“Relevant” is the most overused word in discussions about hip-hop today. It’s often misunderstood as a synonym for “good,” “impressive,” and other words that describe quality music. Fans speak of relevance to judge rappers based on their contribution or assimilation to the trends of the day. This tendency within the culture has helped to build a tough task for rappers, which is making music years after your career start that’s received well by fans. Many vets and legends in hip-hop maintain long careers. Yet these artists do so with varying degrees of visibility to the average fan.
The root cause of this variation is the way people understand relevance. One example is the relationship between major record labels and long-time rappers. As labels adjust to the ways that streaming and illegal downloads limit their revenue, their executives are primarily interested in artists that will almost guarantee a return on the money invested into the artist’s music and brand. For this reason, labels tend to sign and support artists that fall in line with what’s trending in mainstream America and are easily marketable due to things like looks and persona. In this process, long-time MCs often become collateral damage. Redman indicated such in his latest interview on the Combat Jack Show as he detailed how he and other rappers that have been prominent for at least a decade recently received much less support from Def Jam Records than the latest additions to the label. Here, the imprint that’s the historical foundation of great hip-hop indirectly told some of its top contributors that they were no longer a priority.
Due to situations like this, a lot of legends and vets become independent artists as they continue their work. This shift affords them the creative control to progress as they see fit and appeal to the fans that appreciate who they are already rather than younger fans that they have to win over. Others that remain on major labels are directly or indirectly prompted to add sounds and collaborators to their music that are popular with young fans, but might not mesh well with what the vets have to offer as artists. From here, the rappers walk the thin line that separates artistic growth and forced attempts at today’s trends.