What The Term “Classic” Even Means Anymore

The way we listen to music has changed. We live in a time where full artist catalogs exist within devices that we can hold in the palm of our hands. You can go from spinning a new Drake album to playing Marvin Gaye’s 1971 What’s Going On with a few letters typed in your phones search bar and a couple taps on its screen. Streaming services are the oceans of a music listener’s paradise. What could be better?

I grew up in family, like most, of characters. My dad was a one-time college radio host that would hand build speakers for friends and house parties. He later transitioned into a Director of Photography in Hollywood during his 20s and 30s that somehow culminated in him becoming an engineer for the entirety of the time that I knew him. He was well versed in the arts and the technicalities behind them. Still, my greatest takeaways from him were of life, love and loss and only after his passing in 2013 did I realize how much more I wished I had learned from him. Whether it was playing old Motown 45s or Beatles albums, his music palette was one that stretched far and wide as I reflect on it today. He was the music listener who told you what he loved if you asked him, but wouldn’t try to beat it over your head if you didn’t.

His love of music and the arts permeated my childhood, even if I didn’t realize he was the cause at the time, and turned me from a casual music fan to an obsessive. I needed to stay ahead of the curve on the latest music and my dad facilitated my needs, no matter how absurd the request. I remember watching those “Music Choice” channels on TV that did nothing but play music all day and telling him how I wish I could just record the audio from them so I could have the songs without having to drop an arm and a leg for the whole album. So what did he do? I got home from school one day and he had rigged a tape deck up to our TV and was recording the audio off the TV straight onto the cassette tape. Every day I had a new hour long playlist to listen to the next day on my Walkman during elementary school bus rides. I guess inadvertently this was me being introduced to mixtapes and nothing was better than 100% random music discovery in a time before Apps like “Shazam” were in existence. I can’t tell you how many songs I knew word for word with no worry or care about what the title was or who the artists were. If it sounded good, I was all ears.

When cassettes became a thing of the past, I subscribed to that old BMG music service. You know the one that would send you something ridiculous like 10 CDs for the price of one every month? That later turned into me asking my dad if he knew a way that I could watch music videos on our dial up computer and rip the audio from them to which he once again Macgyver’d a way to do so and said yes. He showed me how one of his sound editing programs could record whatever audio was playing on the screen and then be exported and burned to a disc. The next few years I walked around listening to music that had the occasional click of a mouse or sound of a pop-up that was captured during my recordings. It was a cumbersome process, and one not without its flaws, but it worked. Eventually these processes were replaced by more popular techniques like Limewire and popular blog sites and ultimately the streaming of today. With each evolution, music acquisition became easier and I needed my dad’s help less and less.

Now it’s streaming, streaming, streaming. Every once in a while I still hear an album that makes me miss those times where I got to hold the music in my hands and in turn makes me miss my dad. It’s a nostalgic feeling, and as time goes on and the sheer amount of music at our disposal rises, the occurrence of this seems to fall. I realized this as I actually went into a Best Buy and purchased a hard copy of an album for the first time in a long time last Friday. It was Kendrick Lamar’s new LP DAMN. and I had heard all of the hot takes online calling the album a “classic” mere hours after its release and it made me think; Was the album in my hands a classic? What even makes something classic? Is there some unwritten grace period before something can be called classic? Does it have to sell “x” amount? Does it have to have this or that impact? These questions and many more led me down a rabbit hole of thoughts that ended with the question “In 2017, what does the word classic even mean anymore?”

Before I answer that I want you to try and remember the first classic album you listened to. You probably heard it before you even crossed the double-digit age mark, but I’m sure at 8-years-old you didn’t listen to the music and go “Damn this sh*t is a classic” and then proclaim it to the world. You probably just listened and enjoyed. No strings attached. For me, my first classic came in 2000 courtesy of the now diamond album ‘Country Grammar’ by St. Louis rapper Nelly. At seven years old convincing my dad to buy me the explicit version behind my mom’s back instead of the clean so I could listen to Nelly say “Get high with me” instead of “get (smoke exhales) with me” was probably when I should have known it was a classic, but that moment didn’t come until years later. It hit me when I was driving down the highway and album cut ‘Luven Me’ came up on shuffle. As I recited it verbatim, it sparked a few weeks straight where I revisited the whole album and thought about childhood and remembered the good times and felt nostalgic and all that jazz that you go through when you’re an angsty teenager. It was the moment I realized how much ‘Country Grammar’ had been my segue into rap music and how somehow both that album and Nelly’s impact seem to be underappreciated. That classic led to countless others. I went from listening religiously to Get Rich or Die Tryin, The Black Album and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to retroactively visiting storied classics from Biggie, Outkast and Rakim and seeing what the hype was about. There was enough out there to feed my music obsession for a lifetime, and that was just rap.

