Hip-Hop Fridays: The "Consciousness" Of Wu-Tang Clan, Suge Knight and Jay-Z Part 1
A portion of last week's "Industry and Street Notes..." left many of our viewers confused, upset and intrigued. It dealt with several aspects of Hip-Hop culture and a debate that has raged for years, at times overtly, and at other times underneath the surface within both the music industry and broader cultural community. Here is the controversial passage:
"We love Common, Talib Kweli and Mos Def and don't blame them, but don't understand why so many of their fans feel that it is necessary to lift up their favorite artists at the expense of the more popular but equally (more or less) talented artists. Even Jay-Z's magnificent collaboration with The Roots is being questioned by some of the Philly group's fans that we have encountered. It is as if The Roots committed blasphemy by being seen on MTV backing up Jay. Interestingly none of the H.O.V.A. - haters who are so concerned with preserving the artform or who are pro-Black, Afro-centric and conscious seem to want to give Jay-Z or even my old group Wu-Tang Clan credit and recognition for expressing power and self-respect and self-love by demanding and getting more out of their recording deals than the so-called conscious artists who get credit for espousing revolutionary and freedom-fighter rhetoric but who are little more than slaves, in terms of their recording contracts. What Jay-Z, people like Suge Knight, and Wu have done in their contracts and deals is not a classic example of greed or "capitalism" as many hip-hop "purists" that don't understand economics claim. Though far from perfect, it is actually quite revolutionary and a basic form of self-respect that they are exhibiting. Doesn't hip-hop consciousness have an economic component?"
The subject is expansive and impossible to deal with in a comprehensive manner, in an article, or two. But the crux of the issue and our argument can be approached and explored lightly this week and next. Some of my most loyal viewers, including several Hip-Hop journalists took offense at what we wrote. Many, much more than we could have imagined simply did not seem to get our point. I was surprised and intrigued by the confusion over our point as I thought the statement we made was self-explanatory. But the reaction that we received made us realize that the brief passage touches many a sore spot and polarizing subject(s) for many in the Black and Hip-Hop community.
In addition we realized that what we wrote was layered, a bit more complex than would appear to be the case on initial examination. What we wrote did not just deal with Hip-Hop culture and industry, it also connected with an unresolved debate, particularly in the Black community, over economic paradigms.
Close to the root of the negative reaction and confusion we received from many of our viewers is the degree to which the subject of economics is not taught in our public schools, inadequately addressed by Black leaders and the American political system, and the extent to which certain segments of the Black community have approached, handled and romanticized with the subjects of capitalism and communism.
I have expressed the opinion on more than one occasion, in this space and others, that a great many in the Hip-Hop community exhibit an unhealthy romanticsm with socialism. I have publicly and privately challenged the understanding(s) of Hip-Hop artists, journalists and fans about Karl Marx, communism, socialism and their application to the music industry in general and the Hip-Hop genre in particular. I have expressed the opinion that the Hip-Hop industry in many ways does conform to the Marx' definition of capitalism and I also have explained where I believe that those who claim to be students of socialism, Marx and communism are incorrect in their efforts to attribute the misogyny, low earnings of artists, materialism in Hip-Hop to the "evils of capitalism". Some quickly move into the reflexive reaction (like Democrats and Republicans do in similar discussions in the political realm) that if I am not "for" them then I must be against them and as a result am really their polar opposite. As a result, I have occasionally been called a "capitalist" and even a "petty Black bourgeoise nationalist". Silly stuff. I am neither, and when I have probed the basis, rationale or reasoning behind the labels given to me, in those instances, I find nothing there but a parrot who repeats rhetoric and labels that they heard somewhere else or gained from a cursory glance at the Communist Manifesto.
To this day, I have not met one member of the Hip-Hop community who superficially espouses the rhetoric that they attribute to socialism and communism, who has completely read Karl Marx's Das Kapital, Volume 1. Of course I am confident and vicariously know that several active members of the community have read the magnum opus of the patriarch of communism.
