By, Wendy Day, Student of both. (Written October 2009)
The Culture of Hip Hop is a very different thing from the Urban Music Industry. They are almost opposites. The culture is made up of art forms (b boying and b girling; graffiti, DJing, and rapping), and is a life style, a way of thinking, a way of being—and it’s not for sale. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The urban music industry is the commoditization of the musical art form from hip hop culture—rap music, and it’s the sale and spread of that music.
This month’s column is dedicated to Mr Magic and Marley Marl. As those of you know, who are fans of the culture or who came up in the culture of Hip Hop, Mr Magic has just passed away from a heart attack. Magic and Marley had one of the first, if not THE first, hip hop radio show. It originally broadcast on Friday and Saturday nights on WBLS-FM in the early 80s.
As a young college freshman in Philadelphia, I was sucked into rap music because of the passion and the energy in the music. I’m sure that the angst and disenfranchisement in the lyrics spoke to me a bit as well. But no matter how or why, the music so thoroughly reached me that after I spent a weekend visiting friends in New York City in the mid-80s, I fell so deeply in love with a radio broadcast, that I went home, quit my job, packed up my shit, and moved to Manhattan the next week. In Philly, we had live broadcasts from clubs on the weekends, so I was hearing all of the new rap music from Grand Master Flash & The Furious Five, Sugarhill Gang, Newcleus, Run DMC, etc but I’d never experienced anything like The Rap Attack with Mr Magic and DJ Marley Marl. They had the newest new stuff. The artists would drop by the show. Their radio show and the clubs in NY were mecca for everything Hip Hop. I had to move! There was no negotiating. I wanted to live in the place that had THAT! In Philly, I had to wait til the following week to buy cassette tapes of the previous weekend’s radio show from NY, but I wanted to hear it as it happened in NYC.
The music is the culture. It’s the art form. And it was made out of love, not for a paycheck. Record labels existed, but originally the music was pressed for DJs and the super hardcore fans who had turntables and wanted the newest vinyl. When I lived in Philly, I went every Tuesday to buy the newest vinyl singles as they came out at Sound Of Market Street. All the Philly DJs were there buying their records too, but I didn’t care. I just wanted the newest shit! I bought battle tapes imported from the Bronx and Queens of crews’ rivalries in the clubs or even from them rhyming outside on the streets. I bought recordings of NY Park Jams. The movement was happening in NY, and Philly was getting it secondhand—after the fact. The energy was in the music. A generation began to embrace it. History tells us that the New York Times named it “Hip Hop.” At the time, I didn’t care about any of that. I just wanted the new shit. I wanted to hear it, feel it, dress like it, and live in it. I became part of the culture of hip hop. I wasn’t part of the inner circle of Hip Hop culture that created it, I was the first surrounding tier—the consumer, the loyal fan. I was devoted. I wasn’t going anywhere.
Back then, there were a few “culture vultures” selling anything and everything hip hop to make a buck. I didn’t work in the music industry back then, I was just a hardcore fan. I was making money in corporate Amerikkka, but I was consuming everything Hip Hop. Even the license plate on my 1987 BMW said “RunDMC,” my favorite group at the time. Although I bought the car in NY, I had it plated in Delaware so I could get the RUNDMC tags (that vanity tag was already taken in NY, CT, PA, and NJ). I was addicted to the music and the culture.
And then a funny thing happened as the culture was embraced by more and more people. Capitalism kicked in full force. Enterprising entrepreneurs realized they could sell, and profit from, the music, the lifestyle, the parties, the clothing—everything. And an industry slowly sprang up around the culture of Hip Hop. The industry that sold the music became the urban music industry as sales became strong enough for an entire genre to be spawn from it. In almost all cases, the urban music industry was NOT made up of the people who were inside the culture. A couple of labels sprang from DJs (Tommy Boy, Big Beat, Profile, etc) who were privy to the club reaction to hip hop music, but for the most part, the business side sprung from entrepreneurs who had the money to press the vinyl, sign deals with the artists (usually oppressively unfair deals), and make a good size return on their investment. As hip hop gained popularity and numbers (fans and consumers), the major labels began to do deals with these small labels and to also sign their own artists directly. This is when I entered the music industry: 1992.
As I joined the urban music industry, I noticed that the industry folks rarely, if ever, attended any of the events within the culture. I remember being confused (and annoyed) in my early years of embracing the industry that the folks whom I looked up to in the industry (the Chris Lightys and Jessica Rosenblums) never went to the “underground” hip hop events. I rarely saw them at the Zulu Nation Anniversaries, or the Rock Steady Anniversaries, or the Lyricist Lounge events. They went to their own industry events, and supported the industry side (like the New Music Seminars, etc), but I didn’t understand why they never did the Hip Hop cultural events. I hadn’t yet realized that the two things were separate.
