"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Monday, April 11, 2005
Rhythm & Business: Hip-Hop Economics at 30
By Norman Kelley, AOL BlackVoices columnist

Hip-hop is arguably the most dynamic thing that blacks have created in the last 40 years. A worldwide entertainment phenomenon, marketing vehicle and profitable business product, the music has come a long way from its humble roots. America is no longer asking, "Is hip-hop here to stay?" The music has proved its staying power and displayed an incredible ability to reinvent itself, adapting to the cultural and commercial atmosphere of the times.

The fact that black youths in some of America's most depressed urban ghettos created this cultural product that now generates an estimated $12 billion a year is remarkable. But the fact that hip-hip was born out of nothing more than drums, catchy rhymes, synthesizers, turntables and the human voice is even more incredible.

However, when comparing the creative genius, political frustration and artistic hunger that spawned the music initially against its current high profile, complex ironies emerge. At 30 years old, hip-hop's largest consumer base is white suburban teens, its prevailing themes are sex and materialism, and the majority of its intellectual property rights are owned by white businessmen. Although there are many small, localized African-American hip-hop labels and businesses, all of them fly under the radars of the massive global networks that create, package and distribute the music and its auxiliary culture.

Born of the boogie-down Bronx and other pockets of urban blight under 1980s Reaganomics, the music has always prided its outsider status. With strong Afro-Caribbean and Puerto Rican influences at its inception, it has now grown into its uniquely African-American identity with regional inflections and a growing body of international derivatives.

But African-American hip-hop, especially the gangsta variant, may well reflect the economic and political status of African Americans as a whole. To repeat what Russell Simmons, former CEO of Def Jam and one of the most influential producers of the music, says, blacks have become "glorified employees" of their own culture. Today, not one freestanding black-owned recording company can independently distribute its music without dealing with one of the four major labels. Because of the way the music industry began to restructure itself, following the pattern of other industries, profit is made from distribution more so than actual production. Hip-hop fits into this matrix beautifully because of its low production costs.

African Americans exert very little power in the hip-hop industry. Except for the notable exceptions of Jay-Z, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Jermaine Dupri, Marion "Suge" Knight, Queen Latifah, Master P, Irv "Gotti" and a few others, who have owned or managed important firms in the business, most rappers still end up broke in spite of their fame or infamy. And black leadership in the industry is largely eclipsed by controversy, criminal activity and violence.

Marketing urban American social dysfunctions worldwide has become central to hip-hop. Booties, bling, blunts and other tropes of the criminal world -- the thug life -- remain the driving forces of the industry. Despite the neo-nationalist rhetoric of some groups like Public Enemy or the pop-consciousness of groups like The Roots, black-on-black crime and exploitative practices of hip-hop moguls are still common. The unspoken predicament of black music -- except for those brief moments in the 1960s and early 1970s -- is that it has always been under white control and domination, aided and abetted by small segments of African-American clients who profit from the business elite.

What does it mean for hip-hop, supposedly black America's highest artistic achievement, that the music and its message are managed mostly by white businessmen? That isn't, in and of itself, a bad thing. But what do we make of the fact that many young black rappers still enter predatory contracts with record labels? Or how do we make sense of the way many young black artists, seduced by record sales, transform themselves into prototypes of social dysfunction? Is it that the marketplace drives the "gangsta" image of hip-hop as a rebellious fantasy to the cultural norm? Or is it the music that floods the culture with images of gangsterism that create lucrative by-products that can be repackaged and sold to the American public?

What has made hip-hop internationally known on the microphone has been the worldwide media apparatus, especially that which hails from the United States. Hip-hop’s spectacular reach is due to two things: the bold and innovative brashness of it as a modern art form, and the octopus-like tentacles of the world media: film, television, CD, computers, cable, digitalization and compression of music, the Internet, etc.

Hip-hop also came of age during the 1980s, an era of rapid media consolidation and market penetration. Today, it has profited from those changes on the landscape of global business. But as hip-hop begins its creep towards middle age, the rank commercialization of the music has reduced black artists to being either funny or dangerous to sell records.

About the AuthorNorman Kelley is the editor of "Rhythm & Business: The Political Economy of Black Music" (Akashic Books). His latest book is The "Head Negro in Charge Syndrome: The Dead End of Black Politics" (Nation Books).


While i do not agree that every artist must either be a threat or a joke to sell records (since that statements makes hip hop nothing more that a stereotypical music genre.) i do agree that much of what has been said about American blacks being nothing more than "glorified Employees" in their own popular musical artistic expression.

The major reason for this is simple. While blacks obviously own the raw material of rap (lyrics, expressive ideas, slang, style, and to a degree production work) they have no real form of distribution/regulation of hip hop hop (meaning we dont decide what is sold and to when).

The greatest threat from this, is that hip hop might end up being the perfect soundtrack to globalization. Using the voice of the oppressed colored people of America to preach in sing song form the Capitalistic dreams of our opressors to the rest of the world.
posted by R J Noriega at 12:35 PM | Permalink |


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