Can “Real” Hip-Hop Survive in This Lingering Recession?
According to the Nielsen Co.’s SoundScan Service, “Music sales have declined for the seventh time in the past eight years, and paid-for digital downloads have not grown fast enough.” In congruence with this data, Nielsen also reports that “Hip-hop record sales have declined by over 20 percent, which is more than most genres with the exception of Latin, country and classical music.”
What is the culprit for the decline in hip-hop album sales? Some commentators would simply state that the economic recession is the underlying reason. To be sure, I would agree that the Great Recession, which most economists concur started in 2007, played a part in the declining sales over the past several years. Additionally, one cannot overlook the adverse effects that piracy and illegal file sharing has had on the hip-hop industry. But, beyond these external culprits, I believe that the overall stagnancy and degenerating condition of this culture that began in the South Bronx can be linked to one primary reason- the commercialization of non-value adding and non-substantive hip-hop.
To be sure, I am not an antagonist of commercialized rap music. I think that it has played a significant part in the globalization of the larger hip-hop culture across all races and ethnicities. Moreover, I think that mainstream hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z, Nelly, Lil Wayne, Sean Combs, Young Jeezy, Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em, Waka Flocka Flame, Nicki Minaj and the like have made some pretty decent songs to ride to, to listen to on the iPod and to dance to in the club. But, let’s be honest. Are the albums and most of the songs of a majority of these above-mentioned artists filled with lyrics of any value or substance that will help to better lives?
Of course, I know, many proponents of commercialized rap would state the clichéd argument that these artists are simply telling what is going on in the streets, and they are not obligated to make socially-conscious music or to help raise kids. I wholeheartedly agree with these assertions. But, can we muster the strength and creativity to move beyond the same-old street journalism of money, jewelry, clothes, fly cars and braggadocio and to resurrect the positive, value-adding hip-hop culture that once existed in the 1980s and the early 1990s? Even in this lingering recession, I think that there are several ways in which we can transition back to substantive hip-hop music and prevent the art form from becoming “dead,” as Nas once wrote and articulated.
First, most hip-hop and urban stations around the country only play commercialized hip-hop for ratings and because major labels pay them to keep such music in heavy rotation. It would be beneficial, though, if these stations would expose their listeners to value-adding hip-hop from the likes of artists such as Talib Kweli, Common, The Roots, Little Brother, Pete Rock, The Strange Fruit Project, De La Soul, The Foreign Exchange, KRS-One, Mos Def, A Tribe Called Quest, Slum Village, etc. Naturally, listeners will demand more of the music that they are exposed to on a continual basis. Many of these “underground” legends and stars continue to struggle, although they make great music, because a lot of radio stations do not play their music or take part in their promotional activities.
Second, the hip-hop culture needs more independent labels, where artists can profit more and exercise more artistic control. Hip-hop and associated business ventures (i.e., clothing, cologne) bring in billions in revenue, although there have been overall declines in sales. Wouldn’t it be great to keep all of this money within the hip-hop community instead of letting major labels and similar entities, who are really not concerned about the artists and its consumers, take most of the profits and revenues? Similar to college athletes who are being “pimped” by the NCAA and the agents, many artists are taken advantage of by major labels.
Third, the hip-hop community needs more media outlets on television to expose viewers to unsung talent that represents “real” hip-hop. Again, there is nothing wrong with showing viewers commercialized artists on 106 and Park- it has its place in continuing to globalize the culture. But, BET and MTV should look beyond ratings and revive Rap City and Yo MTV Raps, where viewers can see strong lyricists who rap about substantive topics – empowering women, politics, community empowerment, peace, etc.
Common’s “I Used to Love Her” will always remain one of my favorite hip-hop songs ever. This metaphorical masterpiece bespoke of the degeneration of hip-hop, and it still holds true today. Commercialized hip-hop artists have to recognize that a large portion of their consumers are individuals who are economically challenged and need more than club “bangers” to make it through the day. If value-adding hip-hop artists can no longer sustain themselves due to economic constraints, then “real” hip-hop may survive tough times in which we find ourselves. But, for how long? If we continue down this road, hip-hop likely will not die, but it will be on life support- that is, a few “real” hip-hop artists will have to remain and blow much-needed oxygen from the underground.