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Hip-Hop Fridays: The New Hip-Hop by Saki

What’s so alluring about the seedy tales that seem to emanate from any city on every street corner through out America? These are stories of living fast and decadent life styles that seem to drip with dangerous excitement for those who wish to experience it second hand. What about the stories of close encounters with strangers for uninhibited sex, playing out their lustful binges? These stories often share the same predictable outcome. Although these stories take place in different areas of the country the plots hold certain nuances that attract readers who have an affinity for the ‘life’. For sometime now film, literature and music have all but depicted these images of blacks and will continue to do so with the assistance of black directors, writers, and rap artist. The art of storytelling has been a hallmark attribute among the great literary minds of our time. Amiri Baraka, Alice Walker and Richard Wright have been traded in by the likes of Zane, E. Lynn Harris and Donald Goines. Granted these stories need to be told but who is should to tell them? The lines in the sand have been drawn and the critics have spoken. The New Hip Hop comes from the similar background and environment that produced this Hip Hop culture.

These artists experience the same growing pains as they quest for validation and the recognition by their literary peers as earlier Hip Hop artist. They have the same subject matter such as drugs, machismo anger, economic frustration, chauvinism and misogyny. There also are a growing number of these Urban Lit writers who self-publish like their hip-hop rap artist counterparts who no longer rely on a major labels (Sony) or publishers (Simon Schuster) to include them to their rosters. The major labels solved this problem years ago by creating an urban music department or they provided distribution for those rap labels. Well the major publishing houses are following suit and doing the same.

Major publisher Simon Schuster created a division just for Urban Lit writers or African American authors called Atria. Urban Lit is the New Hip Hop of our day and the writers like many early hip-hop artist quest for respect, validation, money and fame. An interview between the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Gloria Wade-Gayles, an author and professor of English at Spelman College revealed certain concerns, held by some about Urban Fiction and the affects of its popularization. Ms. Wade-Gayles is quoted as saying, “Everything in this culture is impacted by mass media…we find that literature is becoming pop culture literature…we’ve moved our literature from a small group of people, and we’ve given it to the masses. What we’ve lost is an appreciation for the power of words. We lose an understanding of the writer as an artist, as a thinker and a philosopher rather than as an entertainer.” ( AJC O’Briant 2004) Wade-Gayles highlights the rise in Urban Lit leads to ‘overshadowing the significant literary works’. Whatever name you choose to call it: Urban lit, Street lit, Hip Hop lit, Erotica lit or Gangsta Lit it is definitely here and has a strong foot hold with the African American reader.

According to Troy Johnson of the African American Literature Book Club online, the Internet has recognized a potent rise in Urban Lit books sales as of late. If you every get a chance to visit your local Barnes & Noble or Borders book store and visit the African American Literature section, you’ll see for yourself a plethora of these writers and their topics of love, lust and the street life. The emergence of Urban Lit gives a voice to many writers who would otherwise have no other medium. But that’s not entirely true in as much as many of these writers have the medium but now lack validity through its content. It’s not an uncommon occurrence for many artists who seek monetary gain to do so by ‘dumbin down’ artistic aesthetics for commercial success. And even if the writer chooses to express a more creative thought-provoking novel, they risk creating a literary masterpiece that the masses don’t want to read. I believe that’s giving rise to so many of these writers. They write with dreams of huge payoffs like the most notable Terry McMillan the author of ‘Waiting to Exhale’, which she parlayed into major motion picture. But those stories are few and far between.

