If you want a primer on the power of Golden Age hip-hop, Chicago's Cool Kids are the current exhibit A.
The signifiers are everywhere you listen. There's the Detroit Pistons' "Bad Boys" starter cap, lovingly described in the opening bars of the single "Black Mags." There's a song simply titled "88," which pays similar homage to Guess jeans and vintage kicks, and scratches in a fat power chord Def Jam purists will recognize and love. There's the spare, slow, bass-and-boombap sound that recalls any number of classic '80s duos (EPMD is most often cited).
But what does it mean that the Cool Kids, aka Chuck Inglish and Mikey Rocks, were both babies when the trends they're repping were first established? By the time Inglish (Evan Ingersoll), a 23-year-old from the Detroit suburbs, and Rocks (Antoine Reed), a 19-year-old Illinois native, were old enough to start school, the Golden Age was already close to being a memory.
In 1991, hip-hop had taken over the world and had no idea what to do for an encore. The old guard was swept away, hip-hop's pendulum swung West, beefs became almost as important as beats, and qualities like intelligence and wit became danger signs that an act had lost touch with "the street."
Perhaps the rise of the Cool Kids is a sign that the creative erosion of the hip-hop mainstream that has been building since then — and which has hastened over the past several years — has reached the point of no return. There's no denying that amid a backdrop of unapologetic snowmen, regional one-hit wonders, and mush-mouthed misogynists, Chuck and Mikey's clever odes to a simpler, less thug-centric time sound refreshingly fresh.
And the Cool Kids' explosion into the public consciousness last year, after all, was a thoroughly modern phenomenon. Inglish and Rocks hooked up via MySpace a couple of years ago, and the band's page on that site — www.myspace.com/gocoolkids — spread the duo's music and retro leanings like wildfire.
After posting tunes like "Black Mags," a tribute to BMXing (which also features a nifty black-and-white, partly animated video) and "Gold and a Pager," the world learned that the Cool Kids were alright. Better than all right, actually: The group's hands-in-the-air sets made them the toast of the Pitchfork and Fader festivals, and they signed to hometown label Chocolate Industries, with an EP due this month and a full-length to follow.
Even if the Cool Kids don't translate their appeal to the uncool kids — you know, the ones who buy all the music and actually create commercially successful stars — it's hard not to admire their challenge to hip-hop orthodoxy. It's been some time since a hip-hop act went for the brass ring with as little concern for being considered authentically "cool" as the Cool Kids. But on the tongue-in-cheek "A Little Bit Cooler," Rocks maybe explains it best: "I'm a rebel/eating a bowl/Of them Fruity Pebble, Fruity Pebble, Fruity Pebbles/How gangsta is that?/Not gangsta at all."