Hip-Hop Fridays: Hip-Hop's Ultimate Battle - Race And The Politics Of Divide And Conquer by Davey D.
Over the past few weeks there has been a lot of discussion around Hip Hop and Race. The popularity of Eminem has been a catalyst for the impassioned exchanges that have been a long time coming. The most visible debate centers around Benzino and the Source Magazine and their claim that Eminem is a tool for the white power structure [machine]...But this has been a discussion that has surfaced and resurfaced ever since the Beastie Boys hit the scene back in the mid 80s. The discussion of Hip Hop and Race emerged during Hip Hop's Golden Age/Afrocentric era... when groups like 3rd Bass the Young Black Teenagers hit the scene. The introduction of Vanilla Ice also sparked a lot of discussion around the issue of race in the early 90s. Unfortunately we never fully addressed all the issues and concerns that arose out of those earlier conversations.Now that Eminem is blowing up the spot and Hip Hop is a multi-billion dollar a year business, the discussions around race are in full swing again..
Three or four years ago I spoke at the Critical Resistance conference that was being held on the UC Berkeley Campus for a standing room only multi-racial Hip Hop Activism panel section. One of the things I spoke earnestly about was how powerful and influential Hip Hop had become since its humble beginnings...I told the crowd that Hip Hop had gone through many battles ranging from the then recent East-West Coast saga to the commercial vs underground drama and that it's next big battle will be along the lines of race.
I noted that Hip Hop was at a strange crossroads where lots of white kids are passionate and identify with so much that Hip Hop offers... At the same time it has always been an important vehicle for Blacks and Latinos which provided a platform, gave a voice to the disenfranchised and offered a way to economically escape the harsh conditions of the ghetto. More importantly the divisive racial politics of past generations began to rear its ugly head. In other words, as Hip Hop started to go mainstream some of the same social, economic and even political conditions that gave rise to Hip Hop in its infancy were reappearing.
What made things so hard to swallow was that for a lot of people, Hip Hop had taken on the appearance of being an inclusive unifying force that would elevate us all. There were many examples that seemed to suggest that...People dressed the same, danced the same, listened to the same music, used the same slang and could even party in the same night club. Hip Hop had evolved to the point that you could go damn near anywhere in the world and say 'Hip Hop' and people would know what you're talking about.
The Racial Politics of Radio
Unfortunately, as outside forces-mainly white owned corporations began to to catch wind of this phenomenon they began to apply exploitive marketing schemes that were designed to capture a huge market share. Translation: As major corporations saw lots of white kids getting down with Hip Hop, they decided to do whatever it took to appeal to what is considered a lucrative demographic. One place where this was clearly manifested was in the music biz. Those of us who have been in radio and the music business long enough may recall the friction that existed in the late 80s and early 90s when pop/Top 40 radio stations like Hot 97 in NY and KMEL in SF started playing Hip Hop.
It ruffled the feathers of many urban/traditional Black music radio station program directors because suddenly all sorts of resources and attention were being re-directed to the pop stations and pop departments at record labels. At that time there was a lot of criticism launched against many Black/urban stations from the emerging Hip Hop community because they they appeared to be way too conservative and afraid to play Rap. For the most part that was true. Hip Hop reflected a huge generation divide where many of the older industry gate keepers simply did not like rap and seemed to have a reluctance to touching it.
I recall going to numerous music conferences like the New Music Seminar in NY and would listen as all sorts of artists like Latifah-before she added the title 'Queen' to her name, to Chuck D who was just emerging on the scene, to Daddy O of Stetsasonic and even MC Serch of 3rd Bass, would heat up on the representatives of the popular urban Black radio stations. They were angry that these PDs would not play Rap. They resented the fact that you could not hear Hip Hop except late on weekend nights for 2 or 3 hours or during a designated 1-2 hour rap specialty show. There were a few exceptions around the country that seemed to wholeheartly embrace rap. WGOK in Mobile, Alabama with the Madhatter, WZAK in Cleveland and KDAY in LA which was the country's only 24 hour day rap station, are a few that come to mind.
