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During a show at the Knitting Factory in TriBeCa this summer, the Cool Kids took the stage dressed like extras in “Do the Right Thing.” Mikey Rocks, 20, and the duo’s main rapper, wore a baggy bright red tank top with silver lettering, and Chuck Inglish, 23, sported a striped Polo shirt; both wore fitted baseball caps with brims flying high. Midshow, the two slid into the signature song “88,” a carefully constructed burst of reminiscence with spare, crisp drums backing a fusillade of era-appropriate references: Cuban-link gold chains, Cazal eyeglass frames, stone-washed Guess jeans. In the crowd, some fans waved gold ropes and vintage sneakers, and a young woman in a floral-print dress did the high-stepping Kid’n Play dance from the 1990 film “House Party.”
Released in May, the Cool Kids’ debut EP, “The Bake Sale” (C.A.K.E./Chocolate Industries), is a vivid and unusually potent revisiting of what is commonly referred to as hip-hop’s golden age (spanning the late 1980s and early ’90s), both in its spare, drum-heavy production values and in its neatly structured rhyme patterns. Never mind that the two performers aren’t old enough to have experienced the scene firsthand.
“That’s what we sound like; I can’t help it,” said Chuck Inglish, who produces the Cool Kids’ music with a meticulous ear. “But I’m into emulation, not imitation.”
Increasingly, the Cool Kids are not alone. They are part of a small but newly influential hip-hop subculture — call it meta-rap — created by a generation of artists raised wholly within hip-hop culture, making music that is a commentary on what came before it. In hip-hop, which can be ruthlessly forward-looking, this is a novel development, and it has made for compelling and diverse music from acts like the Cool Kids, Pacific Division, the Knux, Kidz in the Hall and Plastic Little.
Not all these artists are as committed to a specific sound as the Cool Kids are, but they express their nostalgia in other ways: in lyrical references and rhyme patterns, in the selection of drum sounds, in their choice of clothes. While much current mainstream rap tends toward street-life fantasias and thug-love odes, these meta-rap artists are far less ostentatious, preoccupied with authenticity and topically narrow. As a result most of their music exists at the margins, little acknowledged by radio or television but extremely popular on the Internet.
Musically, this may be the most promising underground hip-hop movement in a decade, feted by old-school loyalists and genre outsiders entranced by its obsessive commitment to style. But even as the movement creeps toward broader recognition, it has already generated its share of backlash. These artists are often dismissed as “hipster rap,” as if they’re wearing their old-school references as nothing more than fashion. The result is a hip-hop generation gap.
“It’s the instant gratification aspect,” said Eskay, proprietor of the hip-hop blog NahRight.com, which has prominently featured many of these artists. “You can be an expert in anything in about a week now. The backlash is, these kids are young; why are they trying to recreate something they didn’t experience?”
Rap has had its countercultures before, of course. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, New York’s Native Tongues crew, which included De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, presented a bohemian alternative to the growing gangster rap scene. In the ’90s, Los Angeles and the Bay Area were home to independent scenes interested in rewriting the rules of lyricism.
But while intragenre nostalgia figures regularly in other styles of pop — rock has a long history of sifting through its past for new inspiration — it has never had a place in hip-hop. It’s not that rap never looks backward. Thanks to its innovations in sampling, it has helped keep various other styles prominent in the collective pop memory. But borrowing from other rappers has traditionally been considered taboo. And largely it still is, so many of these artists use elements of the past as building blocks, which they then reconfigure to their own ends. Though the music shares many characteristics with hip-hop from decades past, “in the climate of the industry right now, it’s considered experimental,” said Be Young, 22, of Southern California’s Pacific Division.
“People are students of the game,” said Double O of the Chicago duo Kidz in the Hall. “The late ’80s and early ’90s was hip-hop’s Harlem Renaissance. You can find traces of that in all of these new artists.”
With two full-length albums to their credit, Kidz in the Hall, who met while students at the University of Pennsylvania, qualify as veterans of the new movement. On their latest album, “The In Crowd” (Duck Down), they even enlist golden-age artists like Camp Lo, Buckshot and Masta Ace for cameos. “I’m an academic at heart,” Double O said. “Even when it comes to music, I’m going to take pieces out and reinject them on an academically creative level.”
