Nothing, it's said, fails like success. If so, rap music is looking forward to a major comeuppance. One can spot the burgeoning seeds of destruction in what acts are signed, how they're marketed, and especially growing schisms within the hip-hop community. Where the hip-hop nation once comfortably encompassed a broad array of acts from 2 Live Crew to Kool Moe Dee to Public Enemy, signs of unrest are emerging between self-styled factions, as conscious rappers bristle at bling-hawking commercial rappers, and underground rap increasingly becomes the refuge of artists who appeal solely to white audiences. As these tensions increase, another cliché comes to mind: United we stand, divided we … well, you know.
Of music's five best-selling genres (country, R&B/urban, rap/hip-hop, rock and pop), only rap has experienced growth in its market share over the last five years, according to the RIAA. On the radio, rap and urban music have almost completely taken over, providing 61 percent of last year's top 100 songs as tabulated by Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems. This radio saturation far outstrips the genres' combined sales which only account for around 25 percent of the market (the same as rock) but gives an indication as to how culturally dominant the music has become recently.
These trends, of course, are cyclical. From 1989 to 1993, rock music saw its market share cannibalized by a then-fiery country music scene. Similarly, country music was, at its sales peak, accounting for nearly one-fifth of all music sales; now its share is half that size, having given way to a resurgence of rock and, for a moment, pop music. In 2001, pop music was the second best-selling genre (after rock), before losing a quarter of its audience the very next year. To what kind of music was that audience lost? You got it: rap and urban.
Needless to say, the chart dominance of any genre is temporary, mainly because the major labels stick to a familiar process of cloning whatever is popular and then oversaturating the market with it. Inundated by a flood of weaker acts similar to the chart-toppers, everyone's stock is depressed and the genre burns out. The same thing might be happening in rap, where, increasingly, attaching yourself to a trend or more importantly, a producer is paramount to furthering your career. Where would The Game be without Dre? How about Lil Jon's crew? Ninth Wonder, DJ for the group Little Brother, credits much of his success (he's produced Jean Grae and Destiny's Child) to the patronage of The Roots' ?uestlove and Jay-Z.
"The way the game is now, it's hard to make it without some kind of co-sign. There are a lot of people who like music first, no matter who you are only thing they need is a co-sign from another music lover. But there are another group of people who are boogleheads, just watch TV all day and they need a co-sign from a major artist to let them know, 'It's OK for me to buy it.' I hate it, but it's like a lot of cats didn't pay attention to me until `Jay-Z's` The Black Album," he says.
According to Ninth Wonder, Little Brother's album The Listening inspired Jay-Z to call him in to produce "a beat with a nice DJ Premier bounce." This illustrates another problem with rap these days it's endlessly derivative, and the formulas are codified from the mainstream to the underground.
"All the underground albums sound alike," opines Prince Paul. "`Once`, the underground was a little experimental; now you have to have a sound to be underground. You have to copy Pete Rock or DJ Premier. Once you copy that sound, you're authentically underground. A lot of those beats sound really good, but they're definitely not groundbreaking."
Paul laughs when I relate Ninth Wonder's story and says, "See how what I just said fell into the pocket? I didn't even know that story, but I know what the formulas are."
Prince Paul rose to prominence first with Stetsasonic and then cemented his reputation after producing De La Soul's 1989 breakthrough debut, Three Feet High and Rising. That album blew open old preconceptions of what hip-hop could sample, going beyond funk and dipping into a variety of pop forms. Even a quick listen reveals no comparison between the rich sonic signature of Prince Paul or Public Enemy's Bomb Squad and the production ethos employed today. According to Paul, it's just part of an environment that's become increasingly like a sandwich shop rather than a musical endeavor.
"People just run the beat and let it go, and let the MC do all the changes the changes for the chorus, the changes for the rhyme. People don't sit down, have a rapport going, hang out and have fun, then make the record when it has a vibe to it," laments Paul, who was certainly known to hang out and have fun while making records.
"`Now a rapper says` 'Send me the track. You don't have to be there. My man Merlin here is going to record me at the studio and I'll just send it back to you.' The camaraderie of getting together and making a record has totally been lost. It shows in the lack of arrangements," Paul suggests. "The sad part of it is, a cat like that will sell a million records and who are you to argue with that? Prince Paul does a million arrangements and sells two copies and the guy who went 'Boom! Smack!' sells a million."
It's no surprise that quantity sold typically has an inverse relationship to the quality of creation, especially when it comes to the music business. What's somewhat unique to hip-hop is the irony of the backlash that's manifesting itself as the "underground." Underground rap's complaints about commerce and authenticity offer an eerie echo of the late-'80s alternative post-punk underground, yet while college radio consistently offered progressive-sounding solutions then, the current hip-hop underground is even further subdivided into its retro-purist and avant-garde camps.
"There's an underlying underground. I use this term lightly, but there's another community that's not mainstream, that still abides by these particular principles of hip-hop as an attitude and most of them are the ones `who` have a problem with what they see on radio and television and how they see it depicted," explains KRS-One. "Hip-hop is an international culture, and what is it really? It's not physical. It's a shared idea that really can't be written on paper it's just a shared vision. Those that betray that are those that have joined the mainstream, and have sold the sacredness of our dream just for money … . That's the point, really, to protect against music turning into product."
Just as with indie rock, the measure of a band's worth and place is solely reliant upon their sales figures (or lack thereof).
"A lot of people told us, 'What you do is outdated. People don't want to hear that. You do backpack music.' Whatever the hell that is," recalls Ninth Wonder.
"Once you get a lot of money involved, that's when you can break it down," Paul says. "Did he sell less than a certain amount of copies? He's backpack `and` his audience is a few kids that go into Fat Pete's and go, 'Yo, let me get that Yosemite Sam I Am record,' or whoever the new hip-hop guy is. If you're in Best Buy `and` you sell a couple hundred thousand, that's different."
Such attitudes become ingrained and exclusionary. When success equals sellout for a large proportion of an underground artist's audience, crossover success becomes more difficult, further separating the camps.
"Kids today and labels want to do this they want to put people in boxes. They like to say this is this and this is that," says Ninth Wonder. "Why don't you let the people decide what it is, instead of boxing something up? This is what is messing hip-hop up, because a lot of these underground kids now say, 'Lil Jon's not hip-hop, this is not hip-hop.' But Luke Skyywalker was? It's very contradictory. NWA was hip-hop but G-Unit ain't? I don't get these underground cats sometimes."
Just beneath the surface of the underground's parameters is an undeniable facet of racial identity. It's an oft-repeated truism that 70 percent of rap music buyers are white. How many mainstream rappers are white? Only one comes to mind, but the underground is flush with them. Attend their shows and you'll find an almost entirely white audience, whether we're talking Atmosphere, MC Paul Barman, Sage Francis or Aesop Rock. Which is not to suggest that such interests are to the exclusion of other artists certainly artists such as Talib Kweli, Common and Mos Def have sold plenty of records while appealing to a broad cross-section of music lovers, commercial and underground. But at the same time, one wonders if mediocre albums, media oversaturation, questions of authenticity and commercialism and an increasing division over the issue of what's "true" hip-hop won't spell the same doom it has in almost every genre at one time or another.
"A lot of artists today who have a lot of publicity people get sick and tired of that shit, but don't confuse that with thinking they can't be that talented. These motherfuckers are talented they are trained professionals. You might see him everywhere but he knows what the fuck he's doing. `People` say The Game might be manufactured a made-up rapper and we don't know his street cred. At this point in the game," Ninth Wonder intones, "I just want someone to make a solid album."