The battle for hip-hop's soul
Rap music is at a crossroads. Who will determine the musics path the artists or the industry?
Matthew Dave of Hicksville, seen here on Friday, October 8, 2004, is a long-time hip hop enthusiast with a love-hate relationship for the genre. "All everyone talks about is their money and their rims," he says. He says he prefers smaller, less-known hip-hop music. (Newsday Photo/Brian A. Van Sise / October 8, 2004)
The 36-year-old Dave grew up in New Orleans under the sway of the hip-hop culture born 30 years ago in the Bronx and brought to the mainstream 25 years ago with the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight."
"The first party I ever went to was a 'Rapper's Delight' party," said Dave, who now lives in Hicksville. "Every time they played it, everyone danced. When they tried to play something else, everyone sat down."
He battled with classmates over whether hip-hop would turn out to be a passing fad. He battled with his mother over the explicit lyrics on Ice-T's gritty "Rhyme Pays" CD. ("I told her, 'If all you hear is the swearing, then you're not really listening,'" Dave recalled.) He battled with friends about the power of the music.
"I remember one night I was working in this small restaurant in New Orleans when this guy with big gold teeth, wearing a big clock around his neck, came in," Dave said. "This girl I worked with came running back and she's like, 'Did you see Flavor Flav?' I'm like, 'Flavor who?' And she hands me this CD that he gave her and says, 'Here, you take this home and listen to it.' That CD was Public Enemy's 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,' and I never was the same again. There was no one else on wax who was saying what I felt until then."
'The Golden Age'
But that was 15 years ago, in the middle of what many call "The Golden Age of Hip-Hop," when the music was at its most unpredictable, when Hollis' Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J were superstars and Long Island groups such as Public Enemy and De La Soul were stretching the genre's borders, while Ice Cube and Ice-T were building scenes on the West Coast.
Since then, Dave has left hip-hop in disgust several times. "Hip-hop has gotten kind of stagnant," he said. "The movement has gone another way. It's frustrating to see the G-Units, the Cash Money, the No Limit all day, every day. That's not about hip-hop. That's not music that has social meaning. That's all about shaking ya -- -- -- ."
He is not alone in his protest.
Two of hip-hop's biggest stars -- Jay-Z and DMX -- have announced their retirement from the genre, in part because they have tired of rappers competing over who seems most "street" or extravagant. Rappers such as Will Smith, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Ja Rule find that acting may be a more lucrative and less taxing way to work than the music that launched their careers.
Hip-hop is at a crossroads. Does it continue down the currently popular road -- pushing tales of gangsta street life and fantasies of escaping into a world of bling-bling and babes? Or does it try to harness the power of the hip-hop generation to deal with the problems of urban culture?
Of course, the decision is not that simple. Hip-hop's current incarnation generates $2.8 billion in CD sales annually, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, for a music industry that still is struggling with falling profits, making the major labels hesitant to fix something they feel isn't broken.
In the past decade, hip-hop's share of the music market has nearly doubled, to 13.3 percent, and it has gone from the fifth- most-popular type of music to second, behind rock. But does the industry really only want rappers who talk about crimes, partying and sex?
Stereotypes = profit?
Raymond Scott, best known as rapper Benzino and co- owner of hip-hop magazine The Source, says yes. He believes that many in the music industry seek out only rappers who fit these stereotypes, adding that many market and promote hip-hop featuring only violence, sexism or extravagance because that is how they want to portray African-Americans.
"Hip-hop, at one time, was a conscience for African-Americans, but they pretty much wiped that type of music out," Scott said. "I think the real revolutionaries aren't being heard these days. Right now, we're in a dangerous time because there's a double standard being applied."
Many believe hip-hop has brought the races closer together. Mogul Russell Simmons said, "Hip-hop has done more for race relations than any other force in America in the last 50 years." Walk into any mall and there will be hordes of white suburban teens dressed like 50 Cent or any number of black rappers, and struggling to sound more "street."
Though recent studies show that America's largest cities are largely segregated, more than any other multicultural country except South Africa under apartheid, clearly, the races know more about each other's lives than ever before -- even if there are only a few ways they interact. Hip-hop, like sports, is one of those few ways.
However, many in the industry believe hip-hop's financial success may be pushing the mostly white music industry decision-makers and mostly black artists in different directions.