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Hip-Hop Fridays: E-Letter To and Ta Nehisi Coates Re: "The Real Slim Shady Is Robbing Black MCs"

Your opinion piece, "The Real Slim Shady Is Robbing Black MCs" raises many valid points about the root of Eminem's popularity. There is no doubt that Eminem sells millions of records more than other rappers, because he is White. However, I think that you miss an important point in your efforts to draw a clear dichotomy between talented Black MCs and Eminem - a talented white MC. The point I think you miss is that no great MC, regardless of color, has ever achieved multi-platinum status solely on the basis of exceptional writing and mic skills alone or from a Black-only fan base.

This has nothing to do with skin color and everything to do with the size of the market in Hip-Hop for "talent-only" : writing, mic skills and raw beats.

I estimate that the loyal consumer market for simply beats and rhymes is in the range of 250,000 - 400,000. And that number has been remarkably "sticky". It hasn't changed over time.

I remember Boogie Down Productions "officially" doing those numbers in the 80s, I remember Brand Nubian "officially" doing those numbers in the 90s as well as Common and many other artists that began as "underground successes".

I do not believe that it has ever been possible for an artist to sell 500,000 simply on the backs of those who buy Hip-Hop records on the basis of great writing and lyrical ability. It always requires the marketing of an image that is bigger than a particular artist's talent; the promotion of lyrics that glorify sex and violence; or a "party jam" or "catchy" track that receives commercial radio play, in order for an artist in Hip-Hop to go platinum - in terms of album sales.

It has never happened on the basis of lyrics and that old "Boom-Bap"

Just look at the huge jump that occurred in Jay-Z's sales from albums 1 and 2 to albums 3, 4 and 5. Everybody in the underground knew about his incredible writing talent and his lyrical skills and most bought his first album, but he didn't go multi-platinum until the hooks got catchier, the beats got more commercial (largely thanks to Timbaland -an R&B producer)) and the girls in the videos began to wear less clothing.

He went gold on the basis of the "talent-only" crowd but he went multi-platinum on the basis of MTV playing his videos and commercial R&B radio stations playing his songs.

It was the same thing with the group that I was general manager for - Wu-Tang Clan. We went a slow platinum with our hard core Black and White fan base and then went multi-platinum once the $1,000,000 video was released and MTV ran us in heavy rotation and after we went on tour with Rage Against The Machine.

But never forget that the Clan's biggest hit at the time that they went platinum was "Method Man" which earned a suprising amount of radio play on R&B stations.

Look at what happened to Common this year. He proves my point better than anyone. For years Common demonstrated great rhyme skills and lyrical ability but couldn't go gold. This time he puts out an album as good as the rest but which has a couple of songs that Black R&B radio and BET got behind, and presto - he is over the top.

Look at Big L., an absolutely incredible MC who had to die before he could sell almost 100,000 records in the first week of sales, with his posthomous album The Big Picture. Still, Big L. who we all know had talent for days, never reached gold or platinum status in life. His death gave him a legendary status that went beyond pure lyrical ability and it helped to highlight an all-star lineup on the album.

And Gangstar, a group that is probably the epitome of talent in Hip-Hop: beats and rhymes, is another group that proves my point about talent not equating to sales.

You make a mistake in thinking of this only in Black and White terms.

What is the difference between Kool G. Rap and Jay-Z? They both are two of the greatest MCs of all time - lyrically and in terms of writing but Jay-Z, with the help of Def Jam, was able to get Black women, R&B fans, White women and white-suburbia to buy his records while G. Rap was never able to accomplish that.

That is the real difference between having talent and selling 250,000 units and having talent and selling 3,000,000 and 4,000,000 units.

This phenomenon happens every year between Black artists.

Eminem's arrival and success didn't originate this phenomenon or even make it more striking. The story has been there for anyone interested in writing about it.It has been going on for over 20 years.

A friend of mine who is a casual rap fan asked me did I think that Eminem was only this popular because he is White and I said yes. But I added that it it is improper to associate all or the vast majority of his record sales to his skin color.

That would ignore the reality that most Hip-Hop sales are made to White consumers.

Remember that Jay-Z sold 4,000,000 records with his third album and Eminem has done over 5,000,000.

The difference is that Jay-Z did those numbers with a huge amount of support from a black female audience that Eminem does not have and Eminem did his numbers with a large white teen-age girl and the hardcore "white male skateboarder" audience that Jay-Z does not have.

But did Jigga have more Black sales than white? I would estimate that Jay-Z made at least half of his sales with his third album to a white audience.

(Interestingly, Wu-Tang is an example of a Black rap group that was able to attract the hardcore "white skateboarder" audience)

We estimated that at least half of our fans were White.

To test your thesis I wonder how you would explain the at-least 7 million albums the Fugees sold and the 7 million albums that Eminem sold. Do you really believe the Fugees sold the majority of those albums to Black people?

That is a recent example from 1994-1995 but I could rest my case with Run D.M.C.'s meteoric rise which went from the inner-city, beats and rhymes to the suburbs, videos and Aerosmith.

My point is that in the current marketplace, no artist, White or Black can go multi-platinum without understanding the psychology of White America. It doesn't matter whether you are Jay-Z, the Cash Money Millionaires, Outkast, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, DMX, or Nelly - you will have to sell at least half of your records to a white audience to achieve multi-platinum status.

You may already be aware of this but that is not readily obvious from your article. Your piece implies that Dr. Dre and Eminem's "handlers" have done something unique. They really haven't.

And by the way, all rappers have the same "handlers" - primarily white marketing and promotions executives that study the Hip-Hop audience like Generals study satellite pictures and war maps. Dre did not identify a new phenomenon - he only put a white face on it.

The only thing unique about Eminem's success is Eminem himself - an authentically White rapper with subject matter that a White audience can relate best to, but talent a Black audience can appreciate, and beats it can dance and nod its head to.

I estimate that his "Whiteness" in skin-color and subject matter accounts for an additional 1-2 million more in sales that he can generate, and which other Black rappers can't.

But it does not make up for the vast majority of his sales - an implication your article produces.

Contrary to what you may think, Eminem is certainly not doing anything different than Black multi-platinum selling artists by relying upon White fans for millions of his album sales.


Cedric Muhammad

Friday, January 12, 2001

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