Kitty Empire on how rap music cleaned up its act

Tomorrow, the Grammys will recognise hip hop like never before. But the success of OutKast and 50 Cent is just one sign that rap music has cleaned up its act

Late tomorrow night, amid the repartee and dance routines of the forty-sixth Grammy Awards, something subtle, but significant, will have occurred. It won't be quite as outrageous as Nipplegate, the unscripted baring of Janet Jackson's breast during this year's Super Bowl half-time ceremony. No, it will be something far more important, that will probably pass without fanfare. Hip hop will have finally arrived in the music establishment's VIP area.

There are an unprecedented number of hip hop artists nominated for awards this year, and not just in the rap and urban categories. OutKast and Eminem are both up for best record, OutKast and Missy Elliott are up for best album, Eminem's 'Lose Yourself' is nominated for song of the year, and 50 Cent is in the running for best newcomer. They may well win a few of them, too. The last time hip hop did as well in the nominations (and the statuette haul) was when Lauryn Hill swept the board in 1999.

Big hip hop winners have, in the past, been conspicuous by their absence. Despite the fact that hip hop has been the most important youth cultural phenomenon of the past 20 years, the Grammys have been slow to recognise its cultural clout.

What's changed? Perhaps hip hop just got too loud to ignore. The best-selling artist in the US last year was 50 Cent, shifting a massive 6.5 million copies of his debut album. OutKast's recent double album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (nominated for six Grammys), has gone six times platinum in the US, and spawned two singles that went to Number 1 and Number 2 in the same week.

Before his protégé, 50 Cent, came along, Eminem was the world's biggest pop star. If one begins to conflate rap music's figures with those of its kissing cousin, urban, the evidence of hip hop's domination of popular music goes off the graph.

Rap is no longer a ghetto genre (literally or figuratively); it sells in suburban malls and gets played at Nigella's dinner parties (Lawson said she wanted Dr Dre to produce her first single on Desert Island Discs). It influences fashion (bling bling, anyone?) and refashions our language (ditto).

The world, then, has come round to hip hop's ways. But perhaps hip hop has changed too. A recent article in the New York Times exemplified the growing swell of unease felt by many observers at hip hop's easy glide on to the mainstream's red carpet.

Lola Ogunnaike, a former writer for the urban music magazine Vibe, argues that hip hop has 'cleaned up its act' and abandoned the thug life to sell more records. Missy Elliott's recent single, 'Wake Up', for instance, features the line 'If you don't got a gun, it's all right/If you're making legal money, it's all right'. Last November, impresario P Diddy ran in the New York marathon, raising $2 million for children's charities, hardly gangsta behaviour. The label Murder Inc, home to Ashanti and Ja Rule, has dropped the 'murder' from its name, and now prefers to be known as 'The Inc'.

Hip hop, it seems, is in danger of becoming respectable. Hip hop labels and artists now routinely call press conferences as though they were politicians. Rappers are dressing far more upmarket, too: witness OutKast's resident dandy Andre 3000, who favours Fifties golfer chic. P Diddy, of course, loves his suits. And Jay-Z recently reclaimed the classic button-down shirt in song: 'I don't wear jerseys/I'm thirty-plus/Gimme a crisp pair of jeans/Nigga/Button-ups'.

Rap's threat seems to have been blunted. Once, Public Enemy married anger, a revolutionary consciousness and great tunes. Now, former murder suspect Snoop Doggy Dogg, the subject of the Daily Star headline, 'Kick This Evil Bastard Out' when he toured the UK in 1994, has his own skit show on MTV, Doggy Fizzle Televizzle.

Perhaps most damningly of all, hip hop's interests are no longer confined to the four classic pillars of rap - rapping, scratching, breakdancing and graffiti. They now comprise trainers, clothing lines, film companies, brands of vodka and other business ventures.

Has hip hop sold out to get to the Grammys? Well no. And yes.

'I think the messages of "Wake Up" are really legitimate, about it being OK to wear the same jeans twice, and making legal money,' says rap DJ Tim Westwood. 'Because we're all not gonna share in this wealth that a lot of the artists are rhyming about,' he points out. 'It's important you send out messages saying it's OK to have something regular, not to have that wealth.'

Rappers have long been charitable types, too, even before Diddy's marathon run. 'Hip hop artists have a moral obligation to give back to the community which has enriched them,' Westwood says. 'I was talking to 50 Cent the other week and he was telling me about his line of trainers, I think he's selling them for $80 and 50 cents, and the 50 cents go to charity.'

Hip hop has not suddenly become wholesome, either: 50 Cent's Get Rich Or Die Tryin' was unremitting in its violence, misogyny, and expletives.

'I don't hear any compromise in that record,' says Westwood. 'I think the street is so aware of an artist compromising... the ones who compromise are those who self-destruct.'

And dressing for success? It's only natural, says Westwood, that hip hop culture should eventually turn to making its own clothes. And drinks.

'You've got to understand that hip hop's a lifestyle. My attitude towards it is that hip hop has put millions of dollars into these companies, which don't even support or are part of hip hop culture. Timberland, Hilfiger, why should they take all of my money, instead of someone who is down with the culture?'

'Selling out' is another question. Unlike that other great outsider genre - punk - hip hop has never been uncomfortable with selling multiple millions. Rappers are more likely to get shot than to shoot themselves in a fit of Kurt Cobainesque self-loathing. Like all good pop music, hip hop is an unabashedly populist form, front-loaded with sex and partying. True, old-school purists have long bemoaned the rampant commercialism of hip hop's pop strain, and the conspicuous consumption that accompanies it. But making money has been one of hip hop's raisons d'être from the very start.

