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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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

weeks.

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