The Death of Charles Lovelady:
Analyzing the Multifaceted Mainstreaming of Hip-Hop Music and Culture in 21st Century America
We Be Clubbin'?
The small town of Des Moines, Iowa has recently become the focus of national attention as the city struggles to deal with racial controversy. Charles Lovelady, a 26-year-old African-American, was allegedly suffocated after being put in a chokehold by two white bouncers at the Des Moines nightclub Graffiti's after being engaged in a heated argument with the club’s security staff about his clothing. Apparently, Lovelady was initially admitted into the nightclub on the evening of February 17, 2000, and was allowed to drink for more than an hour without any problems. Later that evening, Lovelady was approached by nightclub security, who informed him that he needed to leave (without a refund of the cover charge) because the black hooded sweatshirt that he was wearing violated the nightclub's dress code. Upon trying to reenter the nightclub, an altercation ensued that left Lovelady's lifeless body on the ground and a firestorm of controversy surrounding the incident.
Des Moines has a number of nightclubs owned and operated by white businessmen that have very strict dress codes. Critics say these types of dress codes are set up primarily to keep black patrons away. The entrances of these establishments greet customers with styles and designer names that are specifically prohibited. FUBU, Mecca, Phat Farm, No Limit Gear, Wu-Wear, Lugz, Pure Playaz and Karl Kani are among the brands of clothing that are made by black designers or favored by black consumers that are considered unacceptable attire by many clubs in the Des Moines area. Equally popular white designers like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger are conspicuously absent from the posted signs.
"There is no question in my mind that these dress codes are window dressing for excluding African-Americans," says Des Moines attorney Roxanne Conlin, whose law firm is handling a class action lawsuit against six area nightclubs. Conlin believes that her most powerful witnesses are the white friends of many blacks who have been denied club entry. In fact, Conlin set up an experiment to test the fairness of these rules. A black man who was not allowed into a club immediately swapped clothing with a white counterpart. The white man was promptly admitted.
Community activist Imam Ako Abdul Samad agrees. "The bouncers who committed the crime were actually a part of a conspiracy. If you wash it any other way than we are missing the point."
Johnnie Cochran, the famed defense attorney from the O.J. Simpson trial, sought out the family after hearing about the Lovelady case on the Internet. Cochran's firm initially joined the family's lawyer in pursuing a civil law suit against the owners of Graffiti's and the bouncers involved in the death. Lovelady's mother, JoAnn Hughes, said that Cochran was motivated by the inadequate criminal charges brought against the bouncers. They were charged with involuntary manslaughter, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum two-year jail term. The criminal trial ended in November of 2000, with the two bouncers being acquitted of all charges. The civil trial was set for later the following year, but the family decided to settle out of court instead of enduring the pain of another trial.
Hughes still hopes that her son's death was not in vain. "I just want something positive to come out of it." The issue sparked legislation in Iowa's Statehouse where a bill was passed encouraging cities to make it mandatory for bouncer training to be linked to liquor licensing. In early 2002, this bill was scrutinized by the legislator who sponsored it because many cities were choosing not to enforce the law or make it mandatory.
Although the situation in Des Moines, Iowa has gained a good deal of national attention, similar instances have taken place at other nightclubs throughout the country. For instance, in the month preceding Lovelady's death, 24-year-old Westyn Hamilton was killed following an altercation with bouncers at the New West/Gotham nightclub in his native Tucson, Arizona. The autopsy report revealed 52 scrapes and bruises on Hamilton's body. However the district attorney cited insufficient evidence as reason not to press charges against the bouncers involved.
Often, rappers themselves have been targeted by the strict guidelines of establishments’ dress codes. April 2002 saw rapper/producer Def Jef’s entry in a Houston’s restaurant in Los Angeles, California’s Century City refused because of the way he chose to wear his hat. (Presumably, tilted to the side or backwards in accordance with popular hip-hop fashion) The manager explained to Def Jef that the dress code (which was not posted) was set up to keep a “certain element” from frequenting the restaurant. Furthermore, in the same month, a member of the rap group The Coup, T-Kash, was refused entrance into Club Mallard in Albany, California because of his “hip-hop” attire. Even after spotting some patrons already inside the club with clothes that apparently violated the dress code and watching several white patrons enter with similar clothes as his, he was still not allowed to enter the club.
Then in May of 2002, this preoccupation with dress codes again made news. Security officials at Union Station shopping mall in St. Louis, Missouri denied rap superstar and St. Louis native, Nelly, access to the mall because the bandanna that he wore atop his head violated the mall’s dress code. Although, Nelly is a staple on video outlets like MTV and BET for his pop oriented hip-hop songs and has sold over 10 million albums since his debut in 1999, the security officials claim that Nelly’s bandanna was gang attire. In fact, the rapper has never associated himself with gangs and was only headed into the mall only to purchase 25 St. Louis Cardinals jerseys that he was planning to use for a video shoot at nearby Busch Stadium.
Although many of these establishments find no problem with playing hip-hop music on a nightly basis and promoting their establishments as being quite "hip", they seem very reluctant to embrace many other elements of hip-hop culture. It seems ironic that Graffiti’s, a club where hits by the Wu-Tang Clan, Master P and Jay Z are played on the sound system in heavy rotation, brand name clothes like Wu-Wear, No Limit Gear and Roc-A-Wear (owned by the three aforementioned rap stars respectively) are specifically and unapologetically banned.
In other words, these types of establishments seem to invite a watered down version of hip-hop culture. Noticeably absent in this version of hip-hop culture is the presence of African-Americans and Latinos. Considering that hip-hop culture is a culture the grew out of the oppression of both urban blacks and Latinos this trend can be seen as not only an attack on the culture but also, an attack on those so instrumental to its origins.
The Lovelady situation and other similar cases can be looked at as crystallizing a large problem. Throughout America and popular culture this kind of "new racism" is very prevalent. Large corporations and the never-ending lust for capital have transformed hip-hop music and culture into something appetizing for white middle class America, while simultaneously ignoring many aspects of hip-hop culture that were once crucial and undeniably African-American or Latino in origin. Thus, we are left with a new version of hip-hop culture that is quite diluted. This revised version takes on many aspects of hip-hop but lacks characteristics that were of the utmost importance in the initial formation of hip-hop music and culture. Therefore, the societal problems that led to hip-hop’s formation are ignored or exploited with no attempts at correction.
Obviously, nightclubs are not the only arenas where this new version of hip-hop culture is visible. The same changes can be observed throughout popular culture. From the obvious hip-hop influences on pop music mega stars like Madonna, Britney Spears, and N'SYNC to the recent emergence and success of the rap/rock genre that combines the art of “rapping” with rock guitars and DJs (Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, P.O.D. etc.) hip-hop’s cultural influences are evident.
Also readily apparent is the effect that hip-hop style has had on the fashion industry. In an endeavor to keep a degree of relevance with young America, many mainstream clothing labels incorporated aspects of hip-hop style into their lines. Again, the appropriation left many of the reasons why this clothing had become popular with the African-American community on the sidelines with only the fashion itself – instead of the origins behind it – becoming the focus. Although, these clothing lines are now not as much of a staple of hip-hop culture as they once were, they are still proudly worn in urban centers around the country by plenty of young minorities.
Similar situations have played out in similar ways throughout the annals of African-American culture and entertainment. The on-going transformation of hip-hop into a form severely diluted from its original is not unlike the transformation undergone by rock and roll music as it changed from a purely African-American cultural form to a genre of music that has now become basically synonymous with white culture.
In this study, I will analyze some examples of this change and the effect it has had on both mainstream culture and the hip-hop subculture. First, I will give a working description of the music industry. Of course, these definitions have changed over the years, but a foundational understanding is required for further discussion. Second, I will look at some aspects of the music and how it's shifting into a form that is more palatable to the mainstream. Specifically, I will look at the career of rapper Eminem to provide a clearer and more detailed look at how one individual can radically change a cultural form. Third, I will look at the role that commercialization has played in producing these modifications. Commercialization has had a more general and wide ranging effect on hip-hop. This commercialization can best be seen through fashion industry trends and some recent alterations that gangsta rap music has undergone to strengthen profits. I will also attempt to draw some historical parallels between the transformations that marked rock and roll’s emergence and recent changes in hip-hop. This may give us some indication of what to expect with regard to the future of this music and culture.
Finally, I will look at how an attempt to bring hip-hop into the uncharted regions of cyberspace backfired and now is causing the hip-hop industry to take another, less stereotypical look at the hip-hop demographic. In this respect, the process of mainstreaming did ultimately have a somewhat positive outcome. However, this outcome was still just a byproduct of the process. Specifically, I will explore the music industry’s history of marketing hip-hop; the role the oft mentioned Digital Divide played in hip-hop’s online failure and the ever evolving hip-hop demographic.
I believe that this type of analysis will give us a better understanding of the way that racism still influences today’s popular culture and specifically in the entertainment industry. This discussion will attempt to unravel the complex workings of this type of submerged racism that is less obvious than sorts we have become accustomed to. However, it is precisely because it is less upfront that it can be more insidious. Therefore, the impact is much the same, if not greater, on the culture and identity of a people.
So what exactly is hip-hop culture? Merriam Webster's Collegiate dictionary defines hip-hop as: a subculture especially of inner-city youths whose amusements include rap music, graffiti, and break dancing; also: an element or art form prevalent within this subculture. While this definition does name some crucial elements of the culture, it is incomplete, not to mention condescending (amusements?). Rapping, breakdancing, graffiti, and DJing are widely considered the four essential elements of hip-hop as a culture or subculture but to have a working understanding of hip-hop it is important to know about its origin.
