Dan Charnas (@dancharnas) is the author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (Penguin) and Def Jam: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label (Rizzoli). Billboard.biz welcomes responsible commentary -- contact email@example.com with ideas.
Earlier this year, a handful of social media upstarts squared off against three rap industry heavyweights: Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, and Tyler, the Creator. Within weeks, those underdogs had delivered knockout blows to lucrative endorsement deals for each artist -- ending Ross’ with Reebok and Wayne’s with Mountain Dew, and inducing Mountain Dew to remove a Tyler-helmed ad deemed offensive from the company’s site and his YouTube channel. The upset left the rappers reeling, and the business of hip-hop suddenly finds itself in the midst of a culture brawl unlike anything we’ve seen since the mid-1990s, when police unions demanded Time Warner part ways with rapper Ice-T over his “Cop Killer” lyrics, C. Delores Tucker held hearings on hip-hop lyrics in the U.S. Congress, and then successfully pressured Time Warner to sever its lucrative deal with Interscope Records.
But this time, some things are different.
In the ‘90s, rap’s prosecutors were outsiders, cultural conservatives both white and black, ignorant of and hostile to the culture and its fans. But in 2013 the people pursuing Ross, Wayne and Tyler are in many cases older fans of hip-hop (and, by extension, fans of older hip-hop), most often people of color, motivated by progressive politics and empowered by social media.
Syracuse University scholar-in-residence Dr. Boyce Watkins waged a two-year one-man campaign against Lil Wayne on black news sites and on his own blog, YourBlackWorld. But Watkins, 41, grew up on gangsta rap. After a public tangle with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly in 2008, one that Watkins says effectively derailed his academic career as a finance professor, Watkins found his calling online, positioning himself on the ramparts of black America, an earnest but sometimes hair-trigger sentry against injustice and inequity.
In 2009, Watkins helped break the story of Heather Ellis, a black woman for whom a dispute over switching checkout lines at a Walmart spiraled into what she called a racially motivated arrest. In 2011, he worked with the Reverend Al Sharpton to bring attention to Kelley Williams-Bolar, an Ohio mother jailed for lying about her residency to send her children to a better school district. But where the activism of decades past was met with lyrical support from rappers, Watkins found himself at cross-purposes with today’s popular hip-hop artists, if even sometimes he enjoyed their music. He penned widely circulated and debated articles with hyperbolic headlines like “BET Has Become The New KKK,” in the wake of the channel’s annual award show that, Watkins said in an interview this week, “was the beginning of my up-and-down romance with Lil Wayne.”
After years of hollering in the wilderness, Watkins finally got his shot at vindication in February, when Lil Wayne’s lyric referencing Emmett Till on Future’s “Karate Chop” remix came to light and caught the attention of Till’s family, who attempted to extract an apology from Wayne. When none was forthcoming, Watkins publicized the Tills’ efforts to press Mountain Dew to drop the rapper.
Watkins’ frequent communication with Till family spokesperson Airickca Gordon-Taylor led to his second crusade against the same brand.
“At 10:30 on a Sunday night, she sends me the link to Mountain Dew commercial with Tyler,” Watkins recalled. “I watched this ad and my face hit the floor. There was no waiting until tomorrow -- I started banging away at my keyboard.”
The resulting article, “Mountain Dew Releases Arguably the Most Racist Commercial in History,” quickly went viral.
Watkins’ efforts were amplified by Paul Porter, a veteran of black radio who writes with nostalgia about 1980s rap lyricists like Rakim. Porter became one of the first of a new breed of activists standing against a generation of considerably less “conscious” rappers, founding the organization Industry Ears in 2003 to lobby politicians and businesses to examine lyrical content more carefully, and in 2011, the site Rap Rehab. It was Porter who ultimately had a series of conversations with a senior marketing executive at PepsiCo, which owns the Mountain Dew brand, in the days prior to their dropping Wayne and Tyler.
Porter said that he feels PepsiCo executives are not looking closely enough at the artists that they sign, coopting the “heat” without looking at the artist’s body of work.
“All they look to do is sign stars,” Porter said. “I said in the conversation, ‘Look man, do you know what Tyler’s Twitter handle is?’ He said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s ‘@F---Tyler.”
The women who took Rick Ross down -- for a lyric about drugging a girl and “enjoying” her -- were longtime hip-hop fans, still raw from the verdict in the Stubenville rape case in which two high school boys had sex with an unconscious girl in front of a crowd of classmates. Source magazine alumni dream hampton and Kierna Mayo used their platforms (Twitter and Ebony.com, respectively) to call for Ross’s head in their battle against “rape culture”; and it was an article on Ebony.com by Jamilah Lemieux, another woman raised on hip-hop, that caught the eye of Nita Chaudhary, founder of the women’s rapid response political action group, Ultraviolet -- which ultimately launched the most visible action against Reebok, including a protest at their New York flagship store. Chaudhary, 33, grew up in a Harlem neighborhood she references wryly as “featured prominently in the gunfight scene in ‘Juice,’” the film debut of Tupac Shakur. Chaudhary went to high school in the Bronx and counts herself as a hip-hop fan.
“For us and our members,” she said this week, “this is not a hip-hop problem. This is an American problem.”
Chaudhary said that she and her colleagues marshaled 100,000 signatures for their petition, over 10,000 phone calls to Reebok, thousands of Tweets, and at least 100 protesters at the Reebok store. Though Reebok didn’t return any calls or communiqués, within a day of the protests, the company jettisoned Ross as antithetical to “the values of our brand” and their customer base. Chaudhary noted with pique that Reebok marketed especially to women, “holding up sports as a form of empowerment.”
