Become A Legend in 10,000 Hours (Written Summer 2011)
What do Jay-Z, Eminem, Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne, Raekwon, Ghostface, Bun B, all four members of Slaughterhouse, Fat Joe, Sean Price and Snoop Dogg all have in common?
Beyond the obvious answer that they are all great MC’s is that they are all veterans with close to twenty years of experience in the rap game, this is the first generation of rappers that are reaching their creative apex as they approach middle-age. Most of these guys are well past the age traditionally associated with rappers in their prime and making arguably the best music of their careers and inarguably having a bigger impact on the culture than they ever have. Today’s teenagers are the first group of Hip-Hop heads to idolize MC’s that are old enough to be their fathers.
There are any number of reasons for this: the internet allowing artists to record and release music without interference from executives/A&R’s that might deem artists “too old,” the natural aging of Hip-Hop’s fan base due to increased social acceptance of the genre, artists making songs with increasingly mature subject matter, the advent of independent labels allowing artists to make music not aimed at Hip-Hop’s traditional demographic and artists crafting personas that are able to be maintained well into adulthood ( for example it’s easier to accept Jay-Z doing “Cant’ Knock The Hustle” at 40, than Onyx doing “Throw Ya Gunz”). However, one of the most overlooked reasons for this aging of elite MC’s might be as simple as the old cliché “PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT.”
In Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers (2008) the author examines cases of extreme success ranging from The Beatles to Microsoft and hypothesizes that most people that dominate their field have spent at least 10,000 hours perfecting their craft. The book goes on to detail the factors that allowed these “outliers” to attain their 10,000 hours of practice (The Beatles performing for 8 hours a day in German beer halls, Bill gates living within walking distance of a free computer lab, etc.) and the path to mastery that allowed them to dominate their competition. Considering this is the first group of rap artists to maintain cultural relevance for multiple decades, it’s possible that it’s 10,000 hours or so of rhyming, rather than innate talent or any of the factors listed earlier, that have allowed artists like Jay-Z, Eminem and Snoop Dogg to not only dominate the genre but transcend Hip-Hop completely in ways impossible for their younger peers.
While everybody has their personal “Top 5: Dead or Alive” list, few would disagree that the last decade was dominated by Jay-Z, Eminem, Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne (the fifth spot is debatable, but the top four are hard to argue for any objective observer). Jay, Em and ‘Ye are all well past thirty (forty in Hov’s case) and have been in the game for well over a decade (including Kanye’s years a a producer before he became a solo artist), during this time they have been so completely immersed in the “Rap Life” that they have not only mastered the art of rhyming, but also beat selection, song structure, video direction, character development, album artwork, merchandising, live performances, collaboration choices, interview style and all of the other factors that have made them not only great MC’s but iconic characters in pop culture. This is why rappers that have spent thousands of hours furiously scribbling into notebooks in their bedrooms without mastering the other facets of the game are often praised by purists but rarely transcend the genre (Rakim, Canibus and any of the “backpack rappers” of the late-90’s/early 2000’s are great examples of this).
The one seeming contradiction to this rule is Lil’ Wayne, who at 28 is slightly older than the typical MC, but ascended to icon status when he was still in his early 20’s. While some would argue that Weezy was a prodigy that could not avoid taking his place as the most influential and prolific MC’s of the decade at such an early age, a closer look reveals his unique childhood and adolescence (being adopted by a record label owner, being constantly surrounded by other rappers and producers, and spending his formative years on tours and in recording studios) has allowed him to put in his 10,000 hours and attain true mastery of the art of being a Hip-Hop star at and extremely young age. Also, of the current crop of Hip-Hop stars it’s hard to find anyone who’s improved as much over time as Wayne, as a teenager he was the third best member of The Hot Boys and by 25 he was arguably the greatest rapper alive (obviously this could be debated for days, but it’s hard to argue that his run from “Tha Carter II” to “Tha Carter III” wasn’t one of the best hot streaks in the history of the genre). This evolution is possibly the best evidence that practice, dedication and time in the game are the biggest factors for attaining greatness as an MC.
Admittedly this argument ignores the politics& bullsh*t that are synonymous with attaining any level of fame in the music industry, but most would agree that artists like Jay-Z, Eminem, Kanye and Wayne make quality Hip-Hop that deserves the huge audience and widespread acclaim it has garnered. Further, proof of this “practice makes perfect” hypothesis can be found just below the level of MC’s that sell out arenas, win Grammy’s and routinely top the pop charts. Artists like Fat Joe, Sean Price, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Bun B and Busta Rhymes all released debut albums on cassette tape in the mid-90’s and have released albums to critical acclaim and solid sales on iTunes in the last year. While this kind of longevity is impressive, what’s possibly more impressive is that their recent releases are widely considered as good, and in some cases better than their earlier work. They have been able to hone their rhyme skills and perfect the other aspects of being a successful MC to the point that they are much better artists now than they were in what would have traditionally been referred to as their “prime.”
This level of artistic maturation was rarely seen in Hip-Hop, a genre where three solid albums is considered a legendary career and many rappers are branded “has beens” by twenty-five. Artists like the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill have had long careers by reinventing themselves and appealing to the less ageist rock crowd, LL Cool J has released a ton of albums and had dozens of hits by never admitting he’s a grown man, political rappers like Public Enemy and KRS-ONE have maintained a core fan base and tour extensively overseas without appealing to many younger fans and artists like Slick Rick, De La Soul and Salt-n-Pepa tour the “greatest hits” circuit for older fans while making no effort to compete with today’s 106 & Park stars. However, for the veteran MC’s that have found a way to continue to elevate their craft while simultaneously staying connected to younger fans and abreast of current trends we have a new breed of Hip-Hop, as Sean Price says “Grown A**Man Rap,” that appeals to a wide range of fans and provides a quality alternative for older Hip-Hop heads.
While most MC’s are born with some level of innate talent (that level varies drastically and is largely based on personal taste), the amount of time and effort any rapper puts into the art of being an artist has a profound effect on the course of their careers. Jay-Z, Eminem and Lil’ Wayne appear to be light years ahead of newer artists like Drake, Wiz Khalifa and J. Cole because they have exponentially more time in the game and have attained Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice to become the superstars they are today. This is not to say that today’s crop of up-and-coming rappers is not talented, quite the contrary the last few years have seen some of the best new artists in recent memory, but it will be interesting to see which ones put in the time and effort to elevate their game and have us talking about them a decade or two from now.
-Angelo (Twitter: @Mr5thround)