My perspective on music and the music industry is drawn from my 30+ years in the business. I came to New York City in the fall of 1981 with the express purpose of working in the music industry―marketing and publicity, specifically. Since then, I have had a catbird’s seat in witnessing several musical revolutions: the entrance of the compact disc (CD), Napster, and most intimately, rap/hip-hop music.
In all circumstances, my take on the label’s slow and desultory reaction had me branded as the “loose cannon.” And considering the industry’s overall lack of vision, “loose cannon” has become a treasured and welcomed moniker.
This music industry has failed repeatedly to meet the challenges of technology―even when they owned it. That was the case with my first encounter with the CD format in 1990. When I worked at Mercury/PolyGram, the label was very reluctant to replace vinyl servicing with a CD, although our parent company, Philips, developed the CD and was the license owner. And of course, on the way to that revolution, labels often sought ways to rip off the artist. When the CD was introduced, many records labels lowered artist royalty payments. How did this affect black music? Historically, many black artists were already receiving lower royalty payments due to poor representation or general exploitation.
Literally months ago, Sony asserted its right in court to structure deals with Spotify. In its revenue negotiations with the streaming service, Sony is able to negotiate fees at the expense of artists (the only criteria is the label’s best interests―not the artists’ or publishers’―a clear case of f*ck you).
The second revolution was ushered in on June 1, 1999 by Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning. Their peer-to-peer file sharing service was the first to use a Mp3 format (a sonically clean and fast way to transfer music) amassing over 80 million users before it ceased operation in 2002. Napster was a disruptive paradigm shifter that resulted in hysteria among record companies unable to stem the tide of free music. Regardless of the number of lawsuits brought by RIAA, previously paying music consumers became irrevocably adept at consuming music for free.
Rivaling the disruptive nature of the CD and Napster was the explosion of hip-hop culture―what I consider the third revolution: rap music, fashion, dance, and art.
I worked as either a label publicist or marketing product manager for a Who’s Who of rap artists―from The Boogie Boys, Goodie Mob, OutKast, Black Sheep, and Heavy D to Notorious B.I.G., Master P, Cash Money, Rakim and Nelly. Because of that, I had the privilege of witnessing and intimately participating in the third revolution: the revolution of hip-hop as a cultural product―moving rap beyond the cultural gatekeepers.
For many African-Americans, rap music (circa 1979) represented the elevation and domination of the code of the street―thug life―taking hold, literally, of their homes. Rap’s cultural dominance pervaded their black homes vis-à-vis their children and the media against their will. Even when their children were stripped of the cultural cues that elicited street credibility―hip-hop clothing, television shows (no viewing of BET was allowed), many parents grew frustrated and professed an acute inability to control the infusion of hip-hop ideology and products.
During that period, I participated on a conference call with C. Delores Tucker, who, in 1994 with [former education secretary] William Bennett, launched an unsuccessful offense against Warner Bros./Interscope Records and “gangsta” rapper Tupac Shakur. Yet the majority of rap music (then and now)―accounting for millions of dollars in sales―is bought by whites.
Ironically, mainstream popularity, media super-saturation and the nomadicity of today’s mobile consumers created a circular effect―one that re-integrated the art form of rap back into black homes. In other words, there was/is no escaping hip-hop’s influence―from the Pillsbury Doughboy to Broadway’s Hamilton―rap music is everywhere. As original critics perceived it, rap as a cultural product initially represented the quasi-fold low culture group (unskilled blue collar and service workers) having taken the forefront position within hip-hop culture and black culture. Its prominence effectively made it a lightning rod. Rap was perceived as a cultural product that specifically and consistently made itself evident because of its striking discordant sound, contrasting mores and values of the accepted racial identities of most of the black middle class public.
Because of this contrast in values, questions were often raised. For example, “Why did (record) labels allow certain rap music to be produced and marketed?” “What statement did its very existence say about the lives of Blacks?” “Was it a plot to subvert our culture?” These questions spoke to the gatekeepers of the culture and why they were not enforcing their implicit contract to control, subvert or eradicate this music.
