Don't worry, this isn't going to be yet another article about why Kanye is the worst/greatest human/god in the history of hip-hop/human civilization. I'm not going to talk about 30 showers, his wife's predilection for nude photos or his ego. Those roads have been traveled down so frequently they're now five-lane highways. But....if I could be allowed one last revisit to his recent Breakfast Club interview, there is one moment when Mr. West genuinely did break new ground.
"I owe every hip-hop artist in a way. I owe hip-hop. We all owe hip-hop. I believe I'm gonna be the head of the first trillion-dollar company. And 100%, when I get to that point, no rapper would ever have to worry about anything again. My plan is coming, one-by-one: Big Daddy Kane, go to his crib, everybody crib. [Hip-hop reparations?] Exactly."
My first thought was, "That's a great concept, but that does sound like an empty sentiment. Kanye couldn't just buy Big Daddy Kane a house right now? He needs to be a trillionaire first?" But then the idea drilled a little deeper into my gray matter and I realized that in the grand scheme of things 'Ye isn't that wealthy, not really. Why would I expect Kanye alone to help out the generation(s) of rapper who built this culture when JAY Z and Diddy are both walking around with over $500 million in net worth, when Dr. Dre is now creeping up on billionarie status?
And when you put it like that, when you think about how relatively easy it would be for even just JAY Z, Diddy and Dre to come together, chip in a small percentage of their net worth and make a real difference, maybe this idea of rapper reparations isn't so crazy. It's insane to think it would ever actually happen...but this guy partying with a black president is pretty unlikely too, so even if just as a thought exercise, what if we took Ye's idea seriously for a moment? Could it actually work? How?
First and foremost, the word reparations, the idea of financial atonement for unjustly profiting from someone's labor, has a very specific meaning that can't be ignored. By endorsing that term, Kanye is suggesting that a number of artists who built hip-hop into a global culture that superstars and giant companies could make millions off have been unjustly locked out of their share, and it's a powerful argument. But reparations also implies a one-time payment, and I'm much more interested in the idea of setting up an ongoing system that would be much closer to rapper social security than rapper reparations.
Do we need rapper social security? Absolutely. As Kanye said, "I owe every hip-hop artist in a way. I owe hip-hop. We all owe hip-hop." Even in 2015, the age of the dwindling profits, hip-hop is still a genre capable of generating millions, but for the early years of its existence hip-hop was a culture completely removed from the financial mainstream. Grandmaster Caz let the Sugarhill Gang take his rhymes for "Rapper's Delight" because the idea of anyone selling a hip-hop record for money was laughable. "You mean, you're going to record...a hip-hop song...and you think anyone's going to buy it? Yeah, good luck with that. Whatever, sure, take my rhymes."
Like so many blues and rock musicians before them, early hip-hop artists both built the culture before there was really any money in it, period, and got screwed by bad deals and shady business once the money did start to flow. And that's how someone like Kool Herc, the one man more responsible for hip-hop than anyone, can end up in debt and without health insurance, and that's why rapper social security would be such a good thing.
Now, hip-hop is often an ironically Republican culture, so maybe it's fitting that like actual Repbulicans fought FDR's original enstatement of social security in America, I can already hear rappers complaining. "Why should I have to give my money to someone else? This is my Gucci belt, my Maybach. If I'm rich and they're broke, that's because I deserve to be rich and they don't." Fair enough, but I happen to agree more with Bill Clinton than Rick Ross.
"Rapper social security. . . reflects some of our deepest values--the duties we owe to those who founded the culture, the duties we owe to each other when we’re differently situated in life, the duties will owe to our children and our grandchildren. Indeed, it reflects our determination to move forward across generations and across the income divides in our country, as one hip-hop." - Bill Clinton (basically, I may have taken some poetic license)
I hope we can all agree that it's fucked up for Kool Herc to go bankrupt trying to pay medical bills while modern rappers use stacks of cash for pretend phones, but even if you don't agree the system should exist, for giggles let's try to figure out how it could be viable. Let's say there's some sort of hip-hop summit, and everyone agrees rapper social security is needed. How would it actually work?
I would hope it wouldn't have to be that complicated. Some group of initial donors - Russell, Jay, Dre, Diddy, etc. - chip in and launch a fund. Anyone who applies to that fund can show that they've made a sustained, lifelong commitment to hip-hop is eligible for a living wage subisdy and would be guaranteed to make....I don't know...let's say $50K a year for an individual, more for a family. No one's getting rich, but it would also prevent anyone from ending up destitute. This wouldn't be charity, this would be a system designed to ensure that those who spent their lives building a system that profited from their labor aren't abandoned by that same system as soon as they are deemed expendable.
Of course, my plan is naive and simplistic - I'm a hip-hop writer, not a financial planner - but that's why guys like JAY Z would be leading the effort. I'm very much aware that on a realistic level this is just another article written on the internet that will be forgotten by tomorrow, but there's also some small part of me that is really starting to believe in this idea. There are 100 reasons it wouldn't work, but what if we devoted that energy to figuring out how it could work? If Bill Gates can attempt to eradicate malaria worldwide, all of the intelligence in hip-hop can't attempt to set up a social security system? We know the government doesn't care, we know the corporations making money off hip-hop don't care, but all we've ever needed is us. Let's start with making sure Kool Herc never needs medical care, let's make sure Grandmaster Flash can live out his life in simple comfort, let's promise Afrika Bambaataa he'll never go hungry, and then build from there.
Kanye was right. We all owe hip-hop. It's time we paid our debts.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]