Huge media corporations literally bought up Hip Hop in the early to mid-1990s, imposing “cookie cutter themes of senseless violence, excessive materialism, and misogyny.” Progressive voices in rap were silenced. The clear message was, “the minute you dare try to step outside of the ‘box’ and attack their power structure, you will be omitted.”
“I won’t believe the hype I understand the Media dictates The mind and rotates The way you think And syncopates slow pace… Brains Can’t maintain A certain Insipid inane crass rain. Insane lame Traditions All praise fame Positions Want to be a star. Drive a big car. Live bourgeois…And won’t know who you are. Lost in the source And praising the dollar” – Kool Moe Dee (1989)
It is undeniable that hip hop culture is one of the most powerful marketing tools America has seen in quite sometime. Had hip hop been around during the earlier part of the 20th century the unscrupulous public relations pioneer, Edward Bernays, would have probably also used it to promote the smoking of Viceroy Cigarettes to women. Various aspects of hip hop culture, mainly rap music, generate billions of dollars. However, who is generating this wealth, where is it going and at what cost?
“Their unfettered corporate feeding frenzy was similar to that of the European conquest of lands inhabited by people of color.”
Hip hop culture (rapping, djing, graffiti art, and breaking, etc.) was unequivocally created by youth of color in the Bronx during the early 1970s. Even though the origins of hip hop are entrenched in black and Latino communities throughout New York City it is currently pimped/used by large white owned corporations (media, record labels, etc.) to create astronomical bottom lines, reinforce capitalistic ideals, and adversely mass program black and brown youth. Hip hop has been co-opted, from the black community, by the white corporate establishment in much the same manner as was rock-n-roll (originally called rhythm and blues). Everyone from Allan Freed to Pat Boone cashed in on the original works of black artists, many of whom died penniless. However, where the corporate establishment left off when it came to thievery of rock-n-roll they picked up with hip hop. Once white corporations recognized the multi-billion dollar earning potential of rap music, the mass commercialization of hip hop began. They bought out everything from record labels to urban radio stations. Their unfettered corporate feeding frenzy was similar to that of the European conquest of lands inhabited by people of color.
RAP (rhythm and poetry) music has provided corporate radio stations and record labels, alike, with gigantic revenues almost beyond their wildest capitalistic wet dreams. The corporate takeover and commoditization of hip hop began to grow exponentially in the early to mid 1990s. The more money they made the less diversified rap music became on the radio and television airwaves. Balance on the mainstream airwaves rapidly became a thing of the past. Before corporate usurpation of rap music record labels, and subsequently airwaves, the fledging genre (RAP) was the embodiment of resistance for many. During the late 1980s and early 1990s rap music provided many black and Latino youth, including myself, with countless hours of culturally edifying and politically oriented music. If I was not learning how to “Fight the Power” I was proudly sporting my leather African medallion and rocking the map of Alkebulan (Africa) shaved in the back of my head.
“The more money they made the less diversified rap music became.”
These behaviorisms, however, did not emerge out of thin air; I was actually mimicking my favorite rappers. Witnessing lyrically gifted brothers and sisters embrace their Africanness on album covers and in music videos, I could not avoid doing the same. Whether it was Queen Latifah standing proudly in front of the image of Africa on the cover of her album “All Hail the Queen” or watching Chuck D wear his African medallion in the “Fight the Power” video, I was profoundly influenced. With each lyric the stronger and more confident I grew as a young black man. My desire to learn more about my African ancestry as well as to become more involved in social issues affecting people of color deepened by the day. And beyond all that, I developed critical thinking skills that I carry with me to this day. I, however, was far from a novelty. This transformation was occurring within the psyches of black and brown youth throughout America. This was the power of “Golden Era” Hip Hop.
Despite the vastly racist and white supremacist personality of America, black and Latino youth continued to psychologically resist. Even as a youth I knew very well the root causes of many social maladies within the black community. Those causes were inextricably linked to the racist culture of America and its plutocratic government. My favorite rappers “spoke truth to power.” Guru, of the iconic rap group Gangstarr, was right on point in 1992 when he said:
”You can’t tell me life was meant to be like this
a black man in a world dominated by whiteness
Ever since the declaration of independence
we’ve been easily brainwashed by just one sentence
It goes: all men are created equal
that’s why corrupt governments kill innocent people
With chemical warfare they created crack and AIDS
got the public thinking these were things that black folks made
And every time there’s violence shown in the media
usually it’s a black thing so where are they leading ya…
To a world full of ignorance, hatred, and prejudice
TV and the news for years they have fed you this foolish notion that blacks are all criminals violent, low lifes, and then even animals
I’m telling the truth so some suckers are fearing me
but I must do my part to combat the conspiracy” – “Conspiracy,” Gangstarr
Disenfranchised youth could never expect to get that type of critical analysis from the US corporate media, then or today. Rap music was unequivocally our social, news, and educational medium. American classrooms, as they are today, were filled with racist, biased, and factually inaccurate white supremacist propaganda. Hip Hop music filled in the gaps, exposed the lies, and opened the doors to inquiry that American public education never did. All of the aforementioned aspects of “Golden Era” Hip Hop music are among the reasons why the white establishment had to co-opt Rap. White corporate America very well knew the power and potential of rap music to galvanize, mobilize, and organize youth of color from stolen coast to stolen coast. This is precisely why they had to take it over.
“Hip Hop music filled in the gaps, exposed the lies, and opened the doors to inquiry.”
By methodically buying out rap record labels, the corporate majors were able to silence progressive voices, all the while promoting rappers who would embody an image of black people that corporations felt more comfortable with. As odd as it may sound, the white establishment feels much safer with the image of a black man toting a gun with his pants sagging as opposed to the image of a black man, or woman, intrepidly bucking the system via their lyrics. The resistant black youth represents a direct threat to white establishment power. This is why, by the mid to late 1990s, mainstream rap music had been overtaken by a dull sameness. Then, as now, cookie cutter themes prevailed in corporate rap music, themes of senseless violence, excessive materialism, and misogyny.
Corporations pretend to avoid “controversial” topics and themes. Yet, when it comes to songs featuring black men degrading black women, that is never too controversial. And when it comes to black men rapping about senseless violence directed towards other black men, that is never too controversial or too political. However, if a black rapper, of either gender, addresses the plague of police brutality then the artist is summarily “white-listed” as too “controversial” and prevented from ever seeing the light of day on any mainstream outlet. The clear message they are sending is that if you are black and willing to rap about what they want you to rap about you will be dully rewarded, however the minute you dare try to step outside of the “box” and attack their power structure, you will be omitted.
“If a black rapper addresses the plague of police brutality then the artist is summarily ‘white-listed.’”
It is as if the days of the “Minstrel Show” have returned. Those rappers who are most willing to step into the corporate supported stereotypical costumes (lyrically and physically) are the ones who will receive the record deals and unfettered airtime. The utter lack of thematic diversity in mainstream rap music has given black and brown youth a false impression of what options actually exist in the genre. Viacom and Clear Channel want black youth to embrace self-destructive imagery, while the corporations reap the windfall of purloined, mangled culture. After all, that is how America built its empire, on the backs of stolen Africans and stolen lands.
It is not beyond black people’s ability to control their own media outlets at every level, from music to news to entertainment. It is well within our limitless ability to organize, mobilize and establish our own mediums. Such an initiative is needed now more than ever. Until then, as Chuck D, Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane said, “Burn Hollywood Burn.”
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