Shaped by their social standings (class/status) most upper- and middle-class blacks were particularly attuned (sensitive?) to the filters that shaped the media perception of rap and hip-hop culture. And many, therefore, were reviled. Yet the first indicator that the cultural moorings of hip-hop were misunderstood was the presumption that it was created by cultural imperialists seeking to activate a dirty bomb in the cultural homes of African-Americans.
Any attempt to explain the creation of hip-hop as a commodity conceived as an evil plot by greedy and amoral record executives would be met with the facts that no major record label invested in or willingly signed rap music/artists until there were proven sales. As Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records (with producer Rick Rubin), has so often explained in interviews: the reason why Def Jam Records was created was because “No one else would!”
Sociologically, hip-hop’s phenomenal success can be attributed as much to the democratization, symbolic expansiveness and intermingling of taste cultures (urban and African-American), and taste publics (ethnic minorities and elite social classes―i.e. not only does First Lady Michelle Obama like Beyoncé, but President Obama likes Jay-Z and their daughters like Kendrick Lamar) as it could be the music’s actual aesthetic validity or creativeforce.
At the very heart of rap music is its birth and position as an “outsider.” Unbeknowst to any cultural gatekeeper―primarily, commercial radio and major record labels―rap music (as a monetized industry) was subversive in all its go-to-market strategems. It did not require (nor did it receive) any official support in its creation, distribution or marketing. Without an understanding of the environment and context of this new music, the gatekeepers (labels and radio) essentially barred rap music. Labels were not inclined to sign artists without any radio access, no sales history or possessing questionable content.
No rap artist was signed by a formal record label A&R executive prior to the gold album sales (500k units) netted by Run-D.M.C.’s 1984 Run-D.M.C. on independent label Profile Records. There were no attempts to get radio airplay (black radio wouldn’t play explicit lyrics). And record stores would not sell it―at least initially unless on consignment. Eventually, its recognition as a distinct genre was recognized by industry bible, Billboard magazine, which did not publish a separate rap chart until 1989. And then it was based strictly on sales.
Outside the norms of musical arrangement and texture, rap music was forced to employ alternative means of cultural distribution. Yet the true phenomenon of hip-hop culture is its disregard and eventual triumph over those cultural gatekeepers (including government and state opposition) as the artists created, promoted and sold their music directly to consumers. Kind of like today’s Internet musicians.
Within 31 years, the forms of distinctive and interconnected cultural products―art/graffiti, dance, rap music and fashion―had taken complete residency in the pantheon of American culture. And its popular exportation was made evident worldwide.
Beyond music as a cultural product, hip-hop and its distinct offering―rap music―have singlehandedly forced every sector of society and industry to re-examine its position, reassess its direction and move the fence way beyond the boundaries it would have comfortably carried into the 21st century.
Hip-hop/rap as a cultural product has gradually, yet dramatically, shifted the impediments that stopped blacks (and other outsiders) from doing business on their terms in the world. For although Lena Horne was considered in her time the most beautiful woman in entertainment (black or white), she was not offered a million-dollar makeup contract (as was Queen Latifah for Cover Girl). Nor was Nat King Cole, arguably one of the most sophisticated artists of his time, given a commercial contract as lucrative as P. Diddy’s.
While today there are cultural gatekeepers (and they come in all ethnicities) still seething about the subversive nature of hip-hop and rap music, the view from the outside has come inside. Rap icons have become advertising’s gateway to the coveted multicultural consumer―better known as America’s youth and urban audience.
Opinions and prejudices invariably exist and linger in the hearts of men. But as long as their wallets are open to whomever makes the cash register ring, these and cultural entrepreneurs have created something concrete and within their human agency. Rap and hip-hop artists have created cultural products that allow them to conduct business internationally, while being true to their own particular vision of life.
And from my perspective, that is a TRANSFORMING revolution.
Jackie Rhinehart is the author of “MY ORGANIC SOUL: From Plato to Creflo, Emerson to MLK, Jesus to Jay-Z.” She is also an Officer and Board Member of the Living Legends Foundation. Rhinehart’s essay is part one of a series of essays on the State of Black Music and Beyond.