Sometimes I'll read a particularly interesting story out loud to my girlfriend, only to find the person who piqued my curiosity is an absolute nobody to her. This mostly applies to anything regarding hip-hop. She's not a fan, and it's an opportunity for me to drop some knowledge and feel like a professor at whatever progressive college is offering Hip-Hop 101 these days. On this day it was a story on Common, one of the more mainstream faces of so-called "positive hip-hop," only this time when I went into my explanation of his place in that world she stopped me.
She knew who he was.
How could this be possible? She couldn't name one of his albums, and I was positive she hadn't caught his bizarre turn in Smokin' Aces. She gently explained: "It's the commercials, stupid."
At a recent listening party for his forthcoming album, Common related to attending press that the hook for one of the songs came from a jam session he had with Will.i.am, the producer and mastermind of the Black Eyed Peas, themselves Svengalis of commercial placement. The jam session was on the set of Common's new Gap ad. There was at least one audible groan from the crowd at said story's conclusion.
What does it mean to hip-hop fans when "conscious" rappers, who've carved long careers speaking intelligently and poetically on the suffering of the poor, the enlightenment of black self and the rich history of African-Americans fighting injustice — in Common's case, it's been 15 years since his debut album, ironically enough titled Can I Borrow a Dollar? was released — suddenly throw on a tie and vest and shill for a variety of blue-chip corporations?
Witness Mos Def, Common's rival/partner in the conscious rap game who has also crossed over into the global living room with a successful acting career. On the critically hailed solo debut Black on Both Sides, Mighty Mos railed against corporations and their devastation with "New World Water," saying, "Fuck a bank, I need a 20-year water tank 'cause while these knuckleheads is out here sweatin' they goods, the sun is sitting in the treetops burning the woods … Fluorocarbons and monoxide push the water table lopside." In 2005, Mos earned angry cries of "sellout" and "hypocrite" when he signed a lucrative endorsement deal with American automotive manufacturer GM. To be fair, GM has taken drastic, even solitary, steps toward capping their carbon emissions, but the contradiction was inescapable. Similar outcries have been leveled against KRS-One, an originator of socially aware hip-hop, for his endorsement of Chrysler's Jeep Compass last year, and respected Slum Village for their partnership with Chevy.
"What you get now is Budweiser releasing the new Jay-Z album," says L.A.'s Gray Kid, who became an Internet sensation last year with his Justin Timberlake parody "Paxilback," a video watched over two million times since its release. Although he was a fairly established underground MC and producer, the success of the video opened doors he could not have imagined before, including corporate sponsorship. "Bottom line is the money still has to come from the same place in a way, but it gives you a lot of power back because you get to make choices about how you get it. For an artist like me, there's increasingly this idea of sponsorship." According to the Gray Kid, corporate sponsorship is a luxury for artists with the stature to be asked, but one becoming increasingly necessary in today's commercially plummeting hip-hop landscape.
Artists have never profited off album sales anyway. After paying back the advance they use to record the album, cash flow depends upon merchandise and tour sales. Corporations now are sponsoring tours for hip-hop artists (one of the most controversial was Kool Cigarettes' sponsorship of the Roots' last tour) in exchange for using their image, so to the artist it could mean more security, and for some, the only security.
"I don't think you can blame those guys for taking funds from people that they may have said something about in the past," says the Gray Kid. "In a way that's even more gutter. It's like the ultimate coup; they got to talk shit and they got paid, like ‘fuck you and pay me.' For me, personally, it's more about music. The day those guys stop making better music, then they're not allowed to take the money. That's what you see normally, stuff gets worse `as the` money gets bigger."
With hip-hop thrust back into a negative light post-Imus, however, it may be better for the genre if their positive role models are the faces a mother sees during Desperate Housewives commercials. The trend of conscious rappers in ads may in fact have been a response to the Pepsi/Ludacris fiasco, when Bill O'Reilly and conservative moms threatened a boycott unless Pepsi dropped the controversial lyricist. Maybe the only means left for socially aware hip-hop artists to present themselves to a mass audience is to put on a tie, smile, and proclaim "peace, love and Gap." Fans will cringe, tomatoes will be thrown, but in the end, there are just too many millions of reasons for Common and the gang to do firstname.lastname@example.org