How hip-hop stumbled, and how innovative new talent might brighten its future

by Cary Darling

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

7 February 2008

Lupe Fiasco 

Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game
Reminiscin’ when it wasn’t all business
They forgot where it started
So we all gather here for the dearly departed
—Nas, “Hip-Hop Is Dead”

The plea hit YouTube two weeks ago like an IED.

Ghostface Killah, one of the rappers from the acclaimed and groundbreaking rap crew Wu-Tang Clan, took three minutes to rip into fans who had downloaded his latest solo release, “The Big Doe Rehab,” for free instead of slamming down hard-earned dollars for it.

“I thought y’all (deleted) loved me, man. I go all out for y’all, man, and I love y’all, man, but y’all (deleted) be hurting me, kid,” Ghostface moans, sounding genuinely hurt. “We spend a lot of time in the studio and putting this work in, to come out with no results when we drop our album. (I’ve got) 115,000 friends on MySpace and I get 30,000 (in sales) or something like that in the first week. That’s not good, man. ... This is the real talk, coming from your homie, man. Y’all (deleted) are going to make me leave the game.”

On Web sites like worldstarhiphop.com, blowback was swift and harsh. “Retire and see who cares!” scolded one fan. “U got more than enough money,” growled another. And there was the always pithy, “Stop whining.”

While Ghostface was only speaking for himself, his outburst was emblematic of something bigger than one rapper’s shock at lethargic sales. While the music industry is in a slump overall, hip-hop has been especially hard hit.

At the start of the new century, hip-hop sales peaked at close to 100 million albums a year. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, sales are off by 30 percent, with the genre selling just under 60 million albums in 2006 and, through the first half of 2007, only 26 million albums. (Across all genres, record sales are down roughly 20 percent since 2000.)

Despite that, hip-hop is still a favorite on Top 40 and urban radio and generates some $600 million annually in ringtone sales.

It’s this combination of sagging album sales and increased emphasis on the throw-away, easy hooks required by Top 40 radio and the ringtone industry that has some people speculating that hip-hop - a music born in the `70s out of the ambitions, frustrations and politics of African Americans from the rough-and-tumble streets of the South Bronx and considered one of the most important cultural movements of the 20th century - is rendering itself insignificant.

Combined with what has been dubbed the “minstrelization” of the music - the emphasis on sex, violence and partying - some fear for the genre’s future. Socially conscious rapper Nas released an album two years ago titled “Hip-Hop Is Dead” and, more recently, the critically lauded Lupe Fiasco - one of the past year’s major hip-hop breakthroughs - complained, in the scolding “Dumb It Down,” that contemporary rappers pander to the lowest common denominator.

“Hip-hop is so stagnant. Hip-hop has killed hip-hop,” says Pikahsso, one-third of the imaginative North Texas hip-hop outfit PPT, whose upcoming album, “Denglish,” is heavily anticipated. “Some of these artists are overtly horrible. ... They have monotone voices, no feelings, no inspiration. ... It’s watered down and everyone wants to make a quick buck. ... Now what you’ve got is a mutiny. Everyone’s gotten tired of it.”

But is hip-hop dead or merely taking a long nap?

“It’s undergoing a metamorphosis,” says Andrew Ryan, a faculty member at the University of the District of Columbia and George Mason University, editor of The Journal of Hip-Hop and author of the upcoming book “The Responsible Use of Hip-Hop in the Classroom.” “You can look at the (beginning) period from 1979 to 1986; 1986 to 1994 was the (socially) conscious stuff; from 1994 to 2000 it got more glamorous; and now we’re at the end of the bling-bling, look-at-me era.”

He points out that many of his students have tired of the disposability of modern hip-hop. “They say, `I want some substance,’” he says. “There’s a renewed interest in giving me something my kids can listen to.”

“When hip-hop blew up in the `90s, it had a lot to do with the videos,” says Charles Aaron, music editor at Spin magazine. “They were projecting this particularly outsized image. It was glamorous, decadent and kids loved it. You couldn’t get away from it, and it was a nonstop strip club. Rappers were throwing money at the camera, women were waving their butts at the camera, and there was a catchphrase you could remember if you were 12. That is completely gone. Forget about that.”

In its place is what some see as a series of potential one- or two-hit wonders - such as Soulja Boy and his inescapable “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” - short-lived dance crazes and ringtones.

“Hip-hop is at an extremely volatile stage right now,” says Fort Worth-based Rashad Thrilkill, a producer and CEO of Skratchback Records who has worked with such North Texas rappers as Twisted Black and Big Tuck. “The music is too commercialized. There’s only one way to go, and that is down.”

The quick-hit mentality means there are fewer long-term bankable stars, while the veterans - Snoop Dogg, Eminem, L.L. Cool J, Ice Cube, Wu-Tang’s Method Man - grow long in the tooth or try to become movie stars. According to Billboard, the music industry was upset by the Oct. 13 arrest of rapper T.I. on federal weapons charges partly because “T.I. is one of the few bankable rap stars of the moment.”

