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
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…