Caught on the hop
Audiences have grown tired of A-list rappers bragging about bitches and bling and sales of rap albums are plummeting. Now purveyors of hip-hop culture are wondering what’s gone wrong – and whether new releases by two heavyweights – Kanye West and 50 Cen
THIS week, two of the biggest draws in the hip-hop game go head to head with new CDs. Inevitably, the fact that Kanye West and 50 Cent are both releasing their third album (The Graduation and Curtis, respectively) on September 11th will be used to turn this into one of those tiresome Beatles/Stones or Blur/Oasis fake duels.
One TV channel even proposed a presidential-style debate between the pair. Naturally, Fiddy said yes and West sensibly turned it down. “What am I going to debate about?” asked West. “When I heard the thing about the debate, I thought that was the stupidest thing ever.”
Such nonsense is part and parcel of the business of selling a new big-ticket release. But while the promotional juggernauts behind both acts have ensured maximumpublicity, both rappers probably realise that such posturing distracts from the bigger picture.
For the first time, hip-hop’s commercial clout is under threat. While sales are down across every music sector, the hip-hop/rap market has virtually collapsed. Hip-hop artists sold 21 per cent fewer albums in 2006 than 2005, while this year’s tally is already showing a 33 per cent drop compared to the same time last year. It’s a far cry from 2002, when Eminem sold nearly eight million copies of The Eminem Show.
No doubt Curtis and Graduation will address this slide to an extent (there’s nothing like an event album to get people into the shops buying stuff), but the overall number of best-selling hip-hop albums is way down on what it used to be. Increasingly, the commercial hits in the US are coming from the country and metal sectors. When industry in-
siders analysed hiphop’s retail failure, the same problems came up again and again. Audiences have grown tired of A-list rappers bragging about bitches and bling; the gangsta subject matter didn’t hold the same appeal. There’s only so many rhymes about slinging crack for a living that you can take from someone who hasn’t grinded on the corner in years.
Fans have also had enough of MCs with a couple of hit singles under their belts attempting to cash in on their slight appeal with clothing ranges, film roles and vitamin-water franchises.
Legendary rapper KRS-One, for one, understands why audiences are mad as hell with lame-ass rappers and just won’t take it any more. “The public has made a choice and they’re saying we do not want the nonsense that we see and hear on radio, and we are not putting our money there,” he says. “Rap music is being boycotted by the American public because of the images that we are putting forward.” Hip-hop, of course, has periodically gone through similar bouts of navel-gazing. But this time was a little different as outside events muddied the mix . . .
In April, broadcaster Don Imus was fired MSNBC for describing a women’s college basketball team as “nappyheaded hos”, and a huge scrap began about similar language used by some rappers.
Politicians such as the Rev Al Sharpton criticised rappers for “visiting the hood to just sell records” and “calling people in the hood ‘hos’ and ‘bitches’ and they’re saying ‘yes ma’am’ to the people in the Hamptons”.
Would-be big man in the White House Barack Obama used an appearance on Fox News to call for a crackdown on rap lyrics, while Oprah Winfrey was so concerned that she held a two-show special on what’s wrong with hip-hop and how to fix it.
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan blamed record labels that “don’t give a doggone about right and wrong. They will make you a multi-millionaire calling your women the B names and the whore name and using the MF and the N word.”
In response, Def Jam mogul Russell Simmons gathered record execs together to call for certain derogatory words to be bleeped out of radio edits of songs. However, many of hip-hop’s activists and participants argue that the culture itself had become a convenient scapegoat.
Writers Jeff Chang and Dave Zirin pointed out that putting hip-hop on trial for commercial rap’s racism and sexism just didn’t make sense. “If hip-hop’s critics paid attention to the hip-hop generation, they would learn that a discussion has already begun without them and that they might need to listen,” they wrote in the Los Angeles Times, criticising the “overnight anti-hip-hop crusaders”.
The pair drew attention to how local hiphop scenes were thriving, not just with music but in the areas of visual art, film, theatre dance and poetry. “To confuse commercial rap made by a few artists with how hiphop is actually lived by millions is to miss the good that hip-hop does.” The success or failure of new albums from Fiddy and West will have little effect on the street-level communities lauded by Chang and Zirin. Yet as an indication of what effect, if any, the recent debate has had on hiphop’s audience, many observers will be looking closely at sales figures over the next few