As in most pop music fields, longevity is hard to maintain in hip-hop. But the challenges for artists from this genre may be greater than those facing other musicians.
Trying to stay current in hip-hop is like running a 100-yard dash. One misstep and you're done. Hip-hop fans are brutally unforgiving, whether it's an unacceptable video, a poorly executed promotional campaign or an ill-conceived collaboration. The slang--a necessary component for acceptance into hip-hop's fickle inner circle--changes at breakneck speed. Furthermore, most hip-hop consumers are under 25, and they don't want to listen to some "old" person. Fans want someone who talks, looks and dresses as they do.
That's what makes the releases this month of records by Public Enemy, Gang Starr, Too $hort and EPMD so unusual. Each of these artists debuted in the 1980s, and each is still making powerful, relevant and commercially viable music.
Public Enemy, by far the most recognizable of these performers, released what many consider the best hip-hop album ever made, 1988's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back." Their unapologetic themes of black empowerment and in-your-face production made them both lyrical and sonic revolutionaries.
On their new album, "There's a Poison Goin On . . . ." (Atomic Pop), which was available over the Internet before it arrived in record stores, the group sounds as aggressive and timely as ever, blasting the exploitative practices of record companies and other powerful businesses.
While their sound and style are unmistakably hip-hop, the group's blueprint was based on something else.
"When I first started with Public Enemy, my whole thing was to have a rock 'n' rollish approach, which is one where you never repeat yourself," says Chuck D, PE's frontman. "The blessing is that you have cats that are with you that appreciate you for never doing the same thing twice. The curse is that you hit this thing once and then you never came back to it. We made sure that Public Enemy was going to keep portraying ugly music."
Even though shifting their lyrical and musical approach with every album was a Public Enemy signature, they have remained largely consistent with their "ugly" music of confrontation and defiance.
Unlike Public Enemy, Gang Starr, Too $hort and EPMD have produced new material that's similar to their prior work.
Gang Starr, whose new album is "Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr," has been the most adventurous of the three, largely because of the innovation of producer DJ Premier, widely regarded as one of the hip-hop's preeminent beat-makers. Early in the group's career, he relied on sampling jazz records and other nontraditional sources. But as Gang Starr evolved, Premier assembled his soundscapes from an unparalleled mix of chaotic sound effects, captivating bass lines and string arrangements.
Premier's beat work was one of the main reasons why 1998's "Moment of Truth," Gang Starr's fifth album, was their breakthrough effort, earning Premier and rapper Guru their first gold album.
"The longevity comes from being in touch, connected with the streets, being a fan," Guru says. "Premier and I are fans of the music. We listen to everything. We maintain that hunger, that same energy that we had when we first started in the game. We've always stayed grounded."
The same applies to Too $hort, whose 11th album, "Can't Stay Away," was recently released by Jive Records, and EPMD, whose sixth album, "Out of Business," was released last week by Def Jam. The former has specialized in explicit sexual tales on each of his bass-heavy albums, while EPMD stuck to hard-core lyrical posturing and mid-tempo, funk-based music on each of theirs.
In fact, despite breaking up and reuniting this decade, EPMD has survived on the strength of their previous hits. They are easily one of the most sampled groups in hip-hop history. "A lot of the music being used is ours," says Parrish Smith, who makes up EPMD with Erick Sermon. "Jay-Z, Foxy Brown, DMX, and the list goes on."
Obviously, exposure to travel, concert experience and past hits are serious legs ups that hip-hoppers struggling to get off the ground cannot fall back on.
Public Enemy, Gang Starr, Too $hort and EPMD all emerged when rap tours were commonplace and international fans were first experiencing hip-hop in person. Each of the artists developed a worldwide legion of fans who are more loyal than their American counterparts.
"Our advantage is that we have the whole world at our access," Chuck D says. "Most American artists are domesticated to their [record] company. It's not to say that they're not known and not wanted in different parts of the world, but you have to prove yourself. They'll be digging your records because Americans dig it, but if you don't prove yourself, then they're on to the next one. If you don't prove yourself on stage, you haven't taken it out of the cartoon element, which is something you see but you can't touch."