Hip-Hop, and Corporate America: Puppetry for Profit?

How exactly this came about is kind of a blur by this point, but the first full-length album I can remember owning is “Crushin” by The Fat Boys. For the longest, I would always say it was Metallica's “...And Justice For All”, but I recently realized that was just the first one I purchased on my own. Even though I usually say that I discovered the two genres at the same time, technically, I was a fan of Rap before I was a Metalhead. I guess I finally shook that memory loose after all these years of headbanging.

I was a small child in the late 80s, growing up in the rural south with hardly any access to music at all other than radio, and the weekly late night music video show (“Friday Night Videos”, clever title, huh?). My Mom would tape it, and watch it on Saturday afternoons, so after a while, I started watching it too. I was barely even aware of my own existence, yet somehow I was intrigued by these songs I'd hear every week. When three fat dudes became stars while rapping about all-you-can-eat buffets, I guess it was “game over” at that point.

“Mom, please buy me this Fat Boys tape!” I can visualize 5 or 6 year old me now, still unchanged much by the world; smiling for no reason at all, and wearing bright colors. My regular rotation was “Crushin” by The Fat Boys, “He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, and “Bad” by Micheal Jackson. (I'll let you take a moment to laugh at that.) Also, let me not forget about listening to whatever the late Casey Kasem played on his show. I didn't care for most of the music, I just liked hearing him talk about stuff.

I was right there to see Hip-Hop begin it's trek into mainstream American culture. Rather, I remember the beginning of corporate America cashing in on this new phenomenon. Fast food chains suddenly started adding breakdancers to their commercials, and referring to their products as “def” as well as saying “yo” excessively. I remember Run DMC and Aerosmith blowing everyone's mind with their collaborative version of “Walk This Way”, and when The Fresh Prince got his own TV show I was glued to every episode.

Legend has it that in 1991, a meeting was held at a private residence outside of Los Angeles between record label executives, and a small group of “investors”. At this meeting, a plan was discussed involving privately-owned prisons, and how the entertainment business would help make sure these prisons would remain profitable by promoting music that glorified criminal behavior. According to the legend, several people left this meeting in shocked disbelief, but were held to a confidentiality agreement regardless. Conspiracy theory or not, Hip-Hop certainly did begin to make a 180 degree turn around 1992.

So-called “Gangster Rap” began around 1986 with N.W.A., so the aforementioned legend does have at least a couple holes in it. Nevertheless, it doesn't take much to look around, and notice the superficial, and criminal themes dominating mainstream Rap music. While Hip-Hop has always told the story of impoverished youth in the inner-city, the most commonly-sited example would be “The Message”, there was always an underlying theme of staying positive in these less-than-ideal settings. Any violent lyrics were usually relayed in a negative context until N.W.A. came along.

Hip-Hop music, and it's image has always had a certain larger-than-life aspect. Even in the beginning, rappers wore leather, and spikes, not too much unlike Heavy Metal bands like Judas Priest. “Dis records” have always been sort of like Pro Wrestling promos set to a beat, (with one person saying how they'll destroy the other, etc.) but eventually it progressed to rappers getting beaten up at parties, and having their jewelry stolen. Social media adds to the spectacle now that photos can be posted for all the world to see, and fans can join in on mocking the victim. I swear sometimes it's like I'm watching something scripted by Vince McMahon. I keep halfway expecting someone to get challenged to a cage match.

Meanwhile, there are blogs reporting on these incidents with all the enthusiasm you'd expect from a Roman Coliseum audience. The media is never thinking about the consequences, only their web traffic. In spite of the fact that many artists are basically just actors, some aren't acting their persona, they just so happen to rap in addition to their violent criminal activity. Somewhere, there is a group of guys in suits laughing all the way to the bank. They don't care who gets shot, robbed, or locked up because they're getting paid from it either way.

The entertainment business has always had a dark side, and wild theories revolving around The Illuminati permeate Hip-Hop culture now. They often sound far-fetched, and convoluted, but occasionally one sounds plausible. Is it really so hard to believe that a popular form of music, and it's culture could be used to influence the younger generation's minds, and purchasing habits? When we've got former corrections officers masquerading as drug kingpins in their songs, is it really so hard to imagine that you're being manipulated by a record label?

Money is the deciding factor in everything you can imagine. Wu-Tang Clan told you cash ruled in 1993, and Rakim said he needed to be “Paid in Full” long before that; being money hungry in Hip-Hop is nothing new. However, when rappers are sitting alongside moguls like Warren Buffet, I have to start wondering how much that hunger for money has changed their perspective. Hip-Hop was born from telling what real life was like while maybe adding something for comedic or dramatic effect, but now it's hard to tell who's real, and who's silicone.

Whatever is truly going on behind-the-scenes, it's bigger than just music, there's simply too much money at stake for it to be anything otherwise. The most important thing we can do as fans of this music, and as people, is to show support to the right things; we truly vote with our dollar at the register, not in a voting booth. Next time you're laughing at someone on Worldstar or delighting in “Twitter beef”, think about who is truly profiting from it, and how it reflects upon you. Hip-Hop came from the streets, and the people who lived there; we should be careful that it doesn't become fully-assimilated into corporate culture.

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