Tuesday, May 23, 2006

"Rapping with the Oldies"

This past weekend's edition of the Wall St. Journal offered it's take on the lasting power and relevance of hip-hop's first generation. I agreed with much of what was written, sans their selection of the "Ten essential albums that helped define a genre". Missy Elliot doesn't deserve to be on a top-10 list of any kind. Thoughts?

Rapping With the Oldies

As early stars who pioneered the sound hit middle age, the hip-hop industry tries to pull off a nostalgia movement.

May 20, 2006; Page P1

As one of the founders of hip-hop act Run-D.M.C., Daryl McDaniels played a pivotal role in helping to launch the genre in the mid-1980s. By the early '90s, the group had largely faded from the scene. Now, Mr. McDaniels, a k a D.M.C., is 40 years old and trying to revive his musical profile -- with a VH1 biopic and a rap remake of the folk-rock hit "Cat's in the Cradle."
He says he's aiming less at teen music fans than at an over-30 crowd ripe for "classic" hip-hop. "I thought about all the people my age who don't want to hear the rap that's on the radio," Mr. McDaniels says. "I can relate to John Fogerty more than I can relate to these rap guys now."

Thirty years after hip-hop first emerged as a distinct genre, it has become second only to rock in popularity by some measures and accounts for 13% of all music purchased -- including four of last year's top 10 albums. But for all the success, hip-hop hasn't created many acts with musical staying power. While crowds continue to pour out for Madonna and Bruce Springsteen, even as Medicare eligibility looms, the fast pace of rap's evolution has made it tough for older stars to stay in the game commercially.

Now a nascent hip-hop nostalgia movement is targeting middle-age fans. Snoop Dogg recently performed at a Roth Capital Partners conference for 2,000 investors and staffers. Ice Cube kicked off his latest tour at a House of Blues music club at Downtown Disney in Anaheim, Calif., while controversial 1980s rap group Public Enemy recently headlined at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, an upscale venue in New York's Times Square, on a Sunday evening.

"There's no reason guys like these can't have careers like rockers from the '60s," says Bob Frank, president of Koch Records, a major independent hip-hop label. "We're going to tap into this base ... a fan base that's 35 to 40 years old with two kids."

It's an issue affecting all corners of the hip-hop music industry, determining whether labels can make money from traditional cash cows like greatest-hits compilations and box sets, whether radio can profitably play "classic" hip-hop and, most importantly for early rap stars entering middle age, whether they can still attract audiences.

In last year's annual survey by the Recording Industry Association of America, in which hip-hop came in second in popularity to rock, country music was in third place, followed by rhythm and blues.
Forty-year-old D.M.C., whose real name is Daryl McDaniels

Industry executives say there's a reason they're aiming the nostalgia push at middle-age consumers. Though hip-hop is primarily associated with urban black culture, some of its early commercial successes came from crossover hits that reached suburban white teens in the 1980s. In 1986, Run-D.M.C. teamed up with rock group Aerosmith on "Walk This Way," the first rap single to crack the top five of the pop charts. Also that year came the best-selling rap album of the decade: "Licensed to Ill" by the Beastie Boys, an all-white group that drew on rock guitar sounds.

To the urban youths buying up releases from newer artists like 50 Cent and Nelly, the relatively tame music from rap's golden age can sound positively square. But music executives say those teens from the '80s, now grown up, are giving hip-hop the chance to establish an oldies segment.

In the case of Ice Cube, marketing to this demographic has so far paid off. The rapper, born O'Shea Jackson, was 19 years old when he had his first underground hit in 1987. Now 36, he's releasing a new album next month, and has been hitting rock-oriented clubs like House of Blues, where club managers say ticket prices in the $35 range generally attract an older, racially mixed crowd.

