Writing@CSU Home Page | Writing Gallery | Talking Back | Volume 3, Issue 1

logoHip Hop is Not for Sale

Angela Whaley

When did music stop being an art and become a business?  Hiphop used to be about keeping kids off the streets, used to channel their energy into positive pastimes to keep them from becoming involved with gangs.  It promoted positive and peaceful messages through intelligently written rhymes.  It used to be cool to use a dictionary to write rhymes and rap about science and political issues.  But now that gangster rap has become mainstream, kids don’t want to hear anything that doesn’t mention pimpin’, hoein’, drinkin’ forties, or smokin’ blunts.  The media has fused Hiphop and gangster rap, but what many people are unaware of is that there is another side to Hiphop – typically called underground Hiphop.  The underground is where Hiphop thrives, but it can be very secretive. Hiphop is compiled of four elements: Breakdancing, DJing, Aerosol Art aka Graffiti, and MCing. Gangster rap is a form of MCing, which is only one-fourth of Hiphop - definitely not enough to define what Hiphop is.  Still, the corporate media glamorizes gangster rap and uses it as a marketing tool to sell products, then labels them “Hiphop.”  In today’s society, Hiphop has become extremely marketable and is used to sell everything from sneakers to liquor to dolls. I’m waiting for the day that a song written about Bacardi liquor – paid for by Bacardi – makes it on Billboard’s Top 10 list.  It may not be long.  The music industry glamorizes gangster rap while exploiting Hiphop to make a profit, and change needs to happen fast.

Just as we study our culture and history to understand where we are coming from, we must also examine Hiphop’s culture and background to understand where it is coming from. Hiphop originated in the South Bronx of New York in the 1970’s.  Afrika Bambaataa, also known as the “Godfather of Hiphop,” was the first to organize artistic battles through the four elements as a way to substitute violent disputes. People would get together – typically at block parties or park jams – and show their skills as a positive pastime.  Hiphop was created to stop gang violence, not to promote it like the typical gangster rapper does today. This is one of the many things that people are unaware of when they are solely exposed to mainstream commercialized gangster rap. “Hiphop music isn’t experimental anymore,” Says Shortkut of The Invisibl Skratch Piklz, “It’s violent and materialistic.  All the so-called rap videos on MTV are about holding cash in your hand, wearing Versace, and looking like a so-called playa.  I never knew that as Hiphop.  To me, Hiphop was partying and showing your skills, not calling somebody out and shooting them” (“Evolution”).  The founder of Hiphop, Afrika Bambaataa, was himself a Black Spade Gangster, but he sparked the Hiphop revolution for the good of the community.  When there were Hiphop park jams, there were thugs and gangsters present, but it was all about having fun and being positive. 

So why does the gangster version of Hiphop sell?  Because America is in love with sex, drugs, and violence.  Instead of creating a positive message that talks about doing something productive, the media sells a fantasy.  Too often, intelligent rappers are labeled “soft,” and anything that is not gangster is labeled as being “not real.”  But the gangster image is the fantasy!  In an interview with DJ Lord Ron, a respected DJ and producer, from “Hip Hop Ya Don’t Stop” by Adrian Arceo, DJ Lord Ron says:


Real thugs move in silence and any real street person who represents being from the streets respects that code of silence.  Now, when I see or hear these artists claiming to be thugs[,] I see nothing but followers of a trend just for the dollar bill.  I even heard the bubble gum group B2K use the word ‘Thug.’  Do you really think these artists are real thugs?  [. . .]  America is in love with violence and sex, it does sell but there are many other topics that these rappers can write about.  (Arceo).


DJ Lord Ron goes on to explain how if these “thugs” really were what they say, than what they talk about on their albums would be considered a confession and would lead them to jail.  Hiphop crew Blackalicious came out with a song title “Shallow Days,” that tries to reach the current mainstream artists and make them realize the harmful messages they are sending to children.  Part of it goes like this:


But music does reflect life / and kids look up to what you're portraying / and mimic what you act like / It's time for a new day / an era in rap, conscious styles, / makin' them aware of the happenings / but their ears seem more steered towards / self-annihilation so then they might laugh / and write this off, like I'm out here just / blowing wind, maybe label us soft or unreal, / something they just can't feel, while they yell / ‘murder murder murder, kill kill kill.


