A Hip Hop Commentary

by Oliver Wang

Provocative question as always and I think you raise several excellent (and difficult) questions. Let me take a run at answering it by first saying that the concept of "selling out" is in the same general realm as asking "who's real?" or "who's authentic?". These categories are not set in stone but are shaped by different interest groups, sometimes at odds with one another. Over time, definitions of realness and selling out are fought over, suspended and reshaped - constantly - so that the definition of "selling out" is never the same, static notion over time.

After all, can we compare the old school pioneers with the new school players? Would the Cold Crush Brothers, in their prime, hold any weight with contemporary fans raised on folks like Jay Z, Mos Def or Eminem? Likewise, would Eminem have been the pop sensation he is now back 20 years ago in the days of King Tim and the Sugarhill Gang? Different artists, different time periods, different standards.

However, I do think a lot about selling out has to do with fans being reluctant to either/both change, in terms of an artist's direction or having their special underground artist suddenly shared with millions more. I remember, I was interviewing Mos Def and Talib Kweli earlier this year...and these are two cats who were just coming of age as young teens in Brooklyn during the era of Big Daddy Kane, Rakim and BDP. They are literally, children of the Golden Age, so to say and I asked them what impact that experience had on them. This was their reply and I think it speaks volumes to how many hip-hop fans, who proclaim allegiance to the concept of the "underground", feel:

Mos Def: They were more like folk heroes. (referring to folks like Rakim and BDK)

Talib Kweli: You had to be down to even known about them. Johnny in Omaha was not buying Rakim records. They weren't seeing them on MTV, they weren't even aware of their existance. What? Hip hop?

When artists make the transition from "folk heroes" as Mos puts it, to becoming pop mega-stars (Nas, Ice Cube, Cypress Hill only being three of the most obvious examples), many fans feel like their special "secret" isn't secret any longer. To continue with Mos and Kweli:

Mos: So if they didn't know who Big Daddy Kane was, you were like, "What? Are you crazy?" That's almost like you don't know who my tribal chief is? Are you stupid? He's the chief...where do you live, money? Then, as we got older, we realized that the world was bigger than the blocks we lived on and the schools we went to. I think what is different now, hip hop's made a transition from being a tribal art into a popular art. There's things that you gain in that exchange, but there are also things that you lose.

Oliver: Elaborate on that - what do you gain, what do you lose?

Mos: You gain a wider audience. Now Rakim is not a secret. Big Daddy Kane is not a secret. However, the people who are interested are not necessarily sincere and you got people who are Jay Z fans just because Jay Z is popular at the moment.

Talib: They can't explain to you how his style is or what he does lyrically or metaphorically.

What Black Star is outlining here are basically the contours of a hip-hop community that, as I argue earlier, sets certain rules, certain guidelines as to what makes up not only a true hip-hop artist, but a down hip-hop fan. In this case, they're describing that, in their eyes, real rap fans appreciate artists b/c of their artistic talent (i.e. what they can do lyrically or metaphorically), not simply b/c such-and-such MC is running the Billboard charts at the moment. I think it's crucially important that Mos describes his childhood favorites as "folk heroes" b/c "folk" artists are considered to be part of a small, local community, even insular at that...shielded from the influences of the so-called (but rarely defined) "mainstream." I'm willing to bet that a lot of the debate over selling out stems from a similar belief by different communities of rap fans who are essentially laying down the distinction b/t who the folk heroes are and who the commercial, mainstream artiss are.

And certainly, the criteria is never a matter of written law, more or less unspoken consensus that's constantly being contested and disagreed over. For example, the whole perceived beef b/t Left Coast and East Coast rap fans...the former consider albums like Dr. Dre's "Chronic" and Ice Cube's "Death Certificate" to be certified classics of hip-hop. The latter might argue that Dre and Cube couldn't hold a candle, lyrically, to cats from their hoods like De La Soul, Mobb Deep or Wu Tang. There is no "right" or "wrong" here, only the constant battle of opinions.

I won't make this much longer but just to address some examples that Davey raised and I'm speaking truly personally here: For me, it's never been so much about selling out as it has been about compromising your artistic vision for commercial gain. ALL artists do it from now and then, but in varying degrees. For example, no one is REALLY mad at the Roots for making "You Got Me" (which I still think was a pretty dope song even if others thought it was blatantly crossover-aimed) or Gangstarr for working with KC and Jo Jo on "Royalty" (even though I thought that song was kind of butt). But it's an entirely different story when you raise other artists and I'll just use two examples here:

Nas is the best example since he's the closest hip-hop icon to folk's Bob Dylan going electric with 1996's "It Was Written" standing in for the Newport Folk Festival of '65. In Nas' case, he was pretty open about saying that he was disappointed with the record sales of "Illmatic" and he decided to go for the gusto (and cashola) on the next LP by adopting a new thug persona. Why demonize him and Kool G Rap? For one reason, G Rap put down what he represented from the get go...he didn't switch up personalities in the middle of the game just to sell more records. Nas seems to me to be far more fickle, which is not to say that his talent isn't there, but I don't anticipate a Nas single like I used to. Not after the disasters with The Firm or the sheer egotism of "Hate Me Now". Switching styles is one thing - A Tribe Called Quest switched styles on each of their first four LPs and up until their most recent, fans didn't abandon the group wholesale b/c underneath the stylsitic differences, fans still believed that Tribe's integrity remained the same. No one seems to think that for Nas and in his own words, he pretty much seems to be saying, "f*ck integrity, I'm out for the cash."

As for Ice Cube, the West Coast's Nas-like equivalent, what disappointed me about his change in direction is that Cube, unlike most of the so-called "reality rap" genre (and you might as well include all the NY thug/players too), was willing to embrace the nihilism of the genre and then convert that into a more positive direction. And I don't mean "positive" in a simplistic way, as if to say positive=good since there have been many "positive" artists who've also sucked. I mean positive more in terms of progressive - on Cube's first three solo joints, he wasn't blindly celebrating the life of a gangsta but was also trying to channel that rage and intensity into a larger sense of social change and vision. "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" and especially "Death Certificate" briefly transcended the dead-end fatalism that seems so inherent to hip-hop at times and instead, imagined something different, where the rules change on "our" (the people) terms, not "theirs" (the Man). Now though, Cube wants to be a player instead of the commissioner, not longer interested in changing the game, but in excelling at it. Where he once acknowledged slanging as a necessary economic means of survival ("A Bird in the Hand"), he now celebrates it with lowest-common-denominator pandering ("Pushin' Weight") (and yes, I realize that the song is a metaphor for rhymes, not drugs, but conceptually, it's far and away different from "A Bird in the Hand.")


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