One upshot: Though it's being released without the support of a major label, the album has earned mostly strong reviews and a coveted promotional slot on the iTunes home page. His single "Why We Thugs" has also seen its biggest radio market not in New York or his hometown of Los Angeles, but in Salt Lake City, where U92 FM has played it more than 530 times since March, according to tracking service Mediaguide.

Mr. Jackson says it's traditionally been a struggle for a hip-hop artist over 30 to compete with younger names. But he's convinced fans his age "want hip-hop that's relevant to their lives."

Other returning rappers are also eyeing a middle-age market. Rev Run, D.M.C.'s onetime partner, launched his comeback last fall with his first solo album, "Distortion." It was released by an imprint of Island Def Jam Records run by his older brother, Russell Simmons, who co-founded the hip-hop label Def Jam. Mr. Simmons says the label erred in marketing the album to urban music stations with young, largely black audiences. It turned out that the record -- which incorporates a heavy rock sound, including musical samples from Joan Jett and Lynyrd Skynyrd -- got its biggest airplay in predominately white Portland, Ore., says Mr. Simmons.

"Distortion" has sold only 34,000 copies since October, which Rev Run, whose real name is Joseph Simmons, says is disappointing. "I guess I didn't crack the code," he says. To reach a broader age range, the Simmonses plan to incorporate tracks into the coming second season of Rev Run's MTV reality series, "Run's House."
Public Enemy

In much of the recording industry, the "catalog" -- recordings that have been out for at least two years -- is a key source of revenue. The pop catalog is typically led by the Beach Boys and other artists from the 1960s and '70s. Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" has been on the chart, usually in the top five, for almost 15 years running.

But hip-hop doesn't have much of a catalog business. Billboard doesn't track the genre separately. Instead, hip-hop albums are included in the broader R&B catalog rankings, where artists like Stevie Wonder and Al Green regularly top the list. Only eight out of the top 25 R&B catalog albums right now are hip-hop acts; none are from the '80s pioneers hoping for comebacks. The most popular is eight years old: a greatest-hits album from Tupac Shakur, who was killed in a 1996 shooting.

At Universal Music Enterprises, the global catalog division of Universal Music Group, president Bruce Resnikoff says it's "critical" to jump-start hip-hop's catalog business and start grooming young artists for the long term. Although he counts old albums and greatest hits collections from the likes of the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J among the company's strong sellers, classic rap isn't the cash cow that classic rock has been, Mr. Resnikoff says.

Some of these difficulties represent the flip side of a hit-making formula that has produced some of its biggest stars. Traditionally, the genre has worked on something of an apprenticeship system, with seasoned veterans selecting and sponsoring emerging talent.

In 2001, for instance, top-selling hip-hop artist Jay-Z tapped a then-unknown Kanye West as a guest producer on his album. Mr. West, who signed on to Jay-Z's label, Roc-A-Fella Records, went on to release his own album, benefiting from his association with Jay-Z and becoming one of the biggest names in hip-hop.

Mr. West, in turn, has helped launch careers of several protégés, including the rapper Rhymefest, who co-wrote Mr. West's Grammy-winning song "Jesus Walks." Meanwhile, Jay-Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter, announced his retirement from recording in 2003 for a role as president and chief executive of Def Jam.

Classic rap gets very little play on traditional radio -- still an essential driver of sales. "Hip-hop is a young man's game. Kids don't want to hear a 40-year-old rapper," says Ed Lover, an influential DJ on New York's most popular hip-hop station, Power 105.1 FM. "You're out of the game unless you learn how to reinvent yourself." Mr. Lover says that to compete in the nation's top market for rap, his station stacks its playlists with younger acts.

One notable exception to this pattern has been LL Cool J, the stage name of James Todd Smith, who's turned out hits since the 1980s and whose new album debuted at No. 6 on the charts last month. Few of his colleagues have been able to replicate his success. Other rappers who have managed to generate lengthy careers have done so by leaving music largely behind for other pursuits. Will Smith, who got his start rapping "Parents Don't Just Understand" as one half of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, went on to a hit TV show and is now one of Hollywood's most sought-after male stars.