The combination of the fast career turnover and hip-hop’s young audience means that, unlike with rock `n’ roll, there’s less of a sense of history among many fans. While young rock fans might know of Led Zeppelin, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, their hip-hop equivalents may be totally unaware of such pioneers as KRS-One, Public Enemy or A Tribe Called Quest.

“I really blame hip-hop radio for that,” says Headkrack, a local rapper who is part of “The Ricky Smiley Morning Show” on KBFB-FM “The Beat.” “Hip-hop radio is quick to abandon the forefathers of the art form. Everybody wants everything new and current. ... (So) you won’t have that longevity.”

“It should be mandatory that these young cats know about Grand Puba, World Class Wreckin’ Cru, Lovebug Starski,” chides rapper Pikahsso as he name-checks classic `80s/‘90s hip-hop acts. “(Today’s fans) don’t know the basics, so they don’t respect it. Old school to them is 2Pac. I love 2Pac, but that’s not old school. They treat it as a joke; they’re like relics to them.”

Headkrack says dwindling popularity could be just what hip-hop needs to find its soul. “Hip-hop will become how jazz is now. It’s not necessarily the most popular art form, and it’s more underground,” he explains. “Jazz was once the biggest musical genre, and it was bastardized to the point that it had to go underground and only the purists will follow it.”

In fact, so-called underground hip-hop - often echoing the socio-political groove of early hip-hop and marrying it with more mature, nonsexist lyrics and a freewheeling musical spirit that may touch upon rock, classic soul and jazz - has provided many of the style’s high points in the past few years. Releases from the likes of Common, Mos Def, Taleb Kweli and, of course, OutKast have found an increasingly larger audience. Common’s most recent disc, “Finding Forever,” debuted on Billboard’s Top 200 at No. 1 last summer.

Kanye West, who beat 50 Cent in a much-hyped first-week CD sales contest last fall, built upon that more-intellectual mindset for his three bestselling albums (“The College Dropout,” “Late Registration,” “Graduation”). Meanwhile, fellow Chicagoan Lupe Fiasco has catapulted to stardom by upending the stereotype that hip-hop is dull onstage with his explosive two-hour sets. He’s also released two of the most enjoyable hip-hop CDs of recent years, “Food & Liquor” and “The Cool.”

But Spin’s Aaron thinks underground hip-hop - sometimes esoteric and abstract - will always be more of a cult rather than a commercial concern. “I’m somebody who listens to Lupe Fiasco and thinks it’s brilliant,” he says, “but people want catchy songs.”

Certainly, a more mainstream rapper such as Jay-Z is still capable of pumping out a classic, as he did with “American Gangster” last year. And, even as hip-hop wanes as a commercial force, its influence still radiates through the culture.

“Look at Beyonce and Chris Brown,” Ryan says. “They’re hip-hop/R&B artists. A lot of hip-hop is now R&B.”

Aaron points out that hip-hop continues to make an impression on mainstream media. “It’s changed the culture to such an extent that you don’t even notice it anymore,” he explains. “Tom Brokaw will say that somebody `dissed’ Hillary Clinton. It’s everywhere.

“Obviously, there’s going to be a new generation of kids who have their own style and their own music. I just feel like it will be majorly influenced by hip-hop in one way or another. Last year, even though fewer records were sold, there were 20 dance crazes sweeping across the country and all over the Internet. People from tiny kids to 45-year-olds knew what that Superman dance was.”

He believes that hip-hop could be on the verge of a creative explosion.

“It’s an exciting time,” Aaron continues. “There could be a black man running for president in the general election. It’s a time when rappers are thinking about these issues more. A lot of rappers are thinking about it and being asked about it. There’ve been more politically oriented songs popping up here and there, and there may be more because of him.”

“It’s back to the roots, I believe,” Thrilkill says. “More personalized, less commercial music. Music with a message.”

Ryan thinks hip-hop will continue to become more international. The hype over female British/Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. is one case in point. “You have folks in England doing good work, Japanese hip-hop and other languages coming into the mix,” he says. “Globalization will be big.”

But Aaron warns that, no matter what happens, rappers might want to cool it with the over-the-top extravagance.

“From 1997 on, it’s been one big party, and everybody wants in on that opulent lifestyle. They have a ringtone hit and buy five cars. The first rule for any new rapper who has a hit single is don’t buy more than one car.”

Which brings him full circle to the plight of Ghostface Killah.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet (for rappers),” he says. “He’s sitting there imploring fans to buy his CDs because they’re betraying him. (Rappers are thinking) what do we do now? They know they have fans, but how do they get them to buy anything? ... Poor guy. He’s confused.”

Topics: hip-hop
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