"It Was All A Dream" : Does Hip Hop Culture Have a “Collective Consciousness”?

 The Rose That Grew From Concrete

As always, using Simon Frith's "Technique and Technology" theory as our guide, we have learned through a combination of Cobb's To The Break of Dawn and Philipe Bougouis' In Search of Respect that Hip Hop music in the modern era is an amalgamation of the Blues ethos with South Bronx boom bap.  

By the early 90s, rap music became in particular characterized by the tragedy of urban America's crack cocaine epidemic, from its lyrical content to how it has been marketed by a global entertainment industry.

For an understanding of Hip Hop music in 21st century, rather than analyze record sales or identify who pioneered the seemingly infinite sub-genres of rap, we turn to Rha Goddess' essay "Scarcity and Exploitation: The Myth and Reality of the Struggling Hip Hop Artist."  

This essay along with Danny Hoch's "Toward a Hip Hop Aesthetic: A Manifesto for the Hip Hop Arts Movement" and, importantly, M.K. Asante Jr's chapter "Old White Men (Or, Who Owns Hip Hop?)" from It's Bigger Than Hip Hop provide for us a concluding analysis of where Hip Hop has come from, how it has grown and its present state.  This is not a dissection which rapper is the "Greatest Of All Time" but are far more serious quest to identify Hip Hop's Collective Consciousness.

First, Rha Goddess defines Poverty Consciousness as psychological fear of lacking material items and denial of self worth.  It is oft romanticized belief that this mental condition and material state is beneficial to artistic process.  For example, while it is an oversimplification, we often correlate oppressive conditions with creative (Black) output.  Think how we connect Jim Crow era oppression begetting the blues or urban strife in our America' northern cities creating the sound of jazz.  Or the people in the South Bronx birthed Hip Hop culture in the face of post industrial peril.

Hip Hop began under the conditions of poverty and lack of RESOURCES: access to quality housing, education, job opportunity, health care, and civil order. Simply put, right or wrong, we believe Poverty Consciousness breeds creativity.

It is true Hip Hop culture did begin under the conditions of poverty and lack of resources. Hip Hop theater producer Danny Hoch calls them the “traditional aesthetics” of Hip Hop like the devices of metaphor or illusion.  

What has emerged as Hip Hop culture grew and its identity formed is a recognizable “Collective Consciousness.” (CC) Hip Hop's CC is its the understanding of identity, history, money, competition of survival, scarcity of resources, and feelings of exploitation (real or imagined).

Similar to “traditional aesthetics” of Rock n Roll (automobiles, girlfriends and growing up), Hip Hop music refers to themes of poverty as metaphor for a collective “struggle”.

This album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me I'd never amount to nothing.  To all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustling in front of that called the police on me when I was just trying to make some money to feed my daughter.  And all the ni**as in the struggle – Notorious B.I.G. “Juicy

Mobb Deep's "Hell On Earth" itemizes these real fears and imagines them to be something even worse:

Further, Hip Hop was more “pure” in the Golden Era or “real” in the 1990s Modern EraContemporary rap must measure up to its past.

“I grew up to Em, B.I.G. and ‘Pac, b*tch, and got ruined / So until I got the same crib B.I.G. had in that ‘Juicy’ vid / B*tch, I can't mother**kin' stop movin”' - Big Sean, “Control

Watch the similarities in attitudes, messaging and marketing in this interview with NWA in 1988 and Odd Future in 2012

While not absolute, fully flexible and contextual, an identifiable culture and identity can be discussed as Hip Hop “Collective Consciousness”. Hip Hop's Collective Consciousness (CC) is the practitioners, listeners, media and operatives’ “COMMON sense” 

It is a fluid but key ingredient in the interactions of Hip Hop culture. Hip Hop CC revolve around the understanding of personal and collective identity, history, economy, competition of survival, scarcity of resources, and feelings of exploitation (real or imagined). It at once a collective sense and a highly individualized concept of self.

Big K.R.I.T., Ludadcris and Bun B. simply call it "Country Sh*t". Luda: "I might not be shit to you but my mamma thinks I made it"

Listen, people be askin' me all the time,"Yo, Mos, what's gettin' ready to happen with Hip Hop? Where do you think Hip Hop is goin?” I tell 'em, "You know what's gonna happen with Hip Hop?
Whatever's happening with us" – Mos Def, “Fear Not of Man


Streets Is Watchin'

Rap music is a defiant celebration of the struggle;  going from rags to the RICHES, the transformation and triumph are hallmarks of the rap song form. Thus, rapper must "pay their dues" as a "starving artist" to establish credibility and validity.  Game and 50 Cent make this clear in "Hate or Love It":

Or Meek or Rick Ross in "Off the Corner":

In Houston Hip Hop culture, the "Slabs" and "Swangas" elements of regional car culture directly reflect the values of espoused in the music and vise versa:

