Hip-Hop Fridays: E-Letter To Steve Jones and USA Today Re: "Music pirates give 50 Cent a (boot)leg up on fame"

Out of all of the flood of articles that have come out over the last couple of weeks of mainstream "50-mania", your article, "Music pirates give 50 Cent a (boot)leg up on fame" caught my eye because it is concise and gets closer to the heart of why 50 Cent is not just the "rapper of the moment" as some claim, but the hottest and most anticipated rapper, among all segments of the Hip-Hop market, since Snoop Doggy Dogg's debut album, Doggystyle in 1994. 50 doesn't fit the profile of the typical "ladies'man"; "lyricist"; "party anthem-maker"; "gangsta'"; and "R&B" (more commonly referred to by purists as 'rap and b---s---') categories that dominate the genre. So why is he so buzzworthy and popular? There are at least four primary reasons why 50 is as big as he is right now.

Mixtapes. You do a good job of introducing this subject. 50 embraced the streets. He showered mixtape DJs with attention and good music. He gave them access to him. He did not discriminate among DJs, showing favoritism. He provided drops promoting their tapes and he made himself available to co-host their CD compilations - which are the leading indicator of who will be hot and "what's next" in Hip-Hop. As a result, 50 developed an almost cult-like-following among the mixtape market segment which increasingly buys less and less commercial music. In the second part of my interview with Russell Simmons he spoke about how the music culture is moving away from buying. And how the industry would have to find a way to monetize the direction in which the culture is going. Well, 50 realized Russell's insight and knew that mixtapes already represented that process. The Black members of the music culture aren't "moving away from buying" like their White counterparts are. Important Black market segments in Hip-Hop don't mind buying - they just mind buying stuff that saturates radio and videos; and they resent buying CDs with only 1 or two good songs on them. So they have monetized the mixtape market which is supposed to be "for promotional use only". What makes this so important to understand is that 50 was dropping some of his best material on the street, without being signed. So he was the polar opposite of artists who rely on urban radio, BET and MTV; or those who use mixtapes to preview albums, jump higher up the release schedule of their record labels, or simply to get their name out. 50 was already out and people knew who he was. But he used the mixtape market to re- position himself with old fans, attract new fans and create the necessary buzz and leverage that he would need in dealing with the record labels who soon began a bidding war for his services. 50 came out on the mixtape circuit so often, with so much good music, that he made other artists look like they were moving in slow motion - on the street. But the key insight is that 50 was making tons of money for mixtape DJs and the Mom and Pop retailers and Independents who were selling his music. 50, the mixtape DJs, and the independent retailers had circumvented radio, video and the major music chains - creating their own production, distribution and consumption network. They monetized the portion of the largely Black and Latino Hip-Hop economy that was moving away from buying. Now, the establishment is getting into the act as 50 has leveraged his base network into a relatively lucrative recording deal. I will go into more detail into this at BlackElectorate.com in the future but for now the main point that I think you understand is that 50 shows that no matter how big White Hip-Hop artists or the genre's White consuming fans become, it still requires the Black and Latino streets to validate you or make you official. Before there is TRL, there is D.J. Kay-Slay.

Marketing 101. The Anti-Establishment, Anti-Gangsta', Alternative Rapper. Almost two years ago, to the day, in February of 2001 I wrote about how I saw hip-hop moving away from its material, unconscious, gangsta', "thong and ice" era. I read the tea leaves through a video Wu-Tang Clan had come out with, which was antithetical to what was dominating the industry at the time. I was right about the timing but hadn't identified the right song or opposition market segment in Hip-Hop. When I first heard 50's witty "How To Rob" which describes 50, tongue-in-cheek, robbing every rapper in the game, I thought the artist had made a huge mistake. But he actually, with that one song, became the leader of the "anti-establishment, anti-gangsta, alternative rap category". Unlike several "conscious" rappers who criticize only certain "safe" mainstream artists who won't fight back, 50 called out everybody in a way that was so clever and creative that even if you thought it was in poor taste (considering the rappers really do get robbed at gun point) you had to remark on how skillful and intelligent the artist was. But what made the song so important is that it genuinely upset several of the leading artists who were mentioned in the song who subsequently went out of their way to threaten 50 or talk trash about it. Their reaction is what positioned 50 as the leading alternative rapper. Without preaching a political ideology or sounding corny, 50 struck a nerve by mocking the materialism, false bravado, and phony gangster mystique that was dominating the genre at the time. Then 50 evolved it into "Wanksta'", where he actually created a category for the mentality and practices of leading artists and others who perpetrate a fraudulent image, in his view. His "beef" with Ja' Rule, one of the premier mainstream Hip-Hop artists, solidified 50's market position even further. By owning the streets while having no record deal; by not being afraid to creatively make fun of the most popular artists; and by taking on an artist whose bona fide credentials many in the genre were expressing doubts about, 50 differentiated himself from everybody, becoming the leader of a category that had previously been dominated by "conscious", "positive" and "underground" artists. 50 has made the "street" subcategory the leading mainstream opposition segment in Hip-Hop, overtaking the previously mentioned "underground", "conscious" and the smaller "lyricists" grouping. The way back to Public Enemy and KRS-One is through 50 Cent not Common, Mos Def, Dead Prez or Talib Kweli. Somebody has to unwind the dominant establishment culture and imagery in the genre. 50 is the "gradualist" agent, though it was hard to understand that when he was covered up through trials and a dismissive attitude toward him coming from the top of the industry's power pyramid.

