The two-part season finale of the second season of The Boondocks was a satirical weapon of mass destruction. Explicitly accosting BET, The Boondocks presented the network as a cabal of callous, cynical, self-hating and utterly wretched black people who actively sought to undermine black American existence. Though this presentation was clearly satirical, unabashedly wearing its dense layers of hyperbole, parody and reference on its face, there was also a clear contempt for the network. In fact, in one scene the head executive of the network, Deborah Leevil, a grotesque caricature of Debra L. Lee, literally bows to a white man. This unapologetic tone works great for laughs, but it also underscores the simplicity of the episode’s argument. Rather than targeting the industry-wide media practices that make a network like BET sustainable – racialized market segmentation in particular – the show simply points to the network itself, singularly pinpointing BET as a source of black pain and dropping satirical nuclear missiles over its board of directors.
In his essay series “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” Questlove makes a similar move, berating hip-hop for its cultural dominance, its values, its diminishing of black cool, its parallels with disco and its indifference toward black culture, yet not directly dealing with the world that made and makes hip-hop possible. In this response to his essays, I’m going to simultaneously sketch out this world and highlight hip-hop’s place and history within it.
Remembering Record Labels
In a blog post from earlier this year, I explicitly challenged the notion that hip-hop represents all black people, arguing that it never has, never will and probably never should. I’d like to double-down on that point here because Questlove’s fundamental premise is that “hip-hop has taken over black music.” To underscore this claim, he points to the late 80’s, citing musicians like Michael Jackson, Tracy Chapman, Lionel Richie and more, and highlighting how these musicians coexisted with hip-hop acts like Queen Latifah and EPMD. “Hip-hop was just a piece of the pie,” he writes with nostalgia. Nowadays, he feels that hip-hop essentially encompasses the entire pie of black music, rendering other forms of black music susceptible to hip-hop’s follies and making hip-hop itself less potent.
There is a strange gap here. While Questlove has been a member of the music industry as both a producer and consumer for nearly 3 decades, he does not cite any particular mechanisms for how hip-hop rose to its alleged dominance. Even as a mere consumer, in my blog post I was able to cite instances of hip-hop not really dominating black life, mentioning how older relatives found themselves represented by gospel, jazz, movies, television shows and R&B. Despite his years of experience, Questlove strangely fails to offer a single anecdote. For him, hip-hop’s dominance is just a fact, plain and simple. Thus, the contemporary disposition of black music is all hip-hop’s fault.
I think that this is a very strange logical leap, especially if we consider the dominant mechanism through which music has been produced and distributed throughout hip-hop’s existence: record labels. There is a reason why the major label is hip-hop’s favorite whipping boy. Major label deals and their consequences – both good and bad – have had profound impacts on how hip-hop has developed. One useful way to think about the significance of label deals is to look at rap groups where the various members have had different label deals as individual artists. Wu-Tang Clan is a prime example. With the exception of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the core members RZA, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, U-God, GZA, Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa have all released at least 3 studio albums through various record labels. Of these numerous individual releases (42, by my count), 9 have gone gold or better. Of those 9, literally all of them were distributed through a major label.
Now this doesn’t mean that record contracts have a 100% success rate. Of the 42 albums in this sample, 22 were released through a major label, so the actual percentage of gold+ sales through record deals is 41% (9/22). And even that percentage should be understood carefully because we have no knowledge of the bottom line – perhaps the albums were given the budget of a platinum album, making a gold certification just a 50% return – and because most of these albums went gold+ in the ’90s and early aughts, meaning that they are time-stamped by a period in which music sales were relatively high.
Even with these caveats in mind, this sample illustrates the tremendous differences that a record contract can make. Unsurprisingly, the Wu-Tang members with the most fame and notoriety – Method Man, Raekwon and Ghostface – have released the most major label albums, including one with just the three of them (RZA is more famous for production than rapping, I think). Sure, this is one correspondence among many: they have also each been highly prolific, for example. But I’ll be blunt: when it comes down to it, their fame is a direct product of the power of labels, particularly the power of distribution. Distribution should be taken very seriously. It is much more than printing packaging and shipping. Distribution is the operational apparatus through which albums are made purchasable.
Depending on the label’s investment in an artist, this apparatus can be exquisitely thorough. For instance, whenever there is a new Justin Bieber song, he appears on the front page of the iTunes interface. This is no accident. Labels understand that the front page is a valuable position, so they arrange for the song to have heightened visibility. The same goes for physical stores. Labels have been known to sell albums to record stores at slightly lower prices if the stores agree to display the albums more prominently or on a higher shelf. For established artists, labels have even been known to design their tours around cities where albums have historically sold more copies. Though they are not foolproof because people actually do listen to music (I hope), these kinds of direct interventions in the marketplace have profound effects, especially when they are concentrated toward one artist or act or market.
