‘Hood goes corporate

Mimi Valdés is editor in chief of Vibe.

HIP-HOP IS big business. In fact, in CD sales alone, it’s a $1.2-billion industry. In addition to records, it drives sales in fashion, film, books and energy drinks. No other entertainment genre inspires this sort of consumption. Fans are so passionate about hip-hop that the music spills over into their entire lives. They can wear a Phat Farm outfit, S. Carter sneakers and a watch by Jacob the Jeweler. Then they head out the door and jump into their Sean John Navigator to check out 50 Cent’s new film, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” all the while drinking Pimp Juice by Nelly. When hip-hop fans chill at home, they can play Mark Ecko’s “Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure” video game or polish their business skills by reading “Make It Happen: The Hip-Hop Generation Guide to Success” by Warner Music exec Kevin Liles.

There’s something really beautiful about all the different ways to experience hip-hop. Besides the opportunities for jobs beyond artist or producer, it’s nice to see something that started in the ‘hood has become a valuable tool that even corporate America uses to sell its products. Nike, McDonald’s and Hewlett-Packard have all tried to incorporate hip-hop into their marketing. These and other companies have apparently gotten over their inability to understand the lyrics and instead focused on the most important fact about the music: Hip-hop is all about aspiration. Whether it’s gangster rappers, socially conscious lyricists or party-loving MCs, everyone has the same goal of creating a better life for themselves. To the untrained ear, this may not be apparent. But to the fans, nothing is clearer.

In what other genre do artists hustle to do more than just perform their music? Everyone’s got a plan to build their personal brand — from clothing deals to acting gigs.

Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records, was the first to champion hip-hop’s business appeal. People initially laughed at him. But when Run-DMC got a reported $1.5-million endorsement deal in 1986 from Adidas, a German company, other corporate bigwigs woke up. If hip-hop could make a difference in the bottom line, it was time to pay attention.

Of course, not every hip-hop artist’s music lends itself to a side venture. Nor does every rapper have a business mind. Does that mean record labels should not sign these artists, no matter how talented they are?

This is where I get a bit scared. Artists shouldn’t cheat their artistry in search of big checks. No one is better at marketing music than Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. Back when he only had Bad Boy Records, he introduced the hip-hop lifestyle to the rest of the world, ushered in the era of “bling” and took the music to unimaginable places. That success makes you nostalgic for when Combs didn’t have so many other business ventures, though he’s doing well in all of them. But you have to wonder if he’ll ever have the time to give use that magic of yesteryear again.

There’s nothing wrong with just creating music. A person is no less of an artist because he or she doesn’t exploit every business opportunity that comes their way. If it makes sense to pursue non-music interests, great. If not, don’t play yourself. If the music isn’t hot, other deals won’t be either.

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