Volume 96, Issue 90
Thursday, March 20, 2003

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Hip-Hop commercialization

Pierre Hamilton
Gazette Staff

Hip-hop is dead, or dying

Let's face it; black is cool.

Elvis knew it, Eminem knows it, and as witnessed by popular cultures warm embrace of hip-hop – you know it too.

The cultural appropriation of black music is nothing new to America; however, during the rise of rock 'n' roll, black artists never garnered the press or sales of their white counterparts. Rap changed that. Then along came a man in parachute pants, who wanted to "touch this" success – Vanilla Ice.

The Beastie Boys aside, Ice was the most successful white artist, going platinum seven times. However, after "Ice Ice Baby," he became rap's first false pretender. Close to a decade later, a gang of all-white, blue-eyed, bleached blonde clones and Eminem stormed Radio City Music Hall. Slim Shady presented himself as "the worst thing since Elvis Presley to do black music so selfishly and [use] it to get myself wealthy." In a story featured in The Source, entitled, "Hip-hop under attack," rapper Benzino describes it as the day the music died.

Guess who's coming to dinner?

Hip-hop is the cultural expression of people exploited by 400 years of slavery – a direct result of American colonialism and the post-colonial system that replaced it. Like an uninvited dinner guest, hip-hop shows up on your doorstep with a distorted view of America's darkest secret – the plight of inner-city blacks: crack cocaine, pimps, hustlers, jails, substandard education, etc.. Unfortunately, you will not find those messages in the liner notes of Ludacris's new CD. It's in the lyrics, but, between the beat and the fragmented nature of hip hop's spectacular vernacular, it's a message that resonates differently from hood to hood and city to city.

In the early '90s, Naughty by Nature released a song called "Alright," in which group member Treach spits the following lyrics: "If you ain't never been to the ghetto/don't ever come to the ghetto/'cause you ain't understand the ghetto/and stay the fuck out of the ghetto." Ironically, Naughty by Nature owed a large part of its success to the scores of white, suburban teenagers who were opening their wallets and nodding their heads to the newly appropriated suburban anthem "OPP."

"Somehow the rap game reminds me of the crack game."–Nas

Despite the warnings issued by artists such as Naughty by Nature and N.W.A., rap courses through the suburbs as crack once flowed through the Compton, with one major difference. When you bore of the senseless violence and drug-ridden poverty of the ghetto, you can shut it out. It's a harmless addiction, for most of us.

"There is an elemental nihilism in the most controversial crack-era hip-hop that reflects the mentality and fear of young Americans of every color and class living in an exhausting, edgy existence, in and out of big cities," explained Nelson George, in his book Hip Hop America.

Straight outta Canada

All this talk about America and we have forgotten a crucial factor. Hip-hop is/was an American experience. Our hip-hop makes your back bone slide and did not begin to worship the "gangsta" until it became profitable in America.

So, what is hip-hop? A cultural commodity? A tool for empowerment?

The major criticism levelled at hip-hop music by academics and socially conscious artists like Public Enemy's Chuck D, is that rap has moved away from empowerment, graciously filling the role of a capitalist tool. As the voice for a marginalized people, hip-hop had the opportunity to fulfill a role missing in the black community.

"The music is what it is and can be used to express anything. If it's a tool for empowerment – then cool, but putting that on rap music is like saying French is only for people who are being intimate with each other. It puts a lot of pressure on the music," revealed Rascalz member Misfit.

Warm embrace or unwanted change

With the arrival of Eminem – whose wonderful mastery of the mic has made him hip-hop's best-selling artist, overshadowing his black contemporaries – the commercialization of the genre seems complete.

In the wake of this deviation, fans are turning away from Eminem and the R&B/hip-hop fusion of commercial artists like Ja Rule for more underground or progressive music like Common or The Coup. In a sense, Benzino was right; hip hop as we once knew it is dying, but it may just be changing into something new.


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