The Era of the “Working-Class Rapper” Has Arrived
In American music right now, the worst thing one can be is a rich rapper. Concurrently, there’s nothing better one could be than a rapper with sustainable and upper middle class aspirations. It may sound audacious, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s untrue. The music industry is in the throes of radical commercial change and engaging in wild measures to maintain a dwindling status quo, but the era of the “working class rapper” as the symbol for modern excellence is fully upon us.
For many years, rap music excelled because it allowed poor people in urban communities the opportunity to prove that Reaganomics and mass incarceration couldn’t stop the aspirational will of minorities and marginalized people to achieve incredible wealth. Run-DMC could rise up from Hollis, Queens and become global icons with instantaneously connective songs and Adidas sneaker deals. Dr. Dre could go from a skating rink DJ coming “Straight Outta Compton” to a literal billionaire who turned a then one-off headphone deal into an eventual partnership with Apple. That was then, but this is now.
On the September 11, 2001-released album The Blueprint, Jay Z rapped on “U Don’t Know” that his financial success was derived from being able to be “a hustler baby,” and “sell[ing] water to a well.” On March 30, 2015, Jay Z showcased the ultimate power of rap music (and hustling) by gathering a group of some of the most influential and wealthiest musicians in popular music in one room to announce his investment in TIDAL.#
Nearly 15 years after making that Blueprint-ed proclamation, by pulling together everyone from Deadmau5 and Daft Punk to Rihanna and Madonna under the banner of ‘the rich theoretically getting richer,’ Jay Z proved that he really is a hustler who can sell water to a well. But given the economically depressed state of the music industry, is this feat even worthy of celebration? TIDAL has already plummeted out of the top 700 for Apple’s paid app downloads, while Spotify currently sits at #15 overall for free apps available via iTunes.
Of course, all of this talk of hustles, rappers, and streaming dollars begs the question of why a legendary rapper reputedly worth $1 billion (alongside his wife Beyonce) would be concerned about money anyway? Here’re some facts:
In 1980, the average cost of a vinyl album in America was $6-$8. By 2005, the average physical album on CD retailed at roughly $16 and the average cost of a single track available for purchase on iTunes was 99 cents. Ten years later, a Spotify user streaming a single song in 2015 ends up getting an artist paid $0.0084, or just under one percent of what the track was worth a decade ago.
It’s a very difficult thing to be a “rich hustler” in a country where music has been so drastically devalued. As 2PAC said on 1993’s “Keep Ya Head Up,” “It’s hard to make a dollar out of 15 cents,” and in a way pre-dating what Jay and friends did onstage with TIDAL, “It’s hard to be legit and still pay the rent.” So again, let’s reiterate:
In American music right now, the worst thing one can be is a rich rapper. Concurrently, there’s nothing better one could be than a rapper with sustainable and upper middle class aspirations.
And here’s where the story of DC-to-Brooklyn emcee Oddisee demands to be told. Flying well beneath the radar of quoting Nietzche at the TIDAL press conference like Alicia Keys did, Oddisee, a 16-year veteran emcee, will release The Good Fight on May 5th. It will be his ninth independently-released studio album over a seven-year period via Mello Music Group. According to Oddisee, “The Good Fight is about living fully as a musician without succumbing to the traps of hedonism, avarice, and materialism. It’s about not selling out and shilling for a paycheck, while still being aware that this is a business requiring compromise and collaboration.”
Don’t get it twisted, though. Oddisee’s not your run-of-the-mill well-meaning, yet not-so-successful struggle rapper. He’s a globally-travelled rapper/producer who has turned underground buzz and the development of a fanbase early in his career into a sustainable business model that has allowed him to travel globally many times over, plus work with the likes of DJ Jazzy Jeff, Joey Bada$$, and more.
There’s also the case of Kendrick Lamar, who, when you dig just below the surface, may not just be rap’s best overall rapper but also its most traditionally working-class standard-bearer for greatness. Prior to the release of the black power magnum opus To Pimp A Butterfly, his biggest moment in mainstream media involved him buying a modestly-priced $524,000 home in the Los Angeles suburbs. The days of MC Hammer building a $12 million home and then releasing a video for his 1994 single “Pumps and a Bump” involving bikini-clad women and Hammer in a speedo are long gone.
Whereas rap’s greatest power as a genre once existed in the sound being the lynchpin to, as Outkast once said, “get up, get out and get something,” rap’s new model involves rap now getting up, getting out, and saving something too. Intriguingly for Jay, TIDAL is likely in all actuality Jay attempting to struggle to maintain a billion-dollar lifestyle without having to do much actual work after having already claimed artistic “retirement.”#
Imagine a (dream) scenario where working class rappers Oddisee and Kendrick Lamar get together in a studio in Brooklyn. I see them finishing a low-key day of honest work on a collaborative album with happy hour and a meal. Kendrick drops that album via Interscope, earning most of his money live touring and hustling for corporate sponsorships. Oddisee? Well, as always, he drops via Bandcamp and iTunes, and maybe a high-quality vinyl copy, too. Having significantly cut out the middleman and having a fanbase built largely from the underground, he tours and syncs every single record with a new Netflix drama and the process is ultimately a success. Working class rappers making quality content and working hard to promote it.
As a rapper in an era where the margin for failure is much greater than the likelihood of success, you can either create music that cultivates an audience that allows you to live sustainably or you can attempt to sell water to an overflowing well. Ultimately, what was once the rule and expectation of hip-hop culture is no longer congruent with America as a country. The era of the “working-class rapper” has arrived.
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