The pilot episode of NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air premiered on September 10, 1990. Will Smith—the star of the series—was new to acting, but acclaim as a prominent rap artist made the Philadelphia native a household face before the sitcom first aired. Two years prior to his debut on network television, Smith and his partner-in-music Jeff Townes released their sophomore album, He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper, as DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. At the time, it was the highest-selling hip-hop album to date.
Selling three million albums gifted the duo plaques made of platinum, and winning hip-hop’s first GRAMMY for Best Rap Performance (“Parents Just Don't Understand”) awarded them two gramophones made of gold. Their music videos were constantly televised, and across the nation, their names sold out venues. Measuring their financial prosperity based on these metrics was to assume the two men were as rich as they were famous and successful. To some degree, they were.
This past May, Smith uploaded a video to his YouTube page titled, "How I Became The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." In it, he admits to financial irresponsibility in the years that followed their enormous breakout. Smith explained how careless, extravagant spending and not paying his taxes depleted all the funds that rap had rewarded him. He went on to encapsulate the awkward contrast between the economic circumstances and his celebrity stature by simply stating, “Being famous and broke is a shitty combination.” Smith was strapped for cash, and the world was none the wiser.
Will Smith’s private setbacks are telling of what often occurs behind the curtains the public isn’t allowed to peek behind. Ironically, the public’s perception of a rapper’s wealth doesn’t factor in unknown variables. For example, during a brief but amusing Twitter Q&A earlier this week, a fan asked rapper Danny Brown how it feels to be rich. Based on Brown's nearly decade-long career and his reputation as a successful hip-hop artist, there's a reasonable expectation of fortune. An artist of lesser notoriety wouldn’t receive this question.
Brown replied, “I’m far from rich bruh bruh.”
Another fan followed up by stating that Brown’s financial stability was better than someone living paycheck to paycheck. Cleverly, the Detroit emcee replied with a lyric from André 3000’s classic second verse from “Elevators (Me & You)":
Through Brown’s tweets, it’s obvious the conversation André depicted with a former classmate is still relevant 22 years later. In both instances, the misconception of a rapper’s status equating to wealth shows the disconnect that exists between an artist's reality and the imagined consensus. Touring expenses, funding, advances, splits, and even unpaid royalties can all have crucial effects on the lives and livelihoods of our favorite artists. Not everything directly affects how much money an artist has the ability to earn, but there are variables that impact how much is actually pocketed.
Having spent $70,000 to clear samples for Atrocity Exhibition—Brown’s fourth studio album—it's entirely possible the album actually lost money, meaning that it cost Brown more to create, market and release the album than he was able to make back through traditional sales (physical, digital) and streaming revenue. Just as there’s money to be made in rap, there’s money constantly being lost and spent. Yet, the praise of art, not the price of art, is what ultimately takes precedence.
Rap is deeply rooted in outspoken, unapologetic braggadocio, but the extravagance that comes with the entertainment is often misleading. For many rappers, living comfortably or simply quietly maintaining is the goal. No matter what they tell you on wax, each participant and practitioner in and of the culture is dealing with his or her own extremely nuanced situation.
In hip-hop, the topic of money is almost always an armor of boasts. The best braggers can turn their exaggerated claims into entertainment gold. There is an attraction to the bragging, but more often than not realism is lost in the posing of opulence. That’s why I appreciate Isaiah Rashad revealing that it wasn't until fellow TDE rapper Jay Rock's 2016 motorcycle accident, which resulted in Rashad receiving the remainder of Rock's open tour dates, that he able to find his financial footing.
Just like Smith at the beginning of his career, Rashad's financial situation was kept behind closed doors. Based solely on the label he was signed to, and the critical acclaim of his debut, Cilvia Demo, from afar one might assume he was—at the bare minimum—doing well. But as should be obvious by now, talent plus fans plus a label deal alongside heavy hitters does not equal financial prosperity.
In an interview with Desus & Mero in April, rapper Lil Yachty called out his peer group for faking the funk: "These rappers are not rich, bro. Like, they not. It's all fake. A facade, bro," he said. Yachty, though? Oh, he's rich. Of course, he is.