Shady/Aftermath's No-Hitter. Imagine high-school phenom LeBron James signing with the Los Angeles Lakers next year. That would be the equivalent in basketball to what happened when 50 Cent signed with Shady/Aftermath. The hottest artist signed with the hottest label with the most successful White rapper, backed by the most influential producer in Hip-Hop history (who just happens to be the man who orchestrated the last "greatest" emergence of a Hip-Hop artist with Snoop Dogg in 1992-1994). John Chambers of the Music Factory, one of the most influential independent retailers in the country told us yesterday, "Shady/Aftermath didn't miss a beat. They made no mistakes. They didn't fight the streets and they concentrated on making a quality album with extra value for the price. This DVD edition of 50's album is brilliant. The interview with 50 is great, makes him look even more interesting as a person and artist, and since it is a limited edition, with only 500,000 produced, it makes it appear that you got something special for your purchase. And the results show. No distributer, from Universal to AEC can keep enough of this album in stock." The retailer based in the Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York capital of Hip-Hop consumption also said that the record label brilliantly timed the release. "There is absolutely nothing out right now. People are starting to get their income tax money back, so they have a little something in their pockets. They are recovering from Christmas bills and some really disappointing releases. Shady/Aftermath understood that there was a vacuum in Hip-Hop that it could be filled with this 50 release in the first quarter. Their timing and build-up has been perfect. And then, you have to consider all of this with the fact that 50 has like 10 Best of albums out full of quality music, when other artists can't even put 1 CD out that is any good. (Shady/Aftermath) understands that 'music sells music, not posters'. People have simply been waiting for good music." And like the New York Yankees, Shady/Aftermath just keeps winning with good quality music, year after year.

Loner and "Thug" Essence. 50 has an intense core following. Like no other artist has right now. Never mind the late arrival of the TRL fans, the female fans who only know about "In da Club", or the other regions of the country that are following New York City to the 50 Cent coronation ceremony. Ask any Mom and Pop retailer or any Independent storeowner - 50 Cent has a core market segment that is loyal as can be and feel that they have personally invested in this artist. And as a result - he represents them. This core audience identifies with 50 being an outcast in the rap game for so long; nobody paying attention to him; his being dropped by Columbia Records; and the top dogs in the game dismissing him. He is the ultimate underdog. They project their personal lives onto 50 and identify with his struggle as an artist. The meteoric rise of 50 Cent today is the embodiment of Biz Markie's "Vapors", where Biz rhymes about being dissed when he was coming up and watching everybody jump on his bandwagon later. 50 is living the "Vapors" video right now - playing Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie and Cutmaster Cool V's parts. In addition to this 50 has a "don't care" attitude; doesn't appear to be a phony trying to get the big wigs in the industry to like him (hard to imagine 50 saying to somebody "hey, let's do lunch!"); and makes the music that he wants to make - regardless of any apparent image that a handler has crafted for him. 50 doesn't look like he is the alter ego of some super-producer, manager or record label executive. He's just 50. Add all of that to the fact that 50 was shot 9 times and survived. He has been in jail. And his boxing skills are legendary on the street. On top of all of that, people feel that he is the most popular, down-to-earth and humble artist to come out in recent memory. No shouting corny phrases or acting crazy in videos and interviews. Just laid-back and firm. "Without trying to be Tupac, like so many rappers, 50 has that thug charisma.", John Chambers opines.

50's rise really has to be looked at in terms of all of these dynamics if it is to be properly explained or understood. You are off to a good start. Keep digging and writing, Hip-Hop may already have its story of the year, or even decade.


Cedric Muhammad

Cedric Muhammad

Friday, February 7, 2003