Among mainstream and obscure music critics who review rap music, there’s been a concerted effort of late to champion the same positions: that hip hop is not dead and that the ubiquitous influence of hip hop’s “golden era” is hindering the advancement of the music by marginalizing its young talent and new directions (The Ashcan’s Jef Catapang penned a nice overview of this tired meme).
Pop music critic Jonah Weiner offers this inexcusably shallow caricature of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ assessment that the quality of rap has waned since the 90s: “[According to Coates,] Biggie died, sampling waned, lyrics got dumber, charisma trumped talent, the clock struck Y2K, the pumpkin turned into an Escalade.” Essentially, Weiner and other mainstream rap writers are accusing former fans like Coates of taking an approach to hip hop that mirrors Wynton Marsalis’ approach to jazz, as evidenced by the writers’ delightful pejoratives for former fans: “purists,” “nostalgists,” “revivalists,”
There seems to be a growing consensus among mainstream rap critics that older fans’ aversion to current rap springs strictly from these aging fans’ nostalgia, fear of change, cultural detachment, and overall out of touch-ness. That this simplistic, uncritical rendering of aging rap fans passes for insight is problematic; that it has become the default narrative among mainstream rap critics is ridiculous. How did things get to this point?
A little background is in order. Since around the late 90s, there’s been a fierce battle waged at the margins of rap fandom. This battle has pitted two small but annoying factions against one another. Members of the first faction—let’s call them NYstalgists— actually embody the aforementioned bitter old rap grouch stereotype: they typically (though not always) hail from NY or the East Coast, they elevate a thin, but influential slice of 90s New York rap above all else, and they mock anything deviating from that style. For years, NYstalgists have written off the entirety of Southern rap, save for a few tokens. The current waves of Southern and Southern-influenced rappers are, according to NYstalgists, untalented, unskilled, stupid, lyrically bankrupt, and sonically lazy. More recently, NYstalgists have extended their hatred to hipster-baiting beta male emo rap and its fans.
The second faction—let’s call them revanchists—is comprised of fans whose sole aim is to exact revenge on the smug NYstalgists who kicked dirt in the faces of those who happened to enjoy hip hop outside the 5 boroughs. Once New York artists’ record sales, influence, and critical favor waned—basically, once New York faded as the cultural epicenter of the popular rap—revanchists saw their opportunity to gloat. Over time, the revanchists’ numbers have been padded with younger and neophyte rap fans who weren’t really there to witness the NYstalgists’ ascendancy, but who resent the NYstalgist’s preferred music nonetheless.
Because they were subject to the NYstalgists’ unfair bullying, revanchists elicit a great deal of sympathy; however, they are just as small-minded and contemptible as NYstalgists. Instead of relishing the fact that NYstalgia is a flailing fringe phenomenon, revanchists cite a few marketing gimmicks by NY artists associated with the golden era to wildly exaggerate NYstalgists' influence. To revanchists, all golden age rap fans who bemoan the quality of today’s rap are bitter NYstalgists.
You may remember the NYstalgist-revanchist feud’s infamous older cousin: the East Coast- West Coast beef, the narrow, stupid, and destructive conflict whose coverage marked the nadir of rap journalism (up to that point, at least). The effects of this moronic feud still linger over rap discourse, which is why it’s so disappointing that rap writers are actually adopting the language and assumptions of the revanchists. One would expect such sloppy anachronism from the clueless hipsters at Pitchfork, but revanchist rhetoric seems to have ensnared even knowledgeable rap heads like Andrew Nosnitsky and Jeff Chang. Nosnitsky and Chang are clearly a cut above most rap writers, yet they still reproduce the flat portrait revanchists paint of disenchanted older rap fans.
I have some thoughts on why revanchists' uncritical reading of golden era fans’ might be appealing to even the better rap writers. Mainstream music critics generally come from a liberal arts background, which inclines them toward progressivism (in both a functional and a political sense). Modern critics’ livelihood and identities depend on their chosen music being dynamically relevant and creative right now, not 20 years ago. Their orientation toward progress in music tends to foster a suspicion of the canonical, the (traditionally) insular, and the authoritative. This orientation may thus lead to a heightened sensitivity to fans of older music criticizing newer music.