If selling drugs was one way to prosper and escape the ghetto, then selling records was a better one. Many of the original gangsta rappers started off as dealers or petty criminals, but made their fortunes when they exchanged crime for rhymes. Jay-Z, up for best rap album this year has often sung about how he traded one 'game' - dealing - for another - music. 50 Cent went into his murdered mother's line of business while he was still at school; now, he uses his past as a marketing tool. Controversy still surrounds the genesis of labels like Death Row, where Dr Dre once worked, but many are commonly assumed to have been funded illicitly.

To sell anything, including records, you need entrepreneurship; skills that can be honed in the criminal economy as well as in business school. Latterday hip hop businessmen like P Diddy, who did not grow up in the projects, have taken the hip hop firm one step further, diversifying and growing its assets. To deride hip hop as commercial is like condemning the Coca-Cola Company for the same. Hip hop's values have not become commercial - they always were.

Hip hop has not had to change to prosper. If it has belatedly been invited into the Grammy fold, it is because it has deserved to be. Hip hop artists have simply made some of the best and most innovative pop music around last year. The intelligence, danceability and vigour of OutKast's output has few peers. Producers the Neptunes, technically urban, but who began their career in hip hop, have transformed pop music with a shimmering musicality.

Even the broadsheets acknowledge Eminem's artistry. The dazzling creativity at the heart of Missy Elliott's records dwarfs anything the theoretically more radical 'alternative' genre came up with last year.

All these artists prove that ruthless self-promotion and unfettered creativity can, surprisingly, coexist. Which makes Elliott's assertion that 'making legal money' is 'all right' a breath of fresh air, and anything but a betrayal of hip hop's street values

'I did hip hop when people didn't take it seriously in the mainstream,' remembers Westwood. 'But now, this is the hip hop generation, it's multi-racial, multi-cultural, it's worldwide. I like seeing these artists getting rich, getting empowered, doing joint ventures. Trust me, I've done hip hop broke, hip hop poor, hip hop small, and now, I've got three hot cars in my garage and I'm happy about hip hop being big.'

Ten names to know

1 Dr Dre
Rapper, producer and record label owner. Discovered Eminem and pioneered influential 'West Coast' sound.

2 P Diddy
Hip hop's most flamboyant entrepreneur. Actor, rapper, record label boss and fashion designer.

3 Eminem
Biggest-selling hip hop artist of the decade. Famous for his outrageous lyrics and colourful family life.

4 Neptunes
Fashionable producers behind recent hits for Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z, Kelis and Beyoncé.

5 Irv Gotti
'The Inc' record label boss. Artists include Ja Rule and Ashanti.

6 Jay-Z
Recently retired rapper and Beyoncé beau owns Roc-A-Fella brand which includes record label, liquor line and successful fashion label.

7 Russell Simmons
Def Jam label boss. Hip hop original now runs music, film, internet and clothing businesses.

8 Outkast
Until last week the Atlanta duo spent eight weeks at numbers 1 and 2 on the US Billboard singles chart.

9 Missy Elliott
Innovative rapper who has produced some of most exciting hip hop over the past five years.

10 Jermaine Dupri
Rapper and label boss has also produced Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and Alicia Keys.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Pop: He's big and clever

Pop: An impromptu gig by one half of OutKast demonstrates he's a surefire hit on his own.

Akin Ojumu

07, Mar, 2004 @11:45 AM

Other pop: 50 Cent The Massacre

Other pop: Kittie Empire on 50 Cent | Moby | The Bravery | Al Green | Stereophonics | The Rough Guide to Dub

Kitty Empire

13, Mar, 2005 @2:41 PM

Outlaws, gangstas and gunslingers: the myths of music's hard men

Was the Man in Black just a Boy Named Sue? Is 50 Cent a fake? New biopics of both will only sustain the legends, says Sean O'Hagan.

Sean O'Hagan

08, Jan, 2006 @1:35 AM

Make with the coffin

OutKast's film debut is a rave from the grave

Kitty Empire

07, Oct, 2006 @11:49 PM

CD of the week: OutKast, Idlewild

CD of the week: OutKast, Idlewild

Kitty Empire

19, Aug, 2006 @11:50 PM

Article image
Polly Vernon talks to Andre 3000

Andre Benjamin - aka OutKast star Andre 3000 - is a modern-day dandy who epitomises cool. He talks to Polly Vernon about drugs, women, and his new film career.

Polly Vernon

18, Sep, 2005 @1:18 PM

Kate Bush with OutKast? Yes please!

Kate Bush with OutKast? Yes please! And bring on the rest of those fantasy mismatch duets.

Lynsey Hanley

13, Aug, 2006 @12:01 AM

Article image
The week in music: Outkast for Stone Mountain, bankrupt 50 Cent and more
This week’s music news roundup includes a controversial hip-hop petition and a curious T in the Park tweet

Tshepo Mokoena

17, Jul, 2015 @11:57 AM

The hip-hop business
There are five logos on the 50 Cent album (Shady, Aftermath, Interscope, Violator and G Unit), illustrating rap's intricate web of deals.

23, Feb, 2003 @12:52 AM

Could 50 Cent be a spent force?

The rapper bet his hip hop crown on a chart duel with Kanye West. It's not looking good...

William Shaw

16, Sep, 2007 @10:58 PM