Hip-Hop had meager beginnings during the late 60’s and early 70s. It’s an art form that seems to grow out of the repression of 60’s civil rights and Black Nationalist movement by the American government. For those who still doubt this, there are COINTELPRO documented files by the FBI that will justify my writings. That era gave rise to an excess of ‘Hollywood Super fly’ images with the backdrop of Cotton comes to Harlem. The abundance and accessibility of drugs flooded black communities and of course the drug, crack, which changed everything. Budget cuts from the inner cities school music programs, which eventually led to the experimenting with two turntables, and a microphone, and hip-hop is born. Art is often a reflection of reality and for lack of argument sadly a lot of lyrical content of artists are centered on drugs, machismo anger, economic frustration, chauvinism and misogyny. This is the same environment that gave rise to those artists that produced hip-hop as well as Urban Lit.

I grew up in that Post-Civil Rights and Black Nationalist era. I’ve seen the ravages that killed off an entire generation and left its youth to be raised by grandparents and other surrogate parental sources. So when we talk about hip-hop and its images this is the source. But the argument gets blurry once the dynamics of business and money are thrown into the equation. The questionable integrity is cast aside and the force of commercialization rears its ugly head. For example when I was growing up, the only rap video that was shown on MTV was Run-DMC’s ‘Walk this Way’ featuring Areosmith. So I had to wait through countless videos of guitar strumming and longhaired swinging rock stars just to hear one rap video. Slowly but surely when hip-hop became more mainstream, white America ultimately accepted it as a valid music form. Or maybe not, maybe they accepted its influence on popular culture as a means to profit. It has been synchronized with just about every form of music and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry by itself, encompassing music, fashion and art.

I’m not going to go out on a ledge and say that Urban Lit is going to become the next big addition to pop-culture standing by itself because it is not. It’s another component of hip hop so I will say it’s the next big income-producing component of Hip-Hop. Matt Campbell a patron of Walden book store says, “Hip-Hop fiction is doing for 15- to 25- year old African Americans what Harry Potter did for kids …getting a new audience excited about books," much like its counter part, which has a large female consumer base with ages ranging from 15 to as high as 35.

And this phenomenon is not just limited to women, for example, my 19-year-old god brother who is on a athletic and academic scholarship at University of Minnesota reads them as well. Much like the music and clothes, Urban Lit is moving in a strong third as another weighty income producing aspect of the culture. Target Market News stated, “between 1992-2000, the amount of money spent by African-Americans on books doubled to $356 million”. Keep in mind this figure is inaccurate in that it doesn’t reflect the Urban Lit authors who are self-published. In a five-year period the consumption of books increased to 26%. Vicki Stringer in 2001 self published her first novel, “Let That Be The Reason” a true story of her life as drug dealer and madam that she claims sold over 100,000 copies after publishers turned her down. Later she went on to establish her publishing company called Triple Crown Publishing and has more than 10 authors signed to her company. Now Atria Books, a division of Simon Schuster, has bought Stringer’s second novel, “Imagine This” a sequel to her first, as part of a two book, six figure deal. Simon Schuster and St. Martins Press have been talking to her about distribution deals with Triple Crown but has already signed three writers from Triple Crown Publishing to distribute them. Atria Books editor Malaika Adero believes that grammar and structure are teachable but ‘authenticity’ is not.

Does the entreprenurial and corporate nature of these deals sound familiar? Does Def Jam or Bad Boy ring a bell? What about distribution deals for independent record labels? We can even look at the example of Wu-Tang Clan as a rap group that was signed under Steve Rifkind’s label ‘Loud’ that was distributed by RCA. The Clan later set up individual deals for it’s various artists. Method Man went to Def Jam. Raekwon, Inspetah Deck, Old Dirty Bastard and Ghostface Killa all went to other labels and managed to have solo careers separate from their Loud/RCA deal.

The New Hip Hop remains to be seen whether or not it is a trend or a legitimate art form with depth and longevity. But like its predecessor only time will tell. Right now the money seems unending as though the growing list of new authors.

Saki lives in Atlanta, Ga and is currently finishing up his third novel. The first novel “The Autobiography of Aquarius Jones; Does any women want a good man?” will be released early July by Clinton Hill Publishing. He can be contacted via e-mail at:


Friday, May 20, 2005

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