White star, black galaxy

Eminem is the man of the hour, but rap is still an African-American business.

By Amol Sarva
November 21, 2002 12:00AM (UTC)
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Astrologers took note last week as a rare alignment graced their star charts. The auspicious sign: one Eminem, two No. 1 slots. This year's prince of hip-hop scored a pleasing symmetry, with the film "8 Mile" and its soundtrack album reigning atop the box-office charts and the Billboard charts in the same week.

In the marvel of a humanized Eminem, once just another angry thug, is yet another symmetry. The white rapper's transformation is hip-hop's, and in his race is the message that black music has gone mainstream. Eminems character in "8 Mile" climbs out of his Detroit ghetto on the merit of his stylish flow alone, an achievement all the sweeter for a young white kid in a black mans world. And so is born the record industrys white knight, he who will carry the budding hip-hop genre farther and deeper into the heart of a mostly white target market. Yet as his roman à clef meditates on hip-hop's color barrier, Eminem's observers miss the fact that this exception proves the rule and that his genre is anything but budding. Hip-hop is all grown up. And now, as much as ever, it is by and about black America.


Invented in the Bronx ghettos of the 1970s, the cultural form of hip-hop has found its target market in suburbs across America. From 1995 to 2001, the hip-hop market share boomed, increasing by 75 percent. (CD sales have sagged badly this year, but that's true across all musical genres.) This achievement was possible only because more than three-quarters of hip-hop record buyers were already white. Booming beyond music, hip-hop's biggest names are increasingly involved throughout the culture industries: fashion, TV, film and print. Twenty years after the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" hit the pop charts, hip-hop has managed something rock 'n' roll never could: It's popular, profitable and black.

Hip-hop has defied a central cliché of commercialization, unlike rock, jazz, and the blues before it. For all of the latter, Norman Mailer's observation that postwar American "cool" has repeatedly returned to black America for inspiration is true. But as hip-hop transformed from outsider to establishment, it has remained a creation by and about black Americans -- even if the product is for whites. Hip-hop's leaders, stars and aristocrats are predominantly African-American, from Russell Simmons to the Wu-Tang Clan to Lauryn Hill to Ja Rule, DMX and Nelly (who topped the charts just prior to Eminem's arrival). And on the world stage, hip-hop's subject matter, from NWA's 1987 "Fuck tha Police" to Jay-Z's 1999 "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," continues to treat the experiences of American blacks.

Eminem's prominence in 2002 merely confirms that the occasional white rapper is by now a familiar novelty. In the early 1990s, Boston's Irish-American group House of Pain had rap's biggest hit, and it was the Beastie Boys who were rap's first superstars. But a check of the Billboard hip-hop chart last August found that 19 of the top 20 albums were from black performers (Eminem was at No. 4).


The surprise, in fact, is that there are so few Vanilla Ice-style knockoffs to mention. Rap records made up 11.4 percent of the $13.7 billion in U.S. record sales last year, and the confederate category of R&B accounted for another 10.6 percent. Rock, by comparison, has declined from over 40 percent in the late '80s to just 25 percent today. While "teen pop" and the travails of Britney Spears have made headlines lately, the treacle merely footnotes the rise of hip-hop. Mass-market breakout has long since happened.

The face of hip-hop is and always has been black. But so too are hip-hop's seats of power. Behind the stars is a universe of black producers and impresarios. This is where Eminem came from; he was discovered and packaged by black producer and entrepreneur Dr. Dre in 1999. Successful artists frequently start their own labels to sponsor whole coteries of affiliated acts or "families." And while the L.A.-based major labels have surely made fortunes distributing most titles, Master P's No Limit Records and Sean "Puffy-Puff Daddy-P. Diddy" Combs' Bad Boy Entertainment are clearly powerful, as are other black-run labels.

The list of hip-hop businesses has kept on growing, notably with the explosion into fashion of fabulously successful brands like Phat Farm, Karl Kani, And 1, Rocawear, FUBU and Combs' own Sean John line. Hip-hop is a world of black musicians, producers, film stars, moguls, critics and designers -- and white fans.


The story has often gone very differently in the history of American music. Commercialization has usually separated black America from its artistic progeny, as with the appropriation of jazz by the bourgeois elites, the usurpation of blues first by a white record industry and then by the international explosion of rock 'n' roll.

