Hip-Hop and the Culture Industry: A Debasing Fusion
By Matt Silverstein
Once a cultural movement existing only in the margins of society, hip-hop has undergone significant changes during the last two decades. The all encompassing grasp of capitalism that pervades the lives of United States citizens has left a blinding mark on hip-hop music; the commodification of the hip-hop art form has all but eliminated its potential to espouse social criticism, leaving the art a shell of its formerly estimable existence. The capitalist inauguration of hip-hop music into mainstream culture results in a hegemonic production that leaves the masses further entangled in the insidious intentions of the dominant class. By examining the metamorphosis of hip-hop (via historical background and lyrics) in conjunction with concepts posited in Adrono’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, the reader will come to appreciate the effect the dominant class has had on hip-hop music, and the consequences of their influence on perceptions of race.
Hip-hop was born out of the struggles of Jamaicans, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans living in the South Bronx in the early 1970’s. Housing projects in the borough created a claustrophobic living environment for the inhabitants of this urban area, and the landlord-sponsored burning of tenements (for insurance money) generated a synergistic sense of desperation among the populace. As if these disheartening factors were not enough, the scarcity of jobs in the community forced many people to adopt illicit lifestyles in order to provide for their families, and the sub par education offered to the youth left many children disillusioned. The daily pains of ghetto life, played out on gang-run streets and in drug infested projects, pleaded for an outlet to release the misery felt by its inhabitants. The hip-hop culture was the answer to these prayers.
It is of paramount importance to acknowledge the difference between hip-hop and rap. Today, these terms are frequently substituted for one another as if they were synonymous. However, hip-hop is actually a term that denotes a cultural movement comprised of four elements: DJing, MCing (rapping), breakdancing, and graffiti (some people contend that fashion, or in other cases, beat-boxing, is the fifth element of hip-hop, but this argument is dismissed by most hip-hop purists). Each of these elements were founded with the intention to promote free expression as a way to escape an oppressive environment. The DJ talked with his hands spinning breakbeats taken from disco records (often at illegal parties), and altering them on-the-fly with different filter effects and scratches (much like a jazz musician plays an improvisational piece, or an MC freestyles). The MC spread lyrical messages of frustration, and sometimes, celebration, throughout his neighborhood (also often at illegal parties), sharing his thoughts with others that went through similar experiences. A perfect illustration of the MC’s role in hip-hop is Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message (1982):
Broken glass everywhere / People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care / I can’t take the smell, I can’t take the noise / Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice / Rats in the front room, roaches in the back / Junkie’s in the alley with a baseball bat / I tried to get away, but I couldn’t get far / Cause the man with the tow-truck repossessed my car
The song conveys a blatant message of anxiety aroused by the unlivable conditions the MC deals with on a daily basis. Breakdancers utilized their entire bodies to express their emotions (it is not surprising that they often adopted the role of mimes trapped in an imaginary box), and graffiti artists developed their own unique styles of writing to convey various meanings and to make themselves known to an indifferent world. Each element of hip-hop became an expression in its own right, while ultimately serving to unify the community in their own ways. DJing, MCing, breakdancing, and graffiti importantly provided a non-violent form of competition for ghetto residents to engage in, in a world otherwise pervaded by a dog-eat-dog way of life.
Readers may wonder what forces are responsible for the redefining of the term hip-hop; how has hip-hop come to be signified exclusively by rap, when it was once respected as a multidimensional culture? An analysis of the transformation of hip-hop culture yields the commodification of hip-hop as the only logical explanation for this change. With the exception of graffiti, hip-hop culture has proven to be a marketable product (to varying degrees). Following a discussion of some of Theodor Adorno’s ideas, the reader will come to understand the mainstream’s altered perception of hip-hop as being a capitalist, culture industry-induced change.
The primary focus of Adorno’s criticism of the culture industry is directed toward the production of art for mass consumption. Adorno bases his analysis in Marxist thought, with a clear dependence on the concepts of base (mode of production) and superstructure (cultural products). Marx posited that the base (comprised of the wealthy ruling class) – capitalism, in the case of the United States – controls the superstructure in order to perpetuate “eternal laws” that aid in the upholding of its desires (further, and increased profit). Adorno believed that art intended for mass consumption is inextricably linked to industry. This association, according to Adrono, results in a homogenized product devoid of any potential to evince true social criticism. Adorno does acknowledge differences among art from the same genres, however, he sees these differences as mere “effects,” or “details” that serve only to make the work seem different from previous works. The producers are experts at creating this illusion of difference. This illusory difference ultimately concludes in work that “bears no relation to the details,” and thus might as well be the same movie, television show, or musical composition that the masses consumed prior to its production. The merit of the art shifts from the art’s intrinsic, or qualitative value (which is almost completely lost), to the “conspicuous budget,” or blatant cash investment in the work; the more money put into a project, the greater it is valued by the masses. By “diminishing tension between the finished product and everyday life,” the culture industry gains increased sway with consumers. Offering a vast array of products (a product for people at every level of society) that uphold and conform to the ideologies of the dominant class, results in a narrow, passive culture for consumers to wallow in.
