PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- In the early 1990s, I went to high school at a Catholic school in Montclair, N.J., whose student body seemed to come from just about everywhere else.The Montclair that Stephen Colbert calls home today beckons New Yorkers to come out to New Jersey and raise their children in its Bourgeois Bohemian enclave dotted with arthouse theaters, galleries, organic groceries and antique shops. When I went to Immaculate Conception, however, it was still a historically diverse middle class town flavored by the working class towns around it. My grandfather drove me in from Belleville, my classmates came from East Orange, Newark, Bloomfield and elsewhere and everybody took home a lesson. I remember one of my friends coming up to me and asking if I was OK the day after Kurt Cobain died. I remember my mom thinking about keeping me out of the school's walkathon the day after the Rodney King verdict, lest my nonwhite classmates suddenly think I looked too much like Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates and fly into a rage. The small, superficial portion I remembered most, however, was hip-hop. Beyond the anti-crime Self Destruction compilation and the occasional Run DMC song or novelty single like UTFO's Roxanne Roxanne or Newcleus' Jam On It, I didn't get much exposure to hip-hop in junior high and was genuinely surprised when I came into school freshman year and nobody was listening to M.C. Hammer, Young MC or Technotronic. On the first day, my English teacher Mr. Taylor called one of my classmates a fool for having a notebook with Eazy-E from N.W.A. on its cover. When that classmate refused to switch, Mr. Taylor threw him out. Within the next four years, I'd get a taste of a little bit of everything. I'd get to listen to Das Efx, Eric B and Rakim and Pete Rock & CL Smooth in the locker room. I remember sitting in Pizza Hut during their lunch buffet on one of our school's half days and a friend unwrapping a brand new copy of KRS-One's Return of The Boom Bap. The first time I heard then Snoop Doggy Dogg's Doggystyle was in the back of social studies class from a friend's Sony Discman.
With language, rappers have raided the dictionary and written in new entries to every definition -- words with one or two meanings now have 12. The same thing happens with brands -- Cristal meant one thing, but hip-hop gave its definition some new entries. The same goes for other brands: Timberland and Courvoisier, Versace and Maybach. We gave those brands a narrative, which is one of the reasons anyone buys anything: not just to own a product, but to become part of a story.As my editor Carlton Wilkinson notes, Jay-Z, Dr. Dre and Kanye West are changing the commercial expectations of hip-hop's biggest names. But they're also changing the cultural expectations. Kanye West's Yeezus melds hip-hop into art to such a degree that The TalkHouse had to bring in no less than Andy Wahol protege Lou Reed to interpret and review it. Though united in praise of its obvious merit, even hip-hop heads are asking a strange question about Yeezus: Is it hip-hop? The answer: Of course it is. Yeezus doesn't transcend hip-hop en route to being art, it expands hip-hop into a corner of art it just hadn't previously touched. Again, murals, burners, spoken-word performances, poetry books -- all the accepted, existing ties between hip-hop and art -- aren't just approved domain, they're mile markers of where hip-hop's been. It's changed the context of all of the above just as it's changing the elements of business that Jay-Z, Dre, Diddy and 50 Cent have explored and changed the sporting world from warm-up and on-deck music to sports management and franchise ownership. By that measure, being Mick Jagger seems downright boring because it's been done -- and then re-attempted several times over. When was hip-hop's Golden Age? Not when some lanky kid was sitting on a corner of Bloomfield Avenue waiting for the No. 13 bus and listening to Nas' "It Ain't Hard To Tell." It was less than 10 years after Nas was dissed by Jay-Z and unexpectedly incinerated him with the response track "Ether" one afternoon on New York's hip-hop station Hot 97. It was after The Blueprint, the Dr. Dre proteges and the branding. Somewhere between Warren Buffett's lunch table and Lou Reed's deadline, hip-hop's real Golden Age began. And it didn't have to evangelize to either of them to do so. -- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.