Hip-Hop Fridays: For Rap Stars, Business Is Overtaking Music by Eric R. Danton

There might be a lot of reasons why rapper 50 Cent delayed the release of his third album to early September.

He's been busy with the sale of beverage-maker Glaceau to Coca-Cola, for one thing. That transaction is worth $400 million to Fiddy for his 10 percent stake in the company, which produces his Formula 50 flavor of Vitamin Water. Maybe he's also swamped overseeing his G-Unit clothing line and record label, or taking acting lessons for his possible role in the upcoming Al Pacino-Robert De Niro shoot-'em-up, "Righteous Kill."

With such varied interests, it's sometimes easy to overlook what put 50 Cent in a position to pursue those opportunities in the first place: music. Yet music in the hip-hop era has ceased to be its own end.

The rap game in particular is increasingly just another hustle, a starting point for would-be moguls seeking to establish themselves as brands and cash in on their names. It's savvy, from a business and marketing standpoint, but it's having a deleterious effect on quality and creativity, especially in the mainstream rap world.

"I have a quote on my desk, right above my computer, from 50 Cent that says, 'I didn't get in it for the music, I got in it for the business,' " says Brian Coleman, author of "Check the Technique," a behind-the-scenes look at 36 seminal rap albums. "Honestly, what more does anyone need to know?"

Indeed, the title of 50 Cent's 2004 debut says it all: "Get Rich or Die Tryin'." Still, Fiddy is not to blame. Like any good businessman, he's responding to the marketplace. In this case, it's a marketplace that emphasizes hit singles over lasting careers, the homogenizing reliance on the same group of record producers to supply those hits, and the continuing dominance of bling-rap tunes obsessed with violence, subservient women and status-symbol possessions.

Working a way out

It didn't start that way. Rap began as a mix of party music and social commentary, though hip-hop culture always has admired a certain entrepreneurial spirit.

"It's subcultural, not countercultural," says Alan Light, a writer, critic and former editor of the hip-hop magazine Vibe. "It's always been capitalist. The objective has always been to sell records. You want to get large, you want people to hear you, you want to move to a better neighborhood."

In the early days, an MC's talent on the microphone determined his (and, in a few cases, her) place in the rap world. As the style broke into the mainstream in the late '80s and early '90s, gangsta rap began eclipsing nimble lyrical skill in favor of tough-guy archetypes, and suddenly the hardest, most ruthless-sounding rappers were the best known. That hasn't changed much since, largely because the resounding commercial success of gangsta rap has made it the new template for hip-hop riches: Rhyme about drive-by shootings, slinging crack and smacking ho's and you, too, can be a star for a while.

Narrowing vision

When everyone works with the same handful of hitmakers known for their distinctive sounds, there's a creeping uniformity to much of the music. Because there's such an emphasis on hits, it's smart to work with as many different top-shelf producers as possible to improve your chances of slipping a song into heavy rotation on the radio: If this Timbaland joint doesn't hit, maybe the tune Will.i.am produced will.

That's fine in the context of a song or two, but it rarely results in consistent quality over the course of an album, and despite the ongoing slump in album sales, that's still the format the record industry leans on.

"Part of it is that there are so many hands involved in the making of some of these records," says Dan LeRoy, author of a book about the hip-hop band the Beastie Boys. "That's true in pop music, it's true in rock: the bigger the budget, the more likelihood that you'll have more producers and have recorded in more studios. But in hip-hop, not only is that the expectation, that's the desired way of doing business, and it makes it impossible to sustain a creative vision."

That's assuming an MC has a creative vision in the first place, which isn't necessarily the case. Spin magazine recently asked cocaine-centric rapper Young Jeezy whether he's bothered when people say he's not a great lyricist.

"Who gives a [expletive]? We selling records!" he replied.

Lots of records. Although rock, country and R&B still outsell rap, consumers bought more than 59 million rap albums in 2006, according to figures from Nielsen SoundScan. Yet that's 20 percent fewer than in 2005, which is either a sign of impending creative upheaval or is predictable at this point in rap's still-brief history, or is both.

"If you track out the number of years, hip-hop is culturally where rock 'n' roll was in the mid-'70s, when it took the Ramones and the Sex Pistols to come in and shake it up to get some new life into it," said Light, the former editor of Vibe. "It had become too big and bloated, and that's a lot of the same place hip-hop finds itself. "

In consumers' hands?

It's impossible to foretell what might overhaul hip-hop. Light cites "a really vital hip-hop underground" and a strong international scene, and Coleman, the author of "Check the Technique," points to the democratizing effects of social networking Web sites, such as MySpace, and music services like eMusic and iTunes that make less-mainstream music easier than ever to find. Coleman also says consumers bear the responsibility for sparking change.

"If they will continue to buy music that's mediocre, you can be sure that record labels will continue to pump it out," he says. "The major labels are usually painted as this big, evil thing pulling strings, but if people demanded that artists make better music, more important music, socially conscious music, do you really think record labels would continue pushing the bling stuff? When Public Enemy was going platinum, they didn't have a problem with that."

Light agrees, to a point.

"That's fair, but in some ways, it's like complaining that hip-hop succeeded too well, and I feel silly complaining about that," he says. "I'm 40 years old and it ain't about me."

Hearsay vs. reality

Teens and college-age consumers buy more than half the number of rap albums sold, and young white men buy more rap than white women and black men and women combined, Essence magazine reported in 2005. There are exceptions, but that suggests rap music as a whole isn't reflecting social conditions so much as supplying content to its customers in the form of a macho fantasy they want to hear.

"White America is much more willing to buy a misrepresentation of an entire race," says Tim Fite, a Brooklyn indie rapper, whose latest album, "Over the Counter Culture," is a scathing and funny critique of the corporate music machine and blind consumerism.

"It's alluring to them," continues Fite, who is white. "There's this sick fascination that's completely unfounded. You go to the so-called rough neighborhoods where everybody is real, and it's a whole lot of real families trying to make a real living and get along. But a lot of people don't believe that because they only believe what they hear in hip-hop songs, and that is so far from reality, it's not even funny."

One thing that's unlikely to change is the role of music as a marketing tool. It's always been one, from sales of sheet music in the days before radio to trinkets for sale on the early country-music circuit to the Sex Pistols' origins as a consumerist ploy by their manager, Malcolm McLaren, who was looking to drum up business for his clothing boutique in London. The difference is hip-hop succeeded where McLaren mostly just schemed.

Copyright 2007 The Seattle Times Company

Friday, August 24, 2007