By Sekinah Brodie
When the genre of hip-hop began in the 1980s, it started as an urban, rebellious culture that contained four organic elements—B-boying, DJing, MCing and graffiti. Since then, the genre has expanded through suburbs, nationally, and eventually, worldwide. Hip-hop and the culture that it embodies has surpassed the heights that many of the originators had expected. It wasn’t until 1986 when Run-D.M.C. signed a $1.5 million endorsement deal with Adidas, which paralleled with their hit song “My Adidas,” that they were the first hip-hop act to sign a contact with a non-music corporation. Since that time, the genre has become one of the most lucrative entities in entertainment.
Commercialization: Watering Down Lyrics and Packaged Rappers
In comparison, even newer artists have attained the same attention. More recently Drake scored an endorsement deal with Sprite for their “Spark” campaign. When you think of the commercialization of hip-hop you may see it from many different aspects. In one aspect, the art and original message of the genre has been overshadowed by the monetary reward. This means that we have fewer artists protecting the integrity of the music, and instead, are strictly entering the industry for the perks. Some may see commercialization as the watering down of a product. This is also true in its own right. When hip-hop began to expand it became a business focused entirely on capital. Therefore, it was imperative to connect with all markets—from children to adults. And with that, came the task of making more products and making them more appealing to a larger audience. This began the emergence of packaged rappers, such as Soulja Boy, who became geared more toward teenagers with catchy choruses and simple lyrics. Those who have grown up on hip-hop are very critical of the commercialization of the genre, because they miss the golden era of hip-hop, which lasted between the 80s to early 90s.
What started off as four organic pieces to a puzzle, began to be commercialized as well. B-boying, also known as breakdancing, became a popular form of dance after the movie “Breakin’” was released in 1984. Since then, this element has seen recent Internet and television exposure due to dance competitions such as “So You Think You Can Dance,” and “America’s Best Dance Crew.” What was once a rebellious form of breakdancing has now been acclimated into main stream dance. DJing became a lucrative part of hip-hop when mix tapes and hip-hop radio stations started to flourish. When rappers released mix tapes in the 1990s DJs would promote the tapes and bring excitement to the songs on the actual track. DJs are now able to become stars in their own right, and have their own endorsements as well. MCing became commercialized when rap itself started to commercialize. Lyrics became more watered down, and the market more over-saturated. Presently, you can hear some of the simplest lyrics known to mankind being recited by kids and teenagers everywhere, and being referred to as “real hip-hop.” The last element, graffiti, may be the least commercialized aspect of hip-hop. You can view intricate graffiti in underground subways and on walls throughout major cities, but the art form did not take on a life of its own like the other elements did. Only extremely talented painters and artists can benefit and pull off lucrative graffiti.
In the golden era of hip-hop, lyrics and overall talent were valued over anything else. Modern times tell us that looks, personal life, personality and a catchy song outweigh the quality of music. Artists are now being promoted strictly to sell records, whether they believe in the music or not. The genre has transitioned from pure expression of one’s self to a money-hungry capitalist system. Any time you water down a product to connect with a wider audience you will have an overabundance of people trying to get involved. This is the reason that so many kids are growing up wanting to become rappers as opposed to doctors. From the outside looking in, the business looks glamorous and fun but those inside of it know differently. The four elements started to fade away around the 1990s. Music videos became flashier and subject matter turned from the struggles of everyday life to partying, women and glorifying material objects. Artists then started to focus on becoming a brand rather than just being a rapper.
Job Creation: From Being a Rapper to Becoming a Brand
Moguls such as Jay-Z and P. Diddy show that there is more to the business than just making music. You can gain endorsements, clothing lines, record labels, shoes, soft drinks and countless other opportunities. When gaining endorsements and creating clothing lines, on top of selling millions of records, rappers can accumulate quite an empire. P. Diddy’s net worth is a reported $500 million and Jay-Z’s is $475 million. In comparison to rappers who have not branded themselves—Soulja Boy is worth an estimated $23 million—rappers who brand themselves are able to make a substantial amount more. On top of earning more money themselves, when an artist is afforded opportunities to expand outside of music it allows others to flourish as well. Rap magazines such as XXL, The Source and Vibe magazine have reported on and documented the culture for years. The magazines has created jobs for writers, photographers and reporters alike for 20 plus years and counting. Another popular extension of hip-hop is clothing lines. It seems that at one time every rap artist worth talking about branded and promoted their own clothing imprint—Jay-Z has Rocawear, P. Diddy has Sean John and 50 Cent has G-Unit. Clothing is a large part of hip-hop culture itself and has been an innovator in fashion worldwide. These brands create jobs for designers, store owners, warehouse workers and countless others. It is also much easier to branch out into other industries via the hip-hop route, such as movies.
Rappers Becoming Actors and Reality TV Stars
The number of rappers turned actors has been unbelievable in the past 10 to 15 years. Though some are better than others, it is still an opportunity and it opens doors for other great advances. The movie business is a very lucrative entity and Hollywood has benefited greatly from movies about hip-hop and its artists starring in major roles bringing in millions of dollars in ticket sales. Tupac Shakur is a great example of a rapper and actor combination with natural talent that would have transcended for years if his life had not been cut short. His diversity in role choice, from gangster urban films like “Juice,” or even a cop thriller like “Criminal Intent” shows that artists are multi-dimensional and ultimately cash cows. Other notable rappers turned actors include Will Smith, who is the most bankable star in Hollywood with countless blockbusters and the successful sitcom, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” More recently, Flavor Flav of Public Enemy pioneered a trend of love- based reality shows with “Flavor of Love” on VH1. “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” proved to be a great way for rapper Ice- T to showcase his acting abilities as well. Hip-hop may receive a lot of criticism for misogynistic lyrics and negative influences on society, but it has also created jobs and opportunities for people in situations that are hard to get out of. It can turn raw talent into a million dollar entity, and affords people the chance to feed their families through legit business.
Integrity vs. Selling Out
It is fine to make money and benefit off of your talent and hard work especially when you are a true artist and want to help progress the culture in some way. On the other hand, the industry cannot prosper if you have people with no integrity flooding the market with music that has no real meaning. There is a difference between selling out and making your talent work for you. So the question is—how can the essence of hip-hop be maintained while affording the same monetary opportunities? Can you maintain your integrity and still reach a wide audience? Certainly many artists try. You can credit “conscious” rappers like Lauryn Hill and Talib Kweli for maintaining their original message and never straying to appease popular opinion or gain commercial fans. These days it is a lot harder to find artists who will do so. This is the struggle that artists have to deal with every day as long as they are part of the music business. They have the responsibility to figure out what is more important—to progress a culture, or to boost their bank accounts. Either way, we are listening, watching and critiquing.