Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movementby S. Craig Watkins
From its humble beginnings in the Bronx to its transformation into a multibillion-dollar global industry, hip hop has stirred constant and contentious debate. Avoiding the simple caricatures that either celebrate or condemn this powerful movement, S. Craig Watkins produces one of the most thorough accounts of hip hop yet. Hip Hop Matters delves deeply into the phenomenal world that hip hop has created and comes up with a portrait that is as big, brave, and vibrant as the movement itself. Readers see the brilliance and blemishes of hip hop's entrepreneurial elite and also discover a thriving digital underground, hip-hop inspired literature, young political activists, and the movement's own intelligentsia.
The author punctuates this meticulously researched book with revealing anecdotes and astute analysis of the corporate takeover of hip hop, the culture's march into America's colleges and universities, and the rampant misogyny threatening hip hop's progressive potential. He also offers revealing portraits of some of hip hop's most intriguing personalities-Sylvia Robinson, Grandmaster Flash, Chuck D, Jay-Z, Hype Williams, and Eminem-and influential brands-FUBU and Def Jam.
Ultimately, we see how the struggle for hip hop reverberates in a world bigger than hip hop: global media, racial and demographic change, the reinvention of the pop music industry, urban politics, the moral and public health of young people, and their relentless desire to be heard and respected.
It is the spectacular convergence of these and other issues that makes hip hop one of the more compelling stories of our time. Which people and forces are vying to control a movement that has become a lucrative pop-culture industry as well as an insurgent voice for the young and the disenfranchised? Watkins's incisive and timely book decisively answers the question and shows why now, more than ever, hip hop matters.
"Offering a fast-moving and well-researched book, Watkins successfully unearths some of the disturbing and encouraging implications of hip-hop culture." -Library Journal
"Quite an exposition of all things hip-hop." -Mike Tribby, Booklist
"Watkins well understands the challenges facing the nascent hip-hop political movement."Adam Bradley, Washington Post
"Watkins sets his tome apart with a meticulous attention to the facts . . . He leaves few stones unturned examining the endless influence of hip-hop on the world around us, always with a critical eye."URB
"Watkins's study is the best yet on the hip-hop industry. Watkins has provided nothing less than a political economy of hip-hop, one that doesn't shy away from the dirty business hip-hop has become . . . He's also attentive to the way hip-hop was affected by the appalling rates of incarceration and AIDS in black communities." Greg Tate, The Nation
"With Hip Hop Matters, S. Craig Watkins establishes himself as one of the most insightful observers and critics of hip hop culture."Michael Eric Dyson
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HIP HOP MATTERS
Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement
By S. Craig Watkins
Copyright © 2005
S. Craig Watkins
All right reserved.
Remixing American Pop
Rap has been around for a while now it's really successful,
it's powerful and still vibrant, but something else is going
to happen soon.... The potential is unlimited.
-BRYAN TURNER, founder of Priority Records, 1992
In 1989 Billboard magazine, the music industry's most important
trade publication, held a briefing devoted to improving the way it
collected sales data. Among the various people attending the meeting
that day was a record industry executive named Michael Shalett. His
primary areas of expertise included information technology, marketing,
and market research. As Shalett listened to the various ideas
being discussed, he could not believe what he was hearing. When the
briefing was over, he left convinced that the methods used by Billboard
were substandard and unreliable.
Next, he turned to Michael Fine, one of the nation's foremost research
professionals and pollsters. Fine had distinguished himself as
president of George Fine Research, a full-service, national and international
market research firm adept at gathering public opinion. Established
in 1935, the company developed some of the most widely
used marketresearch methodologies in the world. Exit polling, a
technique the company helped refine, changed the way political projections
are made and how election night results are reported. The
collaboration between Shalett and Fine would have a similar groundbreaking
impact on the business of pop music.
The same year that Billboard held its briefing the annual Consumer
Profile of the Recording Industry Association of America
(RIAA) reported that rap music's market share was 6 percent. The
numbers from the report could be read in at least two ways. For
some, the market share was an indication that the genre, despite its
relatively short career, had established itself on the pop music map.
For others, however, the numbers suggested that for all of its noise
and high jinks rap's popularity was still somewhat localized, if not
ghettoized. In 1989, more than half, 57 percent, of all music purchased
in the U.S. was purchased by consumers between ten and
twenty-nine years old. Rap music's fourth-place share was an indication
that the genre's impact, though commendable, was not necessarily
formidable among its youthful audience.
Ten years later, however, rap's impact was undeniable as it was
routinely producing some of the top-selling recordings of the year
and establishing a prominent presence in the pop music landscape
and beyond. Between 1990 and 2000 rap's market share more than
doubled while its rival genres-rock, pop, and R&B-actually lost
market share and the industry as a whole came face-to-face with
declining sales. In the RIAA's 2000 Consumer Profile, rap's market
share was second only to rock, roughly 13 percent compared to 25
percent. But even the most casual observers of pop music culture
knew that rap's influence reached far beyond its own generic boundaries
and official market share.