By the mid-90s, I was full blown immersed into the culture of Hip Hop and the music industry. The culture still embraced me because I wasn’t making any money from hip hop (therefore I wasn’t a “sell out”), and was fighting for hip hop on the industry side. The industry embraced me, but didn’t understand me, because they saw me fighting for something they could care less about (artists’ rights and a culture of people). The industry tolerated me only because they saw I had a direct pipeline and influence with most of the newer and up and coming artists. The labels no longer wanted the older hip hop artists such as Public Enemy and X-Clan, or the artists who created the early music in the culture (Grandmaster Flash, T-La Rock, Whodini, Run DMC, etc), they wanted the new generation that spoke to the profitable masses (Master P, Biggie Smalls, Twista, Ice Cube, Too Short, E-40, Tupac, etc). And the labels were solely about the money, not the culture. They invested heavily in artists with strong street buzzes and large pre-orders at retail stores, ignoring the artists who did not. They always claimed to be putting their money towards the projects that the fans would buy most.
In NY, and small pockets of the East Coast, Chicago, and parts of the West coast, the culture lived on and stayed strong. Some enterprising labels even created a sales niche around those areas selling what was termed “backpack rap” like Talib Kweli, Mos Def, etc. The Zulu Anniversary still had some value, the Rock Steady Anniversary was a central drawing event to pull us all together, and there were battles around the country like Scribble Jam and RapOlympics (my event where I lost over $10,000 that I had cash advanced on my Visa because the sponsors never paid). Lyricist Lounge went from a great NY monthly club event to an M-TV prime time TV show. But the culture was being further and further squeezed out of the economics of the music industry. Funding dried up for those events.
When artists requested dance crews like Rock Steady Crew in their videos, the labels balked on paying them to perform. When artists requested Show DJs or Turntablists for tours, the labels refused to include a budget for DJs. Because labels didn’t understand the culture, unless the artist had super leverage, they didn’t get what they needed unless they came out of their own pockets to fund it. Contrary to the image of rappers being wealthy, most were not, so they left the culture behind while they toured and greeted the M-TV generation.
The people who have been the most influential within the culture of Hip Hop, have not been well paid. In fact, few have been paid at all. And folks like Davey D, Christi Z Pabon, The Rock Steady Crew, most of the graf crews, artists such as KRS-1, many of the DJs, etc, have all been able to sustain a living, but are probably not wealthy by any means. Me either. Fortunately, I’ll tell you I never got into this for the money, and I hope (and suspect) they feel the same way too about their contributions to hip hop. Many of those who’ve been the most influential in the urban music business have been well paid for it—Puffy, Def Jam Records owners, The Source owners (original Source), Suge Knight, Jay Z, Easy E and his partner, Jimmy Iovine, Tom Silverman, etc. I’m not saying they’ve all retained their wealth, but many were very well paid for the influence they had on the part of hip hop that sold. Even on the fashion side: FuBu, Enyce, Cross Colors, Addidas, etc.
It’s hard to argue which has more value, the cultural side or the commercial side. It depends on what measurement one uses. If longevity is the measurement, the culture will be here forever, even when the consumers have moved on to some fad of the moment or just plain outgrown Hip Hop. If financial value is the measurement, then those with the highest sales win: Eminem, Nelly, Tupac, BIG, Jay Z, Master P, Juvenile, DMX, etc. I’d even venture to include Nike, Remy, Moet, Timberland, Hilfiger, etc.
Is Hip Hop dead or has it changed/morphed/grown into something that is unrecognizable to the earlier participants? Bear in mind that the artists coming up today were mostly not even alive when Hip Hop began. And since my generation of fans and the generation after us did not financially support Hip Hop with our spending (when the events lost sponsorship, many refused to pay $30 instead of $10 to gain entry, not to mention all the folks who thought they should get in free), it couldn’t possibly sustain. When the new artists study or meet the original founders and participants, a few are old in their thinking and their ways, somewhat bitter, and opinionated. Instead of going against what we don’t like, why not over support what we DO like? In both sales and in free downloads (stolen music) “gangsta rap” out sells and out downloads many of the intelligent rappers. Somebody is supporting that!
1985 was almost 25 years ago. The fans of Hip Hop from the 80s (LL Cool J, Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5, De La Soul, Leaders of The New School, EPMD, Run DMC, Public Enemy, NWA, Eric B & Rakim, etc era) who were 15 to 25 years old then, are now about to turn 50. Many have kids who are 15 to 25 years old now.
1995 was almost 15 years ago. The fans of Twista, No Limit Records, early Cash Money Records, Cypress Hill, Snoop and Dr Dre, Biggie, Naughty By Nature, Jay Z, Puffy, Capone and Norega, WuTang Clan, etc who were 15 to 25 during that decade are now in their 30s and early 40s.
Today’s music fans are a mish mosh of folks who like Jeezy, and Lil Wayne, to the fans of Soulja Boy and The New Boyz, to the more intelligent rap of Kanye and Drake—and everything in between. Today’s fans are still 15 to 25. They are our kids and we can’t expect them to like what we like. Jay Z is turning 40 at the end of this year. He is the age of the current rap fan’s Dad.
