On Sunday, in the first of a two-part look at the growing white presence in rap, Calendar profiled Eminem, the controversial rapper who is the first white solo rap artist to achieve stardom and respect. Today’s Part Two explores the issue of racial identity in rap through interviews with rappers, black and white, and industry observers.
Rapper Jay-Z believes he has seen the future face of hip-hop. He sees it when he looks out from the stage at his record-breaking rap concerts or when he pictures the album buyers who have made him rich. He also sees it when he envisions the still-unknown artists who will be the genre’s biggest stars in five years.
That face, he says, is white.
“And I don’t have a problem with that,” the Brooklyn rhymer says. “Rap is the music of youth, and, yeah, most of the fans are white. They’re going to be the next crop [of artists]. . . . It’s already happening. But to me, music doesn’t have a color. I would not be surprised if in a few years the biggest rappers are white, though.”
But where Jay-Z sees hip-hop following the path of rock ‘n’ roll and other genres--to be pioneered by African Americans but eventually dominated commercially by white artists--other rappers disagree strongly.
Rapper-filmmaker Ice Cube, the lyrical force behind the pioneering N.W.A, believes the gritty street tales that form much of today’s rap will remain its focus. And black rappers, he says, will lead the way.
“Not only is it music driven by the youth, it’s a music driven by the street and by the black culture,” Cube says. “The lingo is always changing, and that lingo comes from the bottom of the ghetto. . . . The reason that won’t change is I don’t think the white experience in America is as interesting as the black experience in this country. Art comes from the worst conditions and that’s why.”
Still, white artists are seeing their role and prominence in the hip-hop universe change. Next week, the most hotly awaited rap album of the year arrives in stores, and the artist on the cover is white--Missouri native Eminem, the speed-rhymer who delights in comically perverse lyrics. Meanwhile, the hottest frontier in rock is the hip-hop and guitar amalgams offered by the white rapper-rockers Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock and Korn.
To some, these are signs that hip-hop culture is indeed color blind, but others see a worrisome reminder of other pop music moments when African American-created genres were usurped by whites and the pioneering black artists suffered because of it.
Rapper RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, for instance, has publicly worried that music industry powers will push white rappers with an eye toward creating a bigger market, while Chuck D of the seminal rap outfit Public Enemy has long pointed to the treatment of black rock and R&B; pioneers as a cautionary tale of industry avarice and racial cynicism that still applies today.
Could rap end up like those other genres?
Rock began its commercial onslaught in the ‘50s with the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but it reached its zenith of popularity only after Elvis Presley weathered criticism for “singing like a black man.”
White artists also lead sales-wise in other genres that began in the black community. Kenny G was the only jazz artist with an album among the nation’s top 200 bestsellers of 1999, while Diana Krall garnered a rare Grammy best album nomination for the genre. In blues, the youngest crop of stars are Jonny Lang, Susan Tedeschi and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, while Eric Clapton may be the genre’s most marketable star. And a strong argument could be made that the best-selling R&B; artists today are the white suburbanites known as the Backstreet Boys.
“They all started with the black artists,” Jay-Z says of the genres, “but they didn’t stay that way. . . . When [the white rap artists] come, the white kids will buy it. That’s just the way it is.”
That logic likely led to the explosive success--and quick implosion--of Vanilla Ice’s career a decade ago. The first solo white rapper of any fame, he scored a mega-hit with “Ice Ice Baby” but then quickly became seen as the Pat Boone of his era, a stilted, synthetic white artist trying to tap into a black music movement.
Genre Is Now a Staple
of MTV, Madison Avenue
“Certainly when you have a white rapper become the biggest act, there are people who immediately start saying, ‘All right, here we go, it’s going to be like the early days of rock ‘n’ roll,’ ” says Spin magazine editor Alan Light, who also edited the 1999 book “The Vibe History of Hip-Hop.” “But people said it when the Beastie Boys first broke and when Vanilla Ice took off. But it didn’t happen, it didn’t open the floodgates for a takeover by white rappers.”
There is a difference, however, here in 2000.
Hip-hop is not new to today’s white youth, nor is it especially tied to any history for many of them. So the novelty and shock that accompanied the sight of Vanilla Ice--a white guy rapping!--fades with every Eminem and Limp Bizkit hit. In a few years, it’s likely that the newest crop of fans won’t even blink at white rappers. After all, how many fans of the Rolling Stones in the 1960s balked at Brits singing blues songs?
More than two decades have passed since hip-hop surged up from the New York streets and found its way to the pop charts with the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” The genre is now a mainstream staple of MTV and Madison Avenue and a sonic force influencing the sound of every major pop genre.
It’s easy to imagine that the majority of rap’s buying audience--young, white males--could produce an ever-growing chain of stars, just as Eminem says he was inspired to push his career after watching a Beastie Boys video in the 1980s and realizing for the first time those voices belonged to white performers.
