art by imp kerr
The story of rap, art, and money doesn’t and can’t end with white people getting ahold of it
“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”—Abraham Lincoln, First State of the Union Address, December 3, 1861
“La, la, la la
Wait ’til I get my money right
La, la, la la”
—Kanye West, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”
During the 1970s, amid financial mayhem and rampant arson, the Bronx bred hip-hop. Officially, it began with DJ Kool Herc—née Clive Campbell—throwing a community party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue on August 11, 1973. Back then, rap music wasn’t anything commercial, wasn’t intended to be any more than the soundtrack for those gyrating cats who came together and apart on dancefloors sticky with spilled beer. It was for youth by youth, sprouting in the uncertain soil of the post-Civil Rights era.
Eventually, though, the music gained its own sort of gravity, becoming a new path to economic success for black kids in a nation defined by its lack of them. The rest of the country started to pay attention.
By 1987, the Beastie Boys—who, in the two years since their formation in 1981 as a hardcore punk band switched to rapping—had written America’s first Billboard-topping rap album, License to Ill. An earlier draft mistakenly cited License to Ill as the first platinum rap album. it was the second, Run DMC’s Raising Hell was first and the editors regret the error(It remains the only album by a white hip-hop group to earn a perfect five mics from The Source.) This marked a turning point in rap: white male teenagers grabbed outsider music and brought it inside the mainstream fold, winning both fame and critical acclaim in the process. According to scholar Tricia Rose in her book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, artists like the Beastie Boys “convinced music industry executives that rap music, for all of its ‘blackness’ in attitude, style, speech, music, and thematics, was a substantial success with white teenagers.”
As anyone who’s ever dabbled in advertising knows, the purchasing power of the white, suburban teenager is formidable. It’s not a stretch to say that their aesthetic tastes dictate the mainstream. Rap they could buy at the store and newly popular headphones meant white teens could adventure across racial lines, at least between their ears. Further along in Black Noise, Rose points out the way this followed a well-trod path: “Like generations of white teenagers before them, white teenage rap fans are listening in on black culture, fascinated by its differences, drawn in by mainstream social constructions of black culture as a forbidden narrative, as a symbol of rebellion.” It only makes sense that rap shifted, following in the footsteps of other black musical forms, taking its place as next in line for co-option by white America.
This is the story we know as critical consumers. It’s not, however, good enough; the story of rap, art, and money doesn’t and can’t end with white people getting ahold of it.
Rap has come to occupy a curious place in artistic production and economic narratives; it’s got a foot in each camp, at once explicitly concerned with gettin’ money and the power of imaginative storytelling. The seeming conflict here—between art and capital—runs deep, invoking the ghosts of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Where Washington believed in the superiority of purely economic pursuits (“The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house,” he was once quoted as saying), Du Bois argued the other side, advocating for what he called the Talented Tenth, an imagined corps of black bourgeois intellectuals who were to save the rest of the race. Rap, however, doesn’t map neatly onto either philosophy.
How would Booker T. feel about Kanye West’s compulsive maximalism, or the rappers who grind all day to give away a free mixtape? Would DuBois count Chief Keef—whose discography at age 18 is as large as The Beatles’—among his fabled decile? When the Wu-Tang Clan decides to sell a single copy of their next album, Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, is that art or commerce? The closed narrative “1. Black invention 2. White appropriation 3. Profit” ignores the way artists continue to find new ways to approach the old contradictions that characterize their medium.
Traditionally, the stories that rap chronicles are refractions of the American Dream through the lens of systematic disenfranchisement. Adam Bradley, author of Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop and editor of The Yale Anthology of Rap put it to me this way: “Rap is inextricable from the American capitalistic system because of when and how it emerged,” he said. “Hip-hop is the soundtrack to this period in our economic history and has tried to create some responses to how everyday people deal with being under economic pressure.” The economic and social conditions that carried Reagan into office were the same as those that inspired rap, and as those forces changed the music responded in kind. What does it mean to be a soundtrack? It means underscoring the action onscreen, describing what’s happening in the story; a soundtrack is both part of the narrative and commentary on it. And just as America is in many ways still Reagan’s America, rap is still our soundtrack.