One particular effect is the flexible allocation of resources. Because labels do not have infinite resources, when they concentrate their capital toward one artist/one market, this is at the expense of other artists/markets. Thus, even when labels participate in multiple markets, they don’t tend to have coinciding release dates. They consciously decide when to release albums, considering their fiscal projections for distributing the album as well as looking at other factors, like the release dates for competitors. For example, Roc Nation is never going to release a J. Cole album, a Jay Z album and a Rihanna album all on the same Tuesday, even if all three artists turn in fully mixed and mastered copies of their albums at the same time. More than likely, they will release Rihanna’s album first, then Jay Z’s, then J. Cole’s.
The consequence of that release order may be that J. Cole’s buzz dies down because his hit single drowns in the ever-flowing stream of new Nicki Minaj songs. Consequently, when he releases another single and it does relatively poorly, the label decides to allocate more money toward Rihanna, subsequently limiting J. Cole’s possible talk show and radio appearances to promote the album. Eventually his album is released and it does poorly, so the label drops him. It may be hard to have sympathy for this fictional J. Cole or even the real one, but if you replace him with an entire genre, like jazz or blues, it becomes clear how punishing labels can be. Though labels decide how to intervene in the marketplace, individual artists and entire genres ultimately pay for those interventions, especially if there are negative effects. In the case of hip-hop, during its coming of age, other forms of black music were cast aside in order to concentrate resources toward hip-hop. In other words, hip-hop didn’t take over black music. Black music was left behind. And I’d be willing to bet that it was left behind precisely because black people have questionably been assumed to be its only viable listeners.
I Never Saw Luther Vandross on TRL
When I interviewed the rapper Skyzoo a few years ago, he mentioned being deeply inspired by Chi-Ali, a rapper who he saw on Yo! MTV raps as a kid. I never watched Yo! MTV Raps because I wasn’t even born during the first two years that it aired, so I don’t have anything to say about the show’s content. That said, the existence of shows that were exclusively dedicated to rap is worth considering. In my own lifetime, before Youtube, I can recall watching Cita’s World, Rap City, Direct Effect, Sucker Free and MTV Jams (it was a crappy show before it was a crappy channel). In contrast, for other forms of black music, I solely recall watching Midnight Love and Soul Train. That’s it. And Midnight Love came on at midnight, while Soul Train came on on Saturdays at noon, so these other forms of black music were culturally and temporally marginalized.
This marginalization was not accidental. Artists like Whitney Houston, Prince, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and the Isley Brothers were all still signed to major labels, and they continually toured and appeared on television, but they were notably quarantined. I never saw Luther Vandross appear on TRL. I never saw Anita Baker on 106 and Park. I never saw Kevin Aviance on the cover of Vibe. These are not just errors of history. They are the effects of conscious efforts to construct and maintain markets. And because these markets (and subsequently the artists and genres they contained) were not consistently maintained, some fell into disrepair, obscurity and ruin.
It is always tempting to narrate the rises and falls of musical genre on aesthetic grounds, in terms of coolness and meaning and style. After all, the structural realities that make music possible are rarely visible: music is experienced as music, not the arbitrary machinations of corporate investments and whims. And even artists paint over these structural realities, often vaguely speaking of either song popularity or song quality as if these are unaffected by outside mechanisms. That said, in the same way that there would be no car industry if the US government hadn’t spent decades building highways and untold billions subsidizing American car companies (through bailouts as well as tax breaks), hip-hop as we know it wouldn’t be hip-hop without major labels concentrating their resources on keeping the genre afloat. This doesn’t mean that hip-hop is merely a puppet genre or that the record industry had some evil, conspiratorial agenda. Most recognizable genres are subsidized by the behemoth record industry( In fact, we can see these subsidies happening to “EDM” in real time). It just means that because hip-hop came of age in a marketplace where black music was already circumscribed, labels’ investment in hip-hop necessarily came at the expense of other forms of black music. Structural racism is to blame, not hip-hop’s values.
Of course, hip-hop’s collective values could certainly use some work. I’m tired of hip-hop continually producing the same narratives: rags to riches, remaining rich, being rich, becoming richer, regaining riches after momentarily wearing rags, reminding haters why they’re not rich, recanting respect for other rappers because they sold out to become rich, remembering discounts at Rich’s before it was acquired by Macy’s, etc. Hell, I’m also tired of hip-hop’s gonzo journalistic perspective. In fact, when I reviewed Common’s new album for Paste, my criticism was essentially that the album fails because he raps about himself too much instead of getting inside the mind of other people or other genders (or other species, like Aesop Rock in this song). And the worst offender for me personally is hip-hop’s continued misogyny. The fact that radio versions exist and do well is perfect proof that songs don’t require these words (or more importantly these sentiments) that intentionally and instinctively diminish women.
But all of these practices are ultimately aesthetic, so no matter how successfully hip-hop manages to purge itself of its entrenched iniquities, the fact remains that hip-hop exists within an ecosystem in which black media is already under tight restraint. And I’ve never broken out of handcuffs before, but I’m pretty sure that no amount of finger-wagging, self-scrutiny, nostalgia or brutal satire, will singularly enable escape. Say hip-hop no more, son, it’s bigger than that.