“Hip-hop is part of everybody’s life now, it’s not a black and white thing anymore,” says Fred Durst, frontman of Limp Bizkit. “Yeah, it’s a problem for some people [that I’m white], but this is what I know, this is the music in me. So if that’s a problem, it’s not my problem. We’re credible.”
Street credibility and authenticity are deeply important in rap, perhaps more so than in any other music genre, Light notes. That, he says, will make it difficult for record companies to clog the market with white rappers for purely commercial reasons. Even Eminem, he says, became a superstar in part because he was publicly anointed by Dre as his new protege, a move that clearly boosted Eminem’s acceptance by rap fans.
“Like any multinational corporation, the labels follow the money. . . . You can expect them to push harder for white rappers if that’s going to lead to the money, but you can’t really create these things,” Light says. “It’s hard to foist hip-hop on people.”
The black urban experience is key to rap, Light says, and, indeed, the best-selling rap artists of the past year include Dre, Jay-Z, DMX and Juvenile, all black artists who present hard-core rap steeped in street-life imagery. Even though all of those albums trail Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock on a tally of top-selling albums for the past year, why exactly would anyone perceive white artists to be more marketable if a parade of black rappers is selling millions and millions of albums?
One reason is radio. In Los Angeles, for example, Eminem’s infectious new single, “The Real Slim Shady,” is a huge hit for KROQ-FM (106.7), a modern rock station that doesn’t play other hard-core rappers such as the sonically similar Dr. Dre, Eminem’s mentor and producer.
The station’s program director, Kevin Weatherly, attributes the Eminem exception to the rapper’s unique niche in pop culture and today’s rock audience’s continued warming to hip-hop, but to Light, the inclusion of Eminem on the KROQ playlist “seems blatantly race driven.”
Either way, that type of crossover will catch the eye of record executives, much like the impressive sales of the rap-rock hybrid. That will send talent executives scurrying for look-alike acts, says RuffNation Records chief Chris Schwartz, who was instrumental in the early careers of the Fugees and Cypress Hill.
Rooted in Rock
“You will see 20 new Kid Rocks and Limp Bizkits in the next year,” Schwartz says. “But I don’t think that’s going to affect hard-core, black rap--I think it’s going to change rock. You need traditional rap for credibility [with black youth], it comes down to a cultural thing. But that music has reached other people, so you have white kids living in a trailer in the Midwest that feel just as disenfranchised as the black city kids.
“Rap-rock is the bastard child of that mixing with rock,” Schwartz says. “But it all makes hip-hop bigger. The masses define what the artists do. And the masses want hip-hop.”
The masses also wanted rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, but it was white artists who took it to its massive success after black trailblazers helped create the basic music lexicon. That historical chapter--and the financial exploitation of black artists that came with it--is often cited by Chuck D, the firebrand rapper who rails against the music industry for its treatment of artists, especially black artists.
Most rap stars and music industry observers say that sort of wholesale exploitation won’t repeat itself with rap because this time African Americans have stewardship and a stake in the business they are fueling with their music. Moguls such as Sean “Puffy” Combs, head of Arista-affiliated Bad Boy Entertainment, and Master P, chief of the New Orleans hit factory No Limit Records, have gone from recording stars to impresarios, and leaders such as Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons have risen to high posts with major labels.
“That’s the huge difference now,” says Bryan Turner, president and CEO of Priority Records, a label that had the first rap album to debut at No. 1 on the pop charts, N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” in 1988. “That changes the entire dynamic. It’s a huge departure from the old history of these other genres.”
For many in the world of rap, race issues are a wearying topic. After two decades as a genre, many artists who reach a multicultural audience find the idea of casting the music in black and white as a step backward. For Mike D of the Beastie Boys--who have evolved from a punk-rock group to a rap world novelty to respected and best-selling hip-hop innovators--the days when the group would be booed or mocked for daring to be white rappers seem like ancient history.
“When we came out it was a different thing,” he says. “Back then, it was inconceivable that you would see white MCs up on stage. People looked at us like we must have been from outer space. . . . Hip-hop has come so far now and the music is everywhere. Pop records have the same break-beats as hip-hop, and what’s the real difference now between the top R&B; records and top hip-hop records? The rock kids have grown up with hip-hop and now it’s changing that music.”
To Mike D, the most important race issue in hip-hop culture today is the music’s ability to cut across cultural differences and bond audiences.
“It’s music for the world, music for everyone, music for youth,” Mike D says. “On our last tour to Europe, I saw hip-hop groups making music that pertained to where they were from. There was Italian MCs, rhyming in Italian about Italian things. . . . They weren’t trying to sound like they were from Brooklyn, they were doing it their way. That’s the beauty of this music, that it’s constantly changing and that it can be global.”