I received quite a bit of e-mail about my Project: Wideawake post last week. It was mostly about the part where I wrote that we all know how the music got to be like this...it turns out that a fair amount of the readers who were directed to my blog from links that Rafi @ Oh Word, Jeff Weiss @ Passion Of The Weiss and Brandon Soderberg @ No Trivia put up don't remember or know what happened in Hip Hop back then that got us here.
In that case, I'll do a quick overview about the era that most people say Hip Hop went to shit and I'll explain about how that wasn't a cut and dry bad thing. I'll also try to do a fair job of explaining the climate of the day back in the post Telecommunications Era Hip Hop/Rap industry (1996/1997). Here we go:
After the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed it became a brave new world, emcees and crews that used to rule the airwaves before all of a sudden had a hard time getting on the radio. At the same time, a bunch of acts that heads had only read their names in passing in those ads in The Source were not only getting on the radio but their videos were breaking the regular rotation on BET and MTV.
The rest of the country became familiar with names like J. Prince, Tony Draper, Sean Combs and Suge Knight. These men were heads of industry, entrepreneurs, trailblazers, mavericks and ahead of their time. These early adopters were the first to reap the benefits of the new world and the direction it was taking.
Before these men stepped onto the Hip Hop scene, people didn't talk business in regards to their releases. Instead, they talked about the music. These men would tell you about how many units they Soundscanned in a period of time with no airplay or video. They'd talk about owning your masters. They'd talk about chart positions and endorsement deals. These motherfuckers read The Robb Report more faithfully than The Source.
The next wave of young CEO's and entrepreneurs took the stage as Chris Lighty, Steve Stoute, Damon Dash, Irv Gotti and Lance "Un" Rivera all began setting marks and enforcing them. Once the floodgates opened and the Rap industry ate from the fruit of knowledge and realized they were naked in the wilderness the only thing left to do was for them to cover themselves. Instead of leaves, they chose to adorn themselves in tailored suits and platinum jewelry. After a year of these men being on the scene every kid on the playground knew what points were and how much a standard industry deal was.
After a while, it became vogue to aspire to be a Hip Hop executive rather than a rapper. The seed was planted years ago when the Wu Tang Clan went into Steve Rifkind's office and asked for a deal that would change the landscape of Hip Hop music forever. The executives that guided the Wu were named Divine and Power.
Everyone was conscious of how many spins a week their song was getting on what station and in what region. Hip Hop began outselling Country albums regularly...that was something most of us thought would never happen back in the days. The sky was the limit. The rules had all been broken now and there was no turning back.
Even producers got down with the program and began selling hooks along with the track and telling artists to use less syllables, slow down their flows and dumb down their music so kids could remember the lyrics. The main aim now was to make the tracks accessible for radio to give it a chance to crossover. MTV had fallen in love with Rap all of a sudden...funny considering just 15 years ago they had to be threatened with picketing and boycotts just to play Run DMC's "Rock Box".
This was a strange era for Hip Hop. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times depending on who you talk to. One person will say that 1997-2000 was a great era for music while others of us will remember it as the time they abandoned the mainstream altogether. For me it was odd because throughout these years I HATED one of my all time favorite emcees with a passion because he was making horrible albums.
The landscape had changed so much in those years that it was nothing to hear kids on the bus talking about how much Swizz Beats sells tracks for or what kind of car Jay-Z had in his new video or how much the platinum jewelry that Juvenile rocked was worth. These kids would argue about how many units Master P's last album moved but none of them were talking about the music ITSELF, they focused on minor details about surrounding shit that was somewhat involved with the industry. This is where the problem truly lied.
There was so much focus on how many units you sold, how much platinum you rocked, if you had a Bentley or a Phantom or not, how many spins you got a day on Hot 97 or how much your in house producers charge for a track and how much money you command for a show or a guest appearance. The obsession with status and the pursuit of material objects began overshadowing the actual music aspect of the music business and now it had seeped into the head of the listener. Before you knew it, the audience wouldn't accept the artist unless he ALREADY looked or appeared to be successful. What the fuck?
Since these kids had now grown up with seeing Diddy and the Bad Boy Family dancing around in shiny suits and throwing around money all the time it made sense. It made even more sense because Master P was already rich by the time these kids first saw his videos when he rocked his gaudy jewelry and drove his expensive cars. It made even more sense when you factored in that the Cash Money Millionaires were dripping in platinum and had cars with the factory stickers still on them in their first videos. Perception became reality to them. It was all fucked up now!
Before all of this, artists were used to getting screwed over. Now, artists could take control of their careers and brand themselves. Now rappers would go off and do multiple endorsement deals, act, start clothing lines and really become a part of popular culture. They couldn't be denied a seat at the table anymore. Like Nelly said "Let me in now, let me in now! Donald Trump, Bill Gates let me in now!". They had no choice but to pay attention now. Hip Hop had taken over the business world as well...
Whether it was on the mainstream where Rap albums dominated the Billboard sales and hot singles charts or on the college stations where underground Hip Hop reigned supreme there was nowhere you could go to escape it. After the Survival Of The Illest and Hard Knock Life Tours that Def Jam engineered the floodgates were opened once again. Now Rap groups could go out and sell out stadiums and get that long dough. The artists and CEO's reveled in it...money ain't a thing indeed.
The aesthetic of the music changed and it became less and less sample based. Why? Because you have to pay to clear samples, dummy! On top of that you have to sit around and wait to hear back from a lawyer to hear how much the artist wants for the sample usage and sometimes they want some of the publishing. You can't be fuckin' with a producers money! What ended up happening was cats just played beats on their Casio keyboards and came up with their own shit.
When it began getting popular, they branded themselves by saying their names all over the track and even doing the hooks (that way you get more of the publishing!). They became bigger than the artists themselves! Then they pushed up their prices to exorbitant levels but what else do you expect? If you wanna hit, you're gonna have to pay for it. Hip Hop was big business and everyone (especially corporations) began to want a piece of it.
Kids in elementary school were singing "Bling Bling" with their friends at the playground at the same time I was walking by them with my walkman on drowning out their singing by listening to Soundbombing 2 and patiently waiting for this whole era of Hip Hop to be "over" and waited for it to get back to the "real shit". What an idiot I was for thinking that. Were things really better before when the artists were getting contractually raped? Nas can't feed Destiny or pay for her college education with the proceeds from "Illmatic"!
In conclusion, there is no one person to blame because when the game changed you either had two choices: sink or swim. You could step down to the indies or stay in the game and try to get on the charts like everyone else was trying to do. If you wanted to feed your family, you had to try to stay "hot" and do whatever was poppin' at the time. Everybody can share in the "blame"for what happened to the music, no one is completely exempt. If you think I'm kidding go back and YouTube some old Nas videos for a trip down memory lane.
Also keep in mind that the entire landscape had changed. The economy was booming because Bill Clinton was in office and MTV's Cribs had become "Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous" for a new generation. If it didn't make dollars than it didn't make sense for everyone across the board. Everyone wanted to be "Big Pimpin'" and get that money.
They'd copy whoever had a popular sound or flow to get signed to a record deal and labels and execs would lather, rinse, repeat. How can you try to "be true to Hip Hop" when all of the people telling you to do so are fuckin' broke and you're getting rich doing what you're doing? A rapper with no hits, sales or show money coming in is broke. A producer is just work for hire and if no one is buying he's broke. Now extrapolate that over 12 years and get back to me about the state of the Hip Hop/Rap music industry today.