Writing's on the wall 

As hip-hop ages, a burgeoning generational battle pits its old guard against the culture's tradition as an anarchic youth movement.

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Lest you think that a large percentage of the billion or so hip-hop fans in the world are adherents to the Temple of Hiphop, the truth is they're not. There's a whole lot of folks who make, hear and live hip-hop who just ain't buying the kind of codified, highly important brand of hip-hop that KRS-One -- or Russell Simmons, or academia, for that matter -- is offering. There are, of course, lots of fans who see hip-hop as merely a form of entertainment, a genre of music. And quite a few promoter, manager and record exec types who treat it as just a business. And plenty of artists who view it as their ticket out of poverty, a quick ride to the good life, and maybe even an outlet for creativity.

For one, there's rapper Nelly, whose 2000 sing-songy megahit "Country Grammar" launched him into the multiplatinum stratosphere and put St. Louis on the hip-hop map. Like many young hip-hoppers, particularly provincial ones, Nelly never grew up with the subculture's so-called nine elements that emanated out of the South Bronx in the late '70s -- hip-hop came to him as a fully formed and packaged pop culture. His contribution to last fall's Training Day soundtrack album, "#1," contained this bit of self-justification: "I'm tired of people judging what's real hip-hop/Half the time you be them niggas whose fuckin' album flop."

While there was no direct mention of KRS-One in Nelly's rap, and Nelly's people have denied it was intended for anyone in particular, some started to read between the lines. KRS-One, after all, is the guy most associated with attempting to codify what is and isn't hip-hop, and his records no longer sell anywhere near what they once did.

At any rate, KRS-One never has been one to shrink from an old and revered hip-hop tradition: the verbal battle. This spring, "Clear Em Out," a KRS-One track from the forthcoming compilation, The Difference, began leaking out on the streets. "You tired of me saying what's real hip-hop," he raps at one point. "Well, I'm tired of you bitin' my shit to go pop." And elsewhere: "Sales don't make you the authority/It only means you sold out to the white majority" and "Grow up already, your album appeals to little second-graders."

While KRS claims the song was recorded before "#1" came out, and is not directed at Nelly, listeners were quick to hear "Clear Em Out" as a response to Nelly's implicit dis. Certainly Nelly took it that way, because he shows up on a recent remix of "Roc the Mic," a track by Beanie Sigel and Freeway, with a dis about as explicit as they come: "K, no one heard, even said your name/R, you really feeling guilty about something, man/S, sad to see you really just want just one more hit please, please/You the first old man should get a rapper's pension."

This, of course, spelled full-scale war. In May, KRS-One unveiled a new track, "The Real Hiphop Is Over Here," set for official release on a forthcoming album. First come the insults: "Yo Nelly, you ain't for real, and you ain't universal/Your whole style sounds like an 'N Sync commercial." Then KRS takes it a step higher, issuing the equivalent of a fatwah against the errant apprentice and his album, Nellyville, set for release later this month. "I think it's about time we stop these pop rappers/Hip-hop does matter to me, does it matter to you, my crew?/If it does, you know what the hell to do ... Let these punk-ass rappers know we in here/Go to the show, boo 'em off stage/Tell 'em KRS told you they at the end of their days/Let me tell you, let's give hip-hop a lift, and don't buy Nelly's album on June 25."

KRS also took his boycott campaign -- which even he isn't idealistic enough to believe will actually catch on -- to the airwaves, appearing on hip-hop radio station Power 106 in Los Angeles, where he's been living in recent months.

"These young cats don't know, we lost cultural continuity; we don't have history no more," he said. "But there's mad skills that come when you pay your dues. If you want to come up and not be a one-hit wonder, you got to know your history."

You won't find too many folks out there who'd argue against the value of history. But what's certainly underappreciated is the brilliance of utter ignorance. After all, would Nelly be attractive to the 12-year-olds who make him today's hot pop crossover if he was respectful enough to know he shouldn't dis someone widely acknowledged as a pioneer in his own field?

As important as history clearly is, it also can be oppressive -- particularly to the youth who drive youth culture. Once a subculture has been so codified with rules and tradition, draining it of the rebellious impulse and dynamism that first sparked it, partaking in it can start to feel a lot like school -- and that's when it's time to form a new subculture. No wonder jazz is in a constant struggle against completely flatlining -- it gets so freakishly lauded and paraded around PBS as America's classical music, people feel like they need a master's degree to listen to it. And when did rock music lose its cultural currency? Probably around the time the notion of "classic rock" created a canon that rendered everything after it simply commentary. Then the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came along and sealed it safely behind glass.

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