[23 June 2014]
The record industry makes huge efforts to reissue rock CDs, but nowhere near as much effort for hip-hop CDs.
It would be nice to know that the record industry thinks older hip-hop fans are cash cows, too.
For most of the last 30 years, major record labels have generated steady income from regurgitating their back catalogues on one format or another, especially once they learned fans would happily buy the latest versions of music they already owned. First it was straight-ahead album reissues on CD, then multi-disc collections including a rarity or two. Then, those album reissues were remastered to catch up with improved audio technology. Once hipster cred revealed vinyl was a growing opportunity, some classic albums started turning up in that format too (on 180-gram vinyl, of course, the better to charge a premium price for it).
By this point, there aren’t many classic – or even way-less-than-classic – albums that aren’t available on CD, even if you have to troll through eBay to find ‘em (and for the sake of argument, let’s all pretend that you can’t hear any of them on YouTube, anyway). But the industry is still addicted to that easy-peasy reissue revenue, so like any junkie, it’s got to kick things up a notch to match the never-ending jones (and for the sake of argument, let’s all pretend that they aren’t really trying to squeeze some more cold cash from their most faithful consumers, the folks who don’t actually mind paying for music in physical formats).
Thus, we have this month’s launch of a major Led Zeppelin reissue project. The first three Zep albums have been re-re-released on CD with up-to-date remastering overseen by Jimmy Page himself, plus rare tracks, concert videos and assorted other goodies. The other albums… their time is gonna come (and I wouldn’t be surprised if said time falls around a holiday – the first batch hit just in time for Father’s Day). Seeing as their catalog has been in dire need of attention for years, it’s hard to be mad about this effort.
But do we really need a bells-and-whistles blowout to mark the 20th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s final album, The Division Bell? Or a 40th anniversary victory lap for Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky? Or a 30th anniversary release of a greatest hits record? Yep, you read that right. The Bob Marley and the Wailers best-of Legend, one of the most efficient and popular CDs of its kind, is being re-released as a two-disc set, with the second disc being a Blu-ray audio version of the regular CD. I actually should say re-released again, following expanded versions in 1994 and 2002, a set with a DVD in 2004, and a set of remixes in 2013.
I have no idea who would shell out bucks for this latest iteration– certainly not most Marley enthusiasts, who’ve had these songs for years in one format or another – especially since the original Legend seems to have been selling just fine (25 million worldwide and counting, by most estimates). The whole thing brings to mind this lyric from one of those Legend-ary tracks: “every day the bucket a-go a well/one day the bottom a-go drop out” (“I Shot the Sheriff”). For now at least, this particular well seems to still has a drop or two left.
Other genres have their own spins on the reissue game; you can get Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue in more hard-copy permutations than there are tracks on the original album. But curiously absent from all this fun has been hip-hop. There are numerous classic hip-hop albums, many of them around as long or longer than the band Soundgarden, yet their Superunknown has just been gussied up into two- and five-disc expanded packages to mark its 20th birthday, while most major hip-hop albums haven’t been revisited since their original release.
One of the first significant hip-hop album reissues was the 1998 “Platinum Edition” of Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full, which included a disc of remixes along with the original album. Run-D.M.C.’s catalog got the full treatment in 2005, with bonus cuts tacked on to the original albums. De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising got a similar treatment in 2009, but that’s long since been forgotten, especially after their BitTorrent adventure earlier this year.
But beyond that, there’s been little industry attention to revitalizing hip-hop’s past for current consumers. Milestone anniversaries of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and The Low End Theory, to name just two, came and went without reissue-style notice. Some major hip-hop labels have had nice retrospectives (Sugarhill and Def Jam have each seen several), but sometimes it seems like there’s more interest in reissuing the music hip-hop sampled than the final products, as evidenced by the steady stream of soul and funk obscurity compilations.
Perhaps it’s an issue of getting clearances for samples (although that didn’t prevent a 20th anniversary reissue of the Beastie Boys’ sample-driven Paul’s Boutique, complete with a vinyl version, in 2009). Perhaps a workable master tape to use for the remastering process doesn’t exist anymore. Perhaps there isn’t enough unreleased material just lying around in a vault somewhere to pique fan interest. Or perhaps somebody determined that folks just don’t care about re-buying old rap records for the sake of a remix or two.
All of which makes this year’s re-re-release of Nas’ Illmatic news. The story of the album is part of hip-hop’s legend and lore. Nasir Jones grew up watching rap take shape in the Queensbridge housing projects in New York City, then made a name for himself with incendiary cameos on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque” and MC Serch’s “Back to the Grill”. Illmatichis debut album, is at once gritty and poetic, defiant and hopeful, all with a jubilant flow. It was an instant classic, and has been a foundational text for rappers ever since.
So it’s all well and good that Sony Music marked its 20th anniversary in grand style. Illmatic XX has everything you’d expect in such a product: the original album with better remastering, a second disc of remixes and rare tracks, and an in-depth essay in the liner notes. It’s a worthy acknowledgement of an important achievement.
I hope it does well as far as these things go, and I hope it reminds younger listeners why everything we’ve heard about Nas in the years since then – his ill-advised pop turn, his beef with Jay Z, his stormy relationship with Kelis, not to mention the ten CD’s he’s since put out – has back-story weight beyond street gossip and industry who-shot-John.
I’ve upgraded pieces of my music library numerous times: vinyl to CD’s, single-disc albums to expanded versions, brief compilations to full-on box sets. But I’ll pass on adding Illmatic XX to my mix, thank you very much. They already got me the last time they reissued Illmatic.
In 2004, Sony gave us the awkwardly titled 10 Year Anniversary Illmatic Platinum Series, combining the original release with a second CD of remixes and extras. There’s nothing particularly special about the package, but I thought and still think it was a perfectly decent value-added version of a classic. I had no idea its value-addedness would be eclipsed 10 years later.
