“Cash Rules Everything Around Me” – so goes the chorus of Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘C.R.E.A.M.’. In hip hop more than in any other genre, the accumulation of wealth is held up as a barometer of success. Hence bling, the hackneyed rags-to-riches rap, references to Cadillac and Rolex. So when the credit crunches, how do rappers react? Do they try to keep up appearances, or do they reverse the barometer and esteem poverty? Does their music change, and are their sales affected?
The 2009 Grammy Awards ceremony was an interesting parade of celebrity restraint and austerity – a rarity for an event that normally deals in glitz and prosperity. Lil Wayne, who only the previous year had been bragging about being “a young money millionaire”, turned up in a t-shirt and modest necklace that belied his claim; few rappers donned more than a sleek suit.
The ceremony testified to one of the most salient symptoms of hip hop’s economic malaise: a downturn in the bling trend. Gold ostentation hasn’t been so unpopular since Slick Rick and his peers first popularized it in the late eighties. And the impact of the recession on rappers’ images doesn’t stop there: 50 Cent’s recent dramatic weight loss, for example, is doubtless the outcome of economic (as well as nutritional) deficiency. As renowned hip hop stylist Tamara Connor puts it, “conspicuous consumption in the industry is gone”.
For rappers aren’t getting paid like they used to. In the fiscal year 2008-9, hip hop sales dropped by over 20% – more than any genre bar classical, country and Latin. Top rappers might once have made $80,000 from one track; now they’d be lucky to get half that. Factors such as the advent of file sharing are also to blame for these figures. But it’s obvious that hip hop, unlike cinemas and Starbucks, isn’t enjoying a perverse boom as a recession-era “comfort product”. Rappers’ entrepreneurial zeal – itself an offshoot of the “rap as business” mentality – has suffered in these circumstances: this year, Wyclef Jean lost his Malibu mansion, P Diddy his private jet, and Jay-Z both his nightclub and his hotel venture.
However, there is as yet little evidence of a widespread response to the crunch from hip hop music itself. Some artists are implicitly denying the climate of poverty – see for example Kanye West’s high-budget, self-aggrandizing video for ‘Power’. Others are explicitly resisting it – in their single ‘Kinda Like A Big Deal’, Virginia duo Clipse brag that “it’s a blessing to blow a hundred thousand dollars in a recession”. The notion that wealth in the recession era is all the more impressive can be termed the “recession-proof ideal”. Meanwhile, hip hop radio, and artists like Dizzee Rascal, continue to drift towards the mainstream. This could be seen as a calculated survival measure: in desperate times, artists and companies alike resort to safe money-spinners.
Yet it would be premature to ascribe this kind of commercialization to the credit crunch and leave it at that. We can’t discount the dynamics of the record industry, the whims of the underground hip hop scenes, and the abovementioned problem of file sharing. And it’s certainly too early to speak of a genre of “recession-era hip hop” – or “credit crunk” – as we do of, say, “literature of the Great Depression”.
But changes in hip hop culture entail changes in the music. It’s been a while since poverty was a fashionable topic in hip hop. In its early days, the genre concerned itself with Reagan’s tough fiscal policies, and the social cleavages caused by the crack epidemic; but from Clinton onwards, the economy was kind to the industry. Now we’re coming close to full circle: Young Jeezy’s prophetic 2008 album The Recession advocated a return to simplicity, and the hip hop world apparently agrees. The credit crunch could have led to the cultivation of the “recession-proof ideal” – of bling and ostentation as escapism – but evidence suggests that hip hop’s going the other way.
In due course, rappers will invert Notorious BIG’s maxim “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems”, and come to count the straitened economic climate as a blessing.