By Jeff Seale
Hip hop is a culture that has in recent times been twisted far from its original message through the process of resistance and incorporation. During its early rise to popularity in the 1980’s, the tone of hip hop music changed from whimsical party music to a form of expression for political disagreement and aggression towards the powers that be. This change in tone can be seen as a form of resistance; however it wasn’t long at all before this rebellion became a platform for advertising and profit for those same powers which were being rebelled against. By 1986, as Public Enemy released one of their most politically conscious and challenging album, Kurtis Blow became the first of many hip hop artists to advertise Sprite, and Run DMC rapped about his A.D.I.D.A.S. Even as early as the mid-80’s we see the pieces coming together which will make hip hop one of the most exploitable and incorporated subcultures of all time.
Interestingly in the 1990’s, gangsta rap became the first lucrative sub-genre of hip hop, setting the precedent that in order to make money, rap had to be violent, vulgar, and controversial. Meanwhile, upon the success of Run DMC’s love song to his sneakers, more and more rappers began advocating products in their songs; everything from shoes to alcohol. We see that as hip hop rises with popularity (along with the rise of the music video), it becomes increasingly materialistic.
By the 2000’s, hip hop influences had saturated nearly every aspect of popular culture, but the rebellious, fight-the-power message of the eighties was far from sight. In it’s place was the message that the only thing that mattered to a rap artist was what he drove, how many diamonds he wore on his wrist, and how often he had sex with impossibly beautiful women. Here, rap begins to perpetuate an ideology that the goal in life was to gain as much money as possible by any means necessary. With this money, instead of using it to improve one’s life or the lives of others, men were to buy pointless, expensive items that increase one’s status, because without them one would never be able to attain a woman.
As for womens’ roles in hip hop culture, the imbalance was clear from the very beginning. Female rappers have found moderate success, nowhere near the level of their male counterparts and have done so by adopting a very male attitude in their music and perpetuating the ideology illustrated above, that without owning the correct status items a man could never have them. However, for the most part, the woman’s place in hip hop has always been as an accessory, no less important than the fancy car and flashy jewelry in a hip hop music video.
It’s plain for anyone with a critical eye to see that the environment hip hop had cultivated was ideal for companies wishing to associate their brand with the hip hop lifestyle, as mainstream rappers no longer had any qualms as to where their money was coming from, so long as they were getting paid. Rappers set the tone for which products were appropriate to own, and the fans would obey, because if they didn’t they would be ostracized by their peers and have no chance of a relationship with the opposite sex.
As with all heavily exploited subcultures, there was only so much profit that could be wringed out of hip hop. After draining it of any meaningful, artistic expression, and after fickle fans moved on to the next big craze, so did the corporations. Rap music in the 2000’s became so heavily incorporated that by the middle of the decade, sales of mainstream hip hop had severely declined, a decline it has yet to recover from.
This transformation can be seen in the two following videos. The first is Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” released in 1989. It’s message is “power to the people” and “don’t believe the hype.” It advocates that people remove the social blindfolds that hinder their rise from the status quo. The imagery in the video is that of a protest, complete with militant members of a resistance.
The second video is Puff Daddy’s “Bad Boys for Life.” The message here is that instead of fighting the power, people try and be the power. “Don’t worry if I write rhymes,” sings Puff Daddy, “I write checks.” The video contains all the tropes of modern commercialized pop rap including an obsession with money, the acquiring of status items, and the objectification and over-sexualization of women. Ironically, the video contains a cameo from Ice Cube, a former member of N.W.A and a prominent figure in the rebellious hip hop of yesteryear.