Hip-hop came about through the continued depletion of resources in America's urban communities during the late 70s and early 80s. Major corporations in factory towns throughout the country were leaving to find more profitable opportunities. Urban centers in cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, Houston, South Central LA, and New York's Bronx borough were left as desolate ghosts of their former selves. Those who had the ability and financial capability to uproot did exactly that. Concurrently, money that had previously been reserved for community programs and betterment was being funneled out of the inner city and right into big business and defense spending. This deindustrialization coupled with the infiltration of drugs and a police force that was out-manned, under-trained and culturally ignorant left ghettos across America very dismal places.
Robin D.G. Kelley notes in Race Rebels, his look at America's black working class population, that just "like the economy and the city itself, the criminal justice system changed just when hip-hop was born. Prisons were no longer places to just discipline; they became dumping grounds to corral bodies labeled a menace to society." The criminal justice system and all of its facets did indeed have a profound effect on the origins of hip-hop culture. Young African-Americans began to feel like prison was more of a rite of passage than something to fear or avoid. The prison industrial complex fueled these feelings by building more and more prisons to house young minorities. Congress and local governments exacerbated the situation by passing a variety of minimum sentencing laws and drug specific laws that focused solely on punishment with no thought of rehabilitation or prevention.
This is the social context that spawned hip-hop culture. Graffiti became the billboards of frustrated youth who felt as though their concerns and voices were being ignored. Breakdancing became a way for children of minority wageworkers to regain control of their bodies from middle management by contorting themselves in unimaginable and inventive ways. DJing became the main technological innovation of hip-hop culture by combining the sounds of the era into one long playing soundtrack that assured the party would not pause. Rap became the most recognized aspect of hip-hop culture. Once touted as Black America's CNN by Public Enemy front man Chuck D, rap music became the voice of a people and the outward expression of their culture. Of course, "hip-hop is the spawn of many things. But most profoundly, it is the product of a schizophrenic, post civil rights movement America."
Rage Against the Machine: What is the Industry?
Throughout this study there will be considerable mention of the “the industry” or “corporate America”. Thus, it is important to define what I mean by these terms. The industry (both recording and more generally, entertainment) and/or corporate America are the handful of companies that produce the great majority of what Americans see, hear and ultimately buy. This includes, but is not limited to, radio, movies, magazines, newspapers, CDs and most other forms of media. It is particularly important to remember that the main goal of the conglomerates that are in control of these products is to make money, in whatever way possible. After all, they are in the business of business.
In a recent interview media critic Robert McChesney explains the industry’s organizations by linking them to colonizing empires:
The entertainment companies are a handful of massive conglomerates that own four of the five music companies that sell 90 percent of the music in the United States. Those same companies also own all the film studios, all the major TV networks, and pretty much all the TV stations in the ten largest markets. They own all or part of every single commercial cable channel. They look at the teen market as part of this massive empire that they're colonizing.
You should look at it like the British or the French empires in the nineteenth century. Teens are like Africa. There's this range that they're going to take over, and their weaponry is films, music, books, CDs, internet access, clothing, amusement parks, [and] sports teams. That's all this weaponry they have to make money off of this market, to colonize this market. And that's exactly how they approach it. So they look at music as just one small part of it. They aren't music companies; they're moneymaking companies, and music is a weapon that generates money for them.
This quote demonstrates the role of these massive conglomerates in furthering their profit by selling the masses, especially top consumers like kids and young adults, anything and everything possible. It is important to understand the centrality of profit making to get a concrete understanding of the marketing strategies employed by industry to peddle hip-hop. Without a concrete understanding of this philosophy it is extraordinarily difficult to truly understand the major role that these companies play in morphing and redefining vital aspects of culture. Again, this study will look at a variety of ways that this attitude has worked to radically change hip-hop culture.
Streets is Watching: The Secrets of Marketing Hip-Hop.
According to Hip-Hop Generation, author Bakari Kitwana’s study of the major social and political forces that have shaped a generation of African Americans, young blacks born between 1965 and 1984 are those that make up what I refer to as the hip-hop demographic. Although Kitwana warns his audience not to confuse this with the hip-hop nation (who he describes as all those down with hip-hop whether industry insiders or average kid on the block, regardless of age, race, sex), I would expand his definition to include young Latinos. In addition, I would also include a small number of urban dwelling whites and Asians that are intimately familiar with blacks and Latinos and their culture.
Utilizing the hip-hop demographic is essential in marketing hip-hop music and culture. To accomplish successful hip-hop marketing to both the hip-hop demographic and in turn, the mainstream, street credibility is arguably the most important phrase. Street credibility, in its simplest and least ambiguous terms, is the credibility or believability of a person or product and its relationship with young, urban individuals. It can neither be bought nor created. Instead, it is important that the person or product be seen as authentic: something that by its very essence is “cool”, not fabricated so that cool is the end result.
Without street credibility, your product, whatever it may be, loses its relationship with the cutting edge, ultra hip audience that defines the hip-hop demographic. This precedent in hip-hop culture was set long before market forces invaded. It has always been very important for participants in hip-hop to recognize and acknowledge the rugged environments, people and attitudes that spawned the culture. When one’s street credibility wavers even the slightest bit, the backlash from the hip-hop community can be devastating. In addition, the relationship with the streets that earns this kind of credibility must be seen as wholly authentic. When authenticity lacks, the hip-hop participant or product is seen as simply profiting from the genre with little or no respect or knowledge of it or its participants.
Any company that targets just the black community without an African-American specific product can run into problems. Russell Simmons asserts “often black consumers don’t like it when you limit your sales efforts to just them because it can feel patronizing.” Commercially successful artists like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice learned this lesson the hard way. Hammer’s glittery stage show, Saturday morning cartoon, and infamous KFC commercial, that saw him literally dancing for chicken, rapidly became too much for his core hip-hop audience to condone or tolerate. After helping his album sell over 10 million copies, his core audience abandoned him and his gimmickry. His mainstream audience quickly followed suit after recognizing this dissent. After all, how could mainstream America find someone cool, after active participants of the community and genre that birthed that person stop thinking the same?
In Vanilla Ice’s case lack of authenticity was the main factor in his demise. After it was revealed that his rap persona was a fraud, he became a laughing stock throughout popular culture. His label's attempts to portray him as a hardened street-smart rapper blew up in their face when it was reveled that Robert Van Winkle’s (as his parents named him) back story was completely fabricated. Vanilla Ice was unable to connect to either the street (hip-hop community) or the mainstream (white America) because of his lack of street credibility. His career will be forever remembered as what not to do when it comes to a job in music. The swift rise and immediate fall of Vanilla Ice further demonstrates the huge role that street credibility plays in hip-hop marketing.
Obviously, the two aforementioned artists were experiments gone awry, but they left stern reminders as to the importance of street credibility when marketing hip-hop. Most notably, to garner and more importantly, maintain crossover success, one must not look like that is what they are trying to accomplish.
The short-lived careers of both MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice taught some important lessons to the companies responsible for their meteoric rise and the music industry as a whole. While, the two artists reached a level of success that up until that point had not even been imagined in the world of hip-hop, their sudden fall left the music industry confused. The late eighties and early nineties was a time when corporate America was taking notice of hip-hop’s power and experimenting with its exploitation. Witness MTV’s commitment to its rap video program Yo! MTV Raps, which after debuting in 1988 quickly became the cable outlet’s highest rated show, and BET’s Rap City, which is still a staple of its afternoon lineup.
The importance of authenticity and staying true to the roots of hip-hop culture is now present throughout mainstream media outlets. In a recent interview Todd Cunningham, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Planning for MTV, commented on authenticity’s chief role:
There's no question that today the notion of authenticity and reality and originality and those types of things are highly valued. They are the currency to which we filter everything through. They're the things that we exchange. So as brands start to build themselves and start to grow beyond a niche audience that it might originally embrace, it's important to make sure that they stay true to their roots and stay true to the audience; to make sure that they're tapping into the relevant issues that the audience has.
America’s corporate machine hastily realized that it did not have enough familiarity with hip-hop to successfully market it. Instead of searching within their own ranks, corporations instead enlisted help from the outside. In the case of the record industry, they partnered with or bought out smaller boutique labels that had been working with hip-hop for quite sometime. This allowed the industry to make investments with people whose knowledge of hip-hop was much greater than their own. The monetary investments allowed the boutique labels to shoulder the burden of marketing strategies, while giving the industry some time to sit back and absorb the process. The major labels quickly realized that in order to keep up with the ever-changing world of hip-hop and market it successfully, they would need to funnel the marketing process through those that were active participants in the culture. Furthermore, long before the labels became interested in hip-hop music, the music was thought of as a passing fad. However, once the major labels started to take notice of the genre’s marketability and profit making potential they quickly got involved.
Hip-hop culture by its very definition tends to reject anything that represents mainstream style, attitudes or aesthetic. Even though the boutique labels were aided by the money of large labels, they were able to recognize, track and understand trends of the culture at a highly effective level without appearing to be part of the established music industry. Again, McChensey explains this process:
They [small boutique labels] do the research and development that would be too costly for the big company to do. The minute they strike something, the big company just buys it out. And big companies in the music industry, as in other industries, discovered it's a lot cheaper to let a thousand people kill themselves trying the make a fortune on the margins and buy the ones that are successful than trying to bankroll all thousand.
