icon Nas made the provocative statement,
``Hip-hop is dead,'' in September and
set off a firestorm of controversy. It
was intensified by the January release
of his album bearing the same title.
Many questioned why Nas would say hip-hop
-- a worldwide phenomenon that has generated
billions of dollars -- could be ``dead.''
After all, more hip-hop albums are being
released then ever before, and the music's
influence extends to movies, corporate
marketing and theater. That it's dead
seems absurd -- until you realize Nas
was looking beneath the surface.
He was speaking of the corporate side
of the music and the mentality of executives
more interested in turning a quick buck
than nurturing rap culture. Nas realized
sex, violence and bling, as themes for
the music, had pretty much run their course.
Album sales had plummeted, and ratings
at hip-hop radio stations in New York,
Los Angeles and elsewhere had hit all-time
A number of people, including this writer,
also had spoken out about mediocre product
coming from some of the genre's biggest
stars. Yet such talk was rebuffed by so-called
industry experts, who blamed digital downloading
and satellite radio.
We critics, however, were vindicated by
a study published earlier this year by
the University of Chicago. Data from the
``Black Youth Project'' indicated that
while 58 percent of blacks between ages
15 and 25 listen to hip-hop daily, most
are dissatisfied with it. They find the
subject matter is too violent, and women
too often portrayed in offensive ways.
Such feelings hint at a dirty little secret
of the music business: Blacks are used
largely to validate musical themes being
marketed to the white mainstream. In other
words, while 90 percent of commercial
rap artists on TV and radio are black,
the target audience lies outside the black
Paul Porter, a longtime industry veteran
and former music programmer at BET and
Radio One, is now with the watchdog organization
Industryears.com. He says the University
of Chicago findings offer proof positive
that commercial hip-hop has become the
ultimate minstrel show, and rap artists
are pushed by the industry to remain perpetual
As a result, we watch Diddy, Cam'ron,
DMX and others brag about wealth and throw
bills at a camera while bikini-clad women
gyrate in the background. Should these
artists attempt to break out of the mold,
they'd risk having their work questioned
by record and radio executives.
In our conversation, Porter also pointed
to something more sinister: payola. He
claimed hip-hop is dead only because payola
is rampant at labels intent on investing
in songs with sexual and violent themes.
During a separate conversation, Questlove
of the Roots supported Porter's allegation
with his own story about the process behind
the group's Grammy-winning hit with Erykah
Badu, ``You Got Me.'' He said the Roots
had to pony up close to ``a million dollars''
to a middle man who ``worked his magic''
at radio stations.
Initially, the overtly positive song had
been rejected, he explained, so palms
were greased with the promise that key
stations countrywide would get hot ``summer
jam'' concert acts in exchange for airplay.
According to Questlove, more than $1 million
in cash and resources were eventually
laid out for the success of that single
In the documentary ``Hip Hop: Beyond Beats
and Rhymes,'' shown recently on the PBS
series ``Independent Lens,'' filmmaker
Byron Hurt confronts Stephen Hill, BET's
senior vice president for programming,
to ask why the cable network plays so
many videos with misogynist and otherwise
degrading themes. The fortysomething Hill
walks away without answering. This is
the same executive who refused to broadcast
videos by the group Little Brother, because
he considered their material ``too intelligent''
for the BET audience.
With thinking like that, no wonder commercial
hip-hop appears dead. It's the ideas of
the gatekeepers that are dead.
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