In hub of rap, hip-hop's slip shows

by Michael Martinez

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

8 May 2007

Billy Tomanski, 29, in a music store inCompton, California, March 9, 2007(Michael Martinez/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Billy Tomanski, 29, in a music store in
Compton, California, March 9, 2007
(Michael Martinez/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

COMPTON, Calif.—Yo, to all doubters and “playas” in the world who say rap is dying—Alvin Hunter says come to his corner.

Here, the street quakes with hip-hop.

Almost 20 years after the album “Straight Outta Compton” marked a defining moment for rap’s emergence—and made Compton the unofficial capital of gangsta rap—the music still pulsates out of cars as well as the loudspeaker outside the shop where Hunter sells CDs.

But beneath the throbbing bass and syncopating rhyme, there’s trouble in the genre, Hunter acknowledges.

Sales at his display case echo recent figures showing a 21 percent drop nationwide from 2005 to 2006. No rap album was among the top 10 sellers in 2006 for the first time in 12 years.

Just about everyone in this rap haven has an opinion about the sudden drop in sales.

“A lot of people outside are pirating and bootlegging it,” said Hunter, 46. “That’s why sales are going down, you know what I mean.”

Download-savvy kids are copying songs digitally rather than buying CDs. The only solace is other genres are hurting too, Hunter added.

Others blame the lyrics.

Take the song that Hunter was blasting outside the store. The name of the tune, by the rapper Chingy, is best not printed in a family newspaper.

Many have objected to rap’s raunch, especially its denigration of women. Half of African-Americans surveyed by The Associated Press and AOL Black Voices deemed the music a negative force. Most people ages 15 to 25 think rap videos have too many violent images, according to a study by the University of Chicago’s Black Youth Project.

But residents here say the language comes with the land.

“I grew up in the `hood. It’s not too explicit for me. We see it, we hear it,” said David Rothenberg, 45, a contractor. Nicknamed the “Hub City” for being the geographic center of Los Angeles County, Compton is notorious for gang violence.

Rothenberg’s wife, Whilimina, 42, a United Parcel Service supervisor, avoids the matter. She prefers gospel, she said.

Maria Watson, 23, also doesn’t mind the vulgarity.

After all, her T-shirt, quoting rapper Lil’ Kim, held this greeting: “Shut up b(ASTERIK)tch.”

No clients in the music store where Watson works have been offended, she said. Lil’ Kim is considered hip-hop’s queen bee; she’s also an ex-con, having completed a 10-month sentence last year for perjury.

“Oh, no, they don’t pay no attention to it,” she said of her shirt. “Some of the customers say, `Where did you get that from?’”

Last December, one rapper, Nas, went so far as to title his new album “Hip Hop Is Dead.”

Elliott Wilson, editor in chief of XXL magazine in New York City, finds such obituaries amusing.

“I’ve been writing about hip-hop for 15 years and I’ve been listening to hip-hop since I was 6 or 7,” said Wilson, 36. “Ever since then, people have been saying, `How long will hip-hop and rap be around?’

“I think it’s here to stay,” he said. “Obviously sales are down, and it’s a discouraging decline to all music.”

At a music store called VIP, clerk Billy Tomanski considers himself a keeper of the rappin’ faith. Like many customers at the store, Tomanski believes rap has lost its soul.

Time was, the genre carried politically charged messages.

Remember “Fight the Power,” the 1989 song by Public Enemy that became a boombox anthem in ghettos across the country? Tomanski asked.

Today, rap music is about Bentleys and bling, mansions and money, he said.

Rappers have sold out to make cell phone ringtones and other spinoffs rather than real music, Tomanski asserted.

Some don’t have a problem with that, though.

“Artists will always make more money off merchandising than the music they make. It’s only right that they pursue their dream,” said Eric Ellis, chief executive of Geve Media Inc., which publishes Rap Fanatic magazine in New York.

Though just 29, Tomanski is sounding like a hip-hop curmudgeon. But he’s hopeful.

“The new generation doesn’t believe in the value of music,” he said. “Since there is no value in music, it gets recycled so fast that they all sound alike. But rap is not dying. They’re selling it like crazy. Every movie has it. Every TV show has it. They may not play rap, but they will play the rap culture. It is one of the most deep-seated cultures all over the world.

“Hip-hop is all grown up now,” he pronounced.

Topics: cd sales | hip-hop
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