In 1977, Grandmaster Flash was 19 years old. He was the head of Grandmaster Flash & the 3 MCs which included Keef Cowboy, Melle Mel, and The Kidd Creole who were all younger than him. They were some of hip-hop’s early elite level emcees (the term coming from “Master of Ceremony” coined by Melle Mel) who established that the genre and culture emanates from the voices of the youth. Nearly four and a half decades later, being a successful teenage rapper comes with its own share of stresses that separates it from any other time in the genre’s history.
Being a teenage rapper has, perhaps, never been harder. Even though hip-hop’s fathers were almost universally teenagers, the term “Teenage rap” became associated with the friendly image of young rap artists like Bow Wow and Lil Romeo, who became heartthrobs in the early 2000s. Bow Wow’s debut album, Beware of Dog, dropped when he was 14 years old and went triple platinum. Lil Romeo’s self-titled 2001 debut went gold in just three weeks. Both artists worked a style that many still subconsciously hold teen rappers to: juvenile, world-building raps that bank on being adorable.
But in today’s reality, these ideals don’t hold up. It’s a very different game where artists, no matter the age, deal in explicit rhymes reflective of their experiences and the pressures of modern life. 17-year-old Memphis, TN rapper NLE Choppa’s breakout hit “Shotta Flow” finds him comparing extended magazine clips to the length of ropes, warning people not to point fingers at him, and more. In addition to constantly maintaining a presence online to remain relevant, teen artists today face constant scrutiny of what they say and how they act, both online and in real life.
“We've gone through anywhere between five to seven different micro generations before we've gotten to now,” hip-hop journalist Dart Adams says over the phone. “Technology is different. The way people receive information is different. The way the art is disseminated to people is different.”