JAY-Z famously cemented the idea that numbers don’t lie into hip-hop’s psyche. Numbers do lie, undoubtedly so, but they can also reveal the truth. Gangsta rap scored its first commercial victory over rock 'n' roll on June 22, 1991, when N.W.A’s second studio album, Niggaz4life, outsold R.E.M.’s Out of Time to become the first hardcore hip-hop album to top the Billboard 200. Derek Thompson documents this historic moment in the 2015 essay, “1991: The Most Important Year in Pop-Music History.”
“Within a few weeks, N.W.A. replaced R.E.M. on the charts. The swapping of acronyms—out with soft rock, in with hip-hop—was a harbinger. In the early 1990s, the "hip-hop/rap" genre exploded to become, by far, the most common genre of music on the Billboard Hot 100 charts for two decades.” –Derek Thompson, The Atlantic
Another notable, by-the-numbers victory occurred seven years later in 1998. Based on data reported by Christopher John Farley in his "Hip-Hop Nation" essay for Time Magazine, hip-hop sold 81 million units that year, nine million more than country music. "For the first time ever, rap outsold what previously had been America's top-selling format,” Farley wrote. A tremendous milestone for a genre that arose from America’s underground.
During its infancy stage, hip-hop was thought to be a temporary fad. That line of thinking, of course, ceased well before the new millennium. Somehow, the genre DJ Kool Herc created during a 1973 day party on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx had managed to avoid the doom of disco and continued to rise as rock declined.
Gradually, the numbers revealed global interest, a new phenomenon that couldn’t be contained by a ceiling. In their 2017 year-end report, Nielsen reported that for the first time, hip-hop and R&B surpassed rock as the most popular genre in the US—powered by a 72-percent increase in on-demand audio streaming.
Hip-hop moves into a new decade on a mountaintop. No genre is more prominent; no culture stands on equal ground, and everyone wants a piece. Is it possible to maintain a status this significant without sacrificing what makes the music and artists so engrossing?
To answer that question, we have to think first about hip-hop's fluidity. We have to think about a genre born in a park. There were no commercial sponsors, or angel investors, or wealthy relatives. Just a man with a turntable, some records, speakers, and the people. As hip-hop enters 2020, the 47th year since its birth, even without data and statistics to support the enormity, the genre holds a sense of omnipresence.
Musically and culturally, the art form dominates streaming services and festival lineups; television commercials and feature films; social discourse and social media. This level of largeness isn’t surprising, though. Rappers had the power to influence before the term “influencer.” Rappers were culture curators long before entering the bloodstream of pop culture.
Rappers are a branch of a larger cultural tree, but they incorporate many of hip-hop’s most appealing elements. At once, they are the voice of slang, the face of cool, the sound of rhyme, and the movement of dance. These qualities have made rap artist billboards of youth. Every new generation yearns for a way to speak, a life to admire, a style to mimic, and a form of music that is solely theirs to own.
In Nelson George’s excellent New York Times editorial “How Hip-Hop Transformed New York,” he explains hip-hop’s journey through New York City in the 1980s. One significant factor George touches upon is language. The culture had a coded slang; words that were foreign to the dated and unhip. Breakdancers represented hip-hop’s movement, while graffiti translated the visual wording.
Before radio introduced The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” over the airwaves or Blondie’s “Rapture” airing on MTV, hip-hop traveled—a form of virality that was physical. It was a wide-spread presence that could exist any and everywhere.
"So when Deborah Harry said, “And you hip-hop, and you don’t stop,” the new-wave diva would be proved a prophet. Though the Funky 4 + 1 never made it back to the mainstream promised land, the voyage hip-hop took from uptown to downtown was the first of many steps it would take toward pop-culture domination." —Nelson George
The physicality of rap moved the music through streets and cities, states and countries, but adapting to the internet allowed the wildfire to continue spreading without a halt. As far as genres go, rap’s transition to online platforms was the most seamless. For example, hip-hop had a message board on Okayplayer, a popular presence on Myspace, made the best of Facebook, changed industry infrastructure through the blogosphere, thrived on Twitter, and even carved a niche on Tumblr. Whoever houses black expression, hip-hop finds a home.
At present, no other genre or art form has found better promotional use of free applications like YouTube, Instagram, Vine, and the newly popular, TikTok. The record-breaking success of Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road” is inseparable from his internet savvy and masterful social media marketing. Although catchy, for a new artist, a popular song isn’t enough to create a moment that captivates the world.
In 2019, to achieve a massive single, the song needs an entire campaign, a way of reaching the masses, and impressions across every modern channel. Progressively, these channels are on every smartphone; thanks to apps, music can move through portable means. In terms of communication and exchanging information, there is no tool more efficient.
At 20 years old, Lil Nas X has known the internet his entire life; it’s a tool no different than what fire was to the cavemen. He understands memes better than Drake ever could. Lil Nas X comprehends virality as if he was born to go viral and has a level of self-awareness that goes well beyond his years on earth. His success is further proof of how youth culture isn’t just shaping music, but the mediums that make music and artists accessible. “Old Town Road” embodies the importance of moving where the people will see you.
That’s what rap has always done correctly: remained in constant motion. Musically, sonically, and culturally, the art form has advanced with the times. When the entire music industry experienced declining CD sales, rappers gave away free mixtapes on Datpiff; after the blogosphere collapsed, rap transitioned to SoundCloud. Instead of aiming to fix problems existing in old models, new methods emerged.
As a form of black culture, hip-hop marries style and substance. There is no hip-hop without the spirit of black life, black angst, and black cool. At its genesis, the worldwide appeal wasn’t foreseeable, but now, almost 50 years later, it’s impossible to imagine a world without hip-hop and rap music.
What would drive social media discourse? What would substitute the influence? Imagine Happy Days without The Fonz, Walt Disney without Mickey Mouse, or the body without a heart. Losing hip-hop means pop culture must replace its nucleus.
Becoming the nucleus isn’t what Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa or any other hip-hop pioneers sought to accomplish. They were the young, capturing the spirit of their youth. But that didn’t stop them from becoming old. It’s that youthfulness, not aging, that people found contagious; what was fun, fresh, and fundamentally outside the mainstream. Things are different now. Rap is the mainstream. Selling out was once frowned upon, now everyone wants to buy-in. Black life, black angst, and black cool continue to be a currency that is continually being cashed in.
Nas was wrong, hip-hop never died. It simply became wealthy. Rich in both impact and influence; wealth that continues to accumulate. But with wealth comes change. So what happens to an art form that sprouted from the soil and became worth billions? Once it becomes so big that society can not be divorced from its global takeover? Where and how does this progressive music continue to move?
As we move closer to 2020, that’s the question. How will this wealth, influence, and impact shape hip-hop’s forthcoming decade? Is it possible for hip-hop to continue to reach the people, exist in communities, remember its origins, and continue to maintain a robust presence on and offline? Can hip-hop keep its soul? For every soul has a price, and where hip-hop is today, there are more bidders than ever willing to pay that number. Some might say it’s already been sold.
We’ll let tomorrow answer the questions of today.
By Yoh, aka Y2020h, aka Yoh31