsafe for kids. In “Freedom of Speech” from his 1989 album “The Iceberg” Ice-T had some choice words for the Tipper Gore-led group: “Hey, PMRC, you stupid fuckin’ assholes/The sticker on the record is what makes ’em sell gold./Can’t you see, you alcoholic idiots/The more you try to suppress us, the larger we get.”
Rap did get large. And now, two decades removed, that early moral panic is laughable. Snoop Dogg, once a Slenderman like symbol of musical violence, now makes pot brownies with fellow convicted felon Martha Stewart. Ice Cube is safe enough to star in kids’ movies; Ice-T’s on Law and Order: SVU and sells car insurance. What’s more, the majority of those who grew up during the dawn of hip-hop are now fathers. And the music that these rap heads crave is that grittier, earlier sound. What was once considered culturally corrosive has become —and there’s no better way to put it — Dad Rap. Still, unlike Dad Rock, which has the likes of Wilco, Steely Dan, and Springsteen, Dad Rap doesn’t have a well-defined discography.
“If I’m riding around in a car with my kids right now, we’re not listening to new rap. We’re listening to stuff I liked when I was 18 or 19 years old,” says Shea Serrano, author of hip-hop historical song guide The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979. “It’s not a special brand of hip-hop. It’s just the hip-hop that people who are dads today grew up on it, so it became dad rap.”
Serrano, a father of two 9-year-old twins and a 4-year-old, says nostalgia guides his music choices: “I really like listening to DMX because it reminds me of when I was 17 years old.”
Rap fans who were teens and 20-year-olds during rap’s golden era of the late ’80s and early ’90s are now in their mid-40s and early 50s. For today’s dads, Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul go down smooth. Public Enemy’s music retains its thrilling nervous edge. Doggystyle and The Chronic are perfect records for when the kids are out of earshot. Wu Tang’s first record still ain’t nothing to fuck with and Rakim remains the undisputed champion.
There comes a time in every man’s life when he favors the music of his childhood, certain that nothing’s going to sound as good. Dads cop to this without remorse. A 40-year-old who once organized a weekly New York freestyle competition told me he thought today’s rappers mumble too much. He hated the slow machine feel of trap beats, a dominant trend in hip-hop production since 2006. After a while, he said, hearing an old school boom boom bap beat comes as a welcome relief.
A former MC and current father of four said his college student son looks at Notorious B.I.G. the way many looked at Bob Marley. He recently listened to Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn” and thought it was amazing, but wasn’t sure he’d play it again. It just didn’t sound the same.
He wasn’t alone. Dads run cold on contemporary beats and rhymes. A lot of my older hip-hop loving friends are at a loss to understand the appeal of Drake. They can tell Kendrick is a visionary, but feel his brilliance is meant for other people. They revere “College Dropout” but are otherwise hit or miss on Kanye. They’d not necessarily heard of Migos.
The stuff they have heard of is now old enough to be sold and marketed in a similar way to classic rock. In fact, old school hip-hop is the hottest trend to hit to radio in years. Since the mid-2000s, more than 50 radio stations with names like “Throwback,” Rewind,” and “The Vibe” have dug in the crates to play classic hip-hop. Vintage hip-hop’s in orbit, with Sirius satellite radio’s “Backspin” station offering 24 hours of old school rap. Cities like Atlanta have multiple classic rap stations — if you don’t like the Big Daddy Kane track OG radio’s playing, you could hear Ja Rule on Old School 99.3, whose airways hosted three competing classic rap stations until one dropped out in 2016. In 2014 the New York Times reported that ratings skyrocketed when stations played classic rap.
Classic rap radio might target an underserved market: non-Spotify users. You know, old people. Appealing to olds is an incredibly uncool reason for playing the Geto Boys on the radio. But it’s one among many uncool things going on with rap nowadays.
It could be because modern hip-hop has evolved in a way that brings increasing discomfort to old school rap fans. Wellesley College professor and author of the book Thug Life: Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop Michael Jeffries said some newer tracks just don’t sound anything like hip-hop to 40-year-olds.