Rhythm and blues, a staple in American pop music for decades,
had come under hip hop's spell as it began gravitating toward the
grittier street-oriented beats and ghetto-theme lyrics that bolstered
hip hop's aura and appeal. The resonance of hip hop was also detectable
in more traditional pop fare. Just before the boy-band craze
faded in the late 1990s, multiplatinum acts like N Sync and the Backstreet
Boys adopted some of the edgier styles and lyrics typically associated
with rappers. Even pop princesses Britney Spears and
Christina Aguilera, in their bid to go from teen idols to more mature
artists, began working with some of hip hop's most sought after producers,
performers, and choreographers in order to stay relevant in
the movement's widening orbit.
Still rap's impact was never a sure thing. In fact as the nineties
began the verdict on the genre, especially from the perspective of
music industry decision-makers, was still out. The earlier inroads
made by groups like Run-D.M.C., Salt-N-Pepa, and Public Enemy
notwithstanding, rap was still looked at with a certain degree of
scorn and suspicion by industry executives. Though it was clear that
rap had already established its bona fides among key segments of the
youth marketplace, it was viewed by industry heads as a genre with
limited and even uncertain long-term appeal. But as the nineties unfolded
much of the doubt about rap was erased as a combination of
pioneering labels, artists, and entrepreneurs transformed the genre
into a spectacular music industry. Surprisingly, the most important
factor in rap's rise was not, at least initially, an innovative producer,
MC, or entrepreneur. Rather, it was the introduction of a new information
technology that tracked music sales with unprecedented
* * *
Two years after they set out to improve how the music industry collected
sales data, Shalett and Fine stood ready and eager to introduce
their invention. They called the new data and information service
SoundScan. Confident that they had created an improved scientific
and reality-based method both men realized that developing the system
was only half the battle. Now they had to convince the big record
companies of the value of the new sales-reporting method. In 1991,
the "two Mikes," as music industry insiders would later call them,
began aggressively shopping their data intelligence to music retailers
and record companies. Media accounts reported that the initial asking
fee for the service was $800,000. SoundScan had to make an
investment of its own because it paid retailers a fee in return for providing
the company with sales-related data. The record companies,
however, not accustomed to paying much if anything for sales data,
responded coolly to the service.
SoundScan's big break came when the editors at Billboard decided
to begin using the service to compile its music charts. Over the years
the Billboard charts have become one of the most important gauges
of success in the high stakes world of commercial music. Billboard's
listings of the top-selling albums and singles determine who is recognized
as the industry's leading performers, which in turn impacts
radio and video airplay, sales, industry accolades, and finally, of all
things, chart position. The Billboard charts, in short, have the power
to make or break careers.
SoundScan was a revolutionary idea. Prior to its introduction the
methods used to determine sales and Billboard chart positions were
archaic. Typically, music industry executives relied on the observations
and hunches of record store clerks and managers who produced
weekly reports that ranked sales trends. In order to determine chart
position under the old system, Billboard would survey a jury of retail
personnel and ask them to rank which albums they perceived to be
the most popular or best-selling product. Under this system it was
possible to gain a sense of which albums were "hot" but not how
many copies were actually sold. The data was subjective and open to
The subjective nature of the method created an obvious incentive
for the music companies to try to influence the reports. There was
rampant suspicion that the charts were affected more by hype than
actual sales and may not have represented an accurate account of
what product stores were actually moving. Over the years there were
numerous stories about how reps from the major labels doled out
free concert tickets, special promotions, and other perks as a way to
encourage the kind of overreporting by stores that enhanced the
profile and sales of their artists. Shortly after adopting SoundScan,
then Billboard editor-in-chief Timothy White acknowledged that
"Our old system was subject to manipulation and that people abused
it. Store reporters could be bribed with clock radios and all sorts of
amenities and favors."
Like film and television, the music industry has grown into a
tenacious corporate machine powered by a few key numbers. The
pressure to achieve commercial success has been an ongoing theme
throughout the history of the industry, but new monitoring technologies,
conglomerate ownership, and a global entertainment economy
reinvented the business of selling music in the nineties. By the
late 1990s four figures essentially dictated how the major music companies
operate-the number of units sold, weekly radio spins, video
rotations, and downloads. By providing new and more efficient ways
of measuring those trends, new information technologies like SoundScan
and Broadcast Data System (it measured weekly radio spins)
changed the business of pop music. SoundScan became the most
watched barometer for measuring commercial success and spotting
key trends in the consumption of music. Thus, like the weekly box
office results that have become such a major aspect of the business of
film, the SoundScan data helped establish a blockbuster mentality
that has made the pursuit of big opening-week sales, mega-hits, and
multiplatinum albums an industrywide obsession.
Whereas the previous system relied on the hunches of store personnel,
the computerized methods used by SoundScan provided
what the corporate world refers to as "hard data." This information
is perceived as manipulation proof and therefore more reliable. The
genius of the system was that it used a simple bar code-recording
format to transmit point-of-sale (POS) information to SoundScan's
massive database located in Hartsdale, New York. SoundScan was
able to take the POS information and supply the music industry with
unprecedented data that told intricate stories about the market performance
of specific albums, artists, and the companies that distributed
them. In addition to tracking national sales, the new system
could generate detailed data that measured an album's sales week by
week, city by city, and even store by store. Within a few short years,
the music industry executives would begin calibrating highly elaborate
and specialized marketing strategies based on SoundScan's more
Early on, however, many of the major labels expressed concern
about SoundScan. Most of the early complaints dealt with which
stores and regions of the country were sufficiently represented in the
SoundScan panel of national, multistate, and regional music chains.
