Can Hip-Hop Still Be Artistically Viable When It’s Getting Spanked By The Arcade Fire Sales-wise?

jharv | January 2, 2008 10:00 am

As a way of profiling three artists who made three solid hip-hop albums this year–Turf Talk, Prodigy, and Project Pat–the New York Times‘ Kelefa Sanneh has written another entry in the “hip-hop: possibly dead, definitely changing” trend piece parade. The reasons, in case you’ve been otherwise occupied: sales are in the crapper, hip-hop sales are really in the crapper, one-hit ringtones rule, albums by former backpack outliers are (shockingly, right?) selling better than albums by the one-hit ringtoners, and the genre’s mainstream is taking the reality of the new model harder than most thanks to its longstanding “if you’re not getting money, you ain’t shit” philosophy. The difference being, Sanneh argues, that the rappers themselves are (sometimes) finally realizing the need to scale back their ambitions and “keep grinding” on the indie circuit. But what if hip-hop’s multitudes can’t be contained by the indie circuit alone? What if the genre needs the money men to foster creativity? What the underground needs the promise of the giant gold tank to keep that grind rolling?

Under-the-radar releases, weird tour schedules, modest sales figures: none of this is new. The success of Southern hip-hop in the last decade was built on a foundation of independent and independent-minded rappers, many of whom worked with the scrappy regional distributor Southwest Wholesale, which is now closed, like many of the little shops it used to serve. In an earlier era these regional scenes were farm teams for the industry, grooming the top players and then sending them up to the big leagues. But what if there are no big leagues anymore? What if there’s no major label willing or able to help Turf Talk get his platinum plaque? Would his next album sound as brash? Will his musical descendants be as motivated? The mainstream hip-hop industry relies on a thriving underground, but isn’t the reverse also true? Eventually, a (new?) group of executives will find a business model that doesn’t depend on shiny plastic discs, or digital tracks bundled together to approximate them. But for now the major league is starting to look a lot like the minor one. And in ways good and bad and utterly unpredictable, rappers may have to reconsider their place in the universe, and their audience. Some will redouble their commitment to nonsense, like Project Pat. Some will wallow in their misery, like Prodigy. Some will merely revel in their own loudmouthiness, like Turf Talk, hoping someone will pay attention. But if sales keep falling, more and more rappers will have to face the fact that they aren’t addressing a crowd, just a sliver of one.

Well the second graf kinda undercuts the questions raised in the first by basically chalking up the future of the biz to “who knows,” which is probably sensible response at this point and the major headache/obstacle in writing any state-of-the-industry article these days. But the one thing Sanneh’s article ignores almost entirely is the hip-hop underground that never saw itself as a “farm team” for the industry but as a refusenik/D.I.Y. wing of the genre itself, a market smaller than that mixtapes-to-riches model that folks like Project Pat and Turf Talk once followed but even more tenacious and unlikely to abandon hip-hop for accounting when sales dip below 25,000. Cross-genre comparisons are always imperfect, especially given the whole “who knows” aspect, but if the major-label market for Daughtries dried up tomorrow, it’s unlikely rock’s underground would suddenly decide the genre was creatively bankrupt, just as it’s unlikely their rap peers will either. And if there’s a possibility that the lack of renumeration means Turf Talk’s “musical desecendants” be less “motivated” or “brash,” there’s also the possibility they will take the genre further out aesthetically, become even more committed to producing interesting (if commercially unviable) regional variations, or (less excitingly) find a way to mimic the stagnant post-gangsta landscape on a smaller scale. Or perhaps ringles or the killer comet will mess up everything up even further. Who knows!

The Shrinking Market Is Changing The Face Of Hip-Hop [New York Times]