Who knew rapper Nas was a prophet? Nearly two years ago, he titled his 2006 album, Hip Hop is Dead. The prognostication sparked a firestorm in the hip hop community who interpreted it as the bitter rambling of an “old” man who time has come and gone.
Now the New York Times has declared the genre’s downfall in its piece, “The Shrinking Market is Changing Hip Hop”. According to the article, sales of hip hop CDs have taken a particularly hard hit in a market where overall sales are down. “Rap sales fell 21 percent from 2005 to 2006, and that trend seems to be continuing.” And if the New York Times, a publication not known for being ahead of the curve when it comes to pop culture, acknowledges the possible demise of the genre, hip hop is not just dead but it’s in rigor mortis.Hip hop’s struggles are not surprising to most who follow the industry. Iconic artists, such as Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent, whose CDs easily became multi-platinum sellers not so long ago, now find their recent releases struggle to reach the million in sales mark after weeks on the charts.
Although, I am not too deeply ensconced in the happenings of popular culture, I do try to keep abreast of its latest offerings. I know about Britney, Paris, Fergie, and a little about Mylie. Even the Internet sensation, and now ad pitchman, Tay Zonday, singer of “Chocolate Rain”, caught my attention. With that said, I did not recognize the names of the rappers mentioned in the Times piece nor was I familiar with their music.Therein lies the problem.
And no, I am not that damn old — at least not chronologically. But in hip hop years, I am ancient. For me and most people of a certain age for whom the genre was more than just music but a movement that embodied the bravado of a generation who after having been abandoned by the civil rights old guard decided to make its own way in the world, the boasting, bling obessesed, stripper glorifying lyrics do not hold our interest. We’ve grown up but hip hop hasn’t. And the younger generation, accustomed to downloading, file sharing and outright bootlegging, doesn’t really see the value in investing in a CD of “songs” of which one or two might be of temporal interest.
If hip hop is dead, is a resurrection possible? It’s doubtful. Although, hip hop artists are some of the hardest working people in the business, often referring to their efforts as “grinding”, selling CDs and mixtapes out one’s car and/or holding impromptu concerts in small venues to generate buzz will not be enough to bring back the dead.
Rock artists and others who inhabit music’s “underground” have been employing more inventive methods to sell and distribute their wares. Recent efforts include the direct-to-consumer strategy of Radiohead, who asked its fans to pay whatever price they desired for the band’s latest release, In Rainbows and the use of a 42 Entertainment-created alternate reality game (ARM) – an elaborate worldwide game of hide and seek — by Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails to generate interest in the album, Year Zero –the process and results of which were delineated in a recent issue of Wired.
Hip hop may be too tied to old models, such as the reliance on hefty advances, to adapt to the changing times. Artists’ need to prove to their communities and others, through over-the-top displays of conspicuous consumption, their value and success, before a significant number of CDs have been sold, may complicate any possible comeback.
And regarding the music itself: when the genre went South to tap into a new talent pool, so did hip hop. Out went thoughtful, although sometimes angry, reflections on place and time, and in came thoughtless glorification of excesses of all kinds. Should we have expected something more from members of an under or uneducated populace? Probably not. All the “grinding” in the world is no substitute for education and intellect. And this observation comes from a woman who lived and taught in the South for nearly six years.
So, get out your best black outfit and let the mourning begin for the genre that once ruled the world. Yes, hip hop is dead. The cause: creative suicide.