Yet, while Blackalicious is trying to do the right thing, gangster rap is still getting more airplay and publicity than any underground crew.  The mainstream gangster rap talks about taking drugs and having sex as if they were everyday occurrences.  Take an example from 50 Cent, one of the most popular gangster rappers out today.  His debut album, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” was the No. 1 album of the year for 2003.  One of his first singles from this album, titled “In Da Club,” was a huge hit.  You couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing this track’s harsh beat and 50 Cent’s stern voice rapping over the microphone.  But what was he saying?  The chorus goes like this:


You can find me in the club, bottle full of bub / Look mami I got the X if you into taking drugs / I'm into having sex, I ain't into making love / So come give me a hug if you into getting rubbed.


The music industry needs to stop glamorizing gangster rap and using it as their own personal marketing ploy before Hiphop loses all credibility as an art and culture – a trend that is becoming more and more of a reality.

Gangster rap influences not just music preferences for today’s generation, but it also influences fashion, attitudes, and perceptions.  Everywhere you look you see or hear the influence of Hiphop on our generation.  Just today I was watching television and I saw two Old Navy commercials that made references to Hiphop.  The first one featured Fran Drescher playing the role of a telephone operator. Towards the end of the commercial she says, “My shizzle’s gone fazizzle!”  This is a spin off of rapper Snoop Dogg’s lingo.  The second Old Navy commercial had cast rapper Lil’ Kim.  She rapped about Old Navy, and at the end she says, “Now you’re in da hood.” 

Not only is Hiphop used in advertisements to sell clothes, but Hiphop artists and Hiphop record labels also market dangerous products to youth.  For example, Roc-a-Fella Records has experienced great success with their Roc-a-Wear clothing line, and just recently the label has purchased Armadale, a “premium” vodka brand from Scotland. As reported by Fox News in “Hip-Hop Label’s Foray Into Vodka Business Stirs Controversy,” CEO of Roc-a-Fella, Damon Dash, tells the Wall Street Journal that Roc-a-Fella artists are not required to plug the liquor, but they will be “encouraged” to do so. Dash is aware, but unconcerned of the power Roc-a-Fella artists have over their audience in selling products through their music; in fact, he states that he was “inspired to make the deal after he noticed the buzz created by Jay-Z’s mention of Belvedere vodka in one of his songs” (Lehner).  It’s one thing to market fashion through Hiphop, but it’s another thing to promote negative lifestyles and bad choices to a segment of the population that is primarily underage.  As of January 10, 2003, there are 19 songs with brand references in the top 20 Billboard songs, according to AmericanBrandstand.com, a website that tracks products mentioned in hit songs on Billboard’s Hot 100. 

When does it go too far?  At what point does the music industry stop producing music and start producing commercials?  And how long before the consumer realizes the product-laden music is purely intended to rake in more profit?   Some say that people are old enough to understand that gangster rap is fantasy and that they are aware that these “thug” rappers are not real gangsters; so using Hiphop to sell products is not so bad after all.  But when does using Hiphop as a marketing tool cross the line?  How about when making dolls?  The headline of a Mattel press release on July 29, 2003 screams:  “Category-Busting Flavas Dolls Are Hip-Hop Happening and Promote Fearless Self Expression in Girls Ages 8-10.”  It goes on to say in the first paragraph: “With the nationwide introduction of Flavas (pronounced FLAY-vuhz) this week, the first reality-based fashion doll brand that celebrates today’s teen culture through authentic style, attitude and values, MattelTM has created a hot hip-hop themed line that allows girls to express their own personal flava” (“Mattel”).  Modeling a doll after Hiphop is a clever idea. The problem is, Hiphop is portrayed through the mass media as being equivalent to gangster rap.  Kids play with these “hip-hop themed” dolls and they’re going to turn to Hiphop artists, and what are they going to find?  A whole bunch of thugs promoting sex, violence and drug use. 

