October 23, 2014

PATTEN | White-Washing the Rap Business

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Two notable events in the rap business happened on Tuesday: Mac Miller got signed for a reported 10 million dollars and Chief Keef got dropped from Interscope. Neither move is really surprising, but both are representative of a contradictory system which often fails to reward the artists that shake the foundations of the genre.

Keef, from Englewood, Chicago, catapulted to fame in early 2012 (he was 16), behind a rapturous stream of songs on YouTube, including “I Don’t Like.” “I Don’t Like” quickly got remixed by Kanye West as one of the first tracks off of Cruel Summer, contributing to Keef’s rising profile. This rapid success resulted in two things: A national stage for the Chicago-based Drill music and a six-million-dollar deal for Chief Keef with Interscope. The Interscope deal also included provisions for Keef to run his own label, the since discontinued Glory Boyz Entertainment.

If I sound a little bitter and cynical, I guess it is because I am — the white-washing of hip hop propagated, knowingly or not, by inferior artists like Macklemore and especially Iggy Azelea is not a new thing (Vanilla Ice, anyone?).

Keef’s raps bordered fantasy with death; simultaneously a representation of the fictional narratives of rap and the horrors of life in an urban, poverty-stricken area. While certainly inspired by the music of Atlanta stalwarts like Waka Flocka Flame and Gucci Mane, Chief Keef reached something different with early mixtapes like Back From the Dead. Keef removed the humor from the songs, leaving a nihilistic darkness over the shiny, trap and Lux Luger influenced production of Young Chop. That the rapper using “bang bang” as his adlib was a 16 year-old who would later lose a cousin and a stepbrother to gun violence only made the tape’s cruelty more authentic — Keef was not a poser trying to get street cred, but a teenage kid growing up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in America.

Of course, it was largely his presence in such neighborhoods that contributed to Keef’s souring relationship with Interscope. He has always been dogged by legal problems, with charges ranging from driving 110 in a 55, to heroin distribution, to assault with a firearm on a police officer. Coupled with trips to court ordered rehab, Keef’s focus on music has been inconsistent at best, and his relationship with Interscope deteriorated. With a lack of production and relatively poor sales (his much hyped debut album Finally Rich only sold about 150,000 records), Interscope had enough and dropped him, despite the scheduled release of Back From the Dead 2 for the end of the month.

Mac Miller started out largely similar to Chief Keef: He made mixtapes and shared them with his friends and with the Internet. In 2010, at 17, Miller hit it big, with his mixtape K.I.D.S generating huge traffic and a sellout tour. Despite his mixtape’s success, it was largely a joke — most people that seriously listen to hip hop classified it as unironic frat rap made by a kid. Nonetheless, Mac Miller and Rostrom Records capitalized on the stardom, with his first album, Blue Slide Park released in 2011 and selling over 350,000 records despite very mixed reviews.

After a steady stream of criticism, Miller was not content to continue selling tasteless records to white middle schoolers. Following the release of Blue Slide Park, he started buddying up with many of the most lauded artists of his generation, including Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica. Despite having to spend some time in rehab, he worked incessantly, both as a rapper and as a producer (he produces as Larry Fisherman). His follow up album was the much improved Watching Movies with the Sound Off. Largely self-produced, it features many of his newfound rap friends and some much more grown up themes. Its greatest weakness comes from the fact that the new sound is only a vaguely disguised rip off: Mac has obviously transformed his sound to satisfy the critics who so thoroughly panned him previously.

While less successful commercially, Watching Movies still sold well over 150,000 records, despite lacking a hit single. I suspect it further dedicated many of his core fans, allowing him to tour successfully for months on end. Coupled with his MTV show, Mac Miller and the Most Dope Family, he is a clear bet for a record company: a known product with a known fan base and a consistent path to record sales. Warner paying Mac 10 million dollars is just good business.

I must admit though that the economics of the whole thing makes me sad. For a summer, Chief Keef captured the rap industry. He helped remind America (albeit somewhat indirectly) of a social pandemic and exposed many dilettantes to a new sound propagated by some of the most creative artists rap has to offer. Barring a midcareer revelation, Mac Miller will never make any such contribution — at most he will recycle such sounds to his mainstream audience full of white kids with disposable income. If I sound a little bitter and cynical, I guess it is because I am — the white-washing of hip hop propagated, knowingly or not, by inferior artists like Macklemore and especially Iggy Azelea is not a new thing (Vanilla Ice, anyone?). And while Mac Miller likely has no such aims, it is hard to say that Warner and the industry as a whole does not.