Karl Marx was an intellectual giant, a brilliant man. And his words and teachings merit study by the Hip-Hop community. I believe that if Marx was properly understood, certain key insights, some that he popularized and others that remain buried in the body of his writings, could have a liberating effect on many in the artistic community, and millions of others in the universal human family. But for those who feel comfortable that a review and memorization of snippets of Marx and a quick reading of the Communist Manifesto qualifies them to critique the Hip-Hop economy from a Marxist paradigm, I respectfully suggest that more is required in research and study if a proper application of the communist and socialist model, popularized by leaders like Cuba's Fidel Castro, is to be applied and advocated for the Hip-Hop community. And a meticulous reading and understanding of Kapital or Capital is essential to understanding how Marx defined the forms of capital and as a result, capitalism. The discussion of capital and what it consists of is essential to determining the degree to which different elements and individuals in the Hip-Hop industry are viewed as wise businessmen and women, exploited laborers, wealthy slavemakers or unpaid slaves. I have had such conversations, with many who are, to varying degrees, students of socialism and Marx and some who are Hip-Hop artists. One such person that I once had a deep discussion regarding the subject is Boots from The Coup, a brilliant individual and artist.
My study of Karl Marx and Adam Smith (and their works Das Kapital and The Wealth Of Nations, respectively) in the light of what the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Minister Farrakhan have publicly taught on the science of economics in this country, for nearly 70 years, has caused me to identify three primary forms of capital - human, physical and financial. While we explored these forms in great depth in our special report, "Establishing The United States of Africa" (which we will re-publish soon) last summer, we should restate for the purpose of this discussion that it is human capital in its intellectual and physical forms that is by far the most valuable of the three.
Human beings are the preeminent sources of universal "capital" in our worldview. As a result of that recognition/view I categorically reject the majority of both Karl Marx and Adam Smith's definitions and identification of capital as largely financial and physical (non-human) in nature and creation. In addition, we reject the view, held more by Marx than Smith, that capital is simply the accumulated stock of factors of production.
Neither Smith, and especially Marx, adequately addressed the issue of human capital - capacity, talents, skills, interests and the fulfillment and the creation of "ideas", and the role that such plays in the universal division of labor in the past, present and future. As a result, neither of the men depicted as the fathers of Capitalism and Communism, respectively, has enough "juice" - understanding and wisdom in their worldviews to explain how the proper cultivation and organization of human talent and the pursuit of ideas, lays the base for the worldwide economy. This is especially relevant to the basis of our view of the efforts of many in Hip-Hop who seek to apply a socialist critique to the music industry, especially those who advocate a socialst mode of production for the Hip-Hop genre. Not to mention the fact that neither Smith or Marx had the foresight to demonstrate how all of these principles are at work in the innercity communities which produced Hip-Hop culture.
Much of what we discussed last week revolves around that ever-popular term in Hip-Hop, "consciousness". It is important that we state for the record that we would certainly accept most listings of artists that are deemed "conscious". For the record we believe that without question Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli, The Roots, Gangstarr, X-Clan, Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, Rakim, Queen Latifah and The Fugees are "conscious" artists.
But what we found so interesting in the negative reaction to what we wrote last week was that not a single respondent dealt directly with the question that we posed which was, "Doesn't hip-hop consciousness have an economic component?" Some seemed to totally not understand the question. For others the reason for the negative reaction and dismissal of the question was clear. For these individuals the mere mention of Jay-Z and even more so, Suge Knight, juxtaposed to Hip-Hop consciousness was too much to stomach. One exceptionally intelligent Hip-Hop writer whose work I am always impressed with respectfully disagreed with what we wrote, stating in an e-mail, "I think that adding Suge Knight's name in there killed your point. Many don't see him as a revolutionary, but rather as a slave-owner himself."
Immediately, I knew that much of the reaction to what we wrote was rooted in the view of economics held by many in the "purist", "underground" and "conscious" segments of the Hip-Hop community. And certainly we understand that Wu-Tang, Jay-Z and Suge Knight have said and done specific things to different people in the Hip-Hop community that have offended and insulted, some say deeply hurt people. Of course, still others simply don't like the quality or quantity of the creative works they produce and support. There are plenty of Wu, Hov and Suge anecdotes circulating in the Hip-Hop community to back this up.