Many of the urban radio program directors stated that they did not play Rap music because advertisers would not support their station if they did. That always seemed to be a constant concern as many of these stations felt they were already getting an unfair shake. For those who don't know what was going on was that advertisers would not pay 'high' rates for urban stations even if that station was number 1 in the market place. If your station was labeled or categorized by music industry trades as urban it would be offered one advertising rate while stations classified as CHR [Contemporary Hits Radio] or Top 40 would be given a different-usually higher rate. Anybody who worked in urban radio will tell you how car companies, manufacturers of large appliances, banks and later computer companies would simply not do business with urban formatted stations.
What this all boiled down to was there was a premium placed on white/ more affluent listeners. Many corporations simply did want to attract a young African American clientele. Of course they weren't going to come right out and say this, so they usually cited the 'type of music' a station played as a reason for not wanting to do business. The harsher or harder the music the less likely they were to do business.
Folks have to remember from day one Rap and Hip Hop had a bad image that was loaded with stereotypes of Black males wearing fat gold chains, using foul language and ready to commit violence. It left many people, in particular corporate advertisers afraid. Hip Hop wasn't exactly seen as this huge multi-cultural phenomenom that could be enjoyed by all. At least, it wasn't publicly stated as such. What was so ironic was this foul image was really prevalent during Hip Hop's Afrocentric/ socially conscious golden days of the late 80s-mid 90s.
So for Black radio, it was a constant struggle to stay a float. In fact the term 'urban' [urban contemporary] as it applied to radio was developed to help some radio stations downplay the fact that they were a black music outlet. Urban contemporary when it was first coined suggested that 'everyone from all hues and background listened to the station-not just Blacks. To just have 'Black' listeners in many circles was perceived as the economic 'kiss of death'. For a time the new term urban helped a station sound more hip and appealing. Eventually all the key players, record labels, advertisers and industry trades came to know that urban was a code word for Black which meant less resources.
Music critic and author Nelson George breaks down this scenario in his landmark book, 'The Death of Rhythm and Blues'. The only way for a lot of urban stations to stay economically competitive with their CHR counterparts was to play more 'adult music' in hopes of attracting an older 30+ female audience. This broke down to many urban stations adapting a policy of playing more R&B and No Rap. That is why some urban formatted stations adapted the slogan We Do Not Play Rap'. They wanted to make it clear to advertisers that they were an adult station.
During the late 80s and early 90s Hip Hop began to explode primarily because of video outlets and TV shows like 'Yo MTV Raps'. While many urban/Black stations proceeded with caution in approaching Hip Hop, [again they could not afford to take an economic hit for being too 'ghetto'], their Top 40 counterparts were discovering that Rap had multi-cultural appeal and began to play it in earnest. Radio stations like KMEL in San Francisco were one of the first Top 40 stations in a major market to aggressively abandon it's pop format and wholeheartly embrace rap. Folks in NY may recall in early 90s when Hot 97 began to switch up and move away from its Latin Freestyle dance format when they added Funkmaster Flex to their line up to do weekend Hip Hop mixes.It was soon discovered that these station's Top 40 audience didn't leave, but in fact their ratings increased. It wasn't long before these Top 40 stations began to out draw or tie their urban rivals which included KSOL and KBLX in SF and WBLS and Kiss in NY. The ratings success inspired other Top 40 stations to follow suit. All this eventually led to conflict between the urban and Top 40 stations.
The main point of contention was the fact that Urban stations were still being handicapped and economically penalized for playing rap. They felt that there was a double standard. Many large advertisers who used ad agencies still felt their affiliation with this 'Black' urban art form called rap would harm or dilute the image of their product. But they didn't seem to mind spending their money with their Top 40 counterparts who had now started playing rap outside of the traditional rap specialty shows or weekend 2-3 hour mix shows, where rap records were introduced, and nurtured on urban stations. Yes, there were malt liquor ads and maybe a McDonald's commercial here and there which created the illusion that everything was all good, but behind the scenes it really wasn't. One could not adequately sustain themselves on malt liquor and McDonald ads alone.