Hip Hop CC holds that poverty and struggle breeds creativity. American popular culture and Hip Hop romanticizes the struggle of being rags to RICHES, transformation and triumph. From Horatio Alger to Jay-Z, American values maintain that those “who work hard enough” will succeed. This emphasizes the victory of individual will vs. social challenges of family history, doubting peers, institutional poverty, societal wrongs and misfortune.
Alger’s stories of rags to riches were popular in the late 1800s.  Titles such as “From Farm to Fortune,” “Do and Dare” or “Helping Himself” summarized a particular American ethos
Jay-Z on the roof of his Brooklyn “stash spot” at 560 State St., overseeing the arena for the NBA team of which he was a minority owner

T.D.E.'s Jay Rock follows a similar path as Hov, using his struggles to secure a record contract

Rappers who obtain credibility and validity define themselves in lyrics, images or symbols as possessing or experiencing any or all of the following:

• In touch
• On the pulse
• Original
• Innovative
• Pioneering
• Courageous
• Crucifixion earns “extra props”

If an rap artist has not struggled to obtain this, they are “commercial”, "pop" or “sellOUTS.” Paradoxically, credibility is diminished by SUCCESS.  (This was especially true during Hip Hop's Golden Era from 1987 to 1993).  What is the incentive to be anything else other than a "starving artist"? You must maintain the appearance of struggle even while succeeding.


Crack Music”

“Industry rule number 4080 / record company people are shady...”
A Tribe Called Quest “Check the Rhime

But since the mid 1990s, making money off of Hip Hop has not only been accepted but it has all but become its singular focus.  So why are rap artists today still "starving"? Answer: bad business practices.

Often in rap music (and perhaps other popular art forms), this "struggling" Collective Consciousness creates a trend of bad business management and poor business decisions.

Follow how a rapper's path to success takes shape in this narrative:
• Artist as victim.  Faces lack of recognition, resources and stability.
• Organized money and institutions are the primary culprits along with fellow artists and unsupportive family and friends.
• Artists don't know how to do business and they are victims of labels, lawyers and finicky fans.

or conversely when a Hip Hop artist succeeds:
• Friends, family and community treat you differently
• Rappers feel uneasy and guilty about success
• Worse, they feel unsafe and about success (“watch your back”)

What develops is a “scarcity of success”; thus, the Hip Hop industry is:
• fiercely competitive
• artists hoard information and work in isolation
• record labels marketing "gimmicks" are actual lived experiences. This ensures a rapper's authenticity and artistic dominance

Despite all his success- or perhaps because of his success- Boosie Badazz is basically singing the blues:

Consider how the following "real life" situations are exploited by labels, media and / or the artist themselves.  For rappers especially, the line between "real life" and entertainment is blurred purposely.  This is nothing new to Hip Hop (or pop music) as the public criminal lives of Buskwick Bill, Slick Rick and Tupac all fueled record marketing strategies.

*Artist / Marketed Struggles and Events*
- Eminem / White, Addiction, Kim, Haley, Mom
- 50 Cent / Shot nine times
- Kanye / Car accident, Mom died, dumped by girlfriend
- Jay Z / Life of poverty, jail record, death of Auto-Tune
- Diddy / Biggie's death

The rapper Supa Sport is clear what trade gives him credibility as a rapper

If an artist commits to having credibility they accept being under acknowledged and underpaid because society doesn't “value” art with integrity. Thus, rappers who choose financial success often adopt “dumbed down” strategies. 

“Hustlers and boosters embrace me and the music I be makin / I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars / They criticized me for it yet they all yell "HOLLA!" - Jay Z “Moment of Clarity"

While Jay-Z might have said that in 2003, ironically, as Jay-Z  career continues his elevated and celebrated status allows him the privilege of purusing Hip Hop that he  purposely identifies as "art". In the following video, he dances, raps and rubs elbows with some the most elite and renowned fine art painters and performers of our time:

Jay-Z might have established this "common sense" of scarcity and exploitation but he has left it behind in order to climb to higher heights. 

Perhaps there are limits to Rha Goddess' idea that success breeds failure in Hip Hop. To those interviewed in this mini-doc "Ice Cold: The Promise of Hip Hop Jewelry", flashing and flossing is precisely a sign of their success.

But the question the next section asks is what do rappers truly own and control in the Hip Hop culture industry?

It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop

This Hip Hop Consciousness does not empower rappers and producers as their "artistic" practice is consumed by the machine of the music business.  A sampling of the forms of companies, services and careers the Hip Hop and Rap Music Industry is comprised of:

• Entities that seek to profit from the marketing and sales of rap music and its ancillary products.
• Record companies
• Music publishers
• Radio stations
• Record Stores
• Music video shows/channels
• Recording Studios (Owners, Engineers, Mixers)
• Performance Venues
• Booking Agents
• Promoters
• Managers, Accountants, Lawyers
• Disc Jockeys
• Music Publications
• Music/Entertainment Websites

What are some organizations or methods used to indirectly seek profit from Hip Hop?