Slowly it began to work. Street teams responsible for non-traditional forms of promotion littered clubs, telephone poles and concerts with flyers announcing the new, hot artists or product. Major corporations like Coca-Cola, Nike and smaller niche oriented corporations began to sponsor concerts, athletes, artists and anything else even remotely close to hip-hop culture.
Simultaneously, radio began to cater to the attitudes of the hip-hop community. Video outlets like MTV and BET began to promote hip-hop videos as strongly as videos from other genres. The smaller boutique labels like Def Jam, Death Row, Loud, Bad Boy and No Limit began to flourish with hip-hop mini moguls at their helm.
However, as hip-hop became more and more commercially viable, its representations throughout popular culture became more and more stereotypical. And in turn, the more stereotypical the musical representations became the more attention was paid by mainstream culture. In an effort to commercialize rap music, companies and artists relied on tried and true stereotypes of African-Americans that had already proved profitable. As gangsta rap become the genre’s most marketable sub-genre, marketing strategies came to reflect it. The political rhetoric that was the foundation of gangsta rap was systematically abolished by the corporations that funded its marketing until the genre became little more than an effort to appeal to the sexually and violently charged fantasies of middle America. And with returns on their music becoming substantially higher, the artists complied. The booming popularity of this new version of gangsta rap was able to maintain its street credibility because its artists and often, its labels remained so close to the street by the very nature of the music. As the music was “dumbed down”, both the core hip-hop audience and the lucrative mainstream audience started to become accustomed to a more watered down version of hip-hop, rich in façade but lacking in substance, to be readily eaten up by the lowest common denominator. The plan worked all too well.
As a result, the core hip-hop audience followed and was ready to serve as a corporately controlled “funnel” that channels all kinds of “hip-hop” products from the white corporations that fund and profit from it, through the black community that produces and legitimizes it, right into the bedrooms and car stereos of the young white, suburban audience that makes up roughly 80 percent of all rap consumers. With the success of this process the industry gained a firm knowledge of the core audience’s ability to swallow stereotypical visions of themselves in a never ending effort to be hip and different. Instead of a viable representation of the hip-hop demographic, the hip-hop audience itself, along with the mainstream audience, is given an exploitative visage of what it means to be “hip-hop”.
Likewise, the industry has learned to further their own greedy intentions by speaking the “language” of hip-hop’s core audience. The music industry has been able to achieve this by shoving mediocre representations of hip-hop culture down the core audience’s throats with marketing campaigns made by those from the community towards those in the community. Soon, the process had become so ingrained that in many ways the core audience could be simply subtracted from the equation. Corporate America had effectively learned to speak the language of “hip-hop” and communicate with the white, mainstream kids that they depend on for sales. Although, much criticism came from the core hip-hop audience, the machine that they aided in building had become too massive to destroy. In addition, many artists and executives themselves had been co-opted to the point where money also became their final goal with little more than fleeting respect for the culture that was being exploited or the artform which had been thoroughly changed.
This complex process can be easily simplified. Imagine a corporate executive that lives in upper class suburbia with his high school age kid. The executive is in charge of a company that produces a product that the company wants to market to youth. At first glance, it would seem as if the executive could simply consult his kid and his kid’s friends about a “cool” way to market the products to other kids in the target demographic. However, because of the executive’s white, upper middle class existence he lacks the necessary “coolness” to communicate the product to his kid and his kid’s peer group. As an employee of corporate America, the executive has in many ways bought into America’s socio-economic filtration system at the highest possible level. Therefore he is unable to sell something that marks the coolness associated with rebellion or exists on the cusp of mainstream society.
But the executive certainly knows how to make money. So he looks to the community that initiates and produces the rebellious and fringe reality that his kid looks to when searching for the next “cool” or “hip” thing. He then must finance members of that community to legitimize or tweak his product so that the product may take on the same characteristics of cool that work so well with his kid. The authenticity that it takes to sell products relies on an intricate system of codes, communication, and mannerisms. Therefore, it is much more difficult and expensive for the executive’s company to study it than to simply pay people from the originating community to keep abreast and aid in the production and marketing of the product.
This process marks the manner in which the corporate establishment is able to market anti-establishment products. In fact, most of the time, this method is used to market products that have long been associated with corporate America. Coca-Cola, Nike, and even McDonald’s have all utilized this kind of “anti-commercial” marketing to great success. This is a solid way to make dull, all too familiar products looks fresh and groundbreaking. African-Americans have long helped mainstream America define what’s cool. America’s history of relegating blacks to outsiders, or at best second class citizens, has also worked to define black culture as having inherent resistant qualities. These qualities resonate quite well with youth of every color as they rebel against their elders and oftentimes established societal guidelines in an effort to define themselves as individuals.
This is also a version of the process that led to the untimely death of Charles Lovelady at the Des Moines nightclub. Hip-hop music was used as the major selling point to attract white patrons to the club. Meanwhile, patrons that were black were rigorously scrutinized and subjected to racially motivated dress codes that aided in barring their entrance. In Lovelady’s case, the results were fatal.
The Gangsta Factor
As mentioned before, the “gangsta rap” phenomenon has had a tremendous impact on the mainstreaming of hip-hop music and culture. In many ways, the concerns that the owners and managers of Graffiti’s nightclub in Des Moines had about attracting a criminal or violent element can be attributed to the violent imagery of gangsta rap that mainstream America has been bombarded with since the early 90s.
Although American popular culture has long had a fascination with sex and violence, mainstream press and political agendas merged throughout the early 90s to condemn this genre of rap music. Gangsta rap artists like Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice T, NWA and Ice Cube were some of the music’s most notable figures who, in one way or another, found themselves embroiled in controversy during this era. Politicians and activists like former Vice President Dan Quayle, Reverend Calvin Butts, Senator Joe Lieberman and C. Delores Tucker are just a few of the prominent figures that attacked the music for its violent, misogynistic and racially charged content. Vowing to pressure and boycott the major corporations that profited from this music worked to no avail for those assaulting the industry. In fact, the opposition only worked to further the artists’ anti-establishment credibility. Moreover, the public uproar and media blitz worked to send the record sales of many gangsta rap artists through the roof. While some major companies decided to rid themselves of the public relations hassles associated with the genre (notably Time-Warner), gangsta rap continued to thrive and further invade the tranquil existence of white America.
Even the violent shooting deaths of gangsta rap superstars Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. a.k.a. Christopher Wallace (in September 1996 and March 1997 respectively) which culminated in a media hyped East Coast vs. West Coast rap feud only enhanced the appeal and sales of the music. In fact, as the mid 90s rolled around, the hip-hop genre and gangsta rap subgenre saw its highest sales yet. In addition, the gangsta rap aesthetic had grown in the industry. Artists and content that were once confined to recordings became increasingly visible in all walks of entertainment. Ironically, some of gangsta rap’s most villainous characters like Ice T, Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur, became active on the big screen. To this day, Ice Cube and Ice T remain two of the most bankable African-American actors in Hollywood. To fully comprehend the ironies and contradictions of the transition of gangsta rap music from the hostile streets of postindustrial Los Angeles into an entertainment industry goldmine, it is important to understand the conditions that birthed it and trace its progression to present day.
The dawn of gangsta rap was not that different than the beginnings of hip-hop itself. Although hip-hop culture started with a particularly East Coast (specifically New York City) feel and influence, contributing factors like Reganomics, police brutality, white flight, corporate abandonment and an unjust criminal justice system had national impact. The greed that became the staple of big business and white America during the late 70s and especially throughout the 80s saw large corporations flourish. However, the “trickle down” theory that justified this kind of corporate welfare proved deadly to inner cities and ghettos throughout America. Factories, resources and opportunities were disappearing from the streets of Compton, Watts and South Central Los Angeles just as fast as they vanished from the Bronx, Queens or Philadelphia.
Although Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation were actively using hip-hop to diffuse gang tensions in New York, the West Coast’s presence of gang culture had no such hero. Neighborhood organizations that came about during the Black Power era had long been disbanded after COINTELPRO, assassinations of leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., the much rumored CIA plots to infest black communities with drugs, loss of a black economic base and numerous other contributing factors had co-opted or suppressed any black political movements. Thus, gangs like Los Angeles’ notorious Crips, Bloods and numerous Latino street organizations turned their rage and frustration inward toward themselves and their own communities. The influx of drugs heightened the appeal and power of the criminal organizations that lured or forced young men born within certain neighborhoods to seek the security, camaraderie and economic opportunity associated with gangs. This mixed with postindustrial politics made gang participation and warfare in Southern California’s low income areas national news and helped to reinforce the tougher sentencing and prevention laws that were making their way through local, state and federal legislation nationwide.
It is important to remember that the “gangsta” in gangsta rap was not all together a new chapter in the annals of the black experience. Again, Robin D.G. Kelley’s Race Rebels offers some insight into the legacy of the “gangsta” and its relationship to peoples in the African Diaspora.
Both the baaadman and the trickster embody a challenge to virtually all authority (which makes sense to people for whom justice is a rare thing), creates an imaginary upside-down world where the oppressed are powerful, and it reveals to listeners the pleasures and price of reckless abandon. And in a world where male public powerlessness is often turned inward on women and children, misogyny and stories of sexual conflict are very old examples of the “price” of being baaad.
