The Decline of the Hip-Hop Empire

Given that so much fuss has been made over hip-hop’s decline, it seems ironic that Stanford should bring in rapper Chamillionaire to talk about business. Nevertheless, Chamillionaire quickly dispelled any idea that he was not qualified to lecture a packed Memorial Auditorium on entrepreneurship.

Chamillionaire displayed an entertainer’s charisma, telling hilarious anecdotes covering all manner of topics, from the derision he received from rappers for making a website: “[they said] he’s all on that internet stuff. He’s a dweeb. Five million ringtones later…” to protecting his brand: “I’ll go to a merchandising company…and they’ll have a t-shirt and it’ll be just square and it’ll be like my face on it. Why do I want to sell something with my face on it? I wouldn’t wear my face!”

Throughout the lecture, it was clear that those who called Chamillionaire a nerd were partially correct. He was most engaging when telling stories about tech conferences, contract negotiations, and management strategies. One got the sense that he is bored with rap and would rather be running a Fortune 500 company. Chamillionaire is in some ways the prototypical modern rapper: talented, charismatic, and able to put out a compelling record, but more interested in the business side than rapping.

Chamillionaire was less affable when talking about his and other record labels, painting them as cheap, unimaginative, uncommitted to their artists and generally incompetent. He rightly criticized the major record labels for trying to “always shove a song down your throat,” and “trying to bottle stuff up.” He also touched on the music industry’s failure to negotiate with iTunes when it was a fledgling product, and the industry’s insistence on warring with online file sharing rather than trying to accommodate it.

While the digitization of music has made it possible for anyone with an internet connection to have their favorite artist’s body of work for free, the record industry’s hubris in believing it could stop this process rather than trying to cut its losses and accommodating an overwhelming trend continues to hurt it to this day. Believing that CD sales would continue to dominate the music market, the record industry neglected to create its own mp3-selling arm, allowing Apple to fill the void with iTunes.

The enormity of this mistake cannot be understated. The record labels had an opportunity to cut out the middleman in music sales and they passed it up. This has left the record labels at the mercy of iTunes. Only recently were the labels able to convince Apple to introduce variable song prices in iTunes, a feature that surely would have existed in an online music market owned by the record labels. Still, this does not explain why, relative to other genres, hip-hop sales have declined this past decade, and it’s a shame that Chamillionaire did not address that.

Hip-hop’s decline is paradoxical: rap has gotten tamer over the past decade, making it more palatable to a broader audience. In the early and mid-90s the gangsta rap era exploded onto the scene as rap acts such as Niggaz With Attitude (N.W.A.), the Wu-Tang Clan, and others who painted a gruesome, violent picture of inner cities that deliberately sought to offend (N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” comes to mind). Riding sensationally violent feuds, the rappers of this era had unparalleled credibility among their white audience, especially in contrast to the whiny grunge that dominated rock. Their depiction of inner cities run by criminals and drug dealers came to be regarded as an accurate representation of the black American experience and an alluringly masculine fantasy world.

The late-90s spawned unprecedented success for white rappers such as Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit and Eminem. Rap’s sales and influence continued to rise throughout the 1990s, peaking in 1999 when a Time cover story declared hip-hop America’s top-selling music genre. Rap was no longer an ideology, a renegade lifestyle or something foreign to its white adolescent audience. It was now just one other way to sound, easily fused with rock, metal, and later techno.

Today, the biggest rappers of the 1990s are either dead (Eazy-E, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G.), or old and neutered (Jay-Z, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg). New Yorker pop culture critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote that rap’s future is one “where artists work in a larger number of established subgenres that do small but consistent business with loyal audiences. The claim to shock is traded in favor of a reliable following.” While rap may no longer shock—in the words of the Roots’ manager, Richard Nickels, hip-hop is “collapsing because they can no longer fool the white kids”—it does fill two market niches—one whose continued prosperity is assured, the other’s in doubt.

First, hip-hop is the dominant party genre. This aspect of hip-hop remains omnipresent, but is more frequently combined with other genres. The massive hip-hop/pop crossover party single (think Jay-Z and Rihanna’s “Umbrella”) is as ubiquitous as ever.

Second, hip-hop is popular culture’s last vestige of unapologetic homophobia, sexism and male egoism. Hip-hop puts its listener in a fantasy where he is beloved by women and feared by men. This past decade has had a dearth of rappers who could tell these stories of coming from nothing to something, to explain why we should want them to have their extraordinary riches, to explain how they escaped terrible circumstances through sheer will power.

Mr. Nickels is right when he says that the white kids aren’t fooled anymore. While the party song’s sway has held steady over the past decade, the machismo brand of hip-hop is more and more becoming a smaller niche because rappers’ backgrounds have been revealed to be at most minimally more interesting than those of their rock counterparts.

The only rapper that made people believe this past decade was 50 Cent. Coming from someone who had survived being shot nine times, listeners imagined that he was more than a studio gangsta, that he had lived the modern blaxploitation stories that fill rap songs. If I had to pick a day to mark macho hip-hop’s tombstone it would be September 11, 2007 when 50 Cent and Kanye West both released albums, and 50 Cent vowed to retire if he sold fewer copies. The effeminate West and his lead single that heavily sampled European techno troupe Daft Punk’s, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” thumped 50 Cent, the masculine bulletproof vest wearing rapper from New York City.

Parts of Chamillionaire’s oeuvre indicate that he wants to bring reality back to hip-hop—if it ever was there in the first place. His most famous song, “Ridin’” is about indignation over being suspected of doing illegal things rather than doing them.

Despite moments of vulnerability, Chamillionaire is not going to bring maturity to rap. Though he does not swear or glorify drug and alcohol use in his songs, much of his work deals with petty feuds and uses misogyny, homophobia and imagined violence to make his points. As Chamillionaire made clear, he is a businessman first, and immature, violent fantasies will always have their niche; it’s just that hip-hop’s share of that niche will continue to shrink as rappers become regarded as less exceptional individuals.

Chamillionaire’s effort to grow his brand via crafty use of technology presents an interesting contrast. That he has maintained a first-rate website for years, using it to interact with fans and gain feedback, undoubtedly played a role in his rise and continued success. Still, one is left to wonder how much longer selling a 20th century product with 21st century technology will remain as lucrative as it is now.

Chamillionaire speaking about entrepaneurship in entertainment. (Photo Credit: Alex Yu / The Stanford Daily)
Chamillionaire speaking about entrepaneurship in entertainment. (Photo Credit: Alex Yu / The Stanford Daily)

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