Billboard's eighth annual R&B/Hip-Hop Conference got under way Nov. 29 in Atlanta at the Renaissance downtown, which hosted some of the music industry's top executives to discuss the state of R&B/hip-hop, how gospel fits in mainstream music, the state of post-Imus hip-hop and more.

Kicking off the proceedings was the “New Faces New Artists Bootcamp,” presented by Atlanta-based Face2Face. The premise of the early-morning session -- introduced the day before by a panel of industry experts including former New Edition/New Kids on the Block manager Maurice Starr and hip-hop producer DJ Toomp -- was to share information so new artists better understand the various facets of the industry. Among the Face2Face executives on hand for the forum were CEO Tara Garrett and COO Shannon Holmes.

Next on the schedule was “Word Up!” a panel that explored gospel music’s ongoing mainstream crusade. Moderated by WPZE Atlanta PD Derek Harper, the panel drew spirited discussion from Gospel Today Magazine GM Marsha Burke, Habakkuk Music/Universal Christian CEO April Washington Essex, Gospel Music Channel senior director of music industry development Alvin Williams and singer/songwriter Canton Jones. Burke noted that gospel’s move into mainstream acceptance mirrors that of rap when it first tried to get accepted as a Grammy genre category.

“Many people weren’t open to hip-hop because they didn’t understand the genre. It’s the same thing in gospel.” The panel’s overriding message: the gospel industry has yet to peak. Those within the industry need to build as strong an infrastructure as its mainstream counterparts. Noted Williams, “We have to go in and educate executives. There are still a lot of misperceptions about gospel music and its artists. It’s a business where a lot of opportunities have yet to be tapped.”

Billboard senior charts manager Raphael George moderated "State of The Union," the third panel which included speakers Kyle Brown (urban format manager, Boradcast Data Systems); Troy Dudley (VP of urban promotion, Universal/Motown); Geoff Mayfield (director of charts/senior analyst, Billboard Magazine); Dr. Syleecia Thompson (author "Rhythm Without Blues: The Dichotomy of a Music Genre"); Chuck Woo (manager, Ear Wax Record store, Atlanta, Ga); and Mickey "Memphitz" Wright (VP of A&R, Jive Records).

The discussion, which focused on the upswing of R&B and the decline of hip-hop and music sales overall, began with a very informative and numbers-heavy
powerpoint presentation by Mayfield, who stated that even though two out of the five top-selling albums this year are by hip-hop artists (Kanye West and 50
Cent) and all but two of the top 25 ringtones are hip-hop songs, R&B is outselling rap by 18% in 2007.

Wright blames the downfall of hip-hop sales on labels not taking their time or investing money to develop artists before releasing singles anymore. Meanwhile,
Dr. Thompson feels labels are too fast to give up on artists if the first single isn't moving big enough numbers.

When George stated that three of the top-five selling albums this year are by white artists, he asked the question "does race play a factor?" Woo, who believes race isn't a factor as much as just radio programming is, responded, "If you hear a song 15 times on the radio, you're gonna start to love it. Radio is programming - the same way you can program a computer you can program people's minds."

Other topics discussed were the idea of the Internet being a breeding ground for new artists via networking sites and online battles but on the flip side affecting commerce, the age group that affects market sales the most and the overall future of the music industry.

During “We Got Game," the fourth panel of the afternoon, moderator Hillary Crosley, R&B/hip-hop correspondent for Billboard, asked the question: how can urban music makers develop more lucrative revenue streams via movies, commercials, video games, etc? The panel consisted of LROC (Songwriter/Producer); Wendell Hanes (sound designer/music composer), Corey "CL" Llewellyn (Mims' co-manager & CEO, Money Management); and Marcus Matthews (co-partner in Konsole Kings/owner of Blue Heat and former executive with Sega).

"There is no more selling out, there is only selling-in," said Hanes about branching out to commercials and movie scoring. "All these other vehicles and placements are only helping artists to promote."

Llewellyn added that partnerships like the one he brokered with Zune for rap artist Mims can only help split marketing costs.

Other topics included how to go about getting your music placed in other platforms, why hip-hop has been so slow to get up on the recent technological
movements and the royalties that can be attained through these types of unconventional business deals.

The last panel of the evening, "Hip-Hop Post Imus: A Wrap... Or A Rebirth?" was moderated by Bruce Walker, founder of B# Records, and included speakers Stephen Hill (senior VP of music programming, BET); Jason Geter (T.I. manager and partner, Grand Hustle); Lamonda Williams (director of urban and Latin programming, Music Choice); Ebro Darden (program director for WQHT Hot 97, New York); and Alonzo Robinson (senior director of creative West Coast, ASCAP).

As the title implies, the discussion revolved around the debate on whether hip-hop should be censored, to which Hill replied BET doesn't allow the use of the
N-word with the exception of one program. Williams believes its a matter of presentation and balance, and feels that if you see too much of one type of music, you become desensitized.

"Most of my jocks don't use it, except for one. But the word is not an FCC fine so I can't fire him for it," said Darden about the use of it on Hot 97. "What
I try to do is implement moral codes and try to monitor it."

And although Geter feels you shouldn't prevent an artist from expressing himself the way he chooses, there is a time and place for everything. Robinson
agreed, stating that he doesn't feel the N-word should be banned and that he uses it with his friends as a term of endearment.

Darden said he personally takes offense to the thought of censoring urban music in this day in age. "Now that mainstream media is interested they want us to change the word. Hip-Hop comes from a dysfunctional part of America, it doesn't come from the suburbs, so don't expect people to change their voices because you are ready to cut them a check."

When Williams blamed radio for choosing not to play music by more conscious rappers like Talib Kweli and Common, Darden replied by saying negativity sells and that that's just a part of capitalist America.

Additional subject matters discussed were double standards in music, the repurposing of the N-word and the idea that the N-word is affecting programming.

The evening was concluded with the R&B/Hip-Hop Radio Awards reception, which was hosted by Crosley and George, during which Darden along with Emmanuel "E-Man" Coquia (KPWR Los Angeles), KJ Holiday (WJLB Detroit) and Reggie Rouse (WVEE Atlanta) were honored. A special performance by rapper Topic and R&B singer Shire closed the event.