The New Orleans-via-Los Angeles duo the Knux also takes its bona fides seriously. “I am very schooled on what happened in the ’80s,” said Krispy Kream, 25, half of the duo. “Some of these cats wasn’t even born till the ’90s.”
How they translate those influences is unique, though. The duo’s debut, “Remind Me in 3 Days,” to be released in October on Interscope, is self-produced — the Knux has performed often at songwriters’ nights at Largo, the Los Angeles club spearheaded by the producer Jon Brion, who has worked with Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann — and recalls in places early OutKast, the Clash and the Police. The texture, though, is unmistakably from the golden age, with fast-rap cadences and raw, almost haphazard-sounding drums.
“We recorded songs in the worst way possible,” Krispy Kream said, “so you get a certain feel from it, like an old hip-hop record from 1990 or whenever.”
His brother and band mate, Rah Almillio, 23, considers it “a punk approach, hip-hop as it used to be — not perfected, not overpolished.”
In a sense these meta-rappers have become keepers of the flame for the genre’s old guard: neo-traditionalists in eccentrics’ clothing. “There’s always nostalgia; it’s a byproduct of capitalism,” said Jayson Musson, 30, the frontman for the Philadelphia rap satirists Plastic Little. “Especially for the kids who weren’t really there, that era becomes hypercool, like the ’50s and the Beats.”
Mr. Musson described his music as “rap, but almost an investigation of rap, very aware of the genre and its structural elements.” Plastic Little has released two albums, the self-released “Thug Paradise” and “She’s Mature” (Tonearm), both packed with hip-hop in-jokes. This inquisitiveness also comes out in Mr. Musson’s writing and art. For a time last year, he was a columnist for Philadelphia Weekly, and in 2002 he put out “Too Black for BET,” a collection of posters that poked vicious fun at hip-hop orthodoxies (the most memorable of which speculated on the sexuality of Jay-Z).
“The music is like the writing,” Mr. Musson said. “It’s got to be funny or deconstructive.”
In recent years there has been no shortage of deconstructionists in rap’s mainstream, the most noteworthy being Kanye West, André 3000 of OutKast and Lupe Fiasco. And this is a particularly fertile moment for alternative hip-hop styles: the electro-influenced club-rap of Spank Rock and Kid Sister, the liberal-minded college raps of Asher Roth, the surf-rock hip-hop of Shwayze, Wale’s hybrid of go-go and rap, and the stream-of-consciousness fantasies of Charles Hamilton.
These so-called hipster rappers have been successful at carving out their own niches, finding audiences in unexpected places. The Knux had a song featured on an episode of the HBO series “Entourage” last season. Plastic Little recently toured Europe with Mark Ronson. And the Cool Kids have been prominently featured in a national television ad for Rhapsody, Microsoft’s online music service.
There may well be a ceiling for this movement, though. “The music is just not mass appeal,” said Cipha Sounds, a mixshow D.J. on New York’s Hot 97 (WQHT-FM) and a host on MTV. “I enjoy some of it very much, but it’s nothing I can really play on the radio or in the club.”
And sales of these artists have been modest, though none have yet released an album with a major-label push like the Knux will receive, according to Steve Berman, president of sales and marketing at Interscope Geffen A&M. But he warned that “their success may not be measured in the old-school commercial ways we used in the past.”
Apart from Kidz in the Hall and Plastic Little, none of these groups have even released proper full-length albums; blog hype has gotten ahead of them, forcing them to hone, and perhaps calcify, a sound very early in their careers. “Everyone’s looking at them before they’re ready,” said Kidz in the Hall’s Double O of his peers. “They’re going to have to put out a product before their time.”
Or, perhaps, to suffer the indignity of having their style copied before they get a chance to truly capitalize on it. “We’ve got a lot of friends at record labels that got inside scoop on what’s happening,” said the Cool Kids’ Mikey Rocks. “It’s been said they’re trying to create their own Cool Kids. There’s going to be clones and Cool Kids Juniors all over the place.”
If the Cool Kids have their way, though, they will have evolved by then. In between tour dates, the group has been working on its debut album, tentatively titled “When Fish Ride Bicycles.” And there is always more history to mine.
“After this LP,” Chuck Inglish said, “I’m thinking about recording everything to tape like it’s 1991 and seeing how that sounds.”