I recall attending a huge contentious panel discussion at the prestigious Gavin Seminar in SF during the early 90s. On one side of the stage you had all these African American urban program directors and on the other side you had all these white Top 40 program directors including my boss Keith Naftly from KMEL. The Black programmers explained that they felt that the Top 40 stations were coming in and basically 'stealing the music' and then getting credit and financial reward for doing what the Black stations had been doing or trying to do for years. The Black PDs broke it down and explained that for years their stations had to struggle just to get a 'fair' piece of the economic pie which was controlled by white folks in both big business as well as with the major record labels. This was happening even though many of the Black stations were 'breaking' the music first and obtaining superior ratings to their Top 40 counterparts.
They also pointed out the fact that many of the record labels were turning their backs on these urban stations and rewarding their Top 40 rivals with expensive, enticing and prestigious promotions that could help boost the ratings. For example, you might have one of the major record companies come along and offer a Top 40 station an all expenses paid trip for their listeners to go to the Grammy Awards to see an urban artist. Or the labels would come along and take a hot act and offer them up for free to a radio station to do a huge concert. Many of the Black programmers felt this was a huge slap in the face because for the most part many of these urban artists were initially introduced and broken in the market place by their stations. It was like the urban station would play the song, stick with it and if it was rap take the financial risk and then watch as the labels and advertisers would come along and do business with the Top 40 stations who came on a project afterwards. They felt like they were being undermined.
Urban or Churban
A bigger point of contention was the fact that these Top 40 stations were still able to maintain their classification and status as CHR/Top40 even though they were playing mostly urban music. This was significant because it meant that these Top 40 stations could demand a higher advertising dollar from ad agencies while playing the same music as their urban counterparts. Also having a CHR classification meant they got to deal with the 'pop' departments of major record labels where there was a lot more money and economic resources put into promotions and other activities surrounding an artist. The urban station could only interact with the urban or Black music departments of a label which were often under funded.
The Black programmers kept pushing the industry trade execs to change the classification of these Top 40 stations that were playing urban music. They refused to do it and what resulted was a new classification for the pop stations called 'Churban [crosssover urban] '. This still rubbed the Black PDs the wrong way because it still left the nagging implication that if a Black station played rap it was bad news and all the negative stereotypes of violence were attached to it. When the pop stations played rap it was viewed as trend setting and cutting edge. It wasn't long before Top 40 stations were pushing the envelop by adapting slogans like 'Being Down with the Streets' to reflect their urban appeal. A few years later they would actually include the words Hip Hop in their monikers. For an urban station to do that would've been the financial kiss of death. Meanwhile stations like KMEL and later Hot 97 would go on for years to be voted as the Best Hip Hop stations in the nation according to the Gavin Report which set the standard for the industry, throughout the 1990s. Many of the urban stations eventually moved on to embrace adult formats like Quiet Storm, or Urban Adult Contemporary so they could keep theirself financially afloat.
During this spirited debate at the Gavin panel, the CHR/Top 40 programmers took the approach that they were only playing what was popular and blamed the urban programmers for not following suit. They pointed out that many of the urban programmers had missed the boat by not aggressively pursuing and embracing the rap music genre that was popular with the the youth. I recall one Top 40 PD bluntly saying: 'We are simply playing the music your kids are requesting- Don't get mad at us...
They dismissed the financial concerns of the urban PDs by stating that they too had financial woes of their own and that they too had some explaining to do to advertisers once they started playing Rap. However, none of those stations were willing to give up their CHR/Top 40 classifications and change over to Urban. This was viewed by the Black PDs as them not only having a considerable edge up but also being dishonest. I likened that debate to what has been going on with certain Alternative Rock stations around the country that say they say they Do Not Play Rap but then will turn around and play the Beastie Boys or Eminem. They won't touch any other rap group even if they have a more rock oriented sound. So a white rapper like Eminem will get played while a group like Michael Franti and Spearhead will not. The Top 40 PDs stated they weren't urban because they played dance music and were trying to appeal to a 'wider' translation [whiter] demographic.