In 1987, the New York rap group Public Enemy (a.k.a. PE) released their debut LP, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. The album received critical acclaim for its militant, black power messages. The group had a DJ (Terminator X), staying true to the musical roots of the genre, and focused almost exclusively on the critical potential of hip-hop. The following is an excerpt from their song “Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)” (1987):
If I bore you - I won't ignore you / I'm sayin things that they say I'm not supposed to/ Give you pride that you may not find / If you're blind about your past then I'll point behind / Kings, Queens, warriors, lovers / People proud - sisters and brothers / Their biggest fear - suckers get tears / When we can top their best idea
The lyrics in this selection point to the conscious messages of many PE songs that seek to empower blacks with truths about their heritage that have been obfuscated by white American society. By the time Public Enemy released their third album (Fear of a Black Planet, 1989), they had slightly toned down their aggressive, oppositional stance, which was probably responsible for the album’s superior sales success. While there is a market for music that “goes against the grain,” according to Adorno, this type of dissenting music will not appeal to the masses; consumers desire a more palatable sound that reinforces the “truths” they been raised to believe. The toned down messages of dissention on PE’s third album could likely be attributed to a desire to increase record sales. When Def Jam signed PE, the label was only first getting started and was probably more willing to let the group record whatever they wanted. However, with success comes an increased desire for more.
Capitalizing on the success of Public Enemy’s oppositional stance, the Los Angeles group N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitudes) exploded onto the hip-hop scene with their album, Straight Outa Compton (1989). Though the album was an expression of frustration with a racist society, it was much more violent than Public Enemy’s messages. N.W.A. replaced Public Enemy’s entreaties to apply critical thought to “lift the wool from your eyes,” with messages that offered violence and criminal lifestyles as the only viable options for African Americans. From the title track of the album this excerpt is typical of the lyrics present on N.W.A.’s album:
Straight outta Compton, crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube / From the gang called Niggaz With Attitudes / When I'm called off, I got a sawed off / Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off/ You too, boy, if ya fuck with me / The police are gonna hafta come and get me / Off yo ass, that's how I'm goin out / For the punk motherfuckers that's showin out
Though the album had an undertone of criticism in regards to the illicit lives blacks were forced to lead, it spent the majority of its time glorifying tales of murder, drug dealing, gang culture, and womanizing. Signed by Ruthless Records, a subsidiary of EMI/Capitol Records/Virgin Records, the group recognized the potential of violence to generate record sales; violence sells in the media, so why not put it to work in the music business?
The enormous success of the album spawned a new era in rap music. Devoid of a traditional DJ (one of the basic elements of hip-hop) and classical lyrical content, the group achieved monetary success and national notoriety. The news media became obsessed with N.W.A.’s fierce posture, sensationalizing the music and further increasing album sales. The media was not concerned with hip-hop culture, but with a violent form of music – divergent from hip-hop’s original goal - that promoted self-destructive actions. Adorno’s thoughts can be readily applied to the entirety of this scenario: the base, here, are white-controlled media companies with profit generating intentions. By removing entreaties of social criticism and replacing them with pure violence, consumers were no longer directly asked to question social conventions. Readily accepting these violent messages, the consumer could simply drift along through the record without critically considering the content (a much more palatable alternative to analytical thinking for most people). The common stereotypes of African Americans (that they are base, hyper-sexualized brutes) by white America also provided an environment for the comfortable inception of music that reinforced these racist stereotypes. When catering to American consumers - the majority of which are white – an album that “diminishes tension between the finished product and everyday life” makes the commodity more agreeable, and thus more likely to sell. The news media, which is also controlled by a very small group of rich white Americans, was able to resell the violence of Straight Outa Compton to television audiences and periodical subscribers. The same notion of catering to (and reinforcing) stereotypes can be applied in this transaction as well.
Following the release of N.W.A.’s Straight Outa Compton, Dr. Dre solidified the reign of gangsta rap (a form of hardcore rap music that glorifies a criminal lifestyle and the degradation of women) in the rap world with his debut LP, The Chronic (1992). The east coast caught on to the marketability of gangsta rap, and was popularizing artists like Notorious B.I.G., who offered similar music. Gangsta rap, in one form or another, is still the dominant form of mainstream rap music. A widespread theme throughout most mainstream rap is a desire for wealth; this wish is part of the American dream, and thus reflects the desires of popular American culture (here the reader may find another example of how successful commodities diminish the tension between themselves and everyday life). The constant bombardment of African American youths with stereotypes has likely had a negative effect on them. It is common among black youths to try and replicate the messages seen in rap videos; this is not surprising, being that the representations of blacks in the media is so narrow. This predicament speaks not only to the hegemonized representations of blacks in mainstream rap, but also to the hegemonized representations of blacks in the general media; African Americans are rarely displayed achieving in professions other than comedy, sports, or rap. With so few role models to look up to, and with the diffusion of gangsta rap in many facets of mainstream culture, it is not surprising that black youths emulate rap artists.
