NEW WORLD ORDER
Hip hop had blown out of its niche into the
mainstream. It suddenly seemed difficult to remember a time when youths of
color had not been represented in the media, whether as consumers or producers.
But just as hip-hop was now crucial content for the consolidated media, media
consolidation also affected hip-hop's content. Women in hip-hop lost the most.
During the late 1980s, videos had been a boon to women rappers. Queen Latifah, for instance, presented herself in the Fab 5 Freddy-directed video for "Ladies First" as a matriarch, military strategist and militant. Others – Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Roxanne Shante – established their own personalities, equals alongside their male peers. A decade later, successful female artists like Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill were the exceptions rather than the rule. Scantily-clad dancers seemed in endless supply, while women rappers were scarce. Big money clearly had a distorting effect.
At the same time, hip-hop feminism emerged in the work of writers and poets like Joan Morgan, Toni Blackman, Rha Goddess and dream hampton, offering a loyal but vocal opposition to hip-hop's ubermasculinity. Hip-hop feminism's musical counterpart was not in rap but in the so-called "neo-soul" movement, a genre opened up by Elliott and Hill, Mary J. Blige, Meshell Ndegeocello, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu, that put the groove back into the music and the love back into lyrics. Emblematic of the shift was Angie Stone, who had been a female rap pioneer in The Sequence, and now returned to the limelight as a singer.
In one sense, "neo-soul" was a clever marketing strategy, invented by Motown exec Kedar Massenburg to package R&B artists that he had discovered, including Badu, India.Arie and D'Angelo. In time, the artists themselves would disavow the term, a reflection of their sensitivity to the fickleness of the market and the cycle of cool. But neo-soul also created space for voices to dissect the masculinist attitudes and ideals projected in the hip-hop mainstream. Badu sang, "The world is mine. When I wake up I don't need nobody telling me the time."
There was an unstable mix of Million Woman March-styled self-empowerment and AIDS- and gangsta-rap-era self-defense in the music, perhaps best epitomized by Hill's hit "Doo Wop (That Thing)." In these songs, critiques of hip-hop and patriarchy came together. Jill Scott imagined reconciliation, no longer having to love hip-hop from a distance. On "Love Rain," she sang of meeting a new man: "Talked about Moses and Mumia, reparations, blue colors, memories of shell top Adidas, he was fresh like summer peaches." But the relationship ended badly: "All you did was make a mockery of somethin' so incredible beautiful. I honestly did love you so." If hip-hop had dominated discussion of the crisis of gender relations with a boys' locker-room point of view, neo-soul responded with the sista-cipher.
Neo-soul's hip-hop feminist critique came into sharp relief in 2001. After years of flying high, rap sales crashed by 15 percent, leading a music industry-wide plunge. But newcomers Alicia Keys and India.Arie were honored with a bevy of Grammy nominations, and embraced by millions of fans. Keys and Arie celebrated "a woman's worth" and were frankly critical of male irresponsibility. India.Arie's breakout hit "Video" – in which she sang, "I'm not the average girl from your video" – took joy in flipping the music that had once been sampled for Akinyele's deez-nuts ode, "Put It in Your Mouth." On "Fallin," Alicia Keys wove the chords of James Brown's "It's a Man's World" into a complicated examination of a relationship. In her video, it became a symbol-laden examination of black love – the man caught in the prison-industrial complex, the woman torn between loyalty and leaving.
The questions raised resonated far beyond the fraught issues of gender: what did it mean to "keep it real" anymore? What did it mean to be true to something when that something had changed? Could one preserve any kind of individual agency or did one have to ride with the new flow of exploitation?
Identity was on sale. Brands had become sophisticated. During the 2001 holiday season, the Modernista!-designed Gap ads sold a single line of clothes by using different artists as stand-ins for different niches: Sheryl Crow for the VH1 lifestyle, Seal for the SUV lifestyle, Liz Phair for aging indie-rockers, Robbie Robertson for aged arena-rockers, India.Arie for urban hipsters, Shaggy for urban players.
Media monopolies favored artists who did not merely produce hits, but synergies of goods. In this new corporate order, a song could become a movie could become a book could become a soundtrack could become a music video could become a video game. Here was the media monopolies' appropriation of dub logic, profits stacking up with each new version.
The biggest artists were brands themselves, generating lifestyles based on their own ineffable beings. Sean "P-Diddy" Combs leveraged himself across music, film, television and high fashion. Jay-Z peddled movies, clothing, shoes and vodka. Once the journey of cool had made the complete circuit from the artist to the mall, the artists had to reject what they had created, and reinvent themselves. In Jay-Z's case, the ultimate reinvention would be retirement, as if to recognize that excessive branding and positioning had prematurely exhausted the possibilities of art.
The cycle of cool was the oldest hip-hop story ever told. Busy Bee had influenced his followers, like a young Run DMC, to wear bugged-out, geek-chic, plaid-striped suits. Run DMC then commanded their black-on-black sporting audiences to throw their white Adidas shelltoes in the air, branding-on-top-of-branding. The difference was in scale. At the turn of the century the hip-hop generation was now at the center of a global capitalist process generating billions in revenues. "We're survivalists turned to consumers," rapped Talib Kweli.
Just as brands developed their niches, each niche, in turn, came with its own set of brands. "Political rap" was defanged as "conscious rap," and retooled as an alternative hip-hop lifestyle. Instead of drinking Alize, you drank Sprite. Instead of Versace, you wore Ecko. Instead of Jay-Z, you dug the Roots. Teen rap, party rap, gangsta rap, political rap – at the dawn of hip-hop journalism these tags were just a music critic's game. Now they had literally become serious business.
What materially separated Jay-Z from a rapper like Talib Kweli? The answer was in the marketing. Media monopolies saw Jay-Z as an artist with universal appeal, Kweli as a "conscious rapper." A matter of taste, perhaps, except that the niche of "conscious rap" might be industry shorthand for reaching a certain kind of market – say, college-educated, iPod-rocking, Northface backpacking, vegan, hip-hop fans. In this late-capitalist logic, it was not the rappers' message that brought the audience together, it was the things that the audience bought that brought the rappers together.
So Talib Kweli faced the uniquely thorny problem of the "conscious rapper." "Once you put a prefix on an MC's name, that's a death trap," he said. When he unveiled a song called "Gun Music" – a complicated critique of street-arms fetishism – his fans grumbled he wasn't being conscious enough. At the same time, Kweli worried that being pigeonholed as "political" would prevent him from being promoted to the kids who loved Jay-Z. In fact, Jay-Z had cut anti-war and anti-police brutality raps. But by the turn of the century, to be labeled a "conscious" or" political" rapper by the music industry was to be condemned to preach to a very small choir.
Christgau's old-school observation – that hip-hop exploitation had layers of complication – had boomeranged back.
[This excerpt of Jeff Chang's book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (St. Martin’s Press, 2005) is taken from the chapter "New World Order."]