How I learned to appreciate crappy hip hop

Recently I heard Hurricane Chris rapping on The Cipha Sounds effect morning show and was surprised to find that he had skills – serious skills – on the mic. I did not gather this by listening to his popular singles ‘A Bay Bay’ and ‘The Hand Clap.’ I began to ponder why he didn’t bring those skills to his singles. I’m a fan of early 90’s hip hop (think Wu-Tang, Nas, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, I could go on) and normally I don’t listen to or enjoy the radio friendly club single of today. But after thinking about it from a different perspective, not only did I respect Hurricane Chris significantly more as an artist, I gained newfound respect for all hip hop artists that sell large amounts of records.

Once I took time to view the music industry through a business lens, the motivation artists have to make radio friendly club singles became more apparent. In any business model, the ultimate goal is to profit, and the music industry is no different. Any artist who is signed to a major label does so to increase their reach and make money. If they were not primarily motivated by money, they would put out albums independently to have total creative control (something which is given up to an extent at major labels), while still having the opportunity to profit.

Music is not held to the same standards as other more traditional industries that sell goods and services. In traditional businesses, it is not the highest quality products that sell the most. The top sellers are the products that do the best job reaching the audience that is most likely to buy. Unfortunately, there is no correlation between quality of music and sales. Often artists will have to reach out and create music that appeals to other market segments to take album sales from good to great. In most industries this would be considered quality marketing. In hip hop this is called selling out. Jay-Z said it best on “Moment of Clarity” from The Black Album:

I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars
They criticized me for it yet they all yell “HOLLA!”
If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be
lyrically, Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did five mill’ – I ain’t been rhymin like Common since

He gets it. Nelly gets it. Ludacris gets it. Multi-platinum selling hip hop artists get it. These are the same artists that are most heavily criticized in forums and elsewhere online for making songs that are radio friendly and not for the ‘real hip hop fan.’ These artists simply understand how to monetize the business of music and spread their message better than their peers. They understand the difference between going gold and multi-platinum doesn’t depend on hip hop fans, but 13 year old white girls. They’re aware that in order to go platinum there are going to be some songs that they have to ‘dumb down for their audience’ as Jay-Z mentioned. They understand that as in the business world, just because you have the highest quality product doesn’t mean it’s going to sell if nobody knows its there. These are the artists that have managed to build successful brands, that allow them to draw from a larger pool of potential customers, but that is a totally separate topic that I hope to touch on in the future.

As Andre 3000 of Outkast said on “Elevators” from ATLiens:

True I got more fans than the average man but not enough loot to last me
to the end of the week, I live by the beat like you live check to check
If you don’t move yo’ foot then I don’t eat, so we like neck to neck

In the business of creating and selling music, if artists don’t sell records they will have minimal shelf life. However, I believe that quality music will stand the test of time and over a long period sales would reflect that. Unfortunately music labels are only interested in the 1-3 month window starting the day the album is released since albums make a large portion of total sales the first month (the first week in some cases). Reaching out to parallel markets in order to broaden your reach (i.e. collaborating with an R&B artist for a record, or reaching out other well known artists for guest verses on your records) is not selling out. It is a smart business move to ensure they are reaching the largest audience possible. Remember, music is a business and artists on major labels are primarily trying to secure profits through their music.

It wasn’t until I viewed music through a business lens that I realized why artists don’t always bring their best and why they insist on making (what I consider) crappy music. Those songs on the radio and being played in the club are not being marketed toward me, and are not a reflection of the talent of the artist. Like all for profit businesses, they are simply trying to grow their market share and increase their piece of the pie. It shows me that they understand the game, and I’ve grown to further respect the artists who get it, since I just began to get it myself. Once you view artists as businesses, singles and radio/club play as marketing, and audience/reach as customers, you will have a better appreciation for people who have managed and continue to make large profits in the industry.

12 thoughts on “How I learned to appreciate crappy hip hop”

  1. Dave,

    Great article. KISS still applies across almost any industry (keep it simple stupid). Maybe you could call it something like, KRS ONE.
    Kiss Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone.

  2. Also just noticed you are from Arizona. So is the beginning of “Post Rap”. You should look around your town.

  3. Great article. Music is changing so rapidly and there is so much corporate corruption involved still. As an indie label from Miami we feel that listening to the streets is no longer a viable source of feedback. The ‘streets’ are full of this ‘dumbed down’ teen and pre-teen culture that have no idea what is good music. The messages they absorb are “Money is more important than anything else in life” and “Keep shaking your ass and someone will notice you”. So if you portray these messages even in a simple way, you will have credibility at the least. There are new artists from a slightly older generation that see this and have adopted a style that might resolve this “culture crisis”.
    Check out totalcontrolproductions.com for more.