So gangsta rap was simply a logical continuation of resistance to the white supremacist hierarchy that defined America’s power structure. Although, this continuance inherently carried a patriarchal power base and misogynistic overtones, it was nevertheless an attempt by those without a voice to regain some sort of expression and relevance in their world.
And so it goes. The much publicized evolution of gangsta rap began. From the foundations of East Coast hardcore rappers like Schooly D and Boogie Down Productions to the West Coast’s King T and the Iceberg Slim inspired Ice T who “was not only the first West Coast gangsta- style rapper on wax, but he was himself an experienced OG [Original Gangsta] whose narratives were occasionally semi-autobiographical or drawn from things he had witnessed or heard on the street.” The seeds had been laid. The evolution continued with the rise of Eazy E and his staunchly independent Ruthless Records, home to the gangsta supergroup NWA, right into the abrupt departure of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, the group’s producer and most profound lyricist, respectively. Even as Eazy E eventually succumbed to his own misogynistic tendencies, dying of AIDS in 1995, Cube went on to challenge America in a variety of ways (not to mention predict the LA riots) through political commentary in the form of rap music and videos, and Dre, along with superthug, Suge Knight, went on to start the infamous Death Row Records, eventual home to rap’s best selling artist of all time, Tupac Shakur, and one time label of Snoop Dogg, whose murder trial acquittal did nothing to hurt his record sales.
Of course, there were plenty of peripheral events during the course of gangsta rap’s rise to prominence but recounting all of them is beyond the scope of this study. The above timeline does hit on some major music industry factors that contributed to the rise of gangsta rap music. Although marketing forces of corporate America did play influential roles throughout the evolution of gangsta rap (namely trying to profit from the genre by flooding the marketplace with hundreds of sub-par studio gangsters from inner cities across America), it was not until gangsta rap came to a crossroads sparked by the disagreements of two rival boutique labels that corporate America intervened in a belligerent and deadly manner.
No longer would the growing gangsta rap audience from outside the community just sit back and casually watch. The corporate mainstreaming of the gangsta lifestyle and culture would erase the antiauthoritarian history of gangsta rap and the baaadman persona in the African Diaspora. Instead, gangsta rap would be marketed to youth of all colors as something new and hip in which to partake. Ironically, the events surrounding the deaths of two of hip-hop’s brightest stars would solidify this process.
During gangsta rap’s domination of the sales charts, the rap pioneers from the East Coast quickly and quietly fell into obscurity. Although, the tales of violence, sex and drugs that littered the music and videos of West Coast gangsta artists did not initially seem to blend well with mainstream success. However, the funk driven, melodic, and laid back delivery of these artists combined with the exploitation of America’s patriarchal, power obsessed popular culture guaranteed lucrative sales. However, the trend did not go unnoticed by many talented newcomers on the East. Gangsta narratives with a decidedly East Coast project living intensity began to surface in the mid 90s at the height of gangsta rap’s success. Also, the hip-hop media presence and origination in New York City ensured that these new faces would get their just due.
Artists like the Wu-Tang Clan, Nas and the Notorious B.I.G. were swiftly coming to the forefront of the rap industry. This signaled that East Coast hip-hop was far from dead. Although Nas and The Wu did appeal to the same gangsta aesthetic, it was Biggie and his producer, Sean “Puffy” Combs who were able to masterfully blend the clever lyricism and witty storytelling of the East Coast with the harmonies, smoothed out feel and R&B hooks that had become a staple of West Coast gangsta rap. Biggie’s success soon earned him the moniker King of New York. Hence, he became the chosen savior of East Coast hip-hop.
A plethora of small feuds between members of Biggie’s Bad Boy camp and Suge Knight’s Death Row record label grabbed the media’s attention. This combined with the disdain many West Coast artists had for a perceived East Coast power base in rap that they felt ignored their contributions became collectively deemed by media both inside and outside of hip-hop culture as the “East Coast vs. West Coast rap beef.”
This war, spurred on by magazines trying to capitalize on controversy and record execs exploiting it for sales, grew increasingly intense but dropped off quickly with the sudden and violent deaths of both Tupac and Biggie. Partly because of these tragic deaths, gangsta rap sales exploded. Posthumous releases by both Biggie and Pac dominated sales charts and the industry once again took notice. This turn of events culminated in 1998 when, for the first time ever, sales of rap outsold every other genre of music.
Now, this gangsta rap facade continues to be visible in almost every aspect of popular culture. Even once nefarious artists like Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Jay Z have abandoned their political rhetoric in favor of radio friendly gangsta appeal. Whereas gangsta music once rebelled against radio and TV stations that refused to play their songs, they now cater to it. In fact, many radio and TV outlets have now revised their own rules of censorship allowing for words like “bitch”, “ass” and “nigga” to be used openly and freely in an attempt to corner the lucrative rap listening audience.
The effect of gangsta rap’s new mainstream appeal can be seen in many places. From the bandannas and braids that adorn the heads of blacks and whites to the lingo and slang used in everyday speech, the impact of gangsta rap can be seen. However, in situations like the one surrounding the death of Charles Lovelady, major elements in the formation of gangsta rap are left forgotten. Specifically ignored is the participation of African-Americans and the institution of resistance in the African-American tradition.
The metamorphosis of gangsta rap music is a key to understanding the death of Lovelady. Due to the fantasy world of violence, misogyny and lawlessness that gangsta rap popularized in an effort to increase profit, young black males in the real world often became victims of the stereotypical portrayals. This led to mainstream society rejecting many African-American males based on long held racist beliefs that the representations in gangsta rap help solidify. The gangsta persona’s close relationship to the music is the main reason certain people and brands of clothing were prohibited at Graffiti’s nightclub. However, a more diluted and mainstream version of the gangsta aesthetic was encouraged through the music and overall feel of the club. These kinds of contradictions mark the dichotomy between the African-American experience and white mainstream appropriation and fascination with selected elements of that experience
Eminem as Elvis
The rapper Eminem was indeed an unusual find for famed gangsta rap pioneer Dr. Dre. Named Marshall Mathers, Eminem was born outside of Kansas City in a small Missouri town named St. Joseph on October 17, 1972. Young Marshall spent a great deal of his underprivileged upbringing bouncing between his rural hometown and the contrasting urban landscape of Detroit, Michigan. Hip-hop culture and rapping made an early impression on Mathers and he began formulating lyrics and songs by the tender age of 14. Apparently, Mathers' early life was marked by family troubles (drug abusing parents and poverty) and neighborhood bullies continually picking on him for being a white rapper. His residence in Detroit was spent living in a partially African-American neighborhood where he made plenty of black friends and enemies.
Mathers (now adopting the name Eminem: the phonetic spelling of the popular candy and a play on his own initials) remained relatively unfazed and in 1996 dropped his first solo album, the independent Infinite. This album received a great deal of praise throughout underground circles but lacked the major label backing that could help it achieve commercial success. However, right around the corner was Eminem’s major label debut, 1999’s The Slim Shady EP, which was his breakthrough record. The Slim Shady EP made major noise throughout the music industry, garnering as much attention for “Eminem's exaggerated, nasal-voiced rapping style” as it did for the fact that he was white. Record executives took immediate notice and in many quarters, Eminem began being dubbed the music's next "great white hope." Although, many black artists had become very successful in rap music by this point, it would follow logic that since more whites were buying rap music that a credible white MC (as opposed to Vanilla Ice) would provide even more sales.
According to Dr. Dre, Eminem’s demo tape was discovered on the floor of Jimmy Iovine’s (Dre’s label head and owner of Interscope Records) garage. However, it was Mathers’ second place finish at Los Angeles’ 1997 Rap Olympics that solidified Dre’s inclination to sign his new protégé to his fledgling Interscope subsidiary, Aftermath Records. The aforementioned Slim Shady EP soon followed and was executive produced by Dre. The album quickly became a major hit and within a year, the album went triple platinum certifying sales of 3 million plus records. This type of exposure guaranteed much of the controversy that surfaced over the album's content. With “some harshly criticizing its cartoonish, graphic violence; others praised its edginess and surreal humor, as well as Eminem's own undeniable lyrical skills and Dre's inventive production.” Eminem had indeed arrived.
Eminem spent the down time between albums, appearing on Dre's Dr. Dre 2001. His presence helped skyrocket the album to multi-platinum success. Eminem also became one of hip-hop's most sought after lyricists with numerous cameos appearing on the albums of various rap and rock artists. Eminem's next release, 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP, sold an astonishing 1.7 million copies in its first week of release on its way to becoming the fastest-selling rap album of all time.
Never mind the firestorm of controversy surrounding Eminem's often misogynistic, homophobic and violent lyrics, Eminem has been able to transcend hip-hop music's boundaries in a variety of ways. His records get played on rock stations that otherwise refuse to include rap music into their format. He managed to get top billing over more established, veteran rap acts on a major rap tour before his major label debut was ever released. He appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone after having only one single from his debut album released. Eminem also became the first white person ever to be featured on the cover of The Source magazine. This is a magazine that is widely considered the bible of hip-hop music, culture and politics. Furthermore, Eminem’s semi-autobiographical movie, 8 Mile, opened in the fall of 2002 to critical acclaim and spectacular box office receipts.
