Monday, January 14, 2008

Slumping record sales may be a good thing for hip hop.





2007 was the year that the gloss, floss, and "status of a boss" image that made rap music so commercially successful in the early 1990s stopped impressing people so much. Suddenly, rap artists were forced to create real art -- or just hustle, hard -- to be heard.

Hip-hop, it seemed, was going out of fashion. It just wasn't cute anymore. Not after 'hood hero Michael Vick got caught dog fighting, and definitely not after we taught Don Imus to call the Rutgers women's basketball team a bunch of "nappy headed hos." The act had worn thin and consumers rebelled, deciding to go out and spend their money on better things than "Curtis," 50 Cent's latest album. Nevermind the prize-fight worthy hype for "Curtis" and a record sales war waged against Kanye West. By industry standards, the album was an utter flop, barely crawling past the 1 million mark. That's quite a contrast to the over 5 million sales on his last album.

This might have hurt 50's feelings -- and pockets -- had he not been making millions off of his "Formula 50" vitamin water venture, or his ever-popular G-unit clothing line. Because, you see, '07 was also the year of diversifying your game. Creating and finding more avenues for revenue was the mantra of the past year. That entrepreneurial spirit kept the game afloat in a time a when perpetually multi-platinum artists (multi-million unit pushers) had to scratch and crawl their way to gold (500,000 sales).

Rapper Jay-Z, who was also the president of Def Jam Records from 2005 to the end of 2007, started the year with a "back from retirement" album that was a critical and commercial flop, despite a marketing blitz that was the hip-hop equivalent of the "Spiderman 2" campaign. Undaunted, he returned to the studio months later to record and release a concept album and soundtrack to Denzel Washington's street hustler epic "American Gangster," which was received better by both critics and the record-buying public -- a shot at redemption he likely would not have gotten if he, as Def Jam president, didn't give it to himself. He's also co-owner of the New Jersey Nets, and is said to have just bought my favorite clothing line, Artful Dodger. Soulja boy, Hurricane Chris, Mims, and any other new artist with a hit would do well to follow these hustling examples.

But not all rappers are in it for the money. For years, Bay Area rap artists have been at the forefront of the independent music hustle. This has long been a region where one can be commercially successful and financially comfortable with a fan base of fewer than 50,000. For an independent artist, the money is quicker, more direct and more easily accountable, meaning that you can control your business with greater accuracy than most major labels. With the consignment deals most independent artists make with local record stores, they receive between half and two-thirds of the profits generated. Not to mention live shows, which are usually a major artist's bread and butter.

The risk in being an independent artist is higher. If you are not commercially successful, not only are you not making any money, but you're losing it. Not to mention the fact that your art will never be recognized on the same level as more mainstream artists -- so, no Grammies for you. But that is a small price to pay if you can sell one-third of 50 Cent's albums and still make big money. The Bay Area's E-40, San Quinn, Messy Marv, Tha Jacka, Keak da Sneak, Mr. F.A.B., Bavgate and Beeda Weeda are artists who, for the most part, have never been on a major label and are still eating fat. Some of these dudes own homes, and with Bay Area property values being some of the highest in the country, that should tell you something.

If major labels or mainstream America lose interest in hip-hop culture and rap music, it is of no consequence. In fact, this current recession in the hip-hop economy will be a good thing if it runs off all the rappers and potential moguls who only got into the game for the money, hos and clothes. In fact, it seems like recently hip-hop has retreated aesthetically and sentimentally back to the 'hood. Some of the biggest songs of the last half of 2007, like "Duffle Bag Boy" and "I'm So Hood" and even "Crank That," have been directly and definitively made for the 'hood. Artists are trying less to cross over into white America and more to gain respect and notoriety from people who look like them. And that is a beautiful thing because hip-hop first and foremost is a street culture and rap is street music. Maybe this will be the beginning of a new golden age: one where the culture controls, exploits, and owns its image and therefore directly reaps the financial benefits.

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