Hip hop music was blamed for the August riots. But behind the celebration of “bling” is a culture of entrepreneurshipby Steve Yates / September 21, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Read Steve Yates’s rundown of the tracks that changed hip hop at our blog
The latest album by the twin titans of hip hop has been a record-breaking success. On its release, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne had the highest ever first week sales on iTunes of any new album. A total of 290,000 copies were downloaded that week, and when CDs are taken into account, the album’s sales approached the 450,000 mark. Hip hop is big business.
Watch The Throne is symbolic of the status that hip hop, or rap, has now reached. Originating in the South Bronx in New York City in the late 1970s, when performers began rapping over looped beats taken from soul and funk records, hip hop has since journeyed right into the heart of mainstream culture.
Jay-Z is married to Beyoncé Knowles, queen of R&B, and together they form the most influential power couple in global music. His wealth is estimated by Forbes at around $450m, and he has had 12 US number one albums (only the Beatles, with 19, have had more). Kanye West’s fortune is around $70m. Watch the Throne is thick with references to wealth—even the sleeve is designed by Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci: “Luxury rap, the Hermès of verses,” raps Kanye, giving the brand its French pronunciation, lest anyone should think he was mistaking the high-end goods manufacturer for a mythic Greek messenger.
But for its detractors, this materialism is one of rap’s three deadly sins, along with its violence and misogyny. Casual fans of hip hop often see its materialistic side as something either to be played down or embraced “ironically.” Some commentators judge it more harshly. When the riots broke out across Britain this summer, many saw hip hop’s celebration of materialism as one of the key causes. Paul Routledge, writing in the Mirror, summarised this view when he said, “I blame the pernicious culture of hatred around rap music, which glorifies violence and loathing of authority… [and] exalts trashy materialism.”
Routledge is not entirely wrong. The story of hip hop’s journey into the cultural mainstream is the story of its love affair with materialism, or, more accurately, capitalism. Its lead exponents, like Jay-Z and Kanye West, are brilliant entrepreneurs with vast fortunes (even if their music advocates a profligacy that is anathema to the savvy business operator). Hip hop’s rise has been, at root, a straightforward process of free-market enterprise: an excellent product has been pushed with great skill and new markets opened up with real dynamism and flair.
Unsurprisingly, corporate brands have been keen to get involved. Darren Wright, creative director of the Nike account at advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy explains the appeal: “With hip hop you’re buying more than music. It isn’t a genre—it’s a lifestyle, encompassing fashion, break dancing, the clothes or the jewels you wear… The lifestyle is worth its weight in gold because it’s not just about one rap song, it’s so much more.”
The view of hip hop as a genre concerned only with the basest forms of materialism is a serious oversimplification. It misunderstands the way that rap’s relationship with capitalism has fed its creativity and led to both its commercial and artistic success.
While modern hip hop is unashamedly materialistic, its ancestors were different. As far back as the 1960s, artists such as The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron combined African-American music with spoken word poetry. But Scott-Heron, like others of that generation, was critical of the passive materialism that he saw working its way into black culture. As he intoned on “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”: “The revolution will not go better with Coke / The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath / The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.” This political consciousness was taken up in the 1980s by the extraordinary Public Enemy, a New York group that mixed incendiary politics with apocalyptic music, militaristic dress and cartoon humour. Gentler, but still political, takes on “Afrocentricity” were advanced by the brilliant Native Tongues collective including groups like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers.
But by the early 1990s, this “conscious” streak was being eclipsed by the giddy thrills of gangsta rap. Its motivation was pithily summarised by NWA (Niggaz With Attitude), the group who named and codified the subgenre, on their track “Gangsta Gangsta”—“life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money.” Despite this apparent nihilism, NWA embraced the American dream with relish. They set down the unapologetic “money-is-all” credo of the low-level street hustler, in which drug dealing, guns and the police swirl about in a ferocious urban storm. Like other popular representations of American gangsterism—The Godfather, Scarface—it was a vision of unfettered free market enterprise.
