[Article] MESSAGE & THE MONEY: The implications of commoditizing Hip-Hop Culture

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[Article] MESSAGE & THE MONEY: The implications of commoditizing Hip-Hop Culture

I wrote this piece in April for my professor Simon Black and wanted to share some of it with ya’ll. I was curious to know what the implications of commoditizing Hip-Hop Culture were and how that project has changed the content in light of contemporary conditions in Toronto. Hip Hop’s social protest legacy has always been complex; there has never been a single moment in which Hip Hop was singularly political and untouched by the politics of gatekeeping. However, the contemporary conditions of industry politics and self-proclaimed experts have seriously limited its political capacity and possibilities.

In order to address the implications and limitations in contemporary hip-hop culture through the lens of an MC I had to talk to the people who are affected by these changes and in many respects control the direction of the culture’s developments. I sat down with:

Dan-e-o:  a Canadian hip-hop artist and actor of Jamaican and Spanish descent, from Toronto, Ontario. He is currently a member of the group Perfeck Strangers, based in Scarborough, Ontario, and an original member of the Monolith Crew.

Spade: a Canadian hip-hop artist from the Scarborough duo Citizen Kane. Spade is also a b-boy who used to be a backup dancer for Michie Mee.

Scott Ramirez: A Canadian Hip-Hop artist from Scarborough who has performed alongside artists such as GZA, Masta Killa, J-Live, Stalley, Angerville and Big Sean.

I’m going to jump start with a short piece of the interview:

Scott Ramirez:  “You had to pay to play at The Killah Priest show”

Pay to Play, as explained to me by the MCs, was a fee that artists had to pay to open up for an American artist. Scott Ramirez had to pay a fee of two hundred dollars, plus secure a certain amount of tickets, to play in the show.

Dan-e-o: “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. The promoter at the Killah Priest show was not confident in his own promotional skills to promote a show, sell tickets, and fill the house. A promoter is supposed to be able to put on a show that will draw in an audience. This promoter is securing himself at least two hundred dollars for putting an artist on. What that does is, water the pool of talent. If I’m a garbage artist, but I’m on my grind and can sell two hundred dollars worth of tickets, or whatever, and pay  the promoter like an idiot, to be on stage, and to put on a horrible set. I paid to play […] these artists who pay to play are in every time because they sell tickets to all their friends. Its win-win, for the promoter and talentless artist. That’s ridiculous, this doesn’t foster a growing artistic foundation in this city of talent […] There are people who deserve to be on stage, who are so good.”

A lot of these promoters are doing showcases, throwing events and not even paying the workhorses. They trying get us to rock for the love of hip-hop or rock for the exposure. Now look man, I don’t mind doing a guest spot for my peeps, or, or, or doing a benefit show, but don’t lie to me pussy coz I find out I’m paying your light bill, I’m fuckin you up nigga. Besides, you ain’t doing this for the love, you ain’t doing it for the exposure, you charging up to 10$ at the door, and you ain’t tryin to give me shit?? So wait a minute… you want me to go shopping, cook the food, and put it in front of you but you won’t let me sit down and eat with you? The fuck is that? Niggaz need to start playin their position, man. Just coz you throw a party or host an event or an open mic or a showcase, or a battle that don’t make you important at all. Without me and everybody like me out there you ain’t nutting but a good idea, motherfucker so stay in your place. And to all these bitch-ass A&R’s who are too lazy to come up with a way to sell records..That they keep recycling marketing schemes and imagery..C’mon!

Excerpt from MESSAGE & THE MONEY  – IMMORTAL TECHNIQUE

It was extremely alarming to learn that one of the most vital contributors to the hip-hop cultures is impeding it. What I mean is, promoters are giving ‘artists’ who have resources stage time, therefore not discovering talent and putting it on. The artists we see opening up for big American names are on stage not because they are talented, but merely because they have funds to access the stage. This is the impression I have gotten from the MCs. I really liked what Dan-e-o said about this new way of promotion, and how it’s watering down the pool of talent in the city. This is how promotion works, and this is what it does. It creates a distinction between “good art” and “art for profit” which ultimately highlights the privileging of profit over legit craft (i.e proving u have real skills). This is by virtue diluting what people argue is the “real essence of hip hop” This would be one of the implications of commoditizing Hip-Hop Culture. Furthermore, what I gathered from the MCs is that, there’s a new way of grinding that’s more about props and status. What’s happening with promoters and shows can easily be translated into likes and followers on Facebook. It seems that if an artist has a large following on Twitter, and several likes on Facebook, they are “worthy” of peoples attention.