In 1997, the year it went out of business, Might magazine published a long essay by Donnell Alexander titled “Are Black People Cooler Than White People?” “Cool was born when the first plantation nigga figured out how to make animal innards—massa’s garbage, hog maws and chitlins—taste good enough to eat,” Alexander wrote. Rap is cool for the reason jazz, sports, and style are cool: time and again, black folk in America have managed to survive, to thrive. “Cool is all about trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents,” Alexander continued. “It’s finding the essential soul while being essentially lost. It’s the nigga metaphor. And the nigga metaphor is the genius of America.”
Rap is an expression of that genius: it’s both the art of making money and the art of making art that makes money. The music is fundamentally about making something out of nothing—making something of yourself from nothing—and the surest way to make anything in America is to accumulate wealth. Time and again we hear this rap: we hear of having money and not having it, of what it can do for you and what it can’t. As a soundtrack, rap describes what’s culturally onscreen: race, violence, sex, work, commodities, money, money, money, money… money.
In this context, then, where exactly does artistic purity fall? “I think, in some ways, that the narrative of artistic pursuit—the pursuit of art purely for its own aesthetic or artistic value—I think that’s wrapped up in all kinds of privilege!” Michael Jeffries—professor of social science and American studies at Wellesley, author of Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop—replied after I put the question to him. “It’s harder to believe the narrative of artistic purity if you have concerns that your art is going to be appropriated the moment somebody more powerful gets their eyes, ears, and hands on it,” he continued. “That changes the entire relationship between artists and artistic product.” It means that the narrative of artistic purity is invalid—or, at least, is subservient to larger appropriative forces. Purity is on sale, too.
These dynamics find their realization in one man: Kanye West, rap game Poseidon. Over the last decade, no other rapper’s rise has been so meteoric, so controversial. And Yeezy changed the game in the process. As auteur, his ascension—from The College Dropout to Yeezus—inaugurated a new breed of rap, one that largely ignored the genre’s national and local conventions, eschewing the gunshots ‘n’ gangbanger aesthetic for one more global, more enamored with the idea of more and bigger. Kanye posed rap as capitalism in the form of art, making him as much a contemporary of Jeff Koons or Takashi Murakami as Nas.
But for all that’s revolutionary about Kanye as an artist, he’s still part of that American soundtrack: Transcend the ’hood, make enough money that no one can tell you what to do, what to say or how to say it. Rap is both a ladder up economic strata and what you play on your headphones while you climb. If rap could listen to music, it would listen to rap.
Of course as an economic ladder rap usually doesn’t work, but for so many wannabes, would-bes, and will-bes, the sound of movement is enough to lure them in. Kanye’s wealth (see: Watch The Throne) and influence have endowed him with a uniquely powerful creative platform. He has designed clothing, opened restaurants, and given money to worthy causes through his foundation. After his first album, The College Dropout, in 2004, West founded the Getting Out Our Dreams (GOOD) Music label as an imprint of the Island Def Jam Music Group, ensuring future control over his art. He’s not worried about labels wanting him to change his music so it will sell, he just knows they can’t do it as well as he can. He is, after all, the artist.
With GOOD Music, Kanye’s done what Harold Cruse argued for in his book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: he’s created a separate, black artistic institution that can’t be taken away from him. And this all from nothing. Kanye is art and commerce, drawn to their intersection at the peak of rap’s Mount Olympus.
Rap’s always been as much about the business as the music; it’s naked capitalism as a preemptive, prescriptive response to the threat of theft. The immediate goal is to make it out, sure, but long-term, you want to make it in, to be a mogul like Jay Z, P. Diddy, and 50 Cent. While working inside the system can get you a nice car or five—the rap part of the equation—it’s the independent businesses, projects, and operations funded by the music that brings real cash. In rap, the ultimate artistic achievement is to become a deity—to look down on the world from where its contradictions meet.
In the standard artist story, deification only happens in the post-mortem examination, but rap’s needs are more immediate. “Started from the bottom, now we’re here” only really makes sense if you’re still alive, since, as they say, you can’t take it with you. Rap’s highest achievement is as incongruous as the genre’s popular evolution: To be an artist and a capitalist at the same time, to be an earth-bound god.