Rock, above all other forms of pop music, has a history of singular racial uniformity, from Elvis Presley and Beatlemania to Morrissey and the Strokes. Rock as an institution is a narrative about the experiences of white, middle-class male adolescents. Just ask Jann Wenner or Nick Hornby. Try to think of a black rocker today. The odds are you can do no better than French-Jewish pop perennial Lenny Kravitz or the early-'90s band Living Colour. It's true that Jimi Hendrix revolutionized rock guitar in the '60s, and long before him Chuck Berry was among the music's key progenitors. But while Mick Jagger will gladly admit that all the first great rock records were black, in subsequent decades rock has rarely told the stories from black America.


On this year's 25th anniversary of Elvis' death, music critics noted his catalytic role in the success of the musical form of which he would be King. As sweet country boy, he was perfectly positioned to foot the line of propriety and liberate teenage lust. And as sex symbol to millions of dizzy fans, he was an erotic object that a black man could never have been in pre-civil-rights America. It's this overwrought parallel that Eminem has claimed, crowning himself "the worst thing since Elvis Presley/ to do black music to get myself wealthy" on his most recent album.

A repeated theme from rap's early days was that the fad would fade. Rap was nothing different or special. "King of Rock" was the triumphant title that Run-DMC put on the follow-up to their first hit album, as they claimed a place in the pantheon next to Led Zep and the Stones. The critic Samuel David, writing in the New Republic in 1991, detailed the role of white music insiders, like Def Jam's Rick Rubin, behind the early hit groups, while pointing out the rappers often came from middle-class backgrounds. His point: Rap is "the black music that isn't either." The market would assimilate hip-hop, and thank goodness.

The 10 years since have not been kind to such predictions. Since the '80s, groups like Public Enemy have crusaded on a Malcolm X-style platform of black identity. Rap was about life in the ghetto, about people from the ghetto, and it was tied up with the concerns of the ghetto; Chuck D famously called it "black America's CNN." While today's materialistic stars have left overt politics behind in favor of flashing their hopelessly nouveau riche tastes on lifestyle showcases like MTV's "Cribs," they have not diminished their commitment to expressing the aspirations, realities and dramas of life in black communities. Hip-hop is still about the ghetto. If Rick Rubin was the slick producer behind Dr. Dre's NWA in 1987, in 2002 Dr. Dre is the puppetmaster behind Eminem.


Of course, what rap's opponents were really saying is that money changes everything. And commercialization has indeed reconfigured the genre. The early sound was all prosody, no melody; a rapper's vocals meshed over a spare beat or record sample. These basic elements have evolved to incorporate a more R&B-influenced, consumable tenor, while the emergence of female stars like TLC, Jennifer Lopez and Missy Elliot has diversified its appeal. Combs, in his Puff Daddy phase, crystallized this mainstream sound in a series of hip-hop remakes of pop classics such as the Police hit "Every Breath You Take." Following textbook marketing principles, duets intermingling "rough" male rappers with R&B starlets have become increasingly common. And kid-friendly acts like Lil' Bow Wow deliver the low-in-sugar variety thats both kid-tested and mother-approved.

While capitalist impulses have driven the migration to a softer sound, it has also sharpened a hard edge: hip-hop's obsession with themes of crude street contest and self-aggrandizement. The earliest stars were often gang members and graffiti artists, often in trouble with the law. Today's stars still adopt this identity as a source of credibility. This posture's significance peaked in the mid-'90s with violent, misogynistic "gangstas" like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur. While the "West Coast" wave invented a new melodic, mass-market sound, its very success drew a political backlash against its disturbing messages. At the nadir in 1995, hip-hop sales collapsed.

The post-gangsta incarnation transcended this challenge, typified in the style of Notorious B.I.G. The ghetto credentials persist (like Tupac, he was murdered in an "unsolved" drive-by shooting), but the lyrical themes of violence and sexual power have been replaced by a sublimation of hip-hop's street origins into a materialized "cash money" aesthetic. "Gucci down to the socks," he sings on his first hit album, detailing his wealth and glitzy excess. Hip-hop went from "straight outta Compton" to "ghetto fabulous," from "grunge" minimalism to plutocracy.


Gone are the inflammatory politics of Public Enemy's black nationalism. Instead, a soothingly bourgeois materialism pervades the music. But there still remains an unexplained demographic mystery: At first glance, a white-dominated mass market would seem to require an increasingly white product. In an era when Britney was instantly covered in marketing-machine imitators, hip-hop has defended a remarkable cultural and racial uniformity.