The Racial Politics of Corporate Marketing
It's important to know this recent history because it allows you to better understand why the racial climate in the music biz is what it is today. What this boiled down to was really three groups of people who are circling around this thing called Hip Hop for very different reasons. They include major corporations, The Hip Hop community and the general public.
To break it down simply, you have corporations that want to appeal to a white mainstream audience [general public] and make money. They see Hip Hop as a way to do it, but up until recently felt they had to use Blacks and Latinos from the [Hip Hop Community] to 'keep it real' and authenticate their marketing efforts.
The general audience has grown to become dependent upon what is presented by these corporate media outlets. They tend to follow the lead and embrace the images they put forth in song and videos. After all, they are usually presented under the banner of being trend setting and hip. Hence if these images are responded too favorably then these media corporation will seek out artist or people who fit the bill. It doesn't matter if there are people doing the 'right thing' and trying to set good examples by being socially conscious or 'positive'opr if they are thugged out and acting buffoonish. There are corporate decision makers who scan the urban terrain and either red light or green light a project to be played and presented. They provide the media platform for folks to do their thing. If the general public believes that all rappers drink Crystal and use the 'N' word, then these corporate decision makers will find an artist who fits the bill and heavily promote them.
Keep in mind one of the most successful tried and true marketing themes is sex and violence. Controversy sells. Sex sells. It makes money. Is it by design that in 2003 we have all these corporate owned radio stations that seem to uniformly push music on the masses that echo these themes? We must also keep in mind that nowadays the audience that is being targeted is an audience that believe that has come to embrace and react favorably to certain types of images
In radio ratings are broken down on the basis of race, with Asians being counted as whites. Generation X [read: whites with an emphasis on females] between the ages of 18-34 are the most desired target for many advertisers. This is followed by men [translation white men] 25-54 and teens [white teens]. In many places where you have an exploding Latin population, there's a high value placed on attracting that audience. When it comes to dealing with the Black community the desired target are older African American women. Black males who are last on the totem pole and are hardly ever seen as a desired target audience in radio.
How all this relates to Hip Hop is that in 2003 you have a genre of music that was born in the harshest ghettos outselling any other music and now attracting the desired Holy Grail for corporate advertisers white folks 18-34 [translation: Generation X]. This means that everything that is done in most mainstream media outlets will be done with that the goal of reaching that audience. If it means putting a popular icon like Eminem on a magazine cover or telling the world he's on the short list for Time Magazine's Person of the Year, then it will be done. It has nothing to do with how dope a lyricist he is or how good a singer...It has everything to do with what type of audience he attracts.
If advertiser or radio stations think a Black face wearing lots of platinum on his teeth can attract their white audience they will use it. However, if they can replace that Black or Brown face with a white face and get the same or better results they will do so in a heart beat.
Now that popular white artists like Eminem or even an 'urbanized' Justin Timberlake are on the scene, corporations see a better marketing tool. They no longer have to deal with those Black and Brown faces to attract a desired audience people to a radio station or TV show. It's all about the money and keeping the corporate advertisers happy and comfortable by attracting their target audience.
I can recall countless incidents where high profile, high paying clients who wanted to use the station to attract a hip, diverse, urban audience [translation white:] They would drop lots of money on the table for a station promotion and it was understood that in order for the station to attract that targeted audience that a white deejay with urban appeal would be used.
It was only when the divisive politics and practices of the music industry and big business came into play that the Hip Hop community started to experience these 'growing pains' around the issue of race. Because many of us within Hip Hop have not really studied this country's racial history above and beyond the obvious [slavery, Jim Crow etc] or been exposed to the many covert ways rascism is manifested, we didn't realize when we were being used, our images and talent being exploited or us just being victimized until we started to look up and saw an uneven playing field in a business where race does indeed matter.