Hip-hop's career longevity issues are a sharp contrast with its cultural obsession with its own past. Though the music of many older artists has faded commercially, the newest stars venerate their idols in song, particularly those killed in the violence that has at times bedeviled the industry, such as Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.
Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys

By dropping legendary names into lyrics or sampling slices of classic songs, new artists identify themselves with artists preapproved by the streets. One recent song by The Game, a popular young new artist, invoked Dr. Dre and Eazy-E.

Industry executives hope the veterans can make headway in an area that's been one of hip-hop's biggest weaknesses: live concerts and touring. Rap concerts are notoriously poor sellers, in part because of the genre's lingering reputation for violence, which drives up insurance costs and keeps away the over-30 crowd -- a key ticket-buying audience for big tours. Only one rap tour made it into the 20 highest-grossing tours of last year.

Many of the old-school rappers attempting comebacks are playing at smaller, more family-friendly venues. Formed in 1986, Naughty by Nature has been performing for years at small clubs without one of its founding members, DJ Kay Gee, but they recently reunited with him and are working on an album. "I figure it's a good thing to have a broader audience," says co-founder Vinnie, born Vincent Brown. Recently, the group shared a bill with heritage acts like War and Eddie Money at a benefit for Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where the top ticket price was $7,500.

And while traditional radio often shuns the early stars, classic hip-hop is finding a market in the upscale satellite radio world. Both Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio have separate channels devoted to the music -- XM's is hosted by Snoop Dogg, whose real name is Calvin Broadus.

For David Levin, a 36-year-old furniture sales representative from Newburgh, N.Y., the hip-hop acts of the '80s bring back good memories of high school. He recently attended a performance by Public Enemy at B.B. King's in New York. His friend Paul Thomas chimes in: "Public Enemy is the Led Zeppelin of rap."


Ten essential albums that helped define a genre

Beastie Boys, 'Licensed To Ill' (1986)
The debut album from these former punk rockers from New York was the first rap album to top Billboard's pop chart and made the Beastie Boys the most dominant white rappers until


Run-D.M.C., 'Raising Hell' (1986)
The group's duet with rock band Aerosmith on "Walk This Way" made it to No. 4 on the pop charts and spawned a hit video on MTV, bringing rap to its widest audience yet.

Eric B. and Rakim, 'Paid In Full' (1987)
Widely hailed as one of the most influential rap records ever made, it moved beyond simple rhymes and beats and introduced the intricate wordplay of Harlem rapper Rakim.

Public Enemy, 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back' (1988)
Brought politics and race to the forefront of rap. The album "let us know that we are black people with issues that we've got to confront head on," says rapper Ice Cube.

De La Soul, '3 Feet High and Rising' (1989)
This upbeat, eccentric music is less focused on street culture and became popular with college audiences. De La Soul still performs.

Dr. Dre, 'The Chronic' (1992)
This album, heavy on synthesizers and funk influence, marked the rise of West Coast rap. It also introduced one of the genre's biggest stars, then called Snoop Doggy Dogg.

The Notorious B.I.G., 'Ready to Die' (1994)
This album positioned this Brooklyn rapper, also known as Biggie Smalls, as the rival of Tupac Shakur. Both were later killed in shooting incidents.

Missy Elliott, 'Supa Dupa Fly' (1997)
Ms. Elliott's offbeat imagery and rapping style have made her one of the genre's most dominant female artists.

OutKast, 'Speakerboxxx/The Love Below' (2003)
With hits like "Hey Ya," this double album blurred the boundaries between rap and pop music -- and won the group a Grammy.

Kanye West, 'Late Registration' (2005)
Mr. West is considered a rare breed in industry because he raps and produces his own music.

1 comment:

Brother Spotless said...

Missy doesn't have an album of her own to that I would call "essential," but her fingerprints are all over the rap and R&B genre (same could be said for Kanye).