When Atlanta snappers Dem Franchize Boyz take the Alltel Pavilion stage this Sunday, they'll run through a couple of songs about their white tees. They'll lean with it. They'll rock with it. And then, somewhere in the streets of New York City, an angel will lose its wings.
That's what the hip-hop heads put off by popular Southern rap would have you believe: New-school swaggerers like T.I., strawman kingpins like Rick Ross and any other big name below the Mason-Dixon are about to usher in the apocalypse, dropping A-bombs instead of elbows. Get ready for the end of hip hop.
But why are the real heads really bemoaning the end of the hip-hop reign? In large part because of one red, red flag: Commercial rap sales are down 15 percent this year.
Compared to the overall 4 percent drop across the industry, that is, indeed, a big dip. But sloping numbers aren't the only reason stalwart rags like XXL and industry e-thugs are prepping eulogies. Rather, they're tossing roses, holding hankies and pointing South for plenty of reasons: New York has fallen off; L.A. is MIA; Curtis "9 Times, 50 Cent" Jackson moved into a mansion in Connecticut; brands like Jay-Z and Eminem have "retired"; Dre's much-delayed Detox is approaching urban-legend status; OutKast just put out their first good/not-great album; Clipse records are rotting in major-label fuselage.
True, outside of the South's radio-adored hotbeds, hip hop is in a slump. And the answer to the prevailing question--"Who is responsible for this mess?!?!"-- seems clear enough: Memphis, New Orleans, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, please stand up. If you listen to the pundits, crunk music, snap music and trap music--the only stuff that really seems to sell in '06--has killed hip hop.
Buying that line, however, confers some pretty tricky stuff: Namely, that hip hop--as an art form--is weak enough to be offed in a few years' time. That sentiment alone should have you wondering if the old schoolers and music journos--now accustomed to supreme dominance over the charts, and a bunch of legitimately great, big-name albums every year--have grown a bit spoiled.
Seriously: Death? Doesn't that seem pretty extreme for a sales dip and a creative rut? Besides, music scribes should have seen this coming. It happened to rock. Twice. Remember the late '70s? Do the '80s babies remember rapmetal?
The point is, a genre can only get so big or so popular or so fruitfully artistic. Then it turns nasty and it gets bloated. You wake up beside it every morning, repulsed but committed, asking yourself, "What have the years done to you? Why am I still here?" By that time, its most popular artists are marketing tools, glorified things used for selling cars. And, unfortunately, the good stuff hides in the shadow of the utterly unredeemable.
It started with a bunch of minivan bangers, songs baby-booming stiffs sang to show you how with it they are or the kind of stuff Danny Tanner Dads belt out when they're trying to embarrass their kids. Think about this: When Sean Combs, the biggest guy in pre-2K music, did a track for Godzilla--the biggest movie possible--he borrowed the guitar part from Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" Fucking Jimmy Page. Why? Just so a bunch of middle-aged white dudes on Propecia could relate, really. C'mon. And we're complaining about fake drug dealers?
But Combs isn't the culprit. If it wasn't him, it would have been someone else: His "Come With Me" was an inevitable part of a strangely organic process. When a style of music grows to such popularity, the mechanisms that sustain it--from record labels and producers to publicity firms and magazines--squeeze the teat until it runs dry. Instead of getting behind even more difficult, complex individuals like Scarface (a Southern boy, mind you) or Tupac Shakur (a poet, a gangbanger, a womanizer, a loving son) and pushing the genre ahead, the machine spits simple, non-threatening paper tigers named Ja Rule and Nelly at radio, at magazines and at listeners just like you and me. Sure, they claim to be tough, but it's a penetrable front.
Why? Because that's a whole lot easier.
But hip hop isn't losing its commercial grip simply because it worried about whether or not mom could tolerate it, and rap's not dropping off because it went after the 14-year-old Jessica set. Quite the opposite: This slope might have something to do with The Abercrombie Kids flocking elsewhere, sympathizing more with the diary-page melodrama of Gerard Way and My Chemical Romance than, say, Young Jeezy's coke raps, or, you know, the street.
So maybe Mobb Deep falling short of 300,000 copies on their G-unit debut shouldn't send up a bunch of red flags. After all, hip hop shouldn't be looking to Billboard to justify its existence. Critics just need to hold their horses and remember their history: Disco didn't kill rock, and neither did the arena's gross excesses. Hip hop's Southern lean probably won't, either.
Funeral pyre or fun times? Decide when Dem Franchize Boyz take the Alltel Pavilion stage with Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Lil Wayne and Juelz Santana on Sunday, Sept. 3. Tickets are $25.50-$55.50.
Caravan Calling Cards
The rise of the minivan banger through the '90s set hip hop on a collision course for a broken bubble, resulting last year in a 15 percent drop in sales. Here's a look at eight tracks that gave rise to the fall.
MC Hammer, "2 Legit 2 Quit"
A proto-banger, whose video featured Bo Jackson, Jose Canseco and other sports stars of the mid-'90s doing the now-classic hand accompaniment. Uncle Joey and his "Cut. It. Out" should have taken Hammer to court.
Coolio, "Fantastic Voyage"
Another track that laid the groundwork for pop-rap's dominance way before labels realized the freewheelin' novelty-hop was the key to white people's hearts. And, of course, their minivans.
Will Smith, "Getting Jiggy Wit It"
A toss-off song that coined hip hop's stupidest phrase. Years later, you mom thinks she's hip when she says it.
Ja Rule, "Put it on Me"
Ja Rule tried to pretend he was actually a gangster. And that he had, like, killed people. Then he shared songs with every lady in R&B. The streets weren't convinced.
Sisqo, "The Thong Song"
In all fairness, this is an R&B number, but it reeks of the ride to and from middle school.
Nelly, "Hot in Heere"
Widespread Panic covered it, Weird Al parodied it. Hell, even indie darling Tiga put in a rendition. So, while it's tempting to opt for "Over and Over"--Nelly's duet with country man Tim McGraw--"Hot" has a milquetoast ubiquity that's more or less unshakeable.
Will Smith, "Wild, Wild West"
Back again. No, not for "Willennium," but for the musical centerpiece of Will Smith's 1999 blockbuster, Wild Wild West. You could hate it for its silly grin, or for the fact that it catapulted Dru Hill's Sisqo to stardom. Your choice.
Mase, "Feel So Good"
In one of Puff's best sample choices, Mase raps all slow ('cause that's how he does) over a Kool & the Gang snip. Then the hook girls come in. Your grandma starts clapping along. --Robbie Mackey