Science for Sale
Can You Spot a Sellout?
My uncle, an investment banker, wasn't sure. He e-mailed me last year saying that a friend of his in the Hamptons--some rich client--was inquiring about the young man who had recently bought the beach mansion next to his. 'His name is Daddy,' he wrote. 'I think he's a famous black singer.'
'His name is Puff Daddy, and he's a rapper,' I wrote back.
'Martha Stewart would know someone like a rapper?' my incredulous uncle replied.
Someone like a rapper. Someone from the ghetto. Someone who has seen drive-by shootings and poverty and only knows 'polo' as the stuff the cracked-out bootlegger at the corner sells, I know my uncle was thinking. No, Martha Stewart probably wouldn't know someone like that.
But she would know someone like Sean 'Puffy' Combs, the multimillionaire Forbes magazine cover boy whose PR rep made sure that, along with the inevitable rap A-list of Missys and Bustas and Fat Joes, members of the genteel WASP establishment would also attend Puff's $600,000 birthday party at Cipriani's Wall Street restaurant. The question is, why was Martha Stewart there? And double-why Fergie?
Well, after the murders of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, it was obvious that rap needed a quick cleanup. The gratuitous deaths and gun-o-ramas that were the lyrical bread and butter of gangsta rap had somehow become a grisly self-fulfilling prophecy. 'Keeping it real' became way too real. According to the music-industry magazine Soundscan, R&B, of which hip-hop is a major component, was the best-selling musical genre in the United States in 1997. So rap is an industry with loadsamoney riding on it. The obvious questions were these: Who would do the reputational mopping up? And how?
Some music-biz people predicted a quick return to 'conscious rap,' the humbly ideological, peace-pipe-puffing, college-y hip-hop subgenre that had its brightest days in the late '80s and early '90s with acts such as A Tribe Called Quest and Arrested Development. That didn't quite pan out (you can find Tribe's comeback album, The Love Movement, in your local record store's bargain bin). But, with Puffy's chart-topping success, hip-hop's post-Biggie direction soon became clear, and that's where Martha's birthday invite comes in.
Puffy was out to become a symbol--a symbol of a new entrepreneurial hip-hop spirit, but beyond that, of a capital-R Respectable black man, someone black youth everywhere could aspire to be. Which isn't such a bad idea. After all, his is the ultimate capitalist success story: masterminding a huge pop music empire and living through hell to come out on top. In this way, he's a wonderful role model. He probably has plenty to teach. And it's not a federal offense if, like mainstream pop stars Elton John and Phil Collins, he wants to play polo and throw ostentatious parties.
Problem is, much like Jay Gatsby, Puffy immediately took to proving his very worth through an incredibly loud and pointed association with things he could purchase: luxury houses, luxury cars, luxury WASP icons, luxury birthday parties. 'It's all about the Benjamins,' he rapped in an ode to the American $100 bill.
Sure, rapping about money isn't new. In 1979, on the early hip-hop track 'Rapper's Delight,' the Sugarhill Gang dropped 'I got bodyguards / I got two big
cars / . . . I got a Lincoln Continental and a sun-roof Cadillac.' But the difference between Sugarhill's dreamy boasts and an artist like Puffy saying he's got 'a Benz that [he] ain't even drove yet' is that Puffy's braggadocio is probably true. In fact, materialistic boasting now constitutes Puff's entire message.
It's increasingly the message of most commercial rap. One trip to the listening booth with a stack of today's rap best-sellers will confirm that most everything, including the controversial guns and beefs of the gangsta, has been washed out in a gleaming tide of Versace dinner plates and D&G motorcycle helmets. As the Lox neatly put it: 'Money, power, respect.' In that order. The ghetto still features prominently in the lyrics, but only as a credibility-boosting starting ground where things were shit. The Puffy-fied rapper's arena is now the penthouse, not the street. Public Enemy's Chuck D once called rap 'the CNN of black America.' What we have now is the Town & Country of black America. A nouveau riche elitism pervades what was once the most democratic form of popular music.
Puffy has just released a line of clothing inspired by Prada and Versace. He calls it 'hip-hop high fashion,' meaning it costs big bucks. Favorite hip-hop clothiers FUBU (For Us, By Us) say they don't want their clothes called 'urban' anymore, just a 'men's line'; their bathrobes cost more than a winter coat. So who is the 'us' in FUBU, a black-owned company that grossed $200 million last year? Everyone who attended Puff Daddy's birthday bash? The economic situation of black Americans hasn't changed substantially in the past two years, yet the most popular kind of hip-hop is no longer an African American cultural barometer, but rather a carrot on a stick. And it's a carrot more white people than black people in America can catch and eat.
White folks now purchase 71 percent of all hip-hop in the United States. In 1997, KRS-One told me, 'If the white appropriation of hip-hop continues, the black artists are going to have to become more aware of why they are doing what they're doing, and become more strongly rooted in who they are so that they are not pushed out of the way, the way they were with rock and roll.'
Does that include courting 'high-class' Martha Stewart, icon of the old, nonintegrated America? Hope not. That's being taken in by the whitest, most oppressive and crotchety idea of social status in existence. 'You can't forget who got you there in the first place,' KRS-One said, 'and with money, you wouldn't believe how easy it is to forget.'
The latest backlash against nouveau riche hip-hop has arrived in the form of new chart-piercing rap acts such as the Roots and OutKast. And hip-hop powerhouse Lauryn Hill recently echoed KRS's words, warning hip-hop from the inside: 'You get money, you get power,' she raps. 'But keep your eyes on the final hour.' The massive success of Hill's solo debut is an encouraging sign. Still, her words may go unheeded by those who need them most--those lounging in an ivory penthouse, high on class, too busy erasing their pasts and proving their success to really listen to what she's saying.
From Shift (May 1999). Subscriptions: $30/yr. (6 issues) from 119 Spadina Av., Suite 202, Toronto, ON M5V 261.