But on the other hand, we know of specific behavior by many of the so-called conscious Hip-Hop artists that has been just as offensive to many individuals that we know personally and to many of our viewers, as well. If we are comparing anecdotes of personal and professional misconduct and disrespect we definitely don't think that many artists in the "conscious" community would fare that much better than the three aforementioned entities. So we should be careful in how we judge Suge, Jay-Z and Wu-Tang lest we apply a judgement that many Hip-Hop artists with the best of images would fall short of, if some of what they have said and done were more public. That admonition really applies to all of us. We won't engage in note comparisons of artist and executive misconduct and personal character flaws for the purpose of defending our arguments. Hopefully others can at least for the moment, as we work through this specific element of the broader discussion, do the same.
Our question, we thought, was clear and direct and the responses that we received are the most recent indication, in our estimation, that something is wrong or incomplete in the level of "consciousness" in Hip-Hop. If economics is not a significant element of Hip-Hop consciousness then we think that there is a wobble in that consciousness that if it is not corrected, will result in the destruction of not only the commerce activity of Hip-Hop but the death of the culture itself.
What many miss who are so critical of Jay-Z, Wu-Tang and Suge Knight is that art and culture are protected by economics, particularly by the manner in which they are packaged and distributed by members of society through the process of commerce. Economics is not immoral or amoral. It is a science, a social system that determines the quality of life that we all experience. If the Hip-Hop community cannot recognize the value of those who have demonstrated leadership in the commerce of the culture then they are, over time, committing suicide. The virulent nature of the "hating" of Suge and Jay-Z and at times Wu-Tang, in particular, has caused many to ignore, or disrespect the tremendous leadership that these three entitites have demonstrated in this important area. To not include what they have done and built in the Hip-Hop consciousness paradigm is not only intellectually dishonest it is unhealthy and destructive.
Consciousness is self-awareness of one's existence and nature - their life force, purpose, structure and function. Consciousness is the continuing development and cultivation of an individual, increasingly guided by the determination of that individual's enlightened self-interest.
There are economic components to all four elements of Hip-Hop culture and as the culture has evolved over the last 30 years, the process has been guided by the continuing determination of the interests of the community. Self-preservation is a cornerstone of that evolutionary progression and the commercial activity of those within the culture is part of Hip-Hop's self-preservation and the identification and gravitation toward the enlightened self-interest of the community.
For the record here is what we think is "conscious" and even revolutionary about what Wu-Tang, Jay-Z and Suge Knight have done:
Wu-Tang Clan. For the majority of a platinum nine-member group signed to one record label to be able to sign individual contracts with different labels was unheard of in Hip-Hop and really, the entire music industry. When I was general manager of the group, I once had a dinner discussion with Loud Records head Steve Rifkind about what it was like to break ranks with his label executive and owner peers in allowing individual members in a Hip-Hop group to break off and do their own thing as individuals for different labels and then still be allowed to come back and contractually perform as a group for the original label they signed to. Steve told me that he was ostracized and blamed by those who control the purse strings for what he permitted in agreeing to allow the Clan to move in the directions that they did. He said to me that they felt that he had violated a code between them all to never allow this form of economic and creative freedom to Hip-Hop artists, as it would hurt their bottom lines. And he said to me, that to that very day he is seen as a traitor by a few who feel that he undermined the economic interests of an entire industry in the arrangement that he arrived at with the Clan. None of this would have been possible without the unity of the Clan and the vision, strategy and negotiation efforts of Rza, Divine, Power and Mook. Anyone who does not understand the revolutionary implications of what the Clan did should speak to recording industry lawyers about what happened after Clan members, under Rza's guidance, signed deals with Def Jam, Epic, Geffen, Elektra and Loud simultaneously. The whole game changed. In 1997, I twice spoke to Donald Passman, author of, "All You Need To Know About The Music Business"(now in its 20th printing) and Janet Jackson and Quincy Jones' lawyer. Passman, one of the most popular and respected lawyers in the history of the music business told me of the great respect he held for Wu-Tang and what they had accomplished in their recording contracts.