“Think about the fusion of hip-hop with R&B and the use of auto-tune with performers like Migos, Drake, or T-Pain,” Jeffries says. “That’s going to strike old school hip-hop fans as antithetical to the principals of hip-hop they grew up with.”
There’s always been a generational shift with popular music tastes. In the past, older generations have recoiled from obscene or otherwise threatening youth culture. But people who grew up on gangster rap aren’t as easily shocked as members of previous generations. There’s an intensity and a purpose to the music that today’s rap often lacks.
“Older hip-hop fans have a different relationship with hip-hop because they’re in a different phase of their lives,” Jeffries says. “They’re not 20 years old going out to parties. They’re older. They’re thinking about how to strengthen their relationships with their partners, how to provide for their families, how to build careers that are sustainable. Those concerns you have when you’re 30, 35, 40 aren’t the same concerns you have when you’re 15 or 20 years old.”
When you’re young, being a fan of rap is often about trying to become tough or cool by association. When you’re a dad, you’re hopefully past all that. But rap, of course, has always been about more than toughness or even coolness. Jeffries noted that the music of Tupac Shakur, a performer sometimes misremembered as a one-note gangsta rapper, expressed joy, vulnerability, and despair.
“I don’t know a lot of people who are still jamming Grandmaster Flash or Afrika Bambaataa,” Serrano says. “Most of the stuff you’re listening to came out after ’86, and ’86 was the beginning of gangsta rap. By then it was already pretty intense. The rap that’s coming out today, they’re not saying things in rap they weren’t saying before.”
Ice T’s “6 in the Mornin,” the first gangsta rap hit, was released in 1986. Murder and violence against women were already prominent features.
“It’s counterintuitive to talk about hip-hop fans getting older because hip-hop is usually defined as a youth culture,” Jeffries said. “That was sort of essential to what it was and gave it its edge in many respects. To think about it as a mature musical culture is a challenge.”
Two decades on from the late ’80s, early ’90s panic surrounding supposedly dangerous hip-hop, pop culture at large has filed down the culture’s rough edges into a smooth and childproof form. My daughter’s earliest exposure to hip-hop was through Marina and Twist on the Nickelodeon show “The Fresh Beat Band.” The gleamingly Caucasian pair have all the street cred and swagger of youthful Donnie and Marie.
As a dad listening to rap or any genre, you boil off a lot of what’s non-essential and shallow in the music and culture. What’s left is richer and leaner. Dad rap, then, is hip-hop enjoyed and performed by people who are no longer stricken by the insecurities of youth and aren’t obligated to care about looking tough or cool — even though they are.
At 42, Dad rap avatar Killer Mike is at the forefront of hip-hop, creating consciousness-elevating banger after banger with Run the Jewels. It’s angry music, but the anger is from an educated, adult perspective. It’s the anger of a grown man who loves his kids and worries about their future. It’s also the anger of a dad who smokes weed and has thoughts about appropriate sweatsuits for PTA meetings.
Or look at the 47-year-old father of two who’s ruled the rap game for something like two decades, Jay-Z. Hova’s evolved from a street-level hard knock life into a Dad Rap superstar.
“When he first started out, he was doing his whole drug dealer thing,” Serrano says. “And then he got married and his music started to reflect that. Then it’s changed for him, the whole reason to make music. Dads and people in general, as they get older, start caring about different things.”
Jay-Z’s career traces his life trajectory towards upper-class adulthood, complete with defenses of boat shoes in the 2009 hit “On to the Next One.” Jay-Z pulls it off because, like the best dads, he’s comfortable with the person he was and who he’s grown into.
“One of the reasons people are able to get what he’s doing is not just because he’s supremely talented,” says Jefferies. “It strikes them as authentic because he’s been forthcoming about his change the whole time.”
While hard to pin down, that’s what Dad Rap represents: change. Not just in age, but in perspective, style, sensibilities, priorities. The music of one’s youth resonates because it reminds someone of who they were then compared to who they are now. So much classic hip-hop resonates with rap-loving dads today because it harkens back to a beginning of something, a time when the music was new and fresh. And, like all good music, it becomes different when you hear it at different stages in your life. The music didn’t change; the listeners did.