In 2001, Eminem was able to survive a storm of staunch criticism by the gay and lesbian community that was directed toward what they deemed as gay bashing lyrics on his The Marshall Mathers LP. Eminem showed up at the 43rd Grammy Awards, hauled in two Grammy’s, including one for Best Rap Album, and performed with pop superstar and outspoken gay activist Elton John. This performance was the major highlight of the award show and became the hottest topic of 2001's event. Moreover, Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP garnered a nomination for Album of the Year. This is a feat that no other rap artist had been able to achieve before. In May 2002, Eminem again debuted at the top of the pop charts with The Eminem Show, an album that sold over 1 million copies in its first week of release.
Eminem's short but very successful career has not only borne the brunt of criticism from those that are offended by his lyrics. Much has been said both within and outside of the music industry about his overnight accomplishments. Eminem’s persona as well as his allegiance to gangsta rap producer Dr. Dre, his poor upbringing in Detroit with a relative closeness to African-Americans and his amazing lyrical prowess affords him two things that are of very high value in the hip-hop community: industry respect and street credibility.
This section is not meant to be a glamorizing praise piece for Eminem or a scathing attack. Instead, it is a critique of the conditions that aided in his rise and simultaneously exclude African-American artists from achieving this kind of access. Indeed, Eminem is a phenomenally gifted rapper whose often obscene and offensive lyrics are best understood if they are analyzed as biting commentary on popular culture and societal contradictions. Yet, simply put, the color of Eminem's skin has given his career access to resources, opportunities and outlets that black rap artists that are just as gifted can only dream of. Although, Eminem surrounds himself with African-Americans (witness his award acceptance speech at the 2001 Grammy awards, where he is the only white on stage) and he exudes a certain level of respect for the black roots of his craft, his success reveals many racial issues in popular culture and is itself problematic.
First, Eminem's mind-blowing achievements have permitted legions of white fans to appropriate selected aspects of the culture of hip-hop. This is not to say that all African-Americans or Latinos do have a full knowledge of the history or the foundations of hip-hop culture. However, because of their skin color, this study asserts that African-Americans and Latinos inherently have at least some experience of the factors that helped spark the hip-hop revolution. (Factors like racism, socioeconomic oppression, etc.) Although it is not absolutely necessary to have full knowledge of these factors to be a fan of the music, an exploitative relationship occurs when the music itself becomes a commodity which lacks other characteristics that are culturally significant in the formation of the art form. Therefore, we find that the act of appropriating the music and culture itself is not a negative, but the false imagery of the culture that is used to gain profits from white America essentialize the culture to little more than stereotypical representations.
Eminem’s career allows white, middle class America to look at hip-hop as something closer to home instead of novelty entertainment. Now in tow are many white suburban kids who believe that they are “hip-hop” because they can identify with Eminem on a phenotypic level. However, what is forgotten is the socioeconomic conditions that Marshall Mathers was raised in, his physical "closeness" to the African-American community and a good deal of knowledge about an oppressed experience which he has consistently shown throughout his career and music. Combine this with black artists’ continual strides towards capitalizing off of entertainment industry market forces and hip-hop comes closer to a kind of “cultural suicide” where the culture a dramatic metamorphosis.
Further legitimizing the point is Eminem himself. The song “White America” which appears on 2002’s The Eminem Show, finds Eminem exploring the phenomenon of his rise to the top and the controversy that continually surrounds him:
Look at these eyes, baby blue, baby just like yourself / If they were brown, Shady lose, Shady sits on the shelf / But Shady's cute, Shady knew Shady's dimples would help / make ladies swoon baby, ooh baby! Look at my sales / Let’s do the math, if I was black I would've sold half / I ain't have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that / But I could rap, so fuck school, I'm too cool to go back / Gimme the mic, show me where the fuckin' studio's at / When I was underground, no one gave a fuck I was white / No labels wanted to sign me, almost gave up, I was like / Fuck it, until I met Dre, the only one to look past, gave me a chance, and I lit a fire up under his ass / Helped him get back to the top, every fan black that I got / was probably his in exchange for every white fan that he's got / Like damn, we just swapped. / Sittin' back lookin' at shit, wow / I'm like my skin is it starting to work to my benefit now?
Obviously, Eminem is fully aware of the many issues that have contributed to America’s love/hate relationship with him and his music. Eminem knows the rules to the game he is playing and directly acknowledges the contradictions that have contributed to his rise. Again, Eminem’s understanding of the debate surrounding him further solidifies his acceptance with the African-American hip-hop community and in turn, popular culture.
In addition, Eminem's career has allowed other white rappers and entertainers who are not as gifted and not as well respected by the young minority community to flourish under the guise of hip-hop culture. Artists like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock are the most successful examples of artists that did exist and achieve some level of respect in the rock world prior to Eminem, but his career has worked to authenticate theirs and in turn they have reached awe inspiring levels of success since his arrival. This works to further remove the music of hip-hop from the people and environment that are responsible for its inception. In addition, the participation of these artists has begun to marginalize both black artists and many of the reasons behind the origin of hip-hop music and culture.
I refer to this process as “cultural bridge building”. Although, rap artists that are African-American and Latino are able to earn a great deal of mainstream success, their record sales and overall marketability have lacked in comparison to that of white artists. Economically speaking, it would benefit the music industry greatly if the larger white audience could further identify with hip-hop culture. Instead of seeing it as something foreign where they are left as casual observers, the industry desperately looked for an artist or event that could actually pull white America into becoming active participants of hip-hop culture. Eminem was indeed that artist.
However, Eminem was not the first time that the industry tried to provide this type of “cultural bridge”. But other attempts were met with either limited success or skepticism. The aforementioned career of Vanilla Ice may be the most notable example but it is certainly not the only one. In the mid 80s, the Beastie Boys did initially have some street credibility and a good deal of respect in the hip-hop world. The Beastie Boys were discovered and signed by hip-hop entrepreneurial legends Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin to their fledging rap label, Def Jam Records. Much of the credibility that was granted to the Beastie Boys came from having an unusual career marked as being "one of the rare moments in pop history that a successful white group practiced a black musical style with a black person so intimately involved in guiding their careers."
The Beastie Boys’ whiteness benefited them in numerous ways. For instance, the Beasties were the first group in the history of rap music to score a platinum record. In spite of their phenomenal success, it was much too early in the evolutionary process of hip-hop music for any bridge building. Thinking that the music and culture were passing fads, the industry was too unfamiliar with hip-hop to fully exploit it. This left the Beasties success as more of a novelty and less of an example to build marketing blueprints around.
It is important to remember that white executives, artists and producers have been instrumental in the evolution of hip-hop music and cultural. Since its inception, hip-hop has never been solely black. One must make note of the contributions that those outside of blacks and Latinos have made to rap music and hip-hop culture. As Nelson George duly notes in his Hip Hop America, "without white entrepreneurial involvement hip-hop culture wouldn't have survived its first decade on vinyl." True. However, Eminem's role, apart from his newly founded Shady Records, is that of an entertainer that exists in front of the stage not behind it.
Remember, that white patrons who frequented Graffiti's so called “hip-hop nightspot”, were readily admitted into the club, even if they were wearing the clothing brands that were banned. One the other hand, posted dress codes and other unspoken policies were used to systematically exclude black patrons. Likewise, the white rapper Eminem has been granted access to many outlets (MTV, rock format radio, headlining tours, etc) from which black and Latino hip-hop artists have been "banned". Even though Eminem takes on a variety of hip-hop characteristics, he is still able to find a reserved place for him in mainstream culture because he is not black or Latino but white.
The More Things Change…
It is important to understand that the cultural transformation of hip-hop music and culture that comes with the process of mainstreaming is far from a new trend. Rock and roll music and culture went through a strikingly similar process earlier in the 20th century. Rock and roll was popular throughout African-American communities nationwide. However, the music, with the aid of radio and phonograph records, started to seep through cultural boundaries. Eventually a mainstream demand became evident and major record companies got into the act. This process slowly changed the definition of rock and roll music.
Even though mainstream America is unaware of the fact, few music historians would dispute that rock and roll owes most of its origins to the musical traditions of America's Black population. The transatlantic slave trade enabled peoples of African origin to bring their strong musical and oral traditions to the New World. These African retentions allowed slaves to keep some connection with their homeland and also offered forms of resistance and escape from the harsh conditions under which they were forced to work. Even as the musical and oral retentions transformed or were syncretized as time passed, these decidedly African elements would continue throughout years of forced servitude and eventually would serve as the foundation of the African-American phenomenon known as blues music.
Even though American society has been extremely segregated throughout its history, there has been constant and powerful cultural exchange between its separated races. The White southern population of the United States had its own musical conventions: Anglo-Saxon folk songs, Appalachian music, and religious music for the church. African-Americans absorbed influences from whites in their use of stringed instruments and harmonies. In turn, whites gained much from blacks. Soul music, audience interaction and drums were absorbed from African culture. While the development of jazz around the turn of the 20th century introduced larger bands and stronger rhythmic elements.
Just as technological developments dramatically affected life in the early 20th century, so did it accelerate the growth of popular music. As the 1900’s progressed, the phonograph record enabled artists to reach and influence an exponentially larger audience of listeners and fellow musicians. Huge numbers of Blacks from the south migrated to urban communities, where music and dancing took place in considerably more crowded and hectic environments. And to be heard in these venues, musicians eventually had no choice but to use electronic amplification and, eventually, electric instruments.
