Sunday Morning: Don't Call It A Comeback

Rap's first wave of rhymers has returned to the mic and the studio -- and not a moment too soon.

If you believe what you hear, you'll join those trumpeting the recent "comeback" of such rap forefathers as Run-D.M.C., Digital Underground, Dr. Dre and Public Enemy. The list goes on.

But if you consider what really has happened here, you'll realize that this return of some of the original rhymers is not a comeback at all.

Rather, it's a rap revival -- and a long-overdue one at that.

In today's rapidly evolving hip-hop scene, it's ironic that some of the year's best rap-releases are coming from artists considered by many to be over and done with. Ever since hip-hop stormed into the record-buying public's consciousness in the early '80s, it's been a turbulent genre for those attempting to make a living as rap artists.

As a singles-driven genre, one-hit wonders almost exclusively have been the rule and artist development often has been given little thought, if any at all. As a consequence, hip-hop fans are constantly deluged with promises of "the next big thing" from "the new, hot hip-hop spot."

As the new jacks muscle their way into the spotlight, older artists are pushed out of center stage and, more often than not, have ended up working behind the scenes or leaving the music industry altogether, depriving fans of vital music yet to come.

Lately, though, we're beginning to see a growing number of artists from what has been labeled hip-hop's "golden era" (loosely defined as the period between Run-D.M.C.'s self-titled debut in 1984 and Dr. Dre's The Chronic in 1992) releasing albums that reflect their maturity and skills honed from years in the game.

And I'll be damned if the new albums aren't better than the stuff they were putting out when the spotlight turned to different artists.

It started late last year with Rakim's The 18th Letter, which saw the rapper returning to bless the mic for the first time since his falling-out with producer Eric B. in 1993. Though it didn't hurt to package Letter with a disc of Eric B. and Rakim's greatest hits, it still charted high and reintroduced the heralded rapper to a generation of hip-hop fans who were in grade school when he came out the first time around.

Since the beginning of this year, we've heard strong albums from such '80s stars as Gang Starr, former House of Pain frontman Everlast, MC Ren and reunited groups Public Enemy and Digital Underground. Next month, acclaimed rap-producer Pete Rock will release an all-star album, entitled Soul Survivor, horror-core pioneers the Geto Boys will release Da Good, Da Bad and Da Ugly, gangsta-rap trailblazer Ice Cube will release the first disc in his War and Peace set and old-school rapper Slick Rick will drop a new album as well.

And it's not going to end there. In 1999, you can expect to see new albums from KRS-One, 3rd Bass and De La Soul, as well as another set from Rakim.

And, if you ask some of the "golden-age" artists, they'll tell you their return is not simply self-serving. According to Pete Rock, he and his fellow warriors are on nothing less than a mission to save hip-hop from itself.

"It's up to people like me and other underground artists to bring hip-hop back to where it's supposed to be right now," Rock (born Pete Phillips) said earlier this year. "We need to teach the children that [hip-hop] is not about violence, and it's not about [sampling the same tired] R&B tracks. It's about reality."

In interviewing and reading about many of these artists this year, I hear many echoing Rock's comments. Some look at charts dominated by gangsta rappers such as Master P and pop successes such as Puff Daddy and feel they've let fans down by staying out of the game for so long. A few are inspired by the huge fanbase hip-hop has acquired since they were hit-makers and want to see if they can reach out and touch someone, so to speak.

Still others are just mad that they haven't gotten their props from younger rappers and are out to show them up.

Whatever the reasons these alleged rap-dinosaurs have decided to rise from the soil, they all share one thing in common: They've put out kick-ass albums that deserve attention.

On Public Enemy's He Got Game soundtrack, the group pioneers a new trip-hop and rock-influenced sound on such songs as "House of the Rising Son" (RealAudio excerpt) while displaying a commitment to its political-rap roots.

Brand Nubian's aptly titled Foundation shows through its tight production and on-point lyrics that the reunited rap-quartet still has a lot on its mind and is right to step on the soapbox and say it out loud, especially on a song such as "Don't Let It Go to Your Head" (RealAudio excerpt), which encourages aspiring rap-stars to keep it real by keeping their expectations realistic.

Digital Underground's Who's Got the Gravy, meanwhile, is every bit as infectious as their 1990 debut, Sex Packets.

But should we call these wonderful albums "comebacks?" As rap-vet LL Cool J first pointed out in his classic "Mama Said Knock You Out," no, we shouldn't.

Rock artists sometimes go years between albums, and the fans and media usually don't start heralding new releases as voices from beyond the grave. They just welcome back an old friend and say that they're happy to see them again.

The rarefied top of the charts is a place lucky artists hit once in their careers, a few more times if they're really gifted and/or have some marketing muscle behind their music. When albums by old hip-hop stars don't climb those heights, it's important to remember that wonderful new music from rock legends such as Patti Smith and Bob Dylan doesn't always chart well either.

A devoted fanbase, though, snatches these albums up quickly and cherishes them for a long time.

Rap is still a young genre in the world of pop music, just barely 20 years old. It's rare that a rock artist can maintain the same level of popularity over a decade or more. Why should we expect more from those who lead a life of rhyme?

The important thing is just to get into the groove and give thanks that the artist still considers his or her work vital enough to release.