The layers of financial hurdles that come with rap as an occupation are rarely explained with absolute transparency. One of the best articles on the subject of music and money is Max Bell’s 2016 Forbes interview with underground rap veteran, Open Mike Eagle. Eagle, who has navigated the industry with and without the assistance of an independent label, with and without a manager, and with and without a booking agent, broke down the importance and impact of these factors and how they’ve aided in the progress of his profession.
Using ballpark figures, how much does it cost to make an album in 2016?
There’s a real sliding scale for that. I can make an album for like five grand. The way things are right now, if I put an album out it’s getting put in conversations next to people who have a whole lot more money than me. So while I can make a $5,000 album, that’s not really a great idea. If I made a $10,000 album, it will sound way better. It really depends on how ambitious I’m feeling. I would love to make a $20,000 album. I would love to be able to afford all of my ideas. I feel like I get put into conversations with people who can afford all of their ideas.
Do you consistently find that finances are creatively limiting?
Absolutely. I can’t always afford the production I want. I definitely can’t afford the post-production that I want--live players to come in and add things, or background vocals. I usually can’t afford the kind of things that I can hear. It’s very limiting." —"When Should A Person Rap For Free?' The Life Lessons Of Open Mike Eagle"
The idea of being able to afford an idea is not something that most fans of rap music would consider in the context of revenue generation. Danny Brown's decision to spend $70,000 on sample clearance is as bizarre and fascinating as the $85,000 that Kanye West spent to license a photo for the album cover for Pusha-T’s DAYTONA. At what point is the amount of money being spent on creative ideas excessive? How much do you spend until the investment is no longer a smart one?
Earlier this week, DJBooth reported on how Vince Staples' constant touring more often than not has put him in the red (rather than in the black), meaning he's spending more of his own personal finances to create the ultimate live show experience than what he's been able to generate in revenue from those performances. It’s a decision that has benefits if you consider the value of providing an unforgettable experience that inspires the sale of merch, physical albums, and repeat concert-ticket purchasing. But it comes at a price.
Touring is currently the most lucrative form of income for any artist. But while the roads are paved in money bags, we rarely hear about how expensive a visually stunning show is to produce. How much did it cost Beyoncé to recreate a NCAA halftime show on the Coachella stage? One million? Two? The music festival reportedly spent $3 million to secure her headlining spot, according to Money. That's a luxury that only a handful of artists can afford—all the resources without a financial ceiling.
The technical expenses that go into the creation of the art are far more enthralling than the diamonds that dance in chains and the candy paint that glosses cars. The most expensive resources aren’t available to an artist who is independent of a major budget like Open Mike Eagle, but as he’s proven over the years, there’s a certain beauty to quality art that is made with ingenuity and creativity in place of endless amounts of money. Look no further than Huey Supreme, an emerging artist from Portsmouth, Virginia, who recently shot the video for his “Dolla Bill” single entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus.
With smartphones capable of recording in 4K and the potential rise of IGTV, artists dabbling videography will become more commonplace, but what caught my eye while watching Huey’s video was the vintage texture, the warm colors, and thoughtful editing that could easily be confused for a video shot on a more advanced camera or DSLR and edited to appear 8mm-esque. It’s possible to make cost-efficient art that’s appealing without appearing visually tawdry. The fascination with the gaudy and luxurious gives charm to videos that are earnest in passion. The same way a rapper can fake rich, he or she can instead put that energy into showcasing how possible it is to do a lot with a little. For underdogs who are battling both the man and the odds, it pays to have a visual that can interest the eye in the same way the raps grab ears.
Will Smith didn’t use The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to simply cross over into an acting career; he needed the opportunity as a lifeline for a second chance to correct the carelessness of his past. Smith is proof you can be 3x Platinum and in two years have the fruits of your labor plucked from beneath you. Music is a business, and those who neglect the business will be taught harsh lessons for their negligence.
By placing more emphasis on revealing the role money plays as a tool to fund ideas, or how the lack of a budget requires sacrifice and creativity, we can move further away from the myth that everyone who is famous is rich. Hip-hop will always have secrets, fabrications, and assumptions when it comes to money, but balancing the glory stories with hard truths will hopefully ensure the next crop of artists are learning from and not repeating the mistakes of those who came before them.
By Yoh, aka Moneybagg Yoh, aka @Yoh31