Five decades after DJ Kool Herc’s genre-birthing Bronx party, hip-hop has aged into a new form of tragedy: legendary practitioners dying of natural causes. As Jelani Cobb points out, however, “natural causes” does not mean “old age.” Beloved De La Soul member Dave “Trugoy” Jolicoeur succumbed to congestive heart failure; A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife, to diabetes. Name after name, the irony remains. You can outlive the immediate dangers, only to fall to the long shadow they cast.
De La Soul’s work is defined by its subversive wit and creativity; Jolicoeur chose the name Trugoy the Dove in an attempt to set himself apart from the superficial aggression that had defined so much of the genre even by the time De La Soul emerged, in 1989. But the music that so profoundly articulated the tragedy of premature death at twenty is far less vocal on the subject of premature death at fifty. It was easy to draw the parallels between the artists gunned down in the streets and the indexes of violence affecting Black and brown communities. Tupac’s death resonated precisely because the circumstances under which it occurred, in 1996, were so familiar. It’s less common, though, to sketch the connections between Sean Price, the Brooklyn-bred rapper who died in his sleep at age forty-three, and the disparities of health, health care, and longevity that impact those same communities.