It was usually hard to see these polarizing tactics because often times Black and Latino faces were used to create the illusion of authenticity and inclusiveness. We would be the front men while the marketing and imaging and purse strings were being controlled by whites who who remained hidden in the shadows in many cases have a completely different agenda. You could see how this was subtly done in the movie Brown Sugar when they depicted a Black woman as being the head person in charge at Hot 97 who was turning down Mos Def music when in reality its a white woman named Tracey Chlorety. It left the impression that Black folks were really doing big things when in reality we weren't especially when it comes to controlling the mass marketing of our images.
White Privilege and the History of Divide and Conquer
Going back to that standing room only panel at the Critical Resistance Conference at Berkeley, I noted that in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that I would see a day where the activities we did as young kids growing up the Bronx in the 1970s would evolve to a point where we have a packed conference hall with people of all races seriously discussing ways that Hip Hop could be utilized to help change the world. Because of what I had experienced in radio and media, I cautioned the audience to be aware, because it was just a matter of time before the perception of 'white privilege' and the illusion of racial unity comes in conflict with the very real unmet needs and dashed dreams of Hip Hop Culture's primary creators.
I acknowledged that it was great to see all sorts of people engaged in the conversation..Black white, Asian, Latino, Native American. And it was great to see so many people passionate about this thing we called Hip Hop... I also cautioned folks that we should clearly understand history and that what we were doing that day was very dangerous.
I elaborated on my point about us being dangerous by noting that historically there have been serious attempts by people in power to keep people of different ethnicities divided and untrusting of one another. Divide and Conquer has long been a hallmark of America dating all the way back to slavery. It started when rich aristocrats who ran the plantation created division between African slaves and white indentured servants who worked side by side and for the most part actually got along.
In order to prevent any sort of unity which might result in a rebellion, the slavemasters manipulated things by telling the white indentured servants that although they were servants they were superior to the Black slaves who they described as less then human. To further hammer that point home, they granted these poor whites 'slaves' special privileges which gave the illusion of them being better than the Black slaves who were once potential allies against the oppressive aristocrats. This was one of the beginnings of ethnic divide and conquer.
Over the years this divide and conquer technique that has been refined and has been skillfully used by those in power who have an agenda to control and rule masses of people for both economic and social gain. Sometimes its used to divide rich and poor, men and women, young and old. But it seems like whenever the masses of people begin to build bridges and create a space where they can discover they actually have a lot in common and can build toward creating abetter world, something happens to knock us back and keep us at odds. This is especially true when it comes to building bridges along the lines of race. This happened in the 60s and 70s during the Civil Rights, Free Speech, Anti-War and Black Power Movements.
When Dr Martin Luther King attempted to merge the Civil Rights struggle to the masses of people who were kicking up dust about the war in Vietnam, he was roundly criticized. Folks who were in power at the highest echelons of government who had vigoriously supported King were repulsed by him reaching out to the anti-war movement...
Although Dr King foundly spoke about the need for Blacks and whites to come together it was when he actually made moves to serious reach out and involve poor whites who were under oppressive conditions [Poor People's March] that King got his strongest resistance. Just as King was getting ready to lead a huge March on Washington which included Blacks and poor whites he was assassinated.
When the Black Panther Party decided to hook up with the mostly white Free Speech and anti-war movements they found that the FBI program of cointelpro was intensified... It was later discovered through the Freedom of Information Acts that the US government had a program under director J Edgar Hoover to neutralize and discredit Black leaders and their respective organizations. They would use agent provocateurs, the press and key individuals and opposing organizations with an ax to grind or a long standing beef to carry out their plans of disruption. No one was immune from this insurgency program. Not the non violent Martin Luther King and not the militant Black Panther Party. There were similar measures in place to undermine and weaken the anti-war and free speech movements as well.
There are many who point out that Chicago BP leader Fred Hampton was killed by Chicago police because he was unifying people of all races. He had linked up the Black gangs with the Latino Gangs and had already broken bread and was building alliances with the mostly white Young Patriots.
Of course we know that it was after Malcolm X got back from Mecca and begin to to talk about building bridges with African Nations and that he was no longer advocating for separation of the races that he was murdered. Many think that while he was killed by other Black men, that the FBI's cointel program was behind the devisive climate that lead to him being killed.