There were also major rumblings in the music industry and American society itself. Independent companies like Atlantic, King, Sun, Specialty, Chess, and numerous others were starting to record R&B music. At the time, these recordings were referred to as "race records" and were marketed primarily to the black community. These records catered to audiences that the major labels deemed too specialized and unfamiliar to service. Young white listeners began tuning into radio stations that played music for these supposed minority tastes. And the increasingly affluent economy meant that these young listeners had more time and money than ever to spend on records. These trends did not go unnoticed by the record companies.
As the fifties progressed, these different strands of culture began to merge due to the involvement of major record companies. Increasingly, black artists' records were sold with whites adorning the covers or white artists simply did cover versions of songs that blacks originally had written or recorded. More and more the white audience was clamoring for black musicians. Artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry had major hits early on in the evolution of rock and roll. However, a young man from Tupelo, Mississippi would act as a cultural bridge and also would mark the shift from the R&B inspired rock and roll of the era to the kind of rock and roll that America now knows. 
An emerging regional sensation, Elvis pioneered what was deemed a "new" form of music that combined the blues of the African-American community with the hillbilly music of the rural white South. This new form was named "rockabilly". Elvis and his record company Sun Records were able to "marry the feels of the blues and country boogie with his hard-driving rhythms and frenetic vocals." His jump to a major label - and assimilation of slightly more pop-oriented values into his recordings made rock and roll an international phenomenon. Elvis became known as the white boy that could sing like a black man. This is all the record companies needed to usher in a new era in music and a new definition of rock and roll. His massive success, and the success of the countless rock and roll artists who followed, signaled the beginning of the marginalization of black artists and the widespread appropriation of rock and roll music and the culture that gave birthed it.
Even though rock and roll's progression into something that is now considered a young white musical phenomenon happened a long time ago, it was not the first such shift. Jazz music underwent a similar process. In fact, jazz legend Duke Ellington's performances at New York's famous Cotton Club were only allowed to be viewed by the club's white patrons. Recall that at the Graffiti's nightclub in Des Moines black and Latino hip-hop artists were routinely played but the club's black patrons said the were many mechanisms in place to keep them out, including clothing focused discrimination.
In America, these types of cultural transformations are an attempt to unite varying cultures. Although, change and transformation are major factors in culture, this type of metamorphosis takes place in the name of profit. This process leads to a watering down of many aspects of the culture that were essential to the initial development. The result has a detrimental effect on those whose culture has been lost or changed. Lost are many of the characteristics that are vital to the survival of the culture and therefore a voice of the people within. The only thing gained is a mainstream myth or ghost of a culture that in turn gives a warped understanding of a people. This process has a long and storied history in America and is usually acted upon those that make up minority groups. Again, it is not the act of appropriating, sharing or borrowing aspects of the culture that is problematic. However, when this is done simply to capitalize of culture, it can severely marginalize original participants and abandon many of the necessary characteristics of the culture. It is important for one to understand the process in order to halt the raping of culture and of a people.
Granted, a great number of blacks have gained upward mobility, financial benefits and have played major roles in the development of American music and popular culture. In addition, the participation of African-Americans remains an important creative force behind popular culture and its multi-billion dollar music industry. Furthermore, the musical cross fertilization between African-American and white Americans, as well as offerings from Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern and even Native Americans has led to numerous vibrant hybrid art forms that continue to change the scope of what music can be. However, the circumstances surrounding the death of Charles Lovelady in Des Moines, Iowa demonstrate how this process can have a negative and sometimes deadly effect. When these types of situations are analyzed within a broad social context, it becomes quite apparent that they can be linked to occurrences of the past. When these types of historical connections are drawn it also becomes apparent that American society still has many racial inequities that continue to have a dramatic impact today. Sadly, many of these exist within our entertainment and popular culture.
Garment Renaissance: Commodification of Culture
Elvis and Eminem's careers and the clothing companies of Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren are strikingly similar considering the impact that they have had on popular culture and the subcultures that initially spawned their creations. Elvis and Eminem's skin color coupled with their musical abilities allowed them to occupy a role that could bridge the gap between two distinctly different cultures. However, when that gap is bridged with white performers in the name of profit, African–American contribution is often marginalized or ignored.
Although Eminem's career does provide a bridge that enables outsiders to venture into hip-hop culture, he is not the only culprit. Hip-hop culture is also changing due to other factors. One of the most recognizable and therefore most marketable aspects of hip-hop culture is fashion. From the lace free Adidas of Run DMC to the designer savvy Lil’ Kim, fashion has always been a staple of the culture.
Hip-hop fashion has also been marketed heavily. The fashion of hip-hop culture was once just as important as the music in defying the oppressive restrictions of mainstream America. From the baggy pants and backwards turned ball caps that adorn many a rapper to the utilization of pagers and cell phones, the rebelliousness of hip-hop culture has always seeped into mainstream through fashion. However, as hip-hop culture was commercialized on a broad scale in the 90s, so was its fashion. Indeed, the fashion was marketed to and often produced or designed by the active participants of the culture, but as time went on corporations begun to market hip-hop style throughout American popular culture. This type of marketing plan made for an exploitive relationship that finds only certain aspects of culture economically viable. The fashion itself did not undergo tremendous changes like the music model presented earlier. In fact, by the mid 90s, many mainstream Americans were unwittingly wearing styles that symbolized resistance, rebellion and a renegade mentality. Through this process of appropriation, what those styles originally symbolized or represented became forgotten and again cultural contributions of blacks and Latinos who sparked the fashion were marginalized. Then the style is transformed into a watered down version and sold to mainstream audiences as simply a new fashion trend.
For instance, Tommy Hilfiger has been in the clothing game for some time. His designer clothes have always been touted as being high quality casual wear. Hilfiger and his predecessor, Ralph Lauren initially targeted their clothing to upper class white males. However, in the early 90s a rapper by the name of Grand Puba starting wearing and rapping about Hilfiger's clothing line, especially the colorful rugbys that were a cornerstone of the Hilfiger collection during that time. Presumably, Puba did this both to flaunt the price of the expensive rugbys and appropriate a style that had become synonymous with affluent white culture. Furthermore, the way that Puba chose to wear his rugbys was a political statement itself, even if unintentional. Puba, in accordance with the popular hip-hop style of the time, would wear the rugbys extremely baggy, complete with backpack, baggy jeans and hiking boots. Puba had taken a brand of clothing whose pricing had made it off limits for most young blacks and flaunted it, complete with hip-hop styling. This appropriation of white culture was a show of resistance and perseverance from an oppressed culture to dominant members of society.
In a brilliant marketing move, Hilfiger became one of the first mainstream white designers to try and understand this phenomenon. Seeing dollar signs, Hilfiger vigorously went after the young urban market and eventually even used rap stars like Treach from New Jersey's Naughty by Nature and rap songstress Eve to model and promote his gear. Soon, Hilfiger became the hottest designer label in hip-hop.
Ralph Lauren has long been one of America's top designers. Lauren's Polo Clothing Company has become synonymous with upper class quality and appearance – the WASP existence. However, the line was extremely pricey and therefore hard to obtain for members of working class families. Regardless, the high quality of the clothing and, more importantly, that social status that the clothing symbolized made the clothing highly sought after by many members of the black and Latino communities.
New York's now infamous Lo-Lifes organization decided to take matters into their own hands. The Lo-Lifes were a group of inner city youth made up solely of blacks and Latinos from Brooklyn that wanted the gear that their socio-economic standing did not provide. The group ravaged stores on Manhattan's trendy 5th Avenue and Madison Avenue by entering armed only with sheer numbers and taking what they wanted without paying. Although this was indeed theft, the Lo-Lifes saw themselves as Robin Hood like heroes who were taking from the rich and giving to the poor (mostly themselves and their neighbors). "At a time when only rich white men were wearing Polo, the Lo Lifes brought it to life- street life.” Although the Lo Lifes' namesake and favorite brand of clothing to steal and then resell in the surrounding boroughs was Polo, they also gave an urban appeal to brands like Guess?, Gucci, Timberland, Nautica, Descente and North Face. No longer was high end clothing reserved for the rich. With the help of the Lo Lifes these brands hit the streets and thus became "the foundation for what designers now call 'urban fashion'".
Granted, at the time, these particular designers were not making these clothes with the young urban minority in mind. However, because of renegade groups like the Lo Lifes, the brand names started to become synonymous with hip-hop culture. But what was "hip-hop" about the clothes during this era was not necessarily just the clothes themselves. The methods used to obtain the clothes were just as important. The way one chose to wear his or her gear was also important. The reason that this gear initially developed such a close relationship with hip-hop culture is because the gear represented something that was not supposed to be obtainable. It not only was expensive clothing but a symbolic representation of white upper class society and capitalist objectives. The stealing and eventual wearing or selling of these clothes was not only a smack in the face to white middle and upper class mainstream America and the values that it represented but also was a way for young African-Americans to align themselves with a kind of capitalist success that they felt systematically prohibited from. This was hip-hop!
Taking a cue from the urban marketing of Hilfiger (and most likely the tales of the Lo Lifes), Polo also started a promotional assault on hip-hop culture. "Using the defiantly dark Caribbean American visage of model Tyson Beckford to sell everything from shades to underwear,"  Polo quickly started to portray its clothing as urban friendly. Both companies began subsidiaries that flaunted the parent company's name but sold clothing that had significantly more "urban appeal", not to mention lower prices. As hip-hop culture was again making African-American urban culture hip, more and more Americans (specifically young, white Americans and not necessarily urban) yearned to partake in this coolness. Tommy Jeans Co. and Polo Jeans Co. were founded directly because of the success that came from the hip-hop cultural influences. In fact, Hilfiger's son, Andy, who was younger, more hip, and well known in hip-hop industry circles, headed Tommy Jeans Co.
