This week I caught an article from earlier this month by Dr. Boyce Watkins (a regular at Financial Juneteenth), in which he blatantly calls out big record labels for “promoting toxic music”. It echoed the sentiment to some extent that I read from rapper Too Short a while back, where he not only spoke of his own bad experience with record execs, but also put forth a little conspiracy theory as well.
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As someone who started listening to hip-hop with Run DMC’s song It’s Like That over 30 years ago, it’s pained me to watch hip-hop devolve into the mess that it is now. And considering the heart behind its early incarnations, I have a hard time believing that none of this fall from grace wasn’t orchestrated by the record labels and the money behind them. I won’t spout conspiracy theories here myself, but I will quote Too Short’s experience, and I will most certainly talk about what’s happened. Is it a case of institutional racism? Read on and I’ll let you decide…
First off, let’s talk about Dr. Watkins, who recently had a conversation with Father Michael Pfleger, from Saint Sabina on Chicago’s southwest side (shout out to Chi City – Go Town)! Here’s an excerpt:
Pfleger, more than most men in his position, knows the reality behind the promotion of violence in hip-hop music. His church resides in the center of the community that produced “Drill Music,” which the rapper Rhymefest refers to as “the theme music to murder.”For those who live in middle and upper class America, the music is merely harmless entertainment, no different from a Scarface movie. But for those who live in these neighborhoods, the impact of the music is as real as the bullets that murdered a 9-year old boy last week. The catchy and compelling messages manifest themselves in communities where it’s easier for a black man to get a gun than it is for him to get an education. It’s easy to put your life on the line when you have nothing to live for.
As a person who’s taught in five business schools over the last 20 years, I’ve learned a great deal about the power of marketing. Corporations spend billions in their quest to shape consumer thinking and behavior. Hip-hop music is among the most powerful and persuasive forms of marketing imaginable. Black teens get many of their social cues from their favorite hip-hop artists, and this is a gold mine for companies seeking to cash in.
And unfortunately, those cues don’t relate to the finer things in life. Dr. Watkins then references the current hip-hop phenom Bobby Shmurda, whose video for the song Hot N*gga (seriously?) “consists of the kind of stuff you might expect in any gangsta’s paradise: Thuggin, smoking, drinking, ‘wildin’, and repeatedly squeezing imaginary triggers at the camera.”
Now my question is this – what happened? How did the art form that was rap/hip-hop music in the mid -to-late 1980s and early 1990s fall so far down into this dark place? When I listened to it as a white boy back in the day, I gravitated to it because I’m an emotional, wear my heart on my sleeve kind of person, and to me nothing else spoke to that true raw emotion better than rap. The music carried a spirit with it that nothing else even touched, and the frequent tendency to grab soulful hooks from earlier decades and then create present day riffs from such gems, it pulled me in like no other.
And the positivity in the music, I mean rap was IT. From KRS One to LL Cool J to Heavy D to A Tribe Called Quest to 3rd Bass to Public Enemy, rap had a heart and soul to it… a purpose, even if it wasn’t written into every song. Rap lifted you up… anthems for change, for black people rising up, and at times for just people rising up, regardless of color. So it’s still the big question – what the hell happened??!
Too Short seems to have an idea, based on his own personal experience in the industry:
In all of my early albums with Jive [Records], they all had lots of songs that weren’t about sex, that didn’t have curse words in ‘em, and I would pick subjects like crack cocaine, poverty and police harassment and rap about it. When I got to Atlanta in the mid-‘90s, Death Row’s emerging, Bad Boy [Records is] hittin’ and we’re just about to enter the bling bling era. And Hip Hop is in a mood where it’s like I’m rich now, I got money.
And, I’m not gonna blame this on anybody, but I was actually being pushed into a direction where I would talk to people at Jive [Records], I would go talk to the President, Barry Weiss, and he was like – I always wanted to do these [side] projects like the E-40 duet album, which was one they never would let me do. Jive would never let me and E-40 do an album together. They kept making excuses and so it never got done. I also wanted to do an album that was filled with songs like “The Ghetto,” “Life Is…Too Short,” “Money In The Ghetto,” “I Want To Be Free.” I wanted to do a whole album of positive Too Short songs, just to keep that balance. I had made a verbal deal with Barry Weiss, where he was like, “Right now would be the perfect time, you should do like the raunchiest Too Short album ever – the album cover, the songs, just do a dirty fuckin’ Too Short album.” This is the executive running the company advising me to put out an entire album of just cursing and sex.
So I’m like, “If I did that I’d have to then do the exact opposite and follow-up that with an album that’s all positive.” And so, I did the album for him, we did You Nasty. And it got a gold album and all that stuff. But when it came time to do the positive album, it was never a good idea. It never got the green light. Once I did what they wanted, they would never let me do what I wanted.”