It's important to note all this because as I pointed out at that conference if history is any indicator, than we should not be surprised if similar attempts aren't made to manipulate and divide Hip Hop especially along racial lines. The fact that Hip Hop has brought so many people together represents a potential threat to many in power who wish to maintain the status quo by keeping keep folks at odds.
I recognize that for many discussions about race are oftentimes uncomfortable and we are often urged to avoid it and sweep things under the rug. But this issue is not going to go away by us ignoring it and sweeping it under the rug... If there's any place where a heartfelt discussion about race relations should take place it should be within the Hip Hop community. We all know Hip Hop to be brutaly and oftentimes uncompromisingly honest. We also know the Hip Hop community to rise up and meet on new challenges head on...
So its in that spirit that I encourage folks to read these various essays that have popped up over the past couple of months.. Discuss them, debate them and build on them until we finally get over the hurdles are parents and grandparents never seemed to be bale to get over-Race.. Also keep in mind that there will be a lot of resistance for a variety of reasons for us not to get past the issue of race..Finally I urge us not to LISTEN and REFLECT on the various perspectives that people are offering up. ASK QUESTIONS for further clarity rather than write off and condemn folks for not being on the same page as you. Let's not simply sugar coat things when discussing Hip Hop and Race for the sake of 'making nice' and not hurting feelings... Hip Hop was always been upfront, abrasive and honest and in many ways it emerged because it was a reaction to a society that was not always forthright.
Is Eminem The New Elvis? I Don't Think So
Lastly people have been bantering the question about Eminem and whether or not he's the new Elvis of Hip Hop. I say No. To me, Elvis came into the world of Rock-N-Roll and never really acknowledged where he got his influences from. he never hung out with the brothas and basically fronted like what he was doing was all his own creation. As Elvis grew older and more popular he seemed to put forth an image that suggested that he was detached and totally removed from the Black community and the Black music that he used to enthrall millions. I don't see Eminem that way.
Eminem is more like Larry Byrd. Like Byrd he respects the game and has paid his dues. There's no denying that. Cats in Hip Hop know that Em was out there getting dirty like everyone else. Like Byrd he's good. He's frustratingly good. By that I mean I recall watching games where Byrd and his Celtics would play everyone from the 76ers to the Lakers and we would hope that someone would shut him down. It wasn't so much that we disliked Larry Byrd. It had more to do with the announcers and sports pundits who seemed to disrespect the game and everyone else who played it.
They would go on and on and on about how great Larry Byrd was as if Julius Irving, Magic Johnson and everyone else did not exist. Sure they would give other people their props, but not if they were playing on the same court as Larry Byrd. Nor could they allow someone else to simply shine without comparing them to Byrd. This was annoying because basketball at that time for the most part was a game where cats from the hood could define themselves. It was their platform.
Because Larry Byrd was this iconic figure that could do no wrong in the media and as a result he became the scorn of a lot cats in the hood while simultaneously garnering throngs of enthusiastic fans-mostly white who now had someone running up and down the court who they could identify with. Byrd was the man you loved to hate but had to respect because there was no denying his skills. Game after game, he would come through and score baskets and his team would win more often than not.
Byrd maintained his own style of play... If you recall everyone in the NBA at that time was colorful. They were flashy. They personified the bling bling of their day. Byrd was the exact opposite. he wasn't as colorful, He wasn't as flashy, but he was always in the winners circle. If you step to him it didn't matter how flashy your were, there was good chance he was gonna serve you.. and serve you good. That's kind of how I see Eminem..
At the end of the day whether you like him or not Larry Byrd was someone who you had to give it up to. Em is someone you have to give it up to. He plays the game. He plays the game well and will be around for a while. But Em being who he is does not change the racial dynamics that are always at work in America. Let keep our eye on the prize and really direct our rage at the machine..
Davey D. can be reached via e-mail at: email@example.com
Friday, March 28, 2003