Hip Hop has gone down the road of materialism and has been turned into a commodity. It has lost reality of its roots, as being a political message during times of hardship and has turned into a moneymaking business. The commodification of Hip-Hop, as Spade mentioned numerous times, is shaping consumer perception. In Walter Dawkin’s article, “Is Hip Hop Dead?” co-creator Bill Stephney of political hip hop group Public Enemy believes that, “the heavy influence of the crack [epidemic in urban communities] changed many of the values of the youth black culture since the mid-’80s, [and] that’s where you get the materialism, the guns, the absolute die-hard mentality for meaningless things”.

Spade:  “People are judging success off of likes and followers. They’re not judging the art, they’re judging the reaction from your art.”

Spade believes that this goes against everything hip hop was raised on. “Hip Hop is ‘show and prove’” he says. In Hip Hop culture, the “show and prove” attitude privileges action over words or the demonstration of skills over merely talking about them. This “show and prove” attitude is now in decline because music labels want to make “bangers”, says Scott Ramirez. Collectively, the MCs believe that what’s being produced these days is not art, therefore they can’t prove.

Judging the reaction of the art, rather than the art itself is exactly what mainstream media does. Given that part of the mainstream media’s purpose, other than writing and reporting is, to act as tastemakers; they are required to sift through the not yet discovered artistry that currently is making the scene in order to funnel what matches their profit-based requirements through to the mainstream audience. While we think they are the tastemakers it’s not that simple. In fact, their status as tastemakers also requires that they find an existing fascination and audience and bring its somewhat sustainable popularity to a greater audience. This isn’t taste making in the organic sense from beginning to end–rather it requires that media work in tandem with others like promoters who have already done part of their job by finding and promoting an artist and building their base audience.

This is also true of A&R agents. To some degree this creates a domino effect, given that economics is a central factor.  Music/artistry that doesn’t necessarily capture the spirit of the genre and what measures as good/brilliant, is often what is promoted. Basically, the motivation of tastemakers (who are interested in capital and audiences) doesn’t always jive with the artistic intentions of the genre/their artists who often see keeping true to form as the center motivating factor.  This is one way the contemporary conditions of industry politics and self-proclaimed experts have seriously limited hip-hop’s possibilities.

“Hip-Hop has been watered down in a super commercial kind of way right now.” – Easy Mo Bee

Dan-e-o: “Today you don’t need a product. You need a laptop, microphone, and YouTube account.”

Scott Ramirez: “And a nice outfit too!”

Here I’d like to discuss the nature of technological changes (i.e. how things like the internet, YouTube etc. has affected putting together a product) through the emcee analysis, to demonstrate how this new way of commoditizing Hip-Hop Culture has changed the nature of Hip Hop as a social/political project.

Amanda (Me): “How has YouTube affected putting together a project?”

Scott Ramirez: “With current technology, it’s made making music a bit more easier but has saturated the field intensely. It may have made making music & sharing it easier but being recognized and known for it is harder. Before all this arose [the internet and You Tube], you could see the ones who really worked for it […] spending money for studio time, production, networking, etc. Now, everybody thinks they can do the same. Instead of being seen as something unique, the mass saturation makes it look like that “anyone” can do it. Also, given these new advances, the system that artists work in is still relatively the same. Outrageous/stupid videos and catchy disposable music still get more views and are easier to find. Not to mention, they are pushed and promo-d by multi-million dollar media companies and record labels. If one is looking to find alternative music, then they have to dig deeper like how people used to sift through the music section in a record store”

I want to conclude with what Dan-e-o had to say on the topic.

Dan-e-o: “The concept of the physical copy has lost its strength as a viable product. I grew up buying (and still do) vinyl copies of albums as well as CDs (and tapes before that). I still take into account all of the artwork and other elements that make up an entire”product”.

Dan-e-o explains that the appreciation for this side of the art-form has been somewhat lost as artists now tend to consider themselves as having “released” something because they’ve posted a recently-recorded song to YouTube or any other online entity. He also feels that many fail to properly mix and master. Some overlook cover art and most don’t even press up any copies let alone secure a distribution deal so that it can be found in stores, he says.

It’s a digital world. This is great in many respects. We can now
distribute our music to places we’ve never been thanks to digital
downloading. But the “product” as we used to know it exists less and less
these days. –  Dan-e-o

By: Amanda Girgis

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