Hip Hop

I started this post in response to a recent post on a friend’s blog about some required listening since 2000. Here is his original post

I noticed you he had no hip hop in there. This is a shame. Despite a marked falling off there were a some huge albums in hip hop since 2000. While Outkasts best work came before 2000, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below came out in 2003. I would say Andre’s piece is a work worth mention. Also, Jay-Z’s Black Album came out that same year. It was supposed to be his farewell to the game. This turned out to be a Favre-ian move, but led to the seminal hip-hop mashup album; Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album. Most recently I’ve seen Sufjan’s Illinois mashed up Finally, the prolific Lil’ Wayne must be mentioned (like the Ryan Adams of rap). His ‘s Tha Carter III signaled the end of hip hop, according to a recent piece on trends in the genre.

Here are some more relevant comments on the direction of hip hop from Matt. They should be on his blog but they are here instead.

I have several 2-cent coins to toss into the discussion of “the death of rap music.” My main thesis is: we want new rappers to emerge, but industry change prevents them from emerging.

Barrier to Entry 1:
NO PROFITS. Only the rappers who gained a toehold right before the death of the CD are able to afford to rap for a living (Jay-Z, Wayne, Kanye, T.I., 50 Cent). The internet killed all motivation because there’s no money in it any more and therefore no incentive for young rappers to pursue it. To put out an album now, you’ve got to be willing to distribute free mixtapes while you keep your day job, or have plenty of money in the bank from your previous albums. Back in the day, the labels were signing guys up left and right.

Barrier to Entry 2:
MARKET SHARE. Only the old heads listed above are currently relevant because they’re the only rappers that transcend the young and old (us) generations, thereby benefiting from a fanbase that is hip (young folks that guide trends) AND long-standing (loyal old folks). The new rappers leave the old folks scratching their head. All the classic rappers from like ’87 to ’02 are simply unknown to the young folks. So this leaves the market in 2009 really top-heavy.

Barrier to Entry 3:
CRITICAL RECEPTION FROM THE CRANKY HIP-HOP FANS. This top-heavy nature of the market further suppresses new talent because there are so few benchmarks for “good” rap. Everything new is compared, critically, to only these few legends and inevitably gets dissed because it can’t measure up. But not everything has to be THAT good to be on the ipod. Back in the day, there were a bajillion great 2nd-tier rappers and rap groups (speaking of, whatever happened to the rap duo??). Now there are none. You are either one of the few at the top, or you’re nothing because the internet critics say you’re nothing.

Barrier to Entry 4:
SUBSTITUTE GOODS. In the meantime, we listen to cheap-to-produce knock-off stuff made from guys who went to Skidmore (Ratatat), which luckily sounds great, but only stokes our fears that rap music is dying. And of course prevents us further from spending our time and money on new rappers.

One thought on “Hip Hop

  1. I understand your point – I'm just not a big hip-hop fan.

    A good post that I enjoyed reading and wanted to share my thoughts on it:

    Those four barriers to entry have been around for quite some time in all music genres.

    Barrier to Entry 1 –

    The lack of money, as in excess, disposable income, in music is a reality for 90% of musicians (that's my guess, but I imagine it's a pretty conservative one). The top earners are the ones that we've heard and for every musician that you've spent money on, I guarantee that there are at least nine others who you have not heard of and not patronized.

    If you're passing out mixtapes and waiting for a label to come to you, there's something inherently wrong there. That isn't a sustainable model. You argue that the internet has killed motivation because there's no money as incentive. This may be the one point where rap/hip-hop is unique; the majority of money that musicians make (now) is through touring, an area in which rap/hip-hop artists are historically deficient. That aside, if an artist's primary incentive is money, chances are their music isn't great. But if they're ready to sell out – there may always be a market for tired songs about bitches and drugs.

    Artists that want to survive need to embrace the possibilities of the internet as the record labels of the 21st century – the two mash-ups that were referenced above (Grey Album, Sufjan mash-up) did just that. Neither of them had the backing of major labels – news spread by word of mouth and, primarily, through the internet.

    You're correct, though, figuring out how to make money in rap/hip-hop when you don't tour is certainly becoming more difficult. I imagine this will get sorted out in the next 5-10 years or it may never get sorted out. In which case, we may see the continued decline of rap music.

    Barriers to Entry 2/3 –

    Market share and critical reception should certainly be considered but I think the argument is too focused on looking backwards and expecting to see the same sorts of artists today that were around in the 90s and history has shown that is the exception to the rule. Artists that transcend multiple generations are extremely rare and are generally those that have been around long enough to change their music to reflect the times (Neil Young is a good example – country, rock, grunge/punk, electronic). I don't pretend to be an expert on rap/hip-hop, but it seems like there is a definite change going on with artists who are becoming pretty popular (such as M.I.A. and The Streets) and artists that used to be popular fading quickly. That said, I still think that folks like Jay-Z will be revered for a long time, but you find that in every genre.

    The real question is are there talented artists out there that can't make it because they're being held down by the industry or is there a scarcity of talent or is it something else? I don't have an answer to that but I think that there will always be people wanting to express themselves, ESPECIALLY in the face of increasing pressure to fail.

    My opinion is that the internet has improved music immensely. It has allowed all sorts of artists, based solely upon the merits of their work, to be recognized and begin to make a living from what previously was just a part-time job (generally by touring and merch sales – again, hip-hop/rappers need to get in on this). In this post-MTV era, artists, just like in the age before MTV, can be judged on their work and not their appearance or gimmicks. You make a good point about internet critics, but their power pales in comparison to the record label execs, clear channel dealmakers, and MTV/VH1 VJs of a few years ago.


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