(At press time, reps for Reebok and PepsiCo had not responded to requests for further comment.)
That’s the second big difference between now and the 1990s: Back then, the targets were record companies and the media conglomerates that owned them. This time, activists are targeting the direct links between popular rap artists and their corporate sponsors, links that didn’t exist 20 years ago.
The switch in targets is evidence not only of the declining significance of record companies and income from recorded music, but also corporate America’s diminishing fear of hip-hop. In the last two decades, as rap became mainstreamed, corporations got comfy with hip-hop, and commercial hip-hop itself got comfy -- less political, more materialistic, more hedonistic. It’s the main reason that the current attacks on rap lyrics came as such a shock; tests to those corporate relationships have been few and far between.
Which brings us to the last and most important characteristic of this new era: The ambivalence of both brands and artists. The skittishness of profit-driven and risk-averse corporations is to be expected; PepsiCo exists to sell soft drinks, not to take stands on the merits of art. And although Mountain Dew deserves some credit for being hip enough to hang with Tyler, the Creator and Lil Wayne, their quick withdrawal of support for the two artists stands in sharp contrast to the bravery of Time Warner’s Gerald Levin in publically defending Ice-T in 1992, and the daring of Sprite executives like Darryl Cobbin in the mid-1990s championing then-fringe artists like Grand Puba and A Tribe Called Quest. Even the presence of black executives and other “experts” in hip-hop culture within corporations has not always ensured more organic and sensible pairings of brands and rap artists, and leaves two possibilities: Either they didn’t know who Wayne and Tyler really were (very unlikely, as Mountain Dew’s partnership with Wayne came after his 2010 prison term on gun charges); or they did know and were willing to take the gamble that they’d have to part ways with the artists if things went wrong.
But the real revelation is the quick turnabout of both Ross and Wayne. At first they were unrepentant about lines that seemed flippant, more about hyperbole and rhyme scheme than a view into any deeply held beliefs. But then, when the money was on the line, they issued lukewarm apologies penned by publicists -- in Ross’ case, made to seem even more disingenuous by days of delay due to the dithering of various members of his team, record industry sources confirmed.
On top of all this, there’s the startling reality that neither of the songs that got Ross and Wayne in trouble were theirs -- they were guest verses on songs by other artists -- nor were they likely to make them much money.
Chaudhary points to a recent comment from Drake that is itself perhaps the wisest response to recent events from any hip-hop artist: “If you're going to say something that's going to put you at risk,” Drake said last month on East Village Radio, “make sure it's a message worth fighting for.” Indeed, it would be hard to imagine Ice-T or Tupac apologizing for their lyrics. And if Ross and Wayne are indeed the outlaws and rebels that they present themselves to be, why would they change their tunes for a corporate sponsorship?
In this new era of the super-empowered social-media activist, where a cleverly worded headline can quickly go viral and derail an artists’ endorsement deal, much has changed. Some things, however, are reminiscent of previous conflicts.
Like their predecessors in the culture wars of the past, the leaders of this new movement gain an ironic cultural stock from their association with the artists they decry -- and sometimes look like they’d much rather be inside counselor than outside critic, as Watkins did in his recent fence-mending video message to Tyler (which, it should be noted, included an offer to become the rapper’s “scholarly mentor”). The generation gap remains, too: Watkins recanted some of his tirade against Tyler only after his teenage daughter educated him about Tyler’s ethos and body of work.
“Tyler is a 22-year-old skater dude who’s just being rebellious,” Watkins now says. “Our real target was Lil Wayne. I feel bad that [Tyler is] collateral damage.”
As with the old culture war, “bourgeois intellectuals” (as Michael Eric Dyson once called them) seem to beat up on artists of lesser education and privilege. Activists like Watkins have a moral agenda, too -- replete lots of shoulds and shouldn’ts. “You have a God-given obligation to make sure that [your] message is something that’s gonna lift people up,” Watkins said in a video to Tyler, released in the wake of Billboard’s interview with the rapper last week. These sentiments recall the cultural conservatism of the civil rights generation, wherein all black people are held responsible for upholding a decorum vital to their survival. In this worldview, white pop stars can afford the luxury of being outlaws or buffoons because their whiteness accords them the privilege of not having to represent their entire race.
This was a piece of cultural baggage that many in the hip-hop generation, like Russell Simmons, strove to jettison. It’s the turnabout that made Lil Wayne possible, in fact. And hip-hop itself is why many young white fans don’t see Wayne as a confirmation of some supposed subconsciously cherished stereotype about black people, but simply as Wayne.
Watkins, however, is primarily concerned with Wayne’s continuing effect on black youth: “Lil Wayne is the most powerful megapreacher in the black community,” he said. “Anybody who profits from the black community and has the ability to help has some obligation to be accountable and respectable.”
As it was in the 1990s, activists still reduce songs to the sum of their lyrics, or a mere fraction thereof, and proclaim firm but often-unsubstantiated beliefs that lyrics cause disruptions in society. Still, the current crop of cultural critics are a cut well above the know-nothings of the past. Their vigilance is actually a product of hip-hop’s own ethical and political imperative, and via social media may in some way bring back a bit of the positive peer pressure that shaped the more diverse world of 1980s hip hop. And the Gatsby-sized entitlement and excesses of many of today’s hip-hop artists and their corporate sponsors may find themselves facing a painful recession.