Where are today's answers to the Beatles and Rolling Stones, ready to bring us rap's British Invasion? Or a downtown art-scene rapper, like a 21st century version of Andy Warhol's flunky, Lou Reed? Is there a place for nihilistic suburban kids from good homes to go grunge, or for bespectacled English majors to make indie rap? A&R men have surely mused about the possibilities, and in fairness something of a multiracial, international hip-hop underground is beginning to take shape. But these white-guy flavors are nowhere on the charts. Ask elite DJs what they play at home, and you may glimpse an opening. For the rest of us? Hip-hop is as black as ever.

The explanation lies in the nature of hip-hop itself and in its deeply instilled obsession with origins and authenticity. The essence of hip-hop is a framework of values and identity that constantly demand artists to "keep it real." Themes of violence and misogyny may offend genteel ears, but to hip-hop they have the virtue of being genuine. If rappers are charged with crimes and gang associations, they become more popular; they exhibit their authentic connections to the street. Connections to place and community are constantly avowed in shout-outs to Queens or Philly or associates in the crowd.

Materialistic values, far from being perceived as a vice of commercialization, express the basic aspirations of the ghetto and racialized poverty. Hip-hop never chastises its own for "selling out" for money, and artistic integrity is scarcely invoked. It is unimaginable that a rap star would invite commercial self-destruction for ideological reasons in the manner of Pearl Jam's 1994 campaign against Ticketmaster or Smashing Pumpkins' retirement due to artistic disaffection with "the Britneys." Keeping it real never competes with "getting paid." They are one and the same. Rappers explicitly praise each other for their business acumen.


While post-1960s youth culture has ascetically demanded a rejection of profit in favor of political or artistic ideals, hip-hop has built its values around a concrete cultural identity. To keep it real is to remember your origins in the ghetto, however removed your actual life now is from the street. And if there is a single indicator that most efficiently measures one's connection to the conditions of the folkloric ghetto, it is race.

Hip-hop is dominated by black Americans, just as black America is dominated by hip-hop. As Q-Tip, member of 1990s alt-rap idols A Tribe Called Quest, put it when he was talking about his upcoming rock album experiment, "Black people in this country are told that they are just a few things. The minute you start to wander and go outside of that you're not black." Hip-hop is the identity of post-civil-rights black politics; and this time it is more Malcolm X than Martin Luther King Jr.

Though Michael Jordan once famously dodged political obligations by declaring, "Republicans buy sneakers too," no such bland assimilationism would issue from hip-hop leaders expected to express solidarity with their communities. Black athletes may appear in suits, but hip-hop is raucous, vernacular and self-consciously intimate with ordinary black life. Its leaders pay attention to politics, sometimes appearing with figures like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, and they support social organizations. Russell Simmons has attracted many stars to his Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, promoting political awareness among hip-hop fans, responsibility among its stars, and issue advocacy through protests and campaign donations. Assiduously inclusive of Latinos and others in the "hip-hop community," rap is nonetheless intimately connected with black identity in a way that Hollywood and even the National Basketball Association can never be.

Despite the undeniable star power of Eminem, this music's racial identity remains so strong that some critics in the black community have openly worried that hip-hop is little more than a vehicle for marketing the most negative and violent black stereotypes to exhilarated white teenagers. This debate will surely continue, but it is usually black rappers who hold the microphone -- and black executives who stand behind them. (In cases like Combs and Master P, MC and exec are one and the same.) Sex and violence sell rap records as surely as they sell movie tickets, but the news worth noting is that the success of hip-hop has opened a national forum on the life and identity of its largely African-American constituency.


One result is that hip-hop is starting to organize black political identity into a coherent picture for the first time since the civil rights era. Another is a purely unintentional marketing marvel: Race guarantees that black America will continue to ride this economic engine. But the cultural significance is even greater. Black culture is towing in its wake the aesthetic and social sensibilities of a generation of Americans. New York artist Tom Sanford's reverential paintings of hip-hop stars as religious icons suggest a radicalization of Mailer's old formula. Tupac's violent 1996 death in Las Vegas was both an ordinary gangbang and a martyr's self-sacrifice. Neither merely appropriated by white culture nor simply performed with minstrel-show detachment, hip-hop is black culture telling its own story.

Something has changed in America. It is white suburbia that looks on from a barren culture at murdered gangsters ascending to our culture's firmament. Tupac and his fellows were once the inadmissible black men. Now they work raw and utterly unsanitized, busily making a culture as genuine, as messy and as painful as the one punctuated by the overdoses and rock-throwing protesters of our fondest Woodstock-era memories. The black music that was neither black nor music has turned out to be both -- an early indication that this generation's Bob Dylans and John Lennons will turn out to be a pantheon of African-Americans.

Amol Sarva

Amol Sarva is a graduate student inphilosophy at Stanford.

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