Jay-Z. Close to midnight last night a source told me of how much havoc Jay-Z is causing, along with R.Kelly, with their just about finished collaborative album, tentatively entitled, The Best of Both Worlds. The source told me that they have spoken to BMG and Universal officials who have both stated that they will be releasing the album. Universal claims that it already has the album and will release it in March and BMG claims that it will be releasing the album later this year. Anyone who is familiar with the major distributers knows that this is unheard of. Jay-Z and company are pitting two multi-billion dollar corporate conglomerates against each other in a bidding and contractual war for the rights to his creative work. Jay-Z, the "god-MC" distributed through Universal and R. Kelly, the "R&B-messiah", distributed through BMG, if they play their cards right, cannot only obtain serious financial capital and leverage in their professional careers they can potentially break the stranglehold that the major distributors have on Black music. Anyone who has repeated the mantra of "we need distribution", if they are honest, should nod their head in agreement with what Jay-Z is doing from the Hip-Hop side of things. With the power of his human capital - his talent, and the unity with his Brother, R. Kelly, he is shaking the foundation of two corporate conglomerates. Is this pure "capitalism" like some who seem only able to see Jay-Z in a materialistic light may describe it,or is it one of the greatest power moves in Black music history that we are looking at? In addition to the impromptu album with R. Kelly, Roc-A-Fella is still playing hardball with Universal over a new financial arrangement. The negotiations have been so tough, on Roc-A-Fella's part, that we have learned that Universal is close to dissolving the current joint-venture arrangement between Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam and Universal and agreeing to partner directly with Roc-A-Fella with no middleman or label between them. This would mean a 100% increase, at least in Roc-A-Fella's revenue. This is again, remarkable, if it happens. But the mere negotiations and how the R.O.C. is handling itself may push the envelope for the entire industry. And many Hip-Hop artists who are broke because of their slave-like recording contracts could also learn something from Jay-Z's multiple streams of income approach to the music business. How many people remember that it was Jay-Z that wrote "Still D.R.E." for Dr. Dre? His publishing income combined with his film and clothing enterprises is economics 101 for every Hip-Hop artist - revolutionary rhetoritician or bling-blinger.
Suge Knight. How is owning one's master recordings anything but revolutionary? I really don't understand this one. And let's be honest, isn't it a little bit disingenuous for people to be murmuring and complaining about Suge's bullying tactics in Hip-Hop? Name your favorite conscious artist. I listened to the albums of two "conscious" Hip-Hop artists this week, in my travels, and both of them were advocating violence, even against other artists to preserve the culture and to obtain what is rightfully theirs. It is interesting that many in the Hip-Hop community who romanticize with the 1960s are so quick to embrace groups that bore arms and advocated violence in limited cases, even against their own people (always conveniently deemed sell outs or Uncle Toms)for proactive reasons but are so shook up over Suge Knight's rumored roughing up of individuals. But the most important point we think should be made is that Suge isn't getting the ownership of master recordings by pimping artists, he is getting that form of power from the industry establishment because he will not settle for less. He made a power move on Interscope and the majors in getting ownership of the Death Row masters, not by taking advantage of some ignorant artist. Controlling your masters means that you control all future value of that creative work, in perpetuity. If a TV commercial is made using your recording you see money on that, in a big way. Certainly Suge represents more of the interests of executives rather than artists in this respect but don't we need powerful Black and Hip-Hop executives? Don't we need the conrol of the most valuable entity containing human capital - the recorded creative work? Shouldn't that control rest in the hands of those who come from the community that produces the artists that create the culture? Say what you want about Suge Knight - he is from the community that created Hip-Hop culture and he is bringing ownership of what that community produces closer to its source of origin. That is revolution.
The Suge-haters should consider this answer to a question that I posed to RapCoalition's Wendy Day in an exclusive interview in December of 2000:
Cedric Muhammad: What is the biggest change that you have seen in the music business over the last five years?
Wendy Day: Ownership. Labels are actually allowing some savvy artists and artist-owned labels ownership of their masters. Only because these artists are aware of the actual financial realities of ownership and hold out for it. This means an artist with a major distibution deal can make 80% as opposed to an artist signed to a label making 12% after repaying most of the expenses. The real numbers could look like this: an artist owned label can make $8.00 a record from the first sale forward, compared to a signed artist making 80 cents a record after paying back most of the expenses (could mean not seeing a payment until record # 275,000.
We could go much further, and in a different way we will in, part two of this brief series but all we ask is for people to consider that very important question that we posed last week, "Doesn't hip-hop consciousness have an economic component?" Or shouldn't it, if it doesn't already, we could ask?
The quality of the thought and answer to that question that we all give, from within the community, will determine the life-expectancy of culture and art that we all claim to love but still, after 30 years, seem to have a problem protecting and preserving the integrity of.
Friday, January 18, 2002