Right now, hip-hop is everywhere: From the Hot 100, where it has essentially swapped spots with pop as the most dominant genre; to festivals like the rap-focused Rolling Loud; fashion week runways and even the Super Bowl halftime show, where Travis Scott and Big Boi performed last month. But to Michelle McDevitt, president of rap PR firm Audible Treats, and many others, it’s been a long time coming.
“We take it for granted,” she said at SXSW panel “The Hip-Hop Bubble That Popped Culture” on March 14. “Rap has had to fight for its place in the mainstream for a minute.”
At the panel, McDevitt was joined by Rolling Loud co-founder Tariq Cherif, EMPIRE label founder Ghazi and digital marketing agency IJEOMA’s founder, Dimplez Ijeoma, to dissect how hip-hop rose to prominence — and how the genre can sustain that growth.
Cherif first noticed a change in tide when he no longer had trouble pitching his all-hip-hop festival, which debuted in 2015. “I used to be like, ‘Hey, I got this rap festival,’ and people were like, ‘Dude, I’m going to Ultra.’ And now it’s sold out,” he says. “Hip-hop was always the genre that influenced pop culture — where the slang came from, where the fashion came from, everything. But when I noticed it flipping to No. 1 was when crowds started tripling.”
For Ijeoma, that realization came as early as 2002, when Nelly dropped his iconic, sneaker-touting hit “Air Force Ones”: “When there were white kids in Phoenix, Arizona, wearing Air Force Ones, I was like, the pendulum is swinging another way.”
Hip-hop has been, as McDevitt puts it, the “dominant counter-culture” in the U.S. for years. So why is it popping off so strongly now? Today, hip-hop represents nearly one-third of all U.S. music consumption, according to Nielsen, including 36 percent of streams. And the top three most-streamed artists on Spotify in 2018 were all rappers: Drake, Post Malone and XXXTentacion.
Tariq points out that hip-hop has long been defined by resourcefulness, a characteristic that has allowed it to evolve under socioeconomic constraints. At block parties in the ’80s, Grandmaster Flash and other hip-hop forefathers even hacked wires in city streetlights as a power source to play their beats. “The birth of hip-hop was, ‘We’re gonna spin these two records, and here’s a mic, and just MC, bro,'” Tariq says. “That was resourceful.”
And the rise of home recording and streaming services are now enabling young rappers to create and spread their music, far different from the ’80s or ’90s when, Ghazi noted, “it would cost $3,000 a day to be in the studio.”
But with the rise of hip-hop has come concerns over the exploitation of black music for label profit, whether in terms of streaming, touring or other revenue streams. Those worries are spilling over to other industries, too, as fashion, makeup and food brands increasingly team-up with hip-hop stars.
“There’s now an awareness of the value of the black dollar, and I’ve always felt like hip-hop is the musical extension of that,” Ijeoma said. “Hip-hop is pop, because we’re in a position where having that cultural adage or expression is profitable. There are a lot of people who always put emphasis on hip-hop because of that dollar it drives.”
Others are wary that the increased exposure and accessibility of streaming creates a double-edged sword, whereby artists who blow up online feel entitled to a certain amount of success — often before they’ve learned the ins and outs of the industry. Ijeoma sums it up: “They want to microwave a career.”
“Sometimes access creates self-entitlement,” Ghazi adds. “And [if] some of the people getting access to certain things maybe would’ve had to wait a little longer to get to certain accolades, maybe they would appreciate it a little differently.” It’s why he encourages EMPIRE artists to focus on career longevity rather than quick hits.
“I tell every rapper that walks through my office, name five rappers that are relevant now that were relevant five years ago,” he continues. “Most people kind of have a blank stare for a few moments. We haven’t done a good job of actually grooming long-term talent, and this is an industry problem. You don’t want to live in the shadow of your own success, where the record is bigger than the artist.”