How Hip-Hop entrepreneurs spawned a black economic renaissance
More white kids may buy rap records, but the phenomenon of hip-hop culture has created a black urban economy in the form of jobs for the first post-soul generation. And hip-hop is not going to die any time soon, according to Nelson George – hip-hop’s most prolific and perhaps best chronicler – despite wishes from adults who range from Tipper Gore to C. Delores Tucker who react to rap’s most extreme forms.
“Rap entrepreneurs are an important economic tool in the black community,” George said while in town for the San