Slowly, the early political message was replaced by this focus on accumulation, both in the lyrics and also the business practice of those who were running the scene. One of hip hop’s key entrepreneurs was Percy “Master P” Miller, who grew his No Limit empire from an LA record shop into a record label and then into a conglomerate. Miller spearheaded a new wave of hip-hop business by entering into joint ventures with music companies. He chose Priority, which was independent of the major record labels, and which had made a packet out of NWA and other leading artists. His deal brought all the benefits of working for major labels, such as distribution and marketing muscle, without the drawbacks—Master P was able to retain copyright control over the music and release records to his own schedule.
But not content with music, he diversified wildly: clothing, property, Master P dolls—even telephone sex lines. His debut film, the low-budget, straight-to-video I’m Bout It (1997) raked in sales that would have satisfied major studios. In 1998, Miller’s companies grossed $160m.
In New York, the business interests of Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs developed along parallel lines: music, restaurants, a magazine, the inevitable clothing line, all name-stamped in a manner that led the consumer back to the man himself. Dan Charnas, in his masterful book The Big Payback: The History Of The Business Of Hip-Hop, describes Miller and Combs as “the embodiment of the superpowered artist, two one-man brands, the fulfilment of [the] vision of self-determination and ownership—not just for hip-hop artists, not just for black artists, but for all American artists.” Having turned their art into business, they turned their business back into art. According to Charnas, their success “would mark the beginning of an unprecedented spike in black American entrepreneurship.”
So while hip hop started off as an underground, and often political movement, it has for many years pursued an increasingly intimate relationship with business. Hip hop now has a materialist, acquisitive streak hard-wired into its identity. It is this embrace of capitalism that has taken hip hop from outsider status right to America’s core. This ascent was neatly symbolised when Barack Obama, on the nomination campaign trail in 2008, dismissed criticisms from the Clinton camp by mimicking Jay-Z’s famous “dirt off my shoulder” gesture. Asked which rappers were on his iPod, there was only one candidate.
British variants of rap music have been growing in success, too. Yet the contrast with America is marked. Maybe the conflicting attitudes are born of economic realism: the market is much smaller, and British hip hop has a limited international audience. That was perhaps why British rap’s flirtation with outlandish “bling” materialism was comparatively short-lived. In the early 2000s, the south London group So Solid Crew (far right) emerged at the forefront of the “garage” scene. Its members imitated the flow, though not the accents, of American rap superstars over electronic dance rhythms that successfully merged influences ranging from American house and hip hop, to Jamaican dancehall and British drum ‘n’ bass. Instantly, they became the sound of young black London. “Proper [rap] songs started with So Solid,” says Elijah Butterz, a 24-year-old DJ and label owner, over a pint of Guinness in a Walthamstow pub. “When they hit, eeeeveryone was into them. If you listened to garage you were cool. If you didn’t you weren’t.”
So Solid, along with other British garage acts, brought American-style bling culture to Britain’s clubs. Smart dress, diamonds and champagne became dancefloor staples. But this quickly generated a backlash. Wretch 32 (right) is a 26-year-old from Tottenham who found fame this year with two number one singles and a top five album. He feels that the norms of American hip hop do not always translate well in Britain: “I think because of our culture, people don’t go for stuff like that—someone making them feel like they’re less of a person for having less money.”
In response, east London rapidly developed its own sound, called grime—a rap-dominated genre with a harsh, electronic edge, and lyrics that sounded like a fight in a fried chicken shop. Chantelle Fiddy, 30, a journalist and label consultant, agrees: “Grime was the middle finger to [garage]. It was for those people who were either not old enough or didn’t have the money to go to the [garage] raves. Someone like me, who came up through jungle and just danced like a dick in trainers, I never felt comfortable with garage.”
Grime has had its triumphs. Dizzee Rascal scored a significant success with his 2003 debut Boy In Da Corner. Others, such as Tinchy Stryder, Tinie Tempah and now Wretch 32 have followed in Dizzee’s wake, increasingly adapting the sound for the mainstream. But inflated claims of riches don’t really fly. “In grime you can’t really lie about it,” says Sian Anderson, a 20-year-old writer, label consultant, PR and DJ for the influential radio station Rinse FM. “If you’re talking about popping champagne and then you go out on [the] road and you haven’t got an amazing car and you don’t look that great, then everyone knows you’re a liar and your music’s not real, so you’re back to square one.”