But others believed that the major labels' real concern was that the
new method brought to an end a thirty-year-old system that allowed
them to influence the all-important Billboard charts. The two Mikes
knew that their service represented a threat to the established order.
"There was definitely some reservation," Fine revealed years later.
"They had a sense of control, and here we were trying to take that
While the concerns expressed by the major labels may have been
suspect, the new POS system generated genuine alarm among independent
labels and distributors. The indie music sector knew that the
so-called "mom and pop" stores were more likely to carry their product
and also give a break to new artists the majors historically ignored.
Their biggest worry was that while SoundScan could provide
a more accurate account of music sales in the big chain stores it
would underreport the sales activity in the smaller stores. In addition
to endangering their financial health, underreporting could imperil
the indies' ability to continue making music that cut against the
grain of the hardened formulas and conservative taste preferred by
A few weeks before the introduction of SoundScan, the music industry,
both majors and indies, held a collective breath-uncertain
what would happen but fully convinced that things would never be
the same again. Change was inevitable. Their concerns about SoundScan
would prove to be both right and wrong.
* * *
In its May 25, 1991 issue, the music industry's most important trade
publication announced, "This is a week of historic change for Billboard
magazine," adding, "it's full-speed ahead into the future." That
week both the Billboard 200 and Country Music charts began using
the piece count data supplied by SoundScan. In a move intended to
allay industry fears about the historic shift, Billboard wrote that the
new system would likely "cause some drastic movement of titles up
and down the two charts this week. This is a natural adjustment to a
radically different methodology." Billboard declared the charts would
eventually settle down to more gradual patterns of movement.
As expected, SoundScan's impact on the Billboard charts was immediate.
But the actual impact produced by the new system was also
unexpected. Within the first couple months of the new system's implementation,
the Billboard charts began to tell an intriguing story.
While the presence of rock and pop music near the top of the charts
was predictable, the chart-rising performance of country and rap
music was not. Immediately SoundScan called attention to the commercial
vitality of country and rap-two genres that prior to 1991
were widely viewed as having limited appeal. Both genres moved
impressively up the Billboard charts, and by the end of the year were
peppered throughout the Billboard 200.
The SoundScan data provided powerful evidence that the ranked
reports produced by retail personnel had severely undervalued country
and rap. Rather than reflecting actual sales, it turns out that those
charts reflected the tastes, perceptions, and predispositions of store
personnel that were unwilling or perhaps, more likely, unable to
comprehend the cultural changes that were transforming the very
meaning of American pop music. The underreporting of rap was a
result of long-standing cultural sensibilities and racial assumptions
that made it impossible to think of the genre as "pop music" in 199L
And yet, by the close of the 1990s that was precisely the case; rap, as
much as any other genre, defined American pop.
In the post-SoundScan era the very notion of pop underwent a
radical revision. Before SoundScan pop was largely defined by aesthetic
attributes-sweet melodies, stylistic conservatism, and amicable
lyrics. After SoundScan pop was just as likely to be defined by
economics and marketplace resonance. The focus in this instance
was on weekly sales figures and dollars. Under the latter definition,
it became necessary to expand how the industry and the culture
defined and experienced pop music. The shift meant that genres such
as rap, despite an emotional and aesthetic core that ran counter to
tradition, could now be added to the pop mix.
The instant beneficiaries of rap's newfound pop status were the
independent labels and distributors that served as the primary
province of rap music production in the early 1990s. The information
provided by SoundScan supplied the momentum and credibility
to enhance the profile of indie labels while also solidifying the
foundation that enabled the rap industry to grow and prosper.
Indie distributors like Tom Silverman, the founder of Tommy
Boy Records, realized immediately how the new data altered the high
stakes world of pop music. Silverman was one of the first entrepreneurs
to get into the rap game when many were unsure it had a future.
He was on the scene when hip hop began to first break in the
early 1980s. The music hit him hard. Back then it was all still raw,
fresh, and pulsating with an aura of newness and independence that
touched his core. He started Tommy Boy Records in 1981. His motto
for success was simple. It also characterizes the historic role of indie
music labels: "See what they [the major record labels] can't see-or
find an area that's so minor they don't want to be bothered with it.
The major labels tried to mechanize it like Henry Ford, but what
works for cars doesn't necessarily work for music." Tommy Boy made
its mark by introducing some of hip hop's truly groundbreaking
artists, like Afrika Bambaataa, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, and House
of Pain, one of the first successful, harder-edge white rap acts. These
and other Tommy Boy recordings enlarged hip hop's aesthetic sensibilities
and artistic possibilities.
Excerpted from HIP HOP MATTERS
by S. Craig Watkins
Copyright © 2005 by S. Craig Watkins.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
S. Craig Watkins is associate professor of radio-TV-film, sociology, and African American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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