Moreover, rap critics’ socio-political progressivism leads them to sympathize with the underdog. Despite its global reach and the demographic diversity of its artists and fans, hip hop is still strongly identified with the downtrodden, especially poor, urban black youth. Progressive rap critics often see themselves as defending “authentic” black youth expression against the criticism of elitist, out-of touch blacks and racist whites—think Nosnitsky’s point about how poor urban areas around the country need hip hop more than New York does (because, apparently, there is no more poverty in New York).
These critics' misrepresentation of disenchanted golden era fans amounts to a dereliction of their job, which is to offer a nuanced analysis of the music, its legacy, and its fans. But if mainstream critics’ depiction of aging golden era fans is so off the mark, why is no one really challenging them on this?
First, consider the audience for today’s mainstream rap writing. This audience is largely comprised of outsiders who don’t know much about rap beyond the big names and events that occasionally draw their interest from their normal schedule of verbose, pretentious snooze rock and “exotic” world music. Though the critics in question write for such white liberal bastions as Slate, NPR, and Pitchfork, one senses in these critics a certain self-consciousness about the whiteness and non-hiphopness of their audiences (why else would some of them write for the root?).
Most of the people who read these critics don’t know that the golden era encompassed a broad range of styles outside of 90s NY golden era boom bap; they don’t know that artists from places such as LA, Oakland, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago actually made popular, critically acclaimed music during the golden era. However, these critics’ readers do know about the negative effects of Marsalis-style musical purism. They do know how grating parents can be when bragging about the superiority and authenticity of “classic” rock. In the absence of information, people gravitate toward existing narratives, even when these narratives are not relevant.
Furthermore, those most likely to challenge mainstream rap critics’ revanchist-influenced caricature of golden era fans—the disenchanted fans themselves—aren’t really represented in mainstream rap writing. There isn’t some grand plot to silence golden era fans’ opinions; these fans have virtually opted out of participating in the mainstream rap discourse. Why would anyone want to write about music that s/he doesn't really like anymore? Moreover, why would anyone hire such a person to critique music? Due to the absence of these golden era fans’ perspectives as well as to the ignorance of mainstream rap critics’ readers, today’s rap criticism has become a series of echo chambers.
Behind the seemingly minor issue of mainstream rap critics' denunciation of golden era fans’ tastes and hang-ups lies a broader, more significant concern: the deterioration of hip hop’s once robust (and ruthless) internal norms of criticism and tastemaking. As I will argue in Part 2, the dilution of these norms is most responsible for the decline in the overall quality of rap music since the golden era.
 I know that I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but I’ll state it anyway: distinctions between “rap” and “hip hop” are arbitrary, anachronistic, and just plain dumb.
 For my purposes, the golden era refers to roughly the early to mid’80s through the mid ‘90s.
 I am treating Ta-Nehisi Coates as representative of the generation of reflective older rap fans who no longer have an attachment to the music made by younger artists. I chose him not only because he has written eloquently about his gradual withdrawal from hip hop, but also because he defies the stereotype of the golden era fan as a narrow-minded, South-hating old coot. However, I want to make one thing clear: in no way am I suggesting that Coates shares my views; in fact, based on our previous exchanges, I’m pretty sure he will disagree with the bulk of the arguments I make here and in Part 2.
 According to mainstream critical norms, Marsalis is one of music’s biggest symbolic villains. Marsalis is charged with defining jazz so narrowly (predominantly black, spanning only hot jazz through bop), that he’s helped to trap the music behind metaphorical museum glass. His extremist jazz purism is a far greater sin than his “elitist” and “racist” (or at least, “racialized”) hatred of hip hop.
 Revanchists have a near-pathological fixation on artists such as Jay Z, Nas, The Roots, Common, Mos Def, KRS, DJ Premier, as these artists are often symbols of what NYstalgists foolishly define as “real hip hop.” Revanchists see it as their mission to bash these NYstalgist heroes’ current music, which, admittedly, pales in comparison to their best golden era work.
Part 2 here.