The Big Chill

A couple weeks back, Ice-T, whom you may know from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and who is also, it turns out, a famous rapper, fired a shot across the bow of the unlikeliest of enemies: gimmicky teen dance-rapper Soulja Boy.

Averring that Soulja Boy had “single-handedly killed hip-hop.” Ice T continued, “We came all the way from Rakim…we came all the way from motherfuckers flowing like Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube, and you come with that Superman shit? That shit is garbage.”

T later refined his message, a sort of backpedal, praising some new-schoolers who “really write something,” like Ludacris, T.I., and Lil Wayne, while continuing to call Soulja Boy wack.

It was weird.

More embarrassing than Soulja Boy’s subsequent YouTube responses was the fact that Ice T had bothered to say any of this in the first place. Yet his sentiments are indicative of a special breed of generational paranoia with regard to hip hop, an adoration of hip hop’s glory days.

The Wackness, a new movie that hits theaters this weekend, exemplifies this trend. It’s all about those glory days.

“NYC. Summer 1994. The girls were fly. The music was dope. And Luke was just trying to deal.” It’s a Bildungsroman set to the hip hop of the mid-1990’s, and the music and the movie are there to glorify each other.

The music is an essential element for Luke in his journey of self-discovery: white, nerdy, privileged, and desperate for love. His headphones are there when his parents fight, when he’s friendless at a graduation party, when he gets laid, when he muses on the meaning of life.

If you ask a fan about the golden age of hip hop, he or she will likely point to some time between 1986 and 1996. To many, the rap of the early 1980’s is admirable but infantile; since 1996 it’s all downhill. But one can remember!

Opinion on the absolute pinnacle differ (there’s a party currently going strong downtown called simply “1992”), but for many 1994 is the year: West Coast gangster rap had solidifed, Biggie, the Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, and Nas all dropped classic albums that reinvigorated the East’s dominance. It’s like saying rock music ended with the Beatles, or jazz died with John Coltrane, but plenty of folks will argue those points too. It’s called nostalgia, made into a high art form by boomers and now ready for their kids to pick up.

Early stars like Run DMC and LLCoolJ took rap from a largely urban and black fan base to MTV, the radio, the suburbs, and white people. A swing to black nationalist, socially conscious, socio-politically engaged rap signaled the close of the eighties, yet while this strand of the music considered itself necessary and authentic, authenticity didn’t sell albums.

Hence the rise of the energized, violent, sexy West Coast scene. With the rise of the West Coast, white suburbanites embraced the weed, the womanizing, the cartoon version of the urban nightmare, without feeling awkward about all those Nation of Islam rhymes and African medallions. Then, in that summer of ’94, East Coast performers responded to the West’s abrupt mainstream ascension, questioning integrity and setting up the blockbuster dichotomy symbolized by Biggie and Tupac.

Nas, whose debut “Illmatic” still stands as the hallmark of 1994 (though in The Wackness, it’s Biggie who defines the movement), has always been a big booster of the golden age notion, balancing his continued output (he’s got a new album out in two weeks) with a sense that he represents hip hop before it became a global money-machine, before club rap and stripper rap ad crack rap supplanted something allegedly purer. Even “Illmatic,” had an element of nostalgia, which is what hip hop considers tradition. His last album, “Hip Hop Is Dead,” had a track called “Where Are They Now,” name-checking dozens of largely forgotten hip hop stars. Several remixes followed, offering the rappers he cited spitting verses. The first included Redhead Kingpin, Rob Base, Monie Love, Positive K, Das EFX, and many more. The “West Coast” remix included, among others, Ice T.

The Big Chill