Friday, September 19, 2008

Orwell was talking about Hip Hop?

1991: Industry Rule #4080…Record Company People are Shady

2008: Industry Rule #4080…Hip-Hop Heads are Shady

In George Orwell’s literary classic Animal Farm animals take over a farm and banish humans in favor or running the farm themselves and directly benefiting from their labors. The idea of revolting against the humans occurs when the animals realize they are being exploited and are forced to engage in back breaking labor so that the humans can be sheltered, clothed and supplied with food and alcohol while the animals are worked nearly to death and not allowed to enjoy any of the fruits of their labor. Once the animals are in power they run the farm in a manner that is fair to all species and work is evenly divided amongst the various types of animals, however as it becomes clear that the pigs are the smartest species they slowly begin to take advantage of the less intelligent animals. The pigs begin wearing clothes, drinking alcohol, not participating in physical labor and eventually trading with humans from surrounding farms, violating the very principles on which the revolution was based. In the memorable last line of the book a pig and a human farmer are negotiating and it is impossible to decipher one from the other.

Orwell’s Animal Farm was written in the 1950’s as a critique of communism and the process of revolution happening and a new group attaining power until they eventually become corrupt and act just like the group they ousted. This cycle has been repeated many times throughout recorded history. While Orwell’s story is obviously applicable to many political situations in the world today, it is also very similar to what has happened in Hip-Hop over the last several years.

In the 70’s, 80’s and most of the 90’s it was clear that record company executives did not understand this new and exciting genre of music (hence the ATCQ lyric quoted above). This is evidenced by the vast number of one-hit wonders and songs and videos we all remember seeing and thinking, “What the hell is THIS?” (Rico Suave, PM Dawn, Vanilla Ice, etc.). However, as rappers themselves realized they were being exploited by the music industry they were able to take control of their own careers and eventually mentor younger artists coming into the game. This can be seen throughout the 90’s in groups like Wu-Tang and Naughty By Nature taking control of their merchandising and artists like Dr. Dre (Death Row) and Queen Latifah (Flavor Unit) forming labels and management companies. Also, during the 90’s the first wave of music industry executives that grew up on Hip-Hop had come of age and was getting their chance in positions of power within the industry. In fact, the success of companies like Bad Boy, Violator and Loud can largely be attributed to their founders having a deep understanding of the culture and a strong connection to the fans that allowed them to deliver the images, music and messages people wanted to hear.

The first several years of this business-minded spirit in Hip-Hop (basically the early to mid 90’s) were an exciting time filled with the promise of a utopian music community run by artists themselves or at least executives that were fans of the music. The idea that if you removed the “business” from “music business” (read: old white guys in suits) the overall quality of music would increase and the situation would be ideal for both artists and fans. And for a few years this was basically true, we saw established artists usher in new and exciting MC’s like Redman, Snoop Dogg, Naughty By Nature, Black Sheep, Das EFX, Big Pun and Nas. Fans also saw labels and management companies run by Hip-Hop Heads and not “Suits” introduce acts like The Notorious B.I.G., Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang Clan and Outkast. It should be noted that most of these artists are still in the game and produced albums and singles that are almost universally accepted as classics, a far cry from the ringtone-ready, disposable music the industry is filled with today.

However, this situation would not last long. As the 90’s came to a close and the 2000’s progressed, rappers in positions of power began to act a lot like the record industry people (read: old white guys in suits) that they took the power away from a decade earlier. Today most Rapper/CEO’s put out the most bland, repetitive, radio-friendly music possible for fear of alienating their audience with something new and exciting that will possibly be too progressive for fans or not fit the current radio format and risk losing the company money. While I understand that it’s the Music “Business” this aversion to taking risks can not be good for the progress of the culture.