Every now and again we get someone who came up through the culture of Hip Hop who has gone on to experience success in the urban music industry. This list is very subjective, depending on whose point of view it is coming from. But Eminem and Jay Z both came up through the lyrical world of Hip Hop to move on to sell large numbers. I could argue that Black Eyed Peas did as well, but most would say that their music is pure pop, not Hip Hop. I guess many would argue that about Em, as well, since he often raps about things that are traditionally considered outside of the Hip Hop community.
I remember when I first realized that Hip Hop Culture and the music industry would never come together. I was at a conference at University of Wisconsin at Madison in the late 90s that turned into a bash rap music session. The argument was basically that anything that was currently selling was considered “garbage,” and everything that was considered “worthy” music to be called Hip Hop was being under promoted and under marketed. Some great points were being made that day—but no one from the industry side was there. An entire three day event was spent bitching about something that no one in attendance could change, or wanted to put themselves into a position to change. I left disgruntled and frustrated with the Hip Hop purists, never to return to one of their events.
This reminded me of when I first started Rap Coalition. Many treated me as if I was breaking some sort of unwritten law being a white woman coming into the Black community, and “condescending” to help young Black males (a useless female “activist” actually attacked me publicly for my commitment to helping the rap artist community and called my role condescending). Yet every time I met with that type of resistance, I offered to turn over my rolodex, all of my files, and work to whomever wanted to fill my shoes and do the work. I even offered to stay on and train them. It was never about me, white, or Black…it was about getting the work done, and if no one else wanted to do it, I was glad it was me who was willing. I never had any takers. I’ve never gotten a check yet from Rap Coalition, and I imagine if I mentioned that they’d be doing all this work for free, they’d run even further in the opposite direction. This is the way I saw the Hip Hop purists at the events like the one in Madison. Willing to complain, but not willing to change it by positive action on their own part. If you don’t like the way things are going, get up and change them. If we lost control of Hip Hop we either have to stand up and take it back, or let it go. Complaining doesn’t really help.
You can’t buy or sell a culture. You can buy and sell the trinkets that are synonymous with a culture or movement (the music, the clothes, the style, the art, etc). And the urban music industry has proven that quite well. The music is still considered rap music, but we are so far away from where Hip Hop started that’s it’s hard for me to even classify most of it as part of the culture. But since I grew with it and changed with it as I came up through it, I’m still able to embrace it and understand what it’s become. I can’t imagine Kool Herc would have ever envisioned a Young Jeezy rapping about flipping birds for $17,500 or the GLS Boyz doing the Stanky Leg back when Herk first began plugging his system into the park lightpoles. Hip Hop was born out of frustration and reaction by the disenfranchised to what was happening in the 70s when it began. Hip Hop was born out of the anti-disco sentiment and made by using other people’s music and breakbeats. It has come a long way. But never has Hip Hop Culture evolved into the Urban Music Industry. One is a culture while the other is a financial gain for those who have learned how to pimp it instead of adding to it artistically.
I mean “pimp it” in a good way…if that’s possible. An entire generation has grown from Hip Hop. I am thankful that many people built companies and secured jobs who would have never had a place in the music business if it wasn’t for Hip Hop. I’m thankful that a small handful of our artists have ownership of their own music and masters. I’m thankful for a generation who learned to kick in doors and make a place for ourselves instead of waiting to be offered an open door and a place at the table. And I’m thankful that the children of our elite will be educated and able to live right next to Muffy and Biff and summer at the Hamptons, if indeed that’s how they choose to live their lives.
I think we all still have a lot of work to do, and some serious changes still need to be made. We have a generation of artists coming up with no guidance and with teams that have no industry experience or knowledge. The labels are focused solely on 360 Deals at a time when labels are dinosaurs and almost completely unnecessary (except for artists without funding or who are unable to find investors). And most importantly, rap music is seen as the new “come up,” a “legal dope game”—we have too many producers and artists who are coming into this with limited talent, no skills, no experience, and no value to add.
If we want to keep the Culture of Hip Hop alive and evolving, we’re going to need to share it and teach it. It will become whatever we let it become. The music industry seems to be going more independent and more viral (which levels the playing field). As long as there is one person wanting to buy rap music, there will be at least one making it. The Culture of Hip Hop needs a web presence. Who owns HipHop.com or HipHop.org? Step up, muthaphukka! We need a portal that’s almost like a living museum (funded by grants and all). Maybe everyone in the culture who has stuff to sell could sell it there—b boy footage, graf art, old battle CDs, etc.
I just gotta say one more thing about Mr Magic and Marley Marl back all those years ago. They were filters, but not gatekeepers. The difference is that a filter separates the bad and the good and lets the good come through. A gatekeeper is a block that acts as a stop, to then decide who gets through and who doesn’t, usually for self-serving or arbitrary reasons. I am THANKFUL that Magic and Marley didn’t have a “pimp” mentality and start charging folks to get their music played, or act as the conduit for anyone looking to get a deal from a label—meaning, they very easily could have started their own label or production company and forced artists to sign to them if the artist wanted to gain exposure on their show. They did not do this and for that, I am eternally grateful. They would have single handedly killed the NY movement, and quite possibly Hip Hop, had they been different human beings.