One of the biggest cliches in hip-hop writing is invoking The Wire. For people who aren't regularly brushing up against the street stories so common to hip-hop (true of most of the mainstream press, whose passing exposure to the genre tends to be neither frequent nor street-oriented), David Simon's five-season examination of the Baltimore underworld is a convenient shorthand. The show placed its protagonists in a dynamic world, one in which the pressures exerted on each character were made fully visible. It's a context that—in the best street rap—is taken as a given; to explain it outright in the music would be blindingly obvious, clumsy. It's assumed that the audience is savvy, or alternately, enjoying the process of becoming moreso through the music.
Pinpoint explicit and grand in scope, showing both the person-to-person power relationships between individual characters as well as a wide-angle view of the bureaucracies and organizational systems they had to contend with, The Wire does a lot of hand-holding to help those for whom the fallout from the war on drugs and the poor is abstract. This isn't a criticism. The Wire's explicitness is a strength, and its comprehensiveness makes it difficult to find fault with its critique. But it also helps to explain why The Wire has received millions of words of acclaim in the media, while an artist like Nipsey Hussle—like many rappers from America's abandoned communities voicing their own truths about street life—struggles to gain much attention from the American mainstream. The distance is real.
Earlier this week, we published an interview in which Nipsey Hussle criticized Complex and ignited a flurry of discussion about the relationship between the media and artists in 2013.
"Do you guys even like hip-hop? Is Complex a magazine that has love for the culture? I started to see real sarcastic and degrading articles...It was like a bougie stance from where they’re writing from."
Although he denied taking personal offence, Nipsey initially bristled at our request for an interview, noting his inclusion on a list of "10 Underachieving Rappers" Complex published back in August.
"Leading up to that article, I went to Complex, I played my albums for Complex," he told interviewer Angel Diaz. "Complex was a big supporter from day one of my shit. But I started to see a change in the stance it was taking. It was almost like sarcastic…it made me think, Do you guys even like hip-hop? Is Complex a magazine that has love for the culture? I started to see real sarcastic and degrading articles...It was like a bougie stance from where they’re writing from."
But his criticism was aimed even wider: "I felt like we’re at a point where our culture’s getting exploited and it’s looking like they’re trying to do us like they did rock 'n' roll. They’re trying to do us like they did Africa, and they’re trying to extract all of our natural resources for their own exploited reasons."
I would humbly submit that Complex is about a lot more than bougie condescension, but his broader point certainly resonated. This isn't a brand new criticism—see Kanye's speech about "culture vultures" at the Pusha T listening, or Scarface's interview with Hardknock.TV earlier this year about hip-hop being "whitewashed." But it struck a chord because he articulated an argument many hip-hop fans have been making already, from the boulevards to the barbershops to message boards to Twitter. There is a sense that hip-hop is on a trajectory of co-option, that the originators are being marginalized. It feels correct, and it also feels a lot different than the chief issue that confronted the genre during the last major conflagration about cultural ownership in the late 1990s.
At that point, hip-hop was crossing over, and purists worried that its appeal to mainstream America would reshape negatively as artists chased the money. (I would argue that, in many ways, this actually enabled the genre to flourish creatively.) This time around, though, instead of hood stars becoming pop stars, the white American mainstream is supplying its own. And the money that once flooded the industry in a wave of $18.99 CD prices, money that went into artist development, that bankrolled a generation of superproducers, that helped transform hip-hop into America's dominant pop music, has disappeared.
Critics of rap radio do not see it as a feedback loop between the audience and DJs. Rather, they envision the DJs as inundating the minds of innocent people with subpar music, brainwashing them.
Earlier this week, there was an argument on Hot 97's Juan Epstein podcast, as RapRadar's Elliott Wilson and Brian "B.Dot" Miller swung by to speak with Peter Rosenberg, Cipha Sounds, and station program director Ebro Darden. B.Dot has long been critical of Hot 97, and what he sees as the station's unwillingness to embrace underground New York hip-hop and propel it on a national stage. Ebro went on the air to explain that audience fragmentation—blogs, Spotify, etc.—had made it more difficult for radio to take a risk on new artists. "When things bubble up from out of those fragmented platforms that are stellar and better-than," he explained, "I'm gonna grab those, and put those in rotation."
Things devolved once B.Dot accused Ebro of taking payola to play music on the radio, although it made for an entertaining discussion. Ebro's side of the argument is more convincing in many ways. Critics of rap radio do not see it as a feedback loop between the audience and DJs. Rather, they envision the DJs as inundating the minds of innocent people with subpar music, brainwashing them. The reality is that there is a give-and-take between audience and radio—much as a website like RapRadar or Complex is only as successful as its audience's willingness to engage with the dialogue those venues create. Where Complex's writers gain authority was a central question in Nipsey Hussle's critique.
For Nipsey, a writer who hadn't lived in his shoes, who came from outside of his culture, didn't have the authority to speak on his music. This critique has been leveled by writers like B.Dot against other writers in the past as well. It's an understandably sensitive subject. But it also seems a bit naive about the realities of America and culture in 2013. Writers today—like myself—grew up with Snoop Dogg as a cultural reality. Hip-hop was, for a time, America's most popular art form. Not that this means writers can or should assert ownership over the genre. If anything, a healthy dialogue would mean a lot more voices entering the fray, creating a story about the genre that is more in flux, more open to critique. And anyone writing about it would be smart to recognize the responsibility that comes with it. In an interview with Complex, writer Junot Diaz said, "As a writer, everything you publish gives you privilege; it’s what you do with yours that matters."