  4. I know this is a pretty old entry, but I’m just going to point out Dumb It Down by Lupe Fiasco, it’s the anti-mindset of dumbing down your rhymes for money. Lupe realizes that he could just rap about bitches and bling, but he writes songs about skateboarding and a paralleling the ghetto with a giant robot.

    His whole album “The Cool” has an anti-rap sort of feel.

  5. Norman

    Lets get this straight music is done as pastime. It is something people do on their leisure time. i hate when people mix business with music. Music should have nothing to do with money at all. When money and profit get involved, the music somehow turns sour. I hate when people try to make money over music. I respect people in the underground because they often leave out the money aspect. These are the artist who can careless about the money and only love making music. These are the people who will do it for free. They make music because it is fun. Money has no influence on their music. So when you compare the mainstream with the the underground, the underground is more filling. You actually get a positive message. When people do something they love, not only do they devote themselves more the the other guy, but they tend to do better. People who love what they do do a better job.

    so fuck the radio, fuck the major labels and fuck greed!

    “FS”

  6. Paul

    You’ve had a breakthrough in accepting the necessity of selling yourself and yet you’re only willing to accept it in the context of ‘better rap’ that these artists seem capable of.

    You accept that an artist needs to ‘sell himself’, but what if he chooses to sell himself to the biggest audience possible? What’s wrong with that exactly? Why the hell don’t we give MORE respect to those artists?

    It’s not easy to sell yourself, and even the best salesman can’t sell a turd if it smells too bad.

    The ‘crappy’ rap music that you don’t respect?
    That IS the good stuff from those artists. They took pains to balance the needs of salesmanship against their own creative needs and the compromise is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

    I’m willing to grant that sometimes the sales job is more polished than the music itself, but I reject the premise that selling yourself is ‘bad’.

    Therefore when you state ‘Unfortunately, there is no correlation between quality of music and sales’ I think you’re completely underestimating the role of salesmanship.

    Quality music is (at least in part) music that is well sold.

  7. Miles

    I disagree, music is an art-form. yes they need to make a living but by selling out (which they are in fact doing) they are making an absurd surplus of loot that they don’t need. This goes against the foundation of hip-hop as a rebellious voice against the corporate fat cats and corrupt politicians. Hip-hop gave the streets a voice, the realness of tupac and biggies lyrics is what set them apart. They could flow with the best, but the paint the beautiful struggle better than anyone ever had. If rappers are truly talented and still want to sell platinum be real, this fake shit makes me sick, hip-hop is headed for the gutters. Plus I need some new stuff to listen to because I’m running low on quality pre-weezy music.

  8. Everyone is bringing great points to the table.

    The artist that “sells out” for a wider audience reach will gain more fans at the sacrifice of the underground/deeper content fans. Many of you agree that this “dumbing down” is a necessity to tap into what is generally accepted as the hip hop mainstream.

    But what if “hip hop mainstream” isn’t you’re personally definition of hip hop? I used to breakdance and write graff in high school with my little hip hop crew. We loved it. We got amped off the golden era hip hop, and we appreciate that flavor of music much more than what is coming out today. It’s not that we are stuck in the past, but the music that was made back than brought more to the table and was much more captivating to listen to.

    Myself and my old hip hop crew are not alone. There is a huge market for people like us. Imagine all the bboys and bgirls out there, dj’s, graffiti writers and cats who still dig that golden era sound. Then you have the hip hop intellects who aren’t about to get caught listening to some ringtone candy BS you know? This market isn’t lost, it’s just been in the background (or underground if you will) because mainstream trends are what are financially backed by record labels and promoted via BET, MTV, clear channel. they all are in the business of making money, which means investing in the next big thing and that certainly means having the widest possible audience reach.

    Underground music is a niche market now. It may be a smaller audience but I would bet the house that if your music is good enough to win the respect of bboys, dj’s, hip hop intellects etc, you will have a fan for life. No youtube million hits flavor-of-the-week trends, but acceptance that will last as long as you hold it down for your fans.

    Perfect example of this, my friends and I used to be huge fans of common. Resurrection is my favorite album of his. His following releases were good up until a point where his style began to change. He gained more fans and presumably more success, at the sacrifice of losing me and probably thousands of others as dedicated fans. In terms of financial success, this was a great move for common. In terms of letting down his dedicated audience base, well, I don’t even keep track or care about what he’s doing these days.

    My .02

    Great discussion,

    Peace!!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.