Style Over Substance: The Commercialization of Rap/Hip-Hop

By:  Darius Thornton

Hip-Hop has a rich, storied history that dates back more than three decades. What started as a mostly underground, tight-knit form of culture, has become a worldwide phenomenon. It has evolved into its own genre, an art form that uses poetry as a form of creative expression. It serves as a way of commenting on life from a new perspective, whether that be through expressing the horrors and hardships of living in poverty, bringing attention to political issues or escapism, painting the picture of a lavish lifestyle. At least, that’s what it used to be before the dough started rolling in. Now, a lot of it is blaring party music, with little to nothing to offer beneath the surface.  When it reached the top of its game, hip-hop began to change, beginning to favor the inherent style that has always been synonymous with it, over the substance that had once been its bread and butter. But why and how did this happen? 

It is widely accepted that hip-hop originated in the late 70s and early 80s, after an era where disco had been the dominant genre of music. While it is commonly believed that hip-hop first came from New York, it was actually a New Jersey group, The Sugarhill Gang, that made the first significant hip-hop song, “Rapper’s Delight.” Other pioneers of the early rap scene were Marley Marl, Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, and many others, most of whom were located in New York. Though hip-hop or “rap” as it became known, was an emerging genre, the 80s were still dominated by rock and pop. It wasn’t until the 90s that hip-hop truly reached the next level. While it was still dominated by New York rappers such as The Notorious BIG, Nas, Mobb Deep and the Wu-Tang Clan, rap was no longer just a New York thing. It had made its way to the West Coast, with Tupac, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and many more soon emerging. Soon, the South joined the party as well, with groups like Outkast and Kris Kross. These different regions adopted different styles, different patterns over different-sounding beats that became synonymous with the region they represented. All of the major artists had their own distinct styles and “flow” that became associated with them. 

Aside from different styles, it is the image associated with these rappers that drew many fans in. The early to mid-90s saw the rise of “Gangsta Rap,” rap that discussed the life of crime on the streets. The rappers who made this music were often once poor, grew up in bad neighborhoods, were sometimes gang-affiliated, and had frequent run-ins with the law. They presented themselves this way in their music as well, which struck a chord with those who deal with similar circumstances and presented a new, alluring lifestyle for those who hadn’t. The idea of being a rebel, who took answers from no one, living dangerously and fighting the system, was one that was fun and refreshing and sparked a “counter-culture” movement. Sometimes, it feels good to be bad, or at least, to feel like you are. For the first time, hip-hop competed with pop music and was just behind rock in becoming the most popular music genre of the decade. However, according to both USAToday and Billboard, hip-hop surpassed rock in the country’s music consumption in 2018, making it the most popular music genre in America.

The problem with modern hip-hop isn’t necessarily that it’s bad, it’s that it’s too much of the same thing. Lil Xan, Lil Pump, Lil Yachty, Lil Baby, Da Baby, seriously? Have names really gotten that uncreative? These artists are all meant to project the same image. Studio executives, producers, and record labels and the like, know what sells. At some point when someone comes out with some out of the box style that works and makes money, they ride the wave. Right now the current wave is tatted up, grilled, bright color-haired guys who smoke weed, and dance in front of cars and women, and toss up money. They all mumble too, about the same thing every song: how rich they are, how their enemies better watch out, how many girls they get, how much weed they smoke and sometimes you just can’t understand them at all. I’m not gonna pretend rappers didn’t use to rap about that, because they did. They also talked about the horrors of street life, their dreams, they told stories of their experiences for the world to hear. Fun is fun and mumble rap can be a lot of fun, but sometimes, I get burned out on getting hype. There’s only so many times I can bear hearing the same thing said in a different way with a different beat over it.

The root of this issue is the root of many issues: money. If producers and executives see that trap beats and the mumble rap is what’s making the most money at the moment, why would they encourage their artists to try anything else? They, like any business, aim to please as many people as possible to get as much money as possible. When you do that, you risk losing the individuality in your product, which is exactly what’s happening. It’s no different than the pop stars of the world. Brittany Spears, the Katy Perry, the Miley Cyrus, and Taylor Swift. What do they all have in common? Image. They’re all talented singers who happen to be attractive in a very conventional and approachable way. What really differentiates their music from one another? Maybe slightly different pitches. Mumble rappers are just tatted up popstars, with autotune and trap drums, who project an idealized lifestyle for people to grab onto.

Hip-hop was destined to become this. Its rise from the slums of New York to capturing worldwide attention was sure to raise some eyebrows, and it did. “Hey, we can sell this!” After that happened, there was only a matter of catching the trend. Eventually, there will be another trend, and another, and hip-hop will continue to change. Why stand out when you can make money, am I right? The zeros on that bottom line say I am. Too much of a thing, whether good or bad, is still too much. Modern rap doesn’t suck, it just went commercial. But at the end of the day, what hasn’t?



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