In this case, commercialization of hip-hop culture worked at a high level. Not only were commercial forces being used to exploit the hip-hop community but also those within the community seemed to eat it up. Those outside of the hip-hop community had begun to design and sell hip-hop gear back to the hip-hop community under the guise of “hip-hop”. In addition, mainstream appetites for the next hip thing gave credit for this new wave of design not to the community that actually spawned it, but to the major corporations that stole and exploited it.
However, in the late 90s a "garment renaissance" took place throughout the clothing industry. African-American and Latino designers like Karl Kani, Willie Esco, the brothers at FUBU, Russell Simmons’ Phat Farm and Sean “Puffy” Combs’ Sean John have reclaimed a large portion of the urban apparel market. These companies are quite successful and in a strange twist of fate are now marketing hip-hop culture to the outside world while much of the profit stays in African-American control. However, even here the money may still only find the hand of a few executives, but it’s a start.
Yet, it is important to remember that only African-American and Latino designer clothes were prohibited at Graffiti's nightclub in Des Moines. In fact, the brand names were more symbolic than a strict code. Oftentimes, white patrons wearing the clothing of black designers were admitted. In addition, brand names like Polo and Hilfiger were conveniently left off the list. The black designer clothing was considered gang apparel, especially when worn by African-Americans.
Hilfiger and Polo absorbed aspects of hip-hop culture into their clothing lines and channeled it into the mainstream. Lost in this process was the needed attribution of the trend's urban originators and the symbolism associated with the obtaining and wearing of the clothing. Although in many circles Polo and Hilfiger (and more specifically Tommy Jeans Co. and Polo Jeans Co.) are still considered hip-hop gear, this new definition has lost its previous bite.
Now many of those who fall outside of hip-hop culture can appropriate this clothing and show allegiance to a façade of hip-hop culture. This facade is decidedly different from the hip-hop culture of old. Much like the career of Eminem, these clothing lines act as gatekeepers to hip-hop culture. Furthermore, these commercial influences have worked to transform the culture's once political fashion statements into a mainstream money making entity.
Cyber Boycott: Online Hip-Hop’s Communication Meltdown
It is the goal of this section of the study to look at a specific turn of events during the ongoing process of hip-hop mainstreaming that has had a relatively positive effect on the relationship between the community of big business and the cultural contribution of America’s most oppressed. Although, the end result of this situation may have ended with a positive effect it was not initially intended to aid in resolving the many issues involved in the progression of corporate infiltration into hip-hop. In fact, it was meant to further exploit it. Over the last five years, corporate America has attempted to translate the success of the multi-billion dollar hip-hop industry to the wide-open expanse of the Internet. It seemed logical that a medium as powerful as cyberspace would provide another outlet through which contemporary hip-hop could be peddled. However, this section will explain how some crucial missteps by those in control of the hip-hop industry resulted in the failure of those endeavors. In turn, this initial breakdown has forced corporate America to reevaluate its role in hip-hop culture.
Before jumping head first into the information age, corporate America refused to take many factors into consideration with regard to hip-hop music and culture. Disregard for and a one dimensional examination of the “Digital Divide”, (a term used to describe the gap in technological knowledge and ownership between whites and African-Americans), and a new, technologically more advanced hip-hop subgroup made the industry’s attempt to bring hip-hop to cyberspace a total flop.
When boiled down to its simplest terms, the hip-hop industry was unable to communicate with the online consumer. As explained earlier in this study, the process of communicating to the hip-hop audience and in turn, communicating hip-hop products to the ever-growing mainstream population is very complex. The failure of corporate America to do so has forced it to take another, less stereotypical view of the hip-hop demographic.
So why was the tried and true method of marketing hip-hop that was analyzed earlier in this study not able to translate in cyberspace? One of the main factors that has been attributed to the failure was the lack of an online core or niche hip-hop audience due to the much-publicized Digital Divide. The marketing practice of core audience funneling that had proved so successful with street promotion would prove ineffective in this environment. In addition, the “traditional” way that the Digital Divide has been tracked is not keeping pace with rapidly changing technology.
In the one scenario, the Digital Divide would have a massive impact on online hip-hop. According to an article in The Boston Herald, the Digital Divide seems to be narrowing but there still remains a dramatic chasm between those that have and those that have not. For example, “Blacks and Hispanics still lag behind other groups in computer ownership. In October 2000, the US Department of Commerce found 32.6 percent of black households and 33.7 percent of Hispanic households had computers compared to 51 percent of all households.” In addition, the article contends that in households that earned under $30,000 a year only 38 percent had Internet access compared to 82 percent of households that earned over $75,000 dollars a year.
What the hip-hop online industry discovered was that the core hip-hop audience that they had always relied on to legitimize their products was not present in cyberspace. Without this core audience (or hip-hop demographic as defined earlier), the online hip-hop industry had no way to communicate the “coolness” of their products to a mainstream audience that had come to the Internet in droves. This left large companies trying to sell stale concepts to an audience that had become accustomed to adopting the cutting edge trends directly from the young, black and Latino urban demographic. The hip-hop industry found it impossible to work within the parameters of the Digital Divide because the core audience that they have long relied on was not present. This coupled with the fall of all dot-coms and an unforgiving economic situation throughout the industry severely crippled the strategy and the pockets of hip-hop’s leading corporate giants that had invested millions of dollars into the new technology. And the giants continue to topple.
After gaining start up investments from the likes of Tyra Banks, Jay Z, Queen Latifah and media monsters Sony and Seagram to launch 360hiphop.com in 2000, hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons partnered with BET, which had recently been acquired by Viacom. And even though this partnership fell along similar lines of the successful partnerships of major labels and boutique labels (where 360hiphop.com kept control of the hip-hop directed content and Viacom’s BET added capital and took care of the technical aspects,) the site has still met with hard times.
360hiphop.com certainly had loft goals. Simmons attempted to recruit the brightest minds in hip-hop for an online magazine that would become an alternative to hip-hop print magazines. But Simmons failure came when he attempted to use the same methods of marketing that had helped him become a hip-hop mogul with an online audience that differed greatly from the core hip-hop audience he was used to. In early 2002, 360hiphop.com’s content has been frozen because a large number of its staff has been terminated, including its entire editorial staff.
The exact situation played out at hip-hop’s major periodical, The Source, and its online venture thesource.com. Even while the magazine sells around 460,000 of copies a month, few are venturing online for free access to the magazine’s outlook on hip-hop music, culture and politics. And the list of failed online hip-hop initiatives keeps going. Loud Records founder Steve Rifkind saw his aka.com plummet, hookt.com ended operations, volume.com recently declared bankruptcy and The Source’s main competitor, XXL magazine, saw their xxlmag.com remain a leisurely updated commercial site that regurgitates clips from stories in its print rag.
So as it stands, the hip-hop industry without the aid of the core audience they have become so accustomed to and familiar with was unable to communicate with a mainstream online audience. Time may be short as hip-hop media giants try to regroup and develop a new strategy because while the Digital Divide is indeed large, it seems to be narrowing. Furthermore, it may already be smaller than the statistics show.
2 Ways, Cellys and PS2: The Gap Narrows
What the majority of the statistics and information that fuel both debate and concern over the Digital Divide fail to understand is that “traditional” methods of charting the gaps in Internet usage may not be providing a fully accurate picture. It is easy to blame the troubles of online hip-hop with the lack of a core online audience, but it could also be that a good segment of that core group is actively in cyberspace but choosing not to support online hip-hop. Although at first glance, the statistics on the Digital Divide can be seen as devastating, other statistics are much more encouraging. According to the same Boston Herald article another Department of Commerce survey found that as of August 2000 black households were twice as likely to have home Internet access than they were 20 months before. In addition, overall 57 percent of white adults have Internet access compared to 50 percent of Hispanics and 44 percent of blacks. Clearly, there is still a gap present but the gap is not quite as large as the previously mentioned gap in computer ownership between whites and blacks. Furthermore, a February study by the Pew Internet Project found that 75 percent of all people between the ages of 18 to 29 are online. When these statistics are taken into consideration not only do we see the Digital Divide becoming smaller but we also see the great majority of the hip-hop industry’s most targeted age demographic online.
And the gap may soon grow even smaller. No prevalent statistics take into account other forms of technology that are now giving many the ability to access the internet without the aid of a traditional computer. Ironically, hip-hop culture is currently sparking the rising popularity of these items.
In 2002, hip-hop artists earned hits with technology themed songs or songs that use aspects of the new technology. “Two Way Freak” by Memphis’ Three 6 Mafia and “P.O.V. City Anthem” by Cadillac Tah are two of those songs. Both these songs explore the possibilities of new technology, specifically the two-way pager. A two-way pager, or more simply a two-way, allows the user to send e-mail and surf the Internet in an ultra portable fashion. These devices have become standard equipment in the world of hip-hop. Three 6 Mafia scored a major regional hit with their song discussing the problems of dealing with people, particularly women, calling and using up the allotted amount of characters available in their monthly plan for no important reason. Cadillac Tah’s offering simply used the sound of a two-way alert as a sonic backdrop. However, the sounds of two-way alerts, which can be programmed to imitate any song imaginable, had become so recognizable to the hip-hop community that the alert in the song simply furthered Tah’s allegiance to that community.