That said, if I didn’t have the 10th anniversary edition, I’d be tempted to pick up Illmatic XX. For now, though, I’ll wait to see what they cook up for the 25th anniversary, or the 30th.
So who’s the audience for Illmatic XX? How many people out there love the original so much, they want every scrap of sound that can possibly be associated with it? Are the extra goodies enough to encourage listeners coming to Illmatic for the first time to use this route, as opposed to just grabbing the original release for a few bucks at the used record store, or hearing it online for free?
Puzzling all that out should keep the bean counters busy for a minute or two, and maybe the results will mean we’ll someday see re-packagings of, say, The College Dropout or Tha Carter III or Take Care. But there’s another issue at re-play here, a different kind of asset valuation.
Black music is more than just music. It’s an ever-unfolding document of how we have lived our lives. Our hopes and dreams, frustrations and fears, calls and responses are all laid out there, preserved in the recorded voices and grooves. Black music won’t tell you everything you need to know about black folk, but taken in its multifaceted whole, it will shine a great big light on how we’ve lived our lives.
Before the CD reissue boom (the reissue line of the music business actually began in earnest in the late ‘50s, with compilations of blues music from the ‘20s and ‘30s), a lot of that history was lost, or buried in record company vaults. By the ‘90s and early ‘00s, the floodgates were wide open. Not only was there easy availability of virtually every important recording in black music’s lineage, it became a lot easier to branch off into all the side routes and lesser lights.
If you wanted to hear where R&B came from, you could get as much Louis Jordan as your heart and budget desired – a single best-of disc, a more comprehensive two-disc package, or a nine-disc set with all the bells and whistles. But if you needed to investigate things further, you could rabbit-hole your way into the surprisingly big catalogue of the Harlem Hamfats, a late ‘30s studio band in New York City whose small-group, good-timey music (“Weed Smoker’s Dream,” “Let’s Get Drunk and Truck”) served as a prototype for Jordan’s later breakthroughs. All of it was out on CD (and if your local store didn’t carry a full line of such obscurities, there was always Amazon), with perfectly decent sound and helpful liner notes.
They say nowadays that everything’s on the Internet somewhere, and maybe that’s true. I pulled up dozens of Harlem Hamfats tracks on YouTube the other day, and who knows how many others are out there somewhere. Having access to the history of culture and people is a beautiful thing, indeed. But it’s doubtful any of those tracks would have been uploaded to YouTube if they hadn’t been put out on CD. Moreover, seeing access to cultural content facilitated through the largesse of a profit-driven business sends an additional message.
It sends that message to the people responsible for providing the profit: the paying customers. It tells them their creations as a people are artistically important enough to be made available again, for new generations and audiences, in shiny packaging and a couple of nice photos or two. The best black music (and every other kind, too) reissue packages were works of art in and of themselves; the Charlie Christian The Genius of the Electric Guitar set came in a box shaped like a suitcase guitar amplifier. But even the most diffident efforts were tactile, substantial; they were things, and things mattered a lot in the pre-digital world.
But the message goes beyond the physical artifact. The mere act of making the music available again, no matter the format or trappings, is at least a passing matter of respect to and for the people who consumed it the first time around. It’s been historically kind of a big deal for black folk to be treated as people with money to spend just like any other American, as documented by Stephanie Capparell’s The Real Pepsi Challenge: The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Line in American Business (Wall Street Journal Books, 2007), the fascinating story of Pepsi’s groundbreaking work in the ‘40s and ‘50s to target and market to black consumers when other corporations ignored them. Pepsi made the effort, and black folk responded with their loyalty to them instead of Coca-Cola.
That notion of marketing being oft-seen by blacks as not just marketing but also acknowledgment is still alive and well, even for all the progress we’ve made since then (and it applies to not only beverages but darned near every other product line). Even if old-schoolers still have those Dinah Washington or Donny Hathaway albums in the attic, seeing that music out again in current technological formats says their culture is being taken seriously in that most capitalistic way of saying it. And that makes people feel a little better about not only their culture but also themselves – when it comes to black music, such matters are often taken to heart. My music has been reissued, goes this school of thought and emotion, therefore I am.
So where, then, will hip-hop fall into this pattern? That still seems to be in play, especially with the recorded music industry in continued flux. But the notions of validation and respect are still potentially sensitive for hip-hop’s first wave of consumers.
The teenagers who made cassette tapes from rap songs on the radio in the early ‘80s (if they lived somewhere where they played rap on the radio) are quite possibly raising teenagers of her/his own today. Their younger siblings, who came up during rap’s 1987-92 Golden Age, might be thinking about moving on up the ladder at work. Their older siblings, who rocked all the James Brown stuff that got sampled later on, get an occasional membership pitch from AARP.
And today’s hip-hop sounds nothing like the hip-hop of their youths.
That’s neither bad nor good, at least on the face of it. But the difference is so stark, stylistically and culturally, that it often seems like a non-native tongue to some older heads among us. If those folks still have love for hip-hop, it’s likely to be hip-hop that sounds more like the stuff they grew up on than what’s on the radio now. And while they’d likely appreciate much of the current indie and underground rap lurking about on the Internet, their lives are too busy to devote hours scrolling for the perfect beat.
All of which points towards another opportunity for record companies to do what they’ve done for years: sell people their youth all over again. Heck, we’ve seen even punk and New Wave reissues and collections, and there’s no reason to suspect we won’t see more of them. The Rock the Bells tours of years past revealed at least a baseline potential for translating hip-hop nostalgia into profits.
If record companies tried only a little bit harder with their hip-hop back catalogues, they might discover another source of quick cash. At the very least, a lot of fans might be flattered by the gesture.