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Four Years @BlackElectorate.com: Hip-Hop Fridays


[Editor's Note: Today we conclude the interview of BlackElectorate.com Publisher Cedric Muhammad "conducted" by BlackElectorate.com viewers via e-mail. In this portion, Cedric answers questions regarding Hip-Hop]

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Question: After going through your archives, I am really impressed with the Hip-Hop Fridays portion. You have really done your homework and its pretty diverse. I just wanted to say thanks, and ask you what was the most controversial thing and the hardest thing to write about?

Cedric Muhammad: Thank You. Easily, the most controversial piece I wrote was published on July 20, 2001 called, "Hip-Hop’s Journalism Crisis". Of course I received the most emotional responses from prominent journalists who were very, very defensive. But I also received plenty of applause from writers and readers who told me I nailed it 100% in pointing out the five factors that make for the crisis. I would say the most difficult piece of writing was showing, in language and arguments that would not necessarily offend, that Suge Knight, Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z are conscious. There is a Part I and Part II to what I wrote on the subject in January of 2002 and I am grateful that I had so much space to work with. The response was mixed over part I and overwhelmingly positive in part II. The issue is important to me because it breaks down boundaries between family members within the culture and because I think there is under attention and undue resentment given to the business/economic aspect of Hip-Hop culture. Many have accepted the definition of commerce given by those who exploit. I reject that and believe that the culture and community needs to rid itself of paradigms that elevate some important elements and systems of Hip-Hop culture at the expense of others. We need balance. And taking control of the trade and commerce of the culture is akin to protecting it.

Question: Cedric, I really think that hip-hop is just about gone. The artistry is on the decline, the industry is in shambles, the imagery is destructive and there is no knowledge among the younger generation of hip-hop history going back just 10 to 15 years. Am I wrong?

Cedric Muhammad: Your seriousness and analysis of what is wrong is not wrong, but perhaps the conclusion. I know that history shows that chaos and dissatisfaction can bring about a near complete change. I think that Hip-Hop is in disorder now, but all of its elements are intact. And I think that there are signs of change for the better, I think the emergence of Kanye West says positive things, as does the consistent presence of groups like The Roots. Also there are “surprise” events that I interpret positively like the “hell yeah: [pimp the system]” collaboration between Jay-Z and Dead Prez. I think that Hip-Hop journalism on the Internet is promising, and in the rise of 50 Cent, I see the incomparable power of “the streets” to ignite mass appeal. I think that the efforts of people like Davey D., Kevin Powell and Ernie Paniccioli to chronicle, document and collect the history of Hip-Hop are extremely important. That is one of the reasons why I was so honored to have conducted the most in-depth interview of "the dean" of Hip-Hop photographers, Ernie Paniccioli, published on March 12, 2004. I don’t think all is lost. If we could use and institutionalize Hip-Hop as a means to educate young people, we could move beyond just appreciating the culture, and actually using it as a form of human education and transformation.

Question: Hey man I have been down since day one, congratulations on your four years up. Since you have been in the music business as an insider, and writing on so many things, what do you think is next?

Cedric Muhammad: I deeply appreciate your loyalty, patience, and respect. Hmmm... I think the ‘next’ phase that most people are looking for, is already here in the form of what the mainstream media is calling ‘Hip-Hop Lit’ – books categorized as “urban fiction” which deal with the nuances of street culture or graphic romance and relationships. Especially among our Sisters, these books are becoming increasingly popular. While I would like the content of these books to be better I do recognize that they are drawing people to read who otherwise would not. And there is the positive economic aspect that a great many of these books are self-published, by Black and Latino authors, and being sold as a source of revenue in local and small Black-owned bookstores that could really use the income. But the handwriting is already on the wall. The major book chains are selling some of these books and major publishers, under subsidiary publishing departments are offering deals to some of the hottest urban fiction writers. Once the major distributers get involved I expect the content to get worse and the money to leave the hands of the writer-publisher-entrepreneur. All I can say is that those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

As for the music I think that you will see some Hip-Hop entrepreneur figure out how to fit in the cracks of the music industry’s failing business model. The iPod has breathed some life into the prospects of the online music business, but as I wrote, in my October 10, 2003 : E-Letter To Joe D'Angelo and MTV.com Re: "LL Cool J, Chuck D Take Opposing Sides At File-Sharing Hearing" Apple computers is selling music to sell computers. So the question remains as to whether music – sold online or swaped for free - has finally become devalued as a monetized culture as some think, or, as Russell Simmons tells me, people want all music all of the time, and because the distributers can’t supply it adequately, young people are getting it anyway they can.

I can tell you something a bit under the radar that is going on today in increasing numbers because of the RIAA’s crackdown on file-sharing – more and more White suburban kids that were getting hot Hip-Hop by downloading it and exchanging it for free on the Internet are unable to do so, as the file-sharing websites disappear; and as a result are using the Internet as a clearing house to find out what is hot, and then going into the Black inner cities and suburban neighborhoods to buy mixtapes that feature these new songs.

It is an interesting development that shows that the Hip-Hop economy can’t be undermined by laws or political pressure. Our challenge is to improve the distribution channels – on the ground and as full-fledged businesses.