Another example of the two-way’s prominence in the hip-hop community is the sudden rise of producer Just Blaze. While struggling to break in the rap game and hanging around with other more established artists and producers, Blaze was recognized for his ability to transfer the melody of current hip-hop favorites to the alert on his two-way. Blaze’s skills were enlisted to do the same for others throughout the industry and pretty soon he expanded his music making abilities to actual track producing where his star really began to rise. In fact, Just Blaze did much work on Jay Z’s 2001 release The Blueprint, considered by most critics to be the best rap album of the year. To understand the popularity of the Internet accessing two-way pager just check any current rap video and you are sure to witness one.
Although the two-way trend in hip-hop maybe more visible than other types of Internet accessing technology, it’s certainly not alone. Hip-hop culture has always put a high value on the ability to keep up with the newest technology. The cell phone since its inception has been a staple in every artist’s arsenal of technology. Today, the cell phone is just as important and significantly more widespread. The latest versions of the communicating device usually offer Internet accessibility of some kind. In fact, the latest high tech gadget to take the hip-hop world by storm is a cell phone/ two-way hybrid that allows the user to actually send email or surf the Internet while talking on the phone through a discreet earpiece.
Moreover, the latest generation of video game consoles are synonymous with the hip-hop demographic. So much so, that major rappers like Ludacris, Pharaohe Monch, Guru, Mos Def and even Public Enemy front man Chuck D have become active participants in the production of video games. These artists and countless others oftentimes lend their voices, music or likenesses to a wide array of video game titles like Madden 2002, Grand Theft Auto III and NFL Fever. The link between hip-hop and video games is not really that new of a phenomenon. However, this new generation of video game consoles (Sega’s Dreamcast, Sony’s PlayStation 2, Nintendo’s GameCube and Microsoft’s X-Box) allow their users to access the Internet right through the system itself. In fact, Playstation 2, starting in the fall of 2002 will begin to offer an adapter that will provide broadband service through its machine.
The fact that Sony has sold more than 10 million of its Playstation 2 gaming consoles since introducing the product make traditionally used numbers on the Digital Divide even more trivial. Sony was approached for racial demographics but they were unavailable. Studies about the Digital Divide do not take into consideration these types of technology and are ignoring the impact that those products and hip-hop culture have in promoting Internet access. Since no study or survey has taken these factors its likely that the divide may be much narrower than we have been led to believe. So if those who would fall under the category of a core hip-hop audience are indeed online (through both traditional computers and other non-traditional methods) why are they not supporting sites that are trying to target them? Could it be that these sites are not giving that core audience what they want?
New World Jacks: The Changing Hip-Hop Demographic
No matter which of the above-mentioned scenarios (Digital Divide vs. undocumented usage) one subscribes to, the fact remains the same: online hip-hop is not getting the support it needs. Whether the situation is a lack of the hip-hop core audience online or the lack of a hip-hop audience venturing to hip-hop sites, the facts show that online hip-hop is suffering and plummeting fast. This study asserts that the problem is that online hip-hop sites are using the same tired marketing techniques to target a demographic that has evolved just as the technology that allows for Internet access has evolved. Although those marketing techniques have worked for some time, they have always lacked substance. In the information rich world of cyberspace, that lack of substance may be the reason for failure.
Urban Expose (www.urbanexpose.com) is a gossip message board site dedicated to the world of urban dot-coms and other urban media ventures. While scrolling through page after page of stories and commentary tracking the descent of hip-hop and urban websites, one theme seems to reoccur: superficial subject matter glossed over with big budget special effects. For instance, a story summarizing the software king Microsoft’s pullout from BET’s online department reiterates this point:
BET.com has dropped the ridiculous bromide of “Where We Web” from under their logo. A scattered content strategy results in kitchen sink press release re-writes and a filter to information which results in more articles about what color pants Colin Powell wore to the inaugural ball than the atrocities in Angola or the rise of AIDS in youth. The origination of the site only distracts its true audience from what they came to do.
This quote is a humorous synopsis of online hip-hop’s dedication to the same kind of mindless drivel that litters the landscape of other media. In a cyber ecosystem where raw information and in-depth alternative views occupy the highest rung on the digital food chain, Flash animation, lyrical battle boards and rarely updated content make for easy prey.
Online hip-hop consumers vary greatly from the core hip-hop demographic that corporate America always relied on the market hip-hop. Even if the most overwhelming statistics about the Digital Divide hold true, there may still be a large population of consumers on the Internet that are interested in hip-hop who are not young, urban dwelling blacks and Latinos. Although, this population’s hunger for hip-hop music may be the same as the offline consumer, they must be communicated with differently. With no core hip-hop audience available to authenticate corporate America’s products old tactics were used. Yet, utilizing the same hardened thug persona or video girl representation that worked so well with vide backfired. To appeal to an online group that is decidedly more educated, affluent, politically aware and obviously more technologically savvy than their off line companions was an accident waiting to happen.
In addition, if it is true that the statistics do not reflect the conventional hip-hop audience’s non- traditional Internet access then one must also realize that just by getting on the Internet one has transcended many stereotypical characterizes that often define the core hip-hop audience (i.e. uneducated, lazy, poor, etc.).
Hence, the industry currently finds itself in a period of insecurity, not only due to economic instability but also their insistence to look at the 21st century’s hip-hop audience as static. This has made the hip-hop industry once again take a measured and long overdue second look at how to communicate to a more enlightened and diverse hip-hop consumer.
However, as the history tells us, the inability of corporate America to quench its thirst for capital assures that it will definitely learn how to speak this language. Although the process will initially cause the industry to look at the hip-hop demographic in a more realistic light, the tactics will again try to water down the product and culture in an attempt to sell it to the most widespread audience possible. Corporate America’s continuing role in watering down culture should not be ignored and the importance and impact of these actions must be endlessly critiqued.
While the effects of corporate control and media manipulation on hip-hop culture and music is indeed a hot topic, little, if any attention focuses on some of the encouraging or constructive aspects of this phenomenon. Since the early nineties, less conventional regions of hip-hop journalism, along with the genre’s vibrant underground and other self proclaimed “guardians of culture,” have duly noted the many aspects of hip-hop that have been diluted or otherwise changed by the strong grip of corporate capitalism. Fashion, subject matter, gender issues, race matters, historical contextualization and the quality of the music itself are just a handful of related issues that have been analyzed in an attempt to point out the problems that come with mainstreaming of a underground or non-mainstream culture.
Truly, these problems are immense. It seems all too obvious that a culture that was born out of the assorted struggles of working class youth and their feelings towards the system that perpetuates these struggles would have to undergo major changes to become as big of a part of white mainstream America as hip-hop is currently.
Nevertheless, no matter how jaded one has become about today’s version of hip-hop, it is impossible to look at the rise of the culture from the parks of New York’s Bronx borough to the stage of the Grammy Awards without being cognizant of some positive side effects of its ascension. For instance, the process of mainstreaming hip-hop has brought the tribulations of inner city existence in America along with the contemporary African-American experience to the forefront of global popular culture. Without the outlet that is rap, the world would be painfully unaware of the plight of America’s oppressed. Even though corporate involvement in today’s rap music has ignorantly framed the genre as violent, misogynistic, and materialistic among other things, it has offered a worldwide audience a glimpse into this country’s unfortunate reality. (Albeit a stereotypical glimpse, but nevertheless, a glimpse.) Rap mogul Russell Simmons, chairman and founder of Def Jam Records observes. “Although there seems to be nothing positive about pro-gang records, they do teach listeners something about the lives of the people who create them and remind them that these people exist.” (Simmons, 180)
Still, as this study demonstrates, there are ways that the mainstreaming of hip-hop music and culture has worked to radically change the culture itself. This process leaves a stereotypical representation that lacks the political and rebellious undertones of an oppressed people.
This study analyzes the multifaceted and diverse methods used to dilute, market and profit from hip-hop culture. Because of this, the characteristics that were so essential in its inception are disappearing. A quest for capital has led numerous corporations to use their money and influence to commodify hip-hop culture – making it into a palatable form that is easily bought and sold throughout America’s mainstream. By using white artists and pop artists as cultural bridges, appropriating urban fashion, catering to America’s stereotypes of a misogynistic and violent African-American male, and using the urban expertise of those inside of the culture, corporate America has stripped hip-hop culture and managed to make it a multi-billion dollar industry with its tentacles reaching throughout popular culture. However, it is also important to remember that black artists, producers and executives are also promoting and profiting from these images. This adds to the perceived legitimacy and credibility of the product; making it harder to critique. As the last part of this study asserts, corporate America’s reach was momentarily halted when it tried to expand into cyberspace. However, we have learned that both hip-hop culture and corporate America are highly adaptive and will surely figure out a way to succeed in this area sometime in the near future.
In the case of Charles Lovelady, this transformation led to a deadly end. Throughout America, instances of racism are taking place on a daily basis that depend on the long held stereotypes in a newer “hip-hop” form to freeze out or at best marginalize African-American and Latino participation. With Charles Lovelady, the access that was denied led to a turn of events which resulted in his death. However, as both corporate and mainstream America continue to select aspects of hip-hop culture to change for capitalistic purposes while simultaneously ignoring the origins of hip-hop culture, the culture itself radically changes enough to mark its own demise. Sadly, it seems as if we are currently witnessing such an end.
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