Life as a Shorty: Hip Hop’s History of Connecting with Kids

From the “vulgar” notes of Dixieland jazz to the salacious swivel of Elvis Presley’s hips to the unwholesome oddness of Marilyn Manson, nearly every new musical movement of the modern era has been plagued by the refrain of “Won’t somebody think of the children?” In recent years, moral crusaders have frequently focused their censor’s tape on hip-hop, due to the genre’s tendency toward adult topics like sex, drugs and violence. That’s a shame, as hip-hop has made regular, concerted efforts to make itself as child-friendly as possible. Take a look at some of rap’s greatest adolescent ambassadors and then see if you still believe the hype.

Sardonic Old-School Rappers

Long before YouTube mash-ups turned every cherished childhood icon into something ironically edgy, rappers were mining the memory banks for gritty material. This list pretty much has to start with Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” in which Rick the Ruler regales his nieces with a bedtime story about a youthful stick-up kid’s misadventures with guns, cops and colorful caricatures like Dave the Dope Fiend. Nothing like sending the kids off to sleep with visions of pregnant hostages dancing in their heads.

Ice Cube at least keeps his kids’ narrative grounded in childlike terrain on “Gangsta’s Fairytale,” even if the Brothers Grimm would likely find their characters unrecognizable. In Cube’s version, the Three Little Pigs are drive-by shooters, Cinderella turns tricks in the street and Little Red Riding Hood and Little Boy Blue are warring Bloods and Crips. Oddly enough, the song spawned a mini-subgenre of thugged-out kids’ stories. Coolio’s “Ghetto Cartoon” finds a slew of Saturday morning staples caught up in a drug feud (“Now the war is on and Mickey Mouse is dead / Quick Draw McGraw took two to the head”), while Funkdoobiest’s “Superhoes” pulls superheroes, “Charlie’s Angels” and The Wizard of Oz into the mix.

Sincere Old-School Rappers

Of course, certain MCs have always adhered to the old adage about great power and great responsibility. The hip-hop archives of the ‘80s and ‘90s are rife with cautionary tales warning kids about guns, drugs and gangs. While that’s all certainly admirable, it’s not quite as interesting as the rappers who championed some less obvious causes.

Digital Underground’s “No Nose Job” is sensible enough, as silver-nosed front man Humpty warns little girls against media-inspired cosmetic surgery (“She’s only six, says, ‘Mama, I don’t like my nose!’ / Why’d you have to go and mess up the child’s head / Just so you can get another gold waterbed?”). Arrested Development’s “Children Play with Earth,” on the other hand, demonstrates a questionable understanding of both youthful psyches and then-contemporary gaming technology, encouraging kids to trade in their “Nintendo joysticks” [sic] in favor of literally playing with dirt. The era’s most arcane elucidation comes from Intelligent Hoodlum, whose “Posse” addresses perhaps the direst social problem facing urban youth in the early ‘90s: the under-representation of black cowboys in Hollywood Western movies.

Educators and Advertisers

Sometime in the early ‘90s, the American mainstream abandoned its longstanding policy of hoping hip-hop would just go away and adopted a motto of “If you can’t ignore it, exploit it!” Suddenly everyone with a product or a message was busting flows, fueled by the wrong-headed assumption that rapping was little more than talking fast over a steady beat.

On the positive tip, scores of public service announcements followed the old “Schoolhouse Rock” model, employing shaky rhymes and suspect beatboxing to disseminate their messages. More ambitious producers went to the trouble of booking actual rappers like The Fat Boys, whose burger-based math rap on PBS’ edutainment program “Square One Television” is the stuff of legend. On the more cynical side, kiddie show advertisers also followed the zeitgeist, perhaps most famously in a series of Fruity Pebbles spots that cast Barney Rubble as a Stone Age MC.

By the mid-‘90s, hip-hop was so ingrained that lazy classroom teachers began using it as a cheap catchall shortcut to engage with the kids “in their own language.” (We’ve even heard of one freelance music writer whose eighth grade English teacher forced him to write and perform a rap about mandatory retirement guidelines for commercial airline pilots.) That strategy carries through to today – witness the strange but successful “Smart Shorties” series of math teaching videos.

Kids Themselves

Once hip-hop started gaining mainstream currency, it was only a matter of time before some impresario started looking for the next Jackson Five or Little Stevie Wonder. Old school child rappers tended to fall into the “Kids Say the Darnedest Things” trap; witness Chi-Ali’s booty-hunting, forty-chugging cameos on early De La Soul and Black Sheep tracks. It didn’t take long for R&B star Jermaine Dupri – himself only 17 – to figure out how to make money off kids in rap. He plucked a pair of pre-teens from an Atlanta mall and birthed the backwards-dressing early ‘90s rap sensation that was Kriss Kross, the act that finally pulled the Tiger Beat crowd into the hip-hop era.

That success led to a predictable backlash, with various kid rap acts positioning themselves as the anti-Kriss Kross. Philadelphia’s Da Youngstas touted their self-penned lyrics and occasional self-produced tracks as evidence of their legitimacy, while L.A.’s Illegal milked their Snoop Dogg affiliation to declare themselves the hardest kids on the block. By the time Wu-Tang subsidiary Shyhiem dropped his first album in 1994, underage rappers had more or less shed the novelty label. That trend continued into the 2000s with the massive mainstream success of Lil Bow Wow (and, to a lesser extent, Master P’s inevitable nepotistic knock-off Lil Romeo), though lately it appears to be coming full circle. Try a YouTube search for “kid rapper” and be astonished at the array of allegedly cute, pre-pubescent performers being paraded in front of their parents’ cameras.

Mr. Courageous, ODB

In perhaps the most transcendent chapter of his reliably bizarre, ultimately tragic existence, Ol’ Dirty Bastard confirmed his commitment to the youth of America in front of a millions-strong audience of Grammy Awards viewers. Snatching the stage from “Song of the Year” winner Shawn Colvin, the Wu-Tang Clan wild man aired some brief complaints about losing the award and stretching his wardrobe budget before reassuring the crowd that all was well because “Wu-Tang is for the children.”

ODB practiced what he preached when it came to kids, becoming an urban folk hero after he rescued a four-year-old girl from a burning car in 1998. As further evidence of his dedication, he also personally contributed at least thirteen children to the American landscape. We are no doubt richer for it.

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