I started noticing at that time in Hip Hop that the labels were actually signing the artists and promoting the artists who would bring in just the negative messages: let’s have sex, drop ya booty. We getting off into Crunk now, the bling bling is out there … it’s going down. It was a new swag and everybody wanted to brag about – Rap has always been about bragging, but everybody wanted to brag about the millions.
Back in the early ’90s, I remember visiting a friend of mine at a different college in Illinois, around the time that Heavy D and 3rd Bass (with Nice & Smooth, Chubb Rock, etc.) were two of my favorite listens. His roommates and buddies, all white, were into NWA, and loved Eazy E. And some of them were racist to boot, yet here they were singing this crap “Straight Outta Compton” that I thought was complete garbage, and basically ridiculing the entire concept at the same time – think a drunk, college frat boy Al Jolson. Take a negative theme, and NWA had it covered. So perhaps that’s what happened… perhaps NWA happened.
But Too Short had more to say, following up right after his last comments:
And I noticed that at a certain point in Hip Hop the major labels stopped signing and promoting the positive artists, the ones that was just really positive. Positive images were hard to get out there. So I’m just saying that at some point it wasn’t that Hip Hop changed on its own, it had a little push. I’m a real conspiracy theorist, and I just feel like there had to be a gathering of the major labels and somebody had to say like, “Look, we gotta keep this positive shit off the airwaves and let this booty-shaking shit take over. It’s time.” And after that it’s like the floodgates just opened with sex and violence.
Original NWA members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube live very different lives now, and I wonder what they each have to say currently about the wave of change that NWA and its copycats brought to hip-hop (there is an NWA movie in the works now by the way). Indeed, Dr. Watkins, referenced in an earlier piece focusing on the way Dre and Ice Cube rose above the chaos, simply declared NWA “responsible for injecting hip-hop with a dose of toxic violence from which it has yet to recover.”
But NWA was one group. Pioneers or not, they were just one group – yet here we are well over 20 years later, still dealing with the consequences. Back to Dr. Watkins’ latest, referring to the effects of current artist Bobby Shmurda:
When marginalized, miseducated, and neglected young black males see the Bobby Shmurda songs being promoted by Epic Records, they are deeply affected. Similar to the way NASA missions inspired millions of kids in the 1960s to grow up and become scientists, major music labels increase the social capital available to black men who choose to become “thugz, killaz, gangstaz” and all the other things that might land them in prison. We know that impressionable teens are an easy target audience for any corporate marketing machine, and such bastardized forms of hip-hop music have done a number on these otherwise promising young men.
While the artist is an easy and relevant target in the campaign to confront violent messages in hip-hop, we must remember that Bobby Shmurda is just a kid. The greatest culprits in the musical promotion of black male criminality are the wealthy, 50-year old executives who know the real consequences of convincing millions of young men to break the law and get themselves killed.
One very telling piece of evidence of the impact of this music is the fact that Bobby himself was arrested on a gun charge and is now facing several years in prison.
Similar to the way tobacco manufacturers were told that they can no longer market to children, we must consider the implications of marketing repetitive, extremely violent music to young people, especially those who have easy access to guns. Father Pfleger recently protested Chuck’s gunshop in Riverdale, Illinois, because Chuck’s is one of many shops that have guns which “miraculously” end up in the hands of criminals committing homicides on the south side of Chicago.
When it’s all said and done, action should be taken against big record labels promoting toxic music. If people are dying as a result of your product, then you are liable for its effects. This is especially true if the consumers are underage. At the very least, irresponsibly profiting from clearly destructive messages is symptomatic of dastardly business models, hurtful racism and un-American corporate citizenship.
It’s time to end the era of corporations promoting harmful black male stereotypes without accountability.
And I completely agree. Like many other big issues facing us as the human race today, regardless of conspiracy theories true or false, there comes a time when we all see the truth right in front of us. And when that happens, we need to push for a change. I’ll be talking more about this in November for a reason that will be clear then, but in the meantime, it’s time to stop buying the junk hip-hop being peddled today. We live in an era where independent artists can make a way out there (Macklemore anyone?) unlike any other time before. We need to encourage those independent voices as much as possible, especially in the urban areas where hip-hop originated.
I’ve even been approached a few times in recent years to turn Hollywood 27 into more of a record label (especially in the heyday of Hollywood 27 Radio), since we already publish the Pyrite soundtrack. That’s something I will give serious thought to in the future, and if you know of any independent and positive hip-hop artists out there, please drop a comment in below. It’s time to put the heart back into hip-hop.