There is no "neutral" position on a massive, omnivorous, diverse art form like hip-hop. To ignore it is to contribute to its demise. Because in the massive divestment from the development of hip-hop artists that occurred in the mid-2000s, the "A&R" was democratized. A very influential dialogue has been left to the whims and dictates of a small online class, to the lottery contest that is virality. If a rap artist wants to "make it" in 2013, there are many more points of entry, but also an increasingly complex (no pun, etc.) tangle of pathways to climb to the apex of public attention, to have one's music broadcast to as many listeners as possible.
This points to where B.Dot has a point, in his crusade against Hot 97. The current system, where the cream supposedly rises the to top, isn't working the way it used to. For an artist to become a central part of the dialogue, to transform into a truly national star, is a much more complicated and arbitrary dream, one increasingly left to the—yes, often bourgoise—values of media. In comparison to the profit-driven A&R of years past, things are more chaotic and less professionalized.
When Kanye West spoke on Jimmy Kimmel, he had a very dark view of media's purpose. "I feel like media does everything they can to break creatives, to break artists, to break people’s spirits," he said.
One of The Wire's biggest strengths was the way it humanized every single level of a conflict. It showed the way that individual actors have to navigate really complex, realistic systems. It's one of the reasons critiques of "the media" as a class of out-of-touch oppressors seem as caricature-ish and one-dimensional as the criticism that radio programmers are dictatorial brainwashers. The media, much like radio, is an atomized aggregation of many different people with different experiences and motivations.
When Kanye West spoke on Jimmy Kimmel, he had a very dark view of media's purpose. "I feel like media does everything they can to break creatives, to break artists, to break people’s spirits," he said. Not to minimize Kanye's struggles with the very real consequences of celebrity, and not to get into the differences between TMZ and Rolling Stone, but this seems at odds with the spirit of most music writers I know. Most music writers became music writers because they love music. They, we, admire artists and support their creativity at least as often, far more often, in fact, than we criticize it or tear it down. (Check the Complex comments section to see how often we are accused of being "dick riders.")
"The metrics and the gauge of success, and of impact on the culture. It don’t got shit to do with Billboard, it don’t got shit to do with SoundScan," Nipsey told us. "It don’t got shit to do with any of these platforms that the business created. This shit is a culture. This shit is our life." This critique was completely on point. The fragmentation of the genre has created many mini-empires, artists succeeding outside the confines of an illusory consensus about who does and doesn't "matter." Earlier this month, Dom Kennedy released an album directly through Best Buy, and will no doubt sell a significant number of copies without much recent coverage from Complex. (We did run an interview the day his record came out.) Many artists, especially those who've connected directly with fans like Dom and Nipsey, simply don't need gatekeepers to have careers. There are as many measurements of success as there are successful artists.
We need more writers willing to document their own feelings about the music, and about their own personal experiences with music, to explain why artists' work is important and worthy of our attention (and to be critical as well).
And much as artists find success connecting with fans, writers must learn to connect with readership. The media covering hip-hop has gone through some pretty tough growing pains in the internet era, too. Just as online distribution erased the economic value of recorded music, the Internet decimated the market for the written word. The barrier to entry for writing is small; the rewards are fewer.
The primary problem with music writing right now is that there aren't very many people actually writing about the music. I know B.Dot likes Macklemore, and cosigned him early on. I know that he predicted his success. What I don't know is why he likes him. If the culture doesn't have shit to do with Billboard or Soundscan, we need more writers to explain why the musical output of this culture matters. We need more writers willing to document their own feelings about the music, and about their own personal, subjective experiences with music, to explain why artists' work is worthy of our attention. Or why it isn't; thoughtful criticism is important, too. The writing is hard, but it's considerably more worthwhile, at least in terms of the health of an art form, than the Monday morning quarterbacking about marketing tactics, the faux-boardroom insider conversations, the sycophantic refusal to be critical of successful artists.
The attitude Nipsey Hussle rightly criticized isn't just at Complex, nor is it just within the media class. It's true of the fans, and true of artists, too. It's a mentality that measures success by numbers, that tries to construct a hierarchy at a time when the system is dysfunctional. (This is not the Get Rich or Die Trying era, where sales numbers said something very real about the tastes of the audience—there are too many variables now.) The system is not dysfunctional because of the ill will of a writer talking about artists who haven't lived up to their potential. And the reason artists aren't living up to their popular potential is as much about external pressures—whims of the business, structural inequalities, the chaotic realities—as it might be personal ones.
The metrics have changed. The multitude of the industry's income streams—festivals, touring, iTunes—reward monied fanbases. From Robin Thicke to Macklemore, white artists appear to have an advantage in the largest pop markets, even when performing historically black music. From a creative standpoint, hip-hop feels as vital as ever. But there is a growing gap between hip-hop's core creators and the mainstream. Vital artists' stories are not being told; analytical exposition and historical connections are not being drawn, lots of great music is not getting the light it deserves. The infrastructure to make these things possible is just now being rebuilt. "Outsiders" writing about hip-hop cultures—hip-hop's myriad cultures—definitely has a distortive effect. But even more damaging is the lack of knowledgeable writing, period. For hip-hop to again gain the cultural relevance it has given up, it needs more writers and a healthier critical dialogue. The Wire had a built-in context. Hip-hop doesn't. We need more people.
[Editor's Correction: In an attempt to make a point about the importance of critical writing in hip-hop, the article inaccurately implied that Brian "B. Dot" Miller has not written criticism; he has done so, both about Macklemore, as well as other artists.]