It seems strange, at first glance, that the same style of music can remain in the spotlight for so long. Adorno, however, would contend that the “expert producers” are able to control the attention of the masses by adding insignificant effects, or details, to the music in order to lend a unique sound to each rap album. Nevertheless, these “unique” works are essentially reproductions of a formula that has proved to yield huge profits.
The result of these formulaic replicas is a hegemonic representation of the primary purveyors of the music (African Americans), and of hip-hop. Breakdancing was exploited to an enormous, level, but quickly became seen as a fad, thus losing its marketability and falling by the wayside. It is expected that gangsta rap - which focuses exclusively on the MC - as the most profitable component of hip-hop, has overshadowed the rest of the culture in the eyes of mainstream consumers. The commodification of hip-hop has resulted in the neglect of the majority of its elements, and the intense saturation of the media with the same messages in different packages has led to the perception that there is little more to hip-hop than a bunch of money-hungry, drug-dealing, womanizing African Americans.
Mainstream rap is a perversion of the hip-hop culture. The socially and intellectually valuable elements of the culture have been suppressed, not necessarily because society fears hip-hop, but because the majority of Americans are simply not interested in a culture that questions their ways of life. Until major record labels and promoters learned how to package hip-hop, the culture only existed in the margins of society, with an audience composed almost exclusively of minorities. Today, hip-hop culture is still an underground movement, and has retained its ability to enable its participants to express themselves freely. This is not to say that all hip-hop heads are socially progressive, as this is certainly untrue. However, many artists stay true to their roots, free from the profit-driven pressures of major label deals. In the following selection, Qwel, a Chicago MC from the Galapagos 4 label, relates a somewhat coded expression of his feelings toward one of the symbols of the U.S. in “The Siren of Liberty Island” (2004):
I once was asked how to make liberty’s idol stand for eons / She’d brandish a torch with no light / on some stolen land she peed on / At the base it’d be a rat race poem for her to rest her feet on / The whole world stirred green with envy like that sheet she dons / I once was asked how to make / liberty’s idol last for centuries / I know, shape her out of pennies, paint her green with envy / She’ll be standing with her back turned, burning, smirkin towards her enemies / She’d better be hollow from head to toe, with horns beamin out respectively
Such dissenting views of the American symbol of liberty do not fit in with the passive rap music embraced by the masses, and they are thus relegated to underground, independent labels (less concerned with profit, than with the quality of the artist’s music).
In “Basic Cable” (2000), Aesop Rock (signed to Mush Records, and now Definitive Jux) uses his typically dry sarcasm to criticize America’s obsession with television:
Plug it in, turn it on, let my little eyes glaze / twenty screens lined up along the borders of the maze / I wanna see the five day forecast, fourteen days in advance / so I can get my two weeks notice every time the sun dance / plug it in, turn it on, silent fix better than nothing / let a once divine soul feel the functions of the hypnotist / the viciousness, ridiculous, peaking a dummy's interest / touch the power button meet your maker, ain't that something?
Mcenroe, one MC of the Canadian rap group Park-Like Setting, expresses concerns that address the growing panoptic forces that exist in society in “Information Technology” (2000):
Another close encounter of the kind that’s becoming more common / I’m bombin neighborhoods with eyes that are perpetually watchin / the motion of me and my every activity / there seems to be a steady depravation of privacy / the grocery has a database of my purchase / and the bank won’t deal with me, they know that I’m worthless / they know everything I bought since they gave me the debit / compile the information, make a record of my habit of spending / then sending the data down a wire / and ending up at an ad agency for hire / who compiles a profile based on age income and gender / then mark me as a repeat offender.
Mcenroe chose the only route that offered the artistic freedom he desired, and started his own label, Peanuts and Corn. The name of the label acknowledges the fate of underground artists and labels; the artists are undervalued because of their “disruptive” ideas, and destined to receive little more than peanuts and corn for their efforts.
The original elements of hip-hop can still be found in the margins of society, and though they have become more developed, they have stayed the same in many ways. The true culture has never really made it out of the underground, because of the financial risks involved in promoting original material that challenges traditional notions of normalcy. Adorno’s theories help make sense out of the differences between mainstream rap and hip-hop, and assist in understanding the reasons for one’s popularity, and the other’s obscurity. Underground hip-hop, the muted narrative in a world dominated by gangsta rap, holds keys of critical potential. Until the masses are ready to examine their ways of life and embrace music that can aid in this scrutiny, the doors accessible through this unique culture will likely remain unopened.
Adorno, Theodor. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” from “Dialectic of Enlightenment.” Continuum International Publishing Group: 1976
Aesop Rock. “Basic Cable.” Mush Records: 2000.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. “The Message.” Sugar Hill Records: 1982.
N.W.A. “Straight Outa Compton.” EMI/Capitol: 1989.
Park-Like Setting. “Information Technology.” Peanuts and Corn: 2000.
Qwel. “The Siren of Liberty Island.” Galapagos4: 2004.