KRS-One shares his thoughts on Hiphop in his new book Ruminations: “…[W]hen a culture is being sold as merchandise or property with no regard for its cultural codes and traditions, it is the children that suffer the most” (KRS-One 198).  He goes on to explain that the morals that we are teaching these children are not very uplifting.  What kind of message are we sending children when they hear about how an ex-drug dealer has become legally successful?  Or how a gangster, thug, or ex-pimp is glamorized on television, making millions of dollars. In an interview with Davey D, DJ Kuttin Kandi says:


Artists have a very big responsibility to give back and set examples for the community. It's funny how many artists feel like they're not role models. [. . .] Are we in such denial that we can't accept the fact that we are icons? Is it because we don't want to have that guilt on our shoulders? You know that there's something going wrong in this world when you hear songs teaching us that it's okay to be cheated on, it's okay to be in love with someone else even though you already got a ‘boo’, it's okay to be treated like you're a piece of meat - and you're the sloppy seconds. Perhaps people my age can understand that this music is just ‘entertainment’, but little children who cannot separate the reality from the ‘acting’ grow up thinking that this is the way it has to be. And that’s when it won't be just acting or entertainment anymore. I'm so worried about our future.”  (“Kuttin”).

Many things can be done to stop the degrading music and images being branded into everyone’s mind about Hiphop: 

·         Stop requesting this type of music.  The reason the music industry can get away with this is because they are getting bombarded with requests to play gangster rap.  The people who oppose this music need to start calling radio stations and demanding quality.  If enough people call, the media will eventually listen. 

·         Get the word out about underground artists.  Underground artists do not get the media attention that mainstream rappers do; therefore the only way to get their name out is for fans to talk about them and promote shows. 

·         Stop downloading underground artists’ music.  This one is a little tricky, because a lot of underground artists rely on downloading to get their name out, but at the same time they need the money from records sales more than major-record label artists do. 

·         Support the locals.  Support the local radio stations and the local artists.  There are tons of opportunities to hear quality underground music, and it typically starts in the town you’re living in.  Basementalism is a radio show based in Boulder, Colorado and is broadcasted on Radio 1190 AM every Saturday from 4-7pm.  They put on a phenomenal set featuring underground artists ranging from popular underground to local underground.  KRFC 88.9 FM in Ft. Collins plays some underground every Sunday from 9-11pm.   The Aggie Theatre and the Starlight in Ft. Collins put on underground shows; the Fox Theatre in Boulder puts on underground shows; and every once in a while the Fillmore or Universal Lending Pavilion in Denver put on underground shows, and so do many other venues in the Colorado area, all you have to do is look. 

·         Support grassroot artists and organizations that dedicate themselves to creativity and not record sales.  In Colorado alone, there are hundreds if not thousands of grassroot organizations trying to change our current society morals.  One in particular is called the Colorado Hip Hop Coalition (CHHC.)  For more information go to www.coloradohiphop.org 

·         Become knowledgeable.  If you are truly interested in the Hiphop culture, you must study it.  Read Hiphop books, hang out and talk to the people that travel in and out of the local record shop, and visit websites. The site www.daveyd.com is an excellent start.


These six things are great stepping-stones to get where we need to go in promoting quality music and resisting the current commercial trends being sent through the mass medias; but it won’t happen unless these things do.  As famous social scientist Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”





Works Cited


1.)        Arceo, Adrian.  “Hip Hop Ya Don’t Stop.”  DaveyD.com. 23 Sept. 2003.  01 Dec. 2003http://pub12.ezboard.com/fpoliticalpalacefrm17.showMessage?topicID=440.topic.


2.)        “Evolution of Hip-Hop.”  Needlz.com. Shure Incorporated. 11 Mar. 2002. 01 Dec. 2003 http://www.needlz.com/library/phono_evolution_hip_hop.asp.


3.)        "Kuttin Kandi – More Than a Woman.”  DaveyD.com.  01 Dec. 2003



4.)        KRS-One.  Ruminations.  New York: Welcome Rain Publishers, 2003.


5.)        Lehner, Maria.  “Hip-Hop Label’s Foray Into Vodka Business Stirs Controversy.” 

FoxNews.com. 08 Jan. 2003. 28 Nov. 2003 http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,74900,00.html.


6.)        “Mattel Asks Girls ‘What’s Your Flava?’”  Press Release. Mattel.com.  29 July 2003.  10 Oct. 2003 http://www.shareholder.com/mattel/news/20030729-115032.cfm.