Today, artists release projects at a record pace. Six month promo, million dollar videos and normal release cycles are not so normal anymore. On one hand this has added a whole new level of competition between the artists. Even if rappers are hesitant to beef and say names, the competitive nature of hip-hop remains, albeit a little more political now.  Artists are now crafting projects annually that are on par if not better than the ones they used to release every 2-3 years, because being the best means making better music, more efficiently. They also place a higher onus on the quality of their merchandise, the spectacle of their live show and the number of cities they bring it to. There’s no situation here where the fans don’t win. The only thing fans could take issue with is the price associated with some of the aforementioned offerings, but in a day and age where artists practically give their music away, supporting them in others ways is the least fans could do.

On the other hand, the current music climate has brought with it the most radical and irrational fanbases we have ever seen. You have fans, stans, groupies and this new subset of blind followers that agree with artists every move and have absolutely no objective opinion regarding their favorites music. To me, most of the premature “classic” claims surrounding album releases can be attributed to a combination of these fans, social media and forum platforms, and mainstream publications that are more concerned with being first than best. It has become a brainwashed groupthink on the internet of the blind leading the blind. I’ll admit that there have been fanbases that have prevented me from even wanting to check out an album or artist’s work simply out of principle. The more people continually tell me how great something is, the more I’m going to poke holes in it when I do finally get around to it.

Ultimately the problem lies with people’s desire for their favorite art to be better than it is and the denial that there is enough room for artists to coexist. It’s an issue when I see an album released three days ago with one of the highest average Metacritic scores OF ALL TIME from critics; no matter how good the album may sound during the initial hype phase. I’m not one of those people that creates rules about an album having to be out for “x” number of years before it can be up for classic contention. I do think however, that there’s a difference between an objective and subjective classic. There’s a subset that will argue that there is no such thing as an objective classic because all art is subjective and technically speaking it’s hard to argue against that point. At some point though, the vast majority has to mean something and if 99 out of every 100 people say Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is a classic, then you know, maybe they’re onto something. Speaking of that album, that’s the last time where I can remember publications, the internet and casual music listeners that I talk to in real life almost unanimously agreeing that an album is and will go down as a classic. That was just over four years ago, so who’s to say that a classic can’t be decided rather quickly.

So in 2017, what does “classic” even mean?

To my dad, it would probably mean something that was at least 30 years-old and was Motown or Rock. Everything else would be void by default. To someone in their 40s who grew up on hip-hop, they’d probably say that you can’t call anything classic in the same decade it was released unless it’s absolutely out of this world. For someone in their mid-twenties like me and many of the people I regularly debate music with, a classic is more nostalgic with many of the albums they list being associated with the uncertain and exciting times of their late teens and early 20s. Teenagers and pre-teens probably think most of the stuff those older folks call classic are trash, and their definition of classic holds a different meaning altogether. They probably don’t even use or hold debates around the word and just enjoy the music that makes them feel good or is conducive to a good time. Most likely, they don’t even think about labeling the music they listen to. No listener is above or below the other and at some point in your life you will be the teenager and the old head, probably looking down at opposites’ music taste.

Every once in a while, though, there are special albums that come along that connect with demographics across the board. They are few and far between, but yes, they still happen. Music has come a long way both in how we consume it and how it sounds, and no one will ever be able to predict what will still sound fresh and resonate with listeners 10, 20, or 50 years from now. We should replace the “classic” with “timeless”, because at this point classic is like winning a Grammy and timeless is the lifetime achievement award. We live in an age where the term “classic” has been devalued. An age where “good” albums are elevated to “classic” status on social media almost weekly and where there are so many opinions that no one even knows who to trust or if anyone can even be objectively right anymore. Truth is, everyone’s right and no one’s right. In 2017, classic means nothing. It’s the era where every album is classic and every album is trash.

By Scott Evans

  • Benjamin Shick

    Thank you for sharing. Very much enjoyed this article.
    -Long time reader

  • hiphopnmore

    thank you!