The Hip Hop Industry is largely owned and operated by “elites” and not people of color. The “Big Four” Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, EMI Group, Warner Music Group account for 82% of US Music Market and 90% of the retail market in the 21st century’s first decade. There are no Black Americans in the top executive positions of these companies.  Rap record labels and “black entrepreneurs” like Diddy, Russell Simmons, Jay Z are actually “owned” by their Big Four “parent” company. 

Diddy, Simmons and others employ “perception management” to create the illusion of control over the content of the music.  Ultimately, these entrepreneurs make more money from clothing, liquor sales, car parts, etc. and other accessories than they do from music. Watch Lil' Flip's "struggle" to manage all the trappings of stardom.

The state of the Hip Hop Industry largely parallels the economic inequality African Americans face at in society at large.  With the synergistic relationship Hip Hop and R&B have had in the last 15 years, these “black” genre labels have re-categorized under the euphemism of “Urban Music” to make marketing of this product more palatable for "mainstream" tastes.  

“Subliminal hypnotism and colonialism / leaves most niggaz dead or in prison”
- Jeru da Damaja “Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers

Neo-colonialism: Forcing countries to consume what they do not produce and produce what they do not consume.  If the largest records and ancillary companies had but even a peripheral interest in the poor and the Black and Latino population rap music supposedly represents, then why would this rap "culture" be so overwhelming negative and self destructive?

Perhaps main stream rap's biggest audience is not even Black at all: According to Asante's referenced Forbes study: 45 million Hip Hop consumers between the ages of 13 and 34. 80% are White and have $1 trillion in spending power.

To quote Jay Z, truth be told, major label rappers have little to no ownership in this distribution, marketing and ultimate profit from their product.  The “Big Four” Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, EMI Group, Warner Music Group account for 82% of US Music Market and 90% of the retail market. There are no Black Americans in the top executive positions of these companies. Rap record labels and “black entrepreneurs” like Diddy, Russell Simmons, Jay Z give an illusion that the Hip Hop industry is "black owned" but the Big Four are really “parent” companies of the most prolific Hip Hop success stories. 

So the following questions must be clearly answered if we are to think that Hip Hop music is something more than disposable entertainment:

Who sponsors rap?
Who buys the most rap?
Who promotes death and violence?
Who backs ignorance?
Who exploits Hip Hop artists?
Who profits from “Black on Black” violence?
Who owns “urban” radio stations, television stations, print publications?

Mos Def's "freestyle" cut "The Rape Over" asks the same:

And, yet, Dame Dash and Cam'ron are held responsible in this interview:

“Commercial” Hip Hop is programmed by corporations that have little to no Black or ethnic representation despite peddling a product that purports to be “Black.” As a result the music:
• Has lost its edge
• Sense of rebellion and Black improvement
• The founding principles of artistry and empowerment

After the platinum successes of the low budget investments artists of the Golden Era, signed artists whose political agenda was in direct conflict with a record label's bottom line were dropped. The “Cop Killer” controversy accelerated this trend; the 2 Live Crew First Amendment “victory” certified that misogyny and Black on Black violence was a selling point.

“If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be / lyrically, Talib Kweli /
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense / But I did five mill' 
- I ain't been rhymin like Common since”
- Jay Z “Moment of Clarity"

A trend of “corporate censorship” has developed where politically charged artists are marginalized by the label's “choice” on how to distribute the product.

Restriction of socio-poltical Hip Hop artistry can take the form of:
• Intimidation
• Budget Cutting
• Refusing to advertise or allow airtime
• Dropping “questionable” songs from final product
• Repackaging of artwork

Large record labels are practicing a policy of that seeks to make money off Hip Hop art and culture as long as it does not challenge the status quo in tone or content.

Plain and simple, Hip Hop artists do not own their music because they do not own the channels of production. Ownership of the music, distribution of the music and the final manufactured product are largely beyond a Hip Hop artist's control. Thus, the feeling of alienation is sustained in Hip Hop's collective consciousness.

The widespread dysfunctional reaction of rappers to seemingly all forms of marginalization is a dominate Hip Hop musical narrative that outlines mass consumption of material items, drugs, guns and women as some sort of defiant stance. There is no spiritual base or sense of peace or accomplishment as the Hip Hop artist is seeking internal serenity but only acquires external satisfaction.

Hip Hop music at it best is "Edutainment," food for thought over sublime beats. But its capacity to subvert norms and revolution communication and pop cultural expression so readily realized in the 1970s, 80s and 90s have been stunted.  Hip Hop "artists" and its audience may one day desire more than material success and it express themselves accordingly.  But likely, we won't call it Hip Hop anymore.

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