Perhaps we can finally get some movement from among the ranks of the artists on the issue of moving toward the Internet as opposed to major record labels for distribution. Remember what I wrote on Friday April 21, 2000, “Will Artists Reject Or Embrace The Internet?”; and on April 28, 2000, “How Hip Hop Artists Could Marry The Internet?”. He is a little late coming to the party, but perhaps multi-platinum artist DMX, in his criticism of the music business and reported desire to start a union, is a prime candidate to lead the call to alternative means of distribution. Here is a sample of DMX’s new insight from a recent article:

"I refuse to give another dime to that record label, to Def Jam," DMX said. "I gave them their best year. I made $144 million for them in one year."… "They didn’t give me sh*t," DMX continued. "It was like soon as they give you that money, you already owe them two more albums. They don’t give you anything."… "They’ve got BET and MTV in their back f*cking pocket. They do favors for each other," X said of the way the industry is today. "All the radio stations are bought and paid for. It’s not even about talent anymore. It’s about who they like, who’s their guy, who’s their buddy? I’m nobody’s f*cking buddy. F*ck that. I’m not cooperating."… "I actually wanted to start a union. Protect the rights of the artist. We have no one to look out for our rights," DMX said. "We have a few people that look out for our best interest in terms of collecting our money, but what about what’s right in a contract."

Musically I think that you can expect the production to be bifurcated among the tired dance tracks, but I also think that the production of artists like Kanye West and the influence of live bands like the Roots will continue to permeate the industry.

Question: I was initially skeptical, but there isn’t any way now to really question your prescience in writing about the surveillance of rap artists? Do you feel vindicated by the recent coverage of the issue in the main press? I remember you mentioning that there were journalists who felt you were making a mockery of the history of COINTELPRO by highlighting the surveillance of rappers and comparing it to what happened decades ago?

Cedric Muhammad: Yeah, Akiba Solomon, a political editor of Source Magazine was a leading naysayer, saying that I was trivializing the history of COINTELPRO. Now look. Her magazine has now (since she criticized me back in 2001 for criticizing The Source’s role in hyping beefs in rap and comparing it to what the media did under COINTELPRO) devoted two cover stories to a supposed rap state of emergency due to the police surveillance and other factors; and the alarming amount of rap artists that have been arrested and imprisoned in the last 10 years. I really wonder if the people who doubted what I was writing even read thoroughly what I wrote. I don’t wish to belabor the issue but it is annoying and very sad when journalists of all people, especially those who cover politics - rather than investigate a plausible story, seek to dismiss it out of hand. Why such a knee-jerk reaction? To me, at that point, they are establishmentarians - who have emotionally and intellectually invested in the status quo or even their professional position, perhaps- rather than seeking the truth and presenting reality as news.

However, I am not interested in vindication as much as I am in raising the consciousness of our people – particularly the young – to the machinations of COINTELPRO, and how we remain susceptible to them because of our internal shortcomings, that allow our weaknesses to be manipulated by the external enemy.

If nothing else I would hope and pray that the BlackElectorate.com viewers would be foremost in this type of study, mastering the details of the two key memos outlining the COINTELPRO strategy – J. Edgar Hoover’s August 25, 1967, and March 4, 1968 memos. We intend to get into them shortly as we conclude the RapCOINTELPRO series.

Question: Cedric you once said that you were going to list your top ten rappers of all-time. Well, what happened? I am dying to see how much I will disagree with it (LOL) !

Cedric Muhammad: Yup, you caught me. I do already have most of the list and all of the criteria clearly in my head. My list will not mirror that of Kool Mo Dee, who according to a very clearly laid out criteria in his book, ”There's a God on the Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs”, has compiled an interesting ranking of rappers across decades. He says the top five are 1) Melle Mel, 2) Rakim 3) KRS-One 4) Big Daddy Kane 5) Kool Moe Dee.

For now, I will tell you that I believe that KRS-One is the greatest rapper/MC of all time, according to my criteria. I will save the entire list for the right time in the future. It will be fun to defend it before the experts and historians in BlackElectorate.com Nation.

Question:You have covered this whole notion of there being a political movement in hip-hop. I just don’t see more than rhetoric and voter registration drives that have no direction to them. Please enlighten me if you see it differently or if you think this hype is warranted.

Cedric Muhammad: Well, who is doing the “hyping”, for starters? Most of the media’s Hip-Hop political coverage has been personality-driven, following the work that Russell Simmons has done. We have to understand that dynamic and use it as a means to be critical and supportive of what Russell, Dr. Benjamin Chavis and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) are doing. I wrote a piece hoping to shed light on what Russell is doing. It is clear to me that he is approaching an engagement in the American political process from the position of a philanthropist and socially responsible businessman. As you can see by reading what I wrote in “Understanding Russell Simmons’ Political Positioning”, there is plenty of room in the Hip-Hop political marketplace for other strategies, tactics, and roles There is no need for many in the community to be super-critical, threatened or even jealous or envious of what Russell is doing. It is a wide open field, and we just need to get busy with the work.

I have tremendously high hopes for the upcoming Hip-Hop political convention in Newark, New Jersey. To me it could be a watershed moment for the political evolution of the culture. I just had one of the convention’s co-conveners, Rosa Clemente on my BlackElectorate.com segment on XM and AM radio and she held it down for a full hour talking about politics and Hip-Hop and the real contradictions, challenges, and opportunities that we have before us. Having her and people like Ras Baraka, the Deputy Mayor of Newark, spearheading the effort makes me feel hopeful that we will not take the opportunity in Brick City to sell out our influence, issues, interests and culture just because someone makes a good speech or says they have a favorite rapper or rap song.

So I feel you, check out my interview conducted by Davey D. called, “How Hip-Hop’s Political Movement Gets Compromised!” and my interview of Russell Simmons Part I and Part II, published January 24th and 27th in 2003 to see where I share your concern, but do have optimism.


Friday, April 9, 2004

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