I read this very thought provoking newsletter from rapper MC Till last month about how hip hop needs to grow up, or better said, capitalism needs to grow up. I love what Till had to say, and felt compelled to add to it.
Anyway, here’s MC Till’s excellent newsletter editorial, followed below by my response based on what I’ve seen and experienced in the urban music industry.
Ladies and Gentlemen, MC Till:
The legendary Hip-hop group EPMD once said “Hip-hop is out of control.” If you turn on the TV or the radio and watch/listen to how Hip-hop is represented these days you would agree. Rappers are barely rapping. Their words are slurred to no end. They are overly confident: cocky. They are typically male and have nearly-naked women all around them. They have guns and drugs and huge houses and nice cars. The content is shallow at best. Surely, Hip-hop needs to grow up.
Here is the problem with that sentiment; it is not based in practicality. Take a modern mainstream rapper that fits the image I described. Let’s call this rapper Tritan Maxwell. Why Tritan Maxwell? It just sounds fresh. Tritan is all about exploiting women, selling drugs, acting really tough, and overall just living & rapping without a cause. We find Tritan and box him into a corner and conduct an intervention. He listens. He changes. He decides to refresh his whole image. The corporate interests that represent Tritan drop him. His influence in pop culture dwindles. Those corporate interests that used to make money off Tritan travel to the Southside of Chicago or the suburbs of Toronto and find another Tritan.
Tritan might have changed for the better, but the image and portrayal of Hip-hop has not changed a bit and the condemnation of Hip-hop continues unfettered.
Hip-hop has never mass-produced a singular, cookie cutter image of the culture; corporate America has. Before the BIG record companies started dumping millions of dollars into promoting & advertising rappers, the visible field of artists was incredibly diverse. Hip-hop produced revolutionaries like KRS-ONE, political activists like Killer Mike, ridiculously fun & innocent class clowns like Biz Markie, street-wise gangsters like NWA, and on and on the inclusive and diverse list goes.
When big record companies saw the huge impact (i.e. dollar signs) of “gangsta rap” they divested from groups like Public Enemy and over-invested in groups like NWA. The misrepresentation of Hip-hop was underway. Popular Hip-hop music in the late ‘80’s boasted a very diverse and healthy roster of rappers and mceees. Hip-hop in the late ‘90’s boasted a very diverse and healthy roster of rappers and mcees. Hip-hop today boasts a very diverse and healthy roster of rappers and mcees.
The change is what you see without searching. Radio and TV used to promote the broad spectrum of rappers in the late 80’s and early 90’s. But, by the late 90’s that was changing. The gatekeepers (i.e. record companies, magazines, video outlets, radio stations, etc…) began to only let through a limited viewpoint that did not promote and celebrate diversity. Instead, it stifled it. The power holders were not interested in good art or a healthy culture. They were interested in money. Point blank, period. And money they got! A lot of it.
I do not think that Hip-hop needs to grow up. I think capitalism needs to grow up. I need it to apologize to me and countless others who are indebted to hip-hop. I am speaking to record company executives, radio station PD’s, and video show producers that helped change the face of Hip-hop from one of healthy diversity to one of damaging singularity. I’m speaking to you on behalf of countless Hip-hoppers in saying we are upset with you. You took something so dear to us and exploited the hell out of it (correction “exploited the heaven out of it”). Shame on you. If you are still doing that. Stop. If you have already stopped, thank you. Go back and bring someone else with you. Hip-hop does not need a revolution, but the industry you were once a part of does.
To which, I responded:
Thanks for writing this! It’s so important.
While I agree that capitalism needs to grow up (or lose some of its all-importance), I have a little different vantage point. I see the fans having more control over what music gets promoted and the labels being more reactionary. I say this as someone who has brought hundreds of artists to record label executives (the decision-makers), and see what aspects of artists they look at and who they reject and why. The truth is, they RARELY listen to the music or lyrics. They have powerless A&R guys to do that for them. They look at the declining sales of older artists and the large buzz or hype that the new artists are causing. And just like a child who sees a shiny new toy, they drop the old one to replace with the new one. But customers (meaning fans) clamoring is what really causes this. Public Enemy’s budgets got reduced when the fans stopped buying the next album in the same amount or in an increasing amount as the last album. NWA got signed because Sony saw Jerry Heller making money and wanted in. Arista saw Puffy making money and drawing large crowds with Biggie Smalls and wanted in. Interscope saw the potential of Snoop and Dre and wanted in (so they gave Death Row a seat at the table). It would surprise me if Jimmy Iovine really, really listened to the music prior to signing Death Row, or if he even thought about the lyrical content and it’s affect on consumers. He saw dollar signs (again, capitalism).
I don’t believe for a minute that Coca Cola cares about obesity in America, or Starbucks cares about the long term affects of caffeine or sugar on the American people. I believe corporations care about selling as much product as possible and their shareholders making money, and that all decisions are based upon the bottom line (money). Record labels are no different. I watched a label pop up in the 90s called Rawkus Records. They focused solely on rappers with a positive message. They were properly financed and dumped WuTang-equivalent budgets into artists like Mos Def and Talib Kweli. But they didn’t sell platinum, or even gold, levels of music. In fact, Rawkus went belly up because the fans didn’t buy enough of their music to keep them afloat.
I blame the consumers….in this case the fans. The Internet has removed the gate keepers almost completely. If you want to listen to positive hip hop today, you can, ad nauseum. But if people did so, those artists would be getting a large amount of downloads and support from fans. They are not. We can argue that people are sheep and buy what they hear repeatedly. But what about the intelligent folks? What about the people who aren’t sheep? I mean those who would never consider voting for Donald Trump….THEY are not listening to positive rap in droves even though they have better access today than ever before. If they did, the mass produced music would get better and would reflect their taste. And wouldn’t that be awesome? Maybe music is entertainment. Maybe it’s an escape. But still, the overly sexualized content and negativity abounds today. Yet we have more access to positive music than ever!!
On a positive note, I’m thankful for NWA. That era of Gangsta rap is what fueled little old me to rail against Gangsta rap and start promoting positive rap. My disgust for the negative lyrics prompted me to create an event that caused hype for a young lyrical rapper named Eminem. It also created hype for 10 to 12 other lyrical rappers who never went anywhere with their careers for a multitude of different reasons. But then on the flip side, I was also inspired to help Cash Money get a deal, and the lyrics of their artists haven’t benefited humanity all that much. But they sold a ton of music for Universal and for Cash Money. There’s that capitalism thingy again. I didn’t choose Cash Money randomly or because of their lyrical content. I chose to help them because fans in Louisiana and Texas were going crazy over the 31 CDs they released in a period of 6 years. I knew that was what labels were looking for based on the consumer reaction. Their artists were super hot on the streets, and I saw an opportunity to help two young Black males better their situation and their community through ownership of the music. It didn’t change anything. Black pimps got wealthy instead of white pimps. In fact, at least the major labels actually paid their artists. Cash Money stays getting sued for non-payment. But the fans control who gets the bigger budgets, not the corporations. It’s more reactionary than you think.
Just my opinion….as I press play on this most recent Ras Kass download that I purchased.