Road rap is south London’s counterpart to the east end’s grime. Slower and meaner than grime, and with a closer resemblance to US gangsta rap, it’s shown little interest in winning mainstream acceptability. Its biggest name, Giggs, has served time on weapons charges—he started in the music business when he got out. But his career has been dogged by police interference. His shows have frequently been cancelled and contract talks with a major record company were curtailed, reputedly after a call to the label from Operation Trident, the unit in the Metropolitan Police dealing with black-on-black gun crime. Then came Form 696, a risk-assessment form requiring London promoters to submit extensive details about themselves, their performers and even, in the original version, the probable ethnic make-up of the audience. After this, grime and road rap often struggled to get live bookings. Although the Met denied racial profiling, senior music industry figures complained to the Equality and Human Rights Commission about this stringent requirement.
Denied a live platform, they’ve found a new one online, notably on SB.TV, now confidently billed as Britain’s biggest youth media channel. But not everyone cares about chasing the music mainstream anyway. “I don’t want to be part of it,” says Elijah Butterz. “Apart from Rinse, there’s nothing there doing what I want to do. Everyone expects you to dig into the music industry, but as long as I can make money from bookings and merchandising, I’ll continue doing what I’m doing.” For Elijah, that means running the eponymous Butterz label, one of very few to still release vinyl records, DJing (for free) on Rinse and living off his DJ club bookings.
This quiet determination seems a long way from the hardheaded ambitions of American hip hop, whose outlook has always been more expansive. “There’s no protocol to the things I’m selling because I’m selling my culture,” Jay-Z’s partner Damon Dash, told me in 2003. Dash was the driving force behind the growth of Roc-A-Fella, their jointly-owned music business, whose name is an explicit reference to the capitalist heights they sought to scale.
The relationship between American hip hop and leading brands has always been strong. Adidas sales spiked after Run-DMC’s 1986 track “My Adidas”; Tommy Hilfiger went from obscurity to being the highest-traded clothing company on Wall Street in 1996 after steady name-dropping by hip-hop artists from 1992. Courvoisier reportedly received a 30 per cent sales boost in the US after Busta Rhymes released “Pass The Courvoisier”—the largest single rise since Napoleon III named it the official cognac of the imperial court. Its rival, Hennessy, the most popular brandy in hip hop, estimates that the majority of its customers are young black males.
British rappers are learning this lesson. Dizzee Rascal has had two Nike trainers of his own—an invaluable tie-in—and now owns his own label, Dirtee Stank. Tinie Tempah has a clothing range with Disturbing London, while Tinchy Stryder’s Star In The Hood line looks a more durable bet than his records.
But this is still a far cry from the US, where rappers get to hobnob with the president. On Watch The Throne’s emblematic “Murder To Excellence,” Kanye and Jay-Z contrast the black-on-black murder of American ghettoes with their lives of luxury. “Black tie, black Maybachs/Black excellence, opulence, decadence/Tuxes next to the President, I’m present,” raps Jay-Z, before bemoaning how few black faces he sees at the pinnacle and calling on more to join him.
When critics zero in on hip hop’s materialism, as they did this summer, they see just a fraction of the story—the fraction that talks about money, cars and glamour. But fixating on this element of hip hop ignores its limited appeal in Britain, where rappers have largely ditched the “bling” posturing of the early 2000s. When Wiley, the most influential man in grime after Dizzee Rascal, called his recent album 100% Publishing, he was celebrating his bargaining power. It’s a similar sentiment expressed by Margate rapper Mic Righteous, who, contrasting his homeless past with his present, raps, “I used to cherish every pound I got, now I cherish every pound I earn.”
In the past 30-or-so years, hip hop has tried politics and it has tried gangsterism. But in the end it settled for capitalism, which energised it and brought it to a position of global dominance. American rappers like Puff Daddy and Master P, men who fought their way into the big time, did so by selling a vision of independence, empowerment and material success. That vision is also found, if less vividly, in Britain’s rap music. And though hip hop retains unpleasant features, the core message, that people can have better lives, is incontestably a good one.
On our blog: Steve Yates chooses his top five tracks and explains how they changed hip hop