Walk This Way

The Commodification of Hip-Hop

by Quentin B. Huff

3 February 2011

Portrait of Jay-Z in black and white swarovski crystals (partial shown here). Used with permission from Gemstone Creative.com 

Side A: Please Listen to My Demo
The question is whether hip-hop’s commercial viability is as great as The Big Payback claims it is. Our preconceived dichotomies are at play here as well, pitting the idealistic artist who is impervious to charts and album sales against the rapper willing to “sell out” for a hit record.  Music in hip-hop’s perpetually touted “golden age” has been characterized as “positive” and steadfastly in opposition to “going pop” or being “too commercial”. EPMD’s “Crossover” (1992), ironically employing a variant of the processed vocal hooks that have been ruling the ‘00s, is the quintessential song for rap’s perceived need for self-preservation.  In it, rappers are taken to task for “selling their soul” and changing their image to suit the sensibilities of pop and rhythm ‘n’ blues, all for what Gang Starr later in 1994 bundled under the banner of “mass appeal”.

Some argue that hip-hop has deteriorated. Where its excesses were once balanced by the “positive” and “uplifting” side of the art, the argument is that it has been riddled with violence and moral decay precipitated by its commercial and corporate annexation. Charnas takes issue with this stance from the outset, calling all of these assessments “unfair.” Although his characterization of hip-hop’s rise as a “triumph” is well taken, The Big Payback arrives at the conclusion without directly evaluating the side effects of hip-hop’s financial success and bankability, particularly as those side effects impact hip-hop consumers. 

To be honest, the point of The Big Payback isn’t to join a debate. Rather, the stated purpose is to examine the “business of hip-hop” and the “relationship between artist and merchant”. Nevertheless, this is something we often do, as admirers and critics of hip-hop: we are quick to point out how meaningful and revelatory hip-hop can be for the people it spreads to, but we tend to overlook what hip-hop means to its “core” audience.  Perhaps this is because it seems obvious that the “core” audience is rooting for hip-hop.  What we will find, however, is that hip-hop’s “core” consists of a diversity of ideas and views, so investigating what seems obvious is worth the effort.

Let’s, as an example, suppose a multinational conglomerate manufactures soft drinks. One of the company’s drinks—let’s call it “Sprinkle”—is moderately successful among American teenagers.  Sprinkle contains no caffeine, has “extra fizz”, and touts a “lime sprinkled with cayenne pepper” kick with each gulp. “Drink Like a Boss” and “Drink for the Gusto” are the official Sprinkle slogans. An executive at the company studies the market and, inspired by the findings, says to upper management, “I know how we can increase Sprinkle’s share of the market.”

The executive figures that since the teens in the market study love hip-hop, they will be responsive to an advertising campaign in which hip-hop is prominently featured. Further, the “Drink Like a Boss” and “Drink for the Gusto” slogans seem to fit hip-hop’s competitive and entrepreneurial outlook. With approval for the project, the executive designs a series of hip-hop flavored ads consisting of classic rap battles, graffiti art, break dancing, spotlights on rap pioneers, and strategic inclusions of rap tunes (rapper E-40’s “Sprinkle Me” is resurrected for airplay).  The ads also utilize bits of worldviews that are popular in rap, such as Five Percent Nation ideology, Black Nationalism, Eastern philosophy, martial arts, crime movies, and blaxploitation flicks.  The company’s management didn’t think the campaign would make much of an impact, but it does—Sprinkle nabs an unprecedented share of the market, in fact, and our fictional executive gets the credit, a sizable bonus, and a well-earned promotion.

Is this a triumph for hip-hop? The Big Payback might argue, “Yes, because the company realized the commercial viability of rap, even and especially rap marketed in as undiluted a form as possible, with rap pioneers gaining visibility and safeguarding the credibility of the project.” There are hardcore hip-hop fans who would agree. Besides, shouldn’t rappers make money? Shouldn’t they hope to sell millions of records? Why can’t they promote other products to increase their visibility?

Side B: The Crossover
Yet, there are legitimate reasons why some hip-hop consumers would take issue with the reality of rap as a mainstream commercial commodity.

First, there are no filters for the products hip-hop can be used to promote. From videogames to vodka, you can find a rap, a rapper, a phat beat, or a hip-hop producer to help sell it.  As such, the naysayers would argue that hip-hop no longer operates as an art form that serves an underrepresented community. At one point, it provided a mode of expression for the politically voiceless, now it is a vehicle for selling products to the world as well as back to its original demographic. Drinking “Sprinkle” isn’t going to aid in expressing the views of the underrepresented, not even if you synchronize Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” throughout the commercial. Hip-hop may reference products and pop culture in its rhymes, but that’s arguably part of the art. Becoming spokespeople for a multinational corporation, on the other hand, changes the game considerably, and it’s this type of “change” that warrants discussion.

Second, even as hip-hop continues its mainstream march, there are still many aspects of the culture that hip-hoppers feel is “insider” information.  Although “outsiders” are not excluded from learning, there’s a bitter taste that comes from seeing the hip-hop’s trade secrets trotted out for a few DJ scratches and some cameo spots. It’s like snitching, and it transforms layers of meaning and shared experience into a commodity.  Meanwhile, all the hip-hop consumer gets out of the deal is the satisfaction that rap is getting bigger and, of course, a sweet carbonated drink to help wash it down. This probably says more about hip-hoppers than the ad campaign of our fictional Sprinkle soft drink, but it’s another aspect of change that needs to be addressed.

Finally, there’s the simple contradiction of having a rap personality declare on record that he or she will “never sell out” or “never be a corporate tool”, only to turn on the TV and see them selling something like “Sprinkle”. A soft drink, of all things! Hustling (a.k.a. “marketing”) is fast becoming one of the major elements of hip-hop (alongside the established DJing, MCing, graffiti, and breaking elements), and we all understand the need to make money, but the devotees to this music are entitled to be confused.

I suspect fellow performers are also entitled to be confused. For instance, Jay-Z seemed genuinely stunned in 2010 to learn that MC Hammer took offense to Jay-Z’s line in Kanye West’s “So Appalled, “The Hammer went broke so you know I’m more focused / I lost thirty mill so I spent another 30 / ‘cause, unlike Hammer, 30 million can’t hurt me.” Hammer responded with a diss record (“Better Run Run”) and a video in which Hammer, who is also a preacher, appears to baptize Jay-Z. 

Hammer is probably as well known for his financial woes as he is for his hit single “U Can’t Touch This” and his dancing. Other people have made fun of Hammer’s financial fall. There’s a reference to this very thing in the movie The Goods, starring Jeremy Piven. Hammer didn’t record a diss track against the movie. Hammer even appeared in an insurance commercial making fun of himself. So why the problem with Jay-Z?  Publicity stunt? Maybe, but I wonder if Hammer had trouble accepting the idea that he was crucial to the advancement of rap’s commercial viability, got vilified and ridiculed for being so “commercial” in his day, and then after all these years he finds himself being made fun of by Jay-Z, an artist who is arguably a direct beneficiary of Hammer’s inroads.

I’m not saying consumers, artistic colleagues, or even good taste should have veto power over an artist’s ability to advertise, do testimonials, or otherwise participate in the expansion of their brand.  I’m saying there has to be an understanding that hip-hop created a brand of its own. That original “brand” signifies something different than it used to. We should evaluate these differences as we appreciate the work and resourcefulness that The Big Payback represents.

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