Examples of this are abundant in today’s music scene where artists would rather sign an artist with a marketable look, catchy hook and silly dance that will sell a million ringtones than take a chance on establishing the career of a true musician that will have a long (and possibly more lucrative over time) career. This can best be seen in the executive moves of Jay-Z as president of Def Jam records. While he is inarguably one of the best MC’s of all time with more classic material than any other three great rappers combined, his decisions at Def Jam have not really advanced the art form of Hip-Hop. While none of the albums he has released have been bad, they have not been particularly ground breaking either (the southern drug rap of Rick Ross and Young Jeezy that has already been done to death, the safe R&B of Rhianna and Ne-yo and the extremely formulaic Fabulous album that is basically a cookie cutter version of how a New York MC attempts to get airplay in other markets and videos on 106 & Park). During this same period Def Jam released albums by Redman, Method Man and the Roots that were not sufficiently promoted because they did not fit the current state of crossover Hip-Hop. Perhaps more significantly, the label parted ways with Joe Budden, one of the most personal and intense MC’s of recent years, because they did not feel his brand of introspective Hip-Hop would find an audience with today’s youth who are busy Leaning, Rocking and Super Soaking Ho’s.

While Def Jam is a clear example of this phenomenon it is not by any means entirely to blame for this situation. Artist-Run Labels like Shady, G-Unit, So-So Def, Grand Hustle and Star Trac continue to put out records and new artists that bring very little to the game beyond a hot single, a new catch phrase and maybe a dance craze.

Possibly the most perplexing aspect of this situation is that the Artist/CEO’s in question often rose to success and stardom by making music that was innovative and NOT copying whatever was hot at the time. For example, TI has become a respected and commercially viable artist by focusing on lyrics and varied production to not become a typical “Southern/Crunk” artist. However, once Grand Hustle was formed he put out records by P$C and Young Dro that lacked all of the innovative production and lyrical dexterity that has made him one of the biggest Hip-Hop artists in recent years. Also, in the late 90’s Eminem’s deeply personal rhymes, every man personae and ruminations on being a white Hip-Hop kid were what set him apart from the super-grimy New York Hip-Hop of DMX and the glossy pop-rap of Bad Boy that ruled the era and allowed him to become one of the most respected and bankable artists in the industry. When he was given the chance to put out other artists through his Shady imprint he produced the prototypical New York “gangsta” that is not only openly more concerned with record sales and merchandising than quality of music but, has also recently collaborated with one of the boy band members his mentor became famous for dissing. It is hard to imagine these Rapper/CEO’s legitimately love the music their labels are producing and in some cases it is hard to picture them even being able to listen to it. (I can kind of picture TI doing the “Shoulder Lean”, but I can not think of one scenario where the man responsible for “Stan” actually likes “Ayo, Technology”).

What is also hard to understand is the complete ignorance of history most of these artists have when they pick new artists for their label endeavors. When an established artist has taken a chance on a truly innovative and creative protégé the results have been both creatively and financially staggering. Think about the repercussions in Hip-Hop if EPMD didn’t put out a blunted, funk-fanatic with a sense of humor from Jersey, if Dr. Dre decided not to work with that white boy or if Jay-Z didn’t sign the college dropout. Not only would Hip-Hop have lost some of its’ best and brightest stars, their mentor’s bank accounts would be severely diminished. Also of note is the fact that these decisions are not made by men who are desperate for money. This is not like a young mixtape rapper making a club song to get his foot in door of the industry (something Saigon, Pappose and Joell Ortiz, among others, will all inevitably do) and feed his family. These artists have all had extremely successful recording careers and have presumably amassed fortunes their great-grandchildren will be unable to spend. I do not understand why they are so unwilling to give back and help advance the culture that has made them rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and continue to put out formulaic artists and music that do not push the boundaries of the genre.

The scenario Orwell presents in Animal Farm has been observed many times throughout history and is quite applicable to the current state of artist-run labels in the Hip-Hop industry. Artists and people that have grown up Hip-Hop have made huge strides in curbing artist exploitation and have ascended to positions of great power within the industry, where they have an incredible impact on what music and messages make it to the masses, but this power is often wasted on “sure thing” artists with catchy singles that are nothing more than watered down versions of what is hot at the time. Next time you see your favorite rapper in a suit standing next to Jimmy Iovine, Clive Davis or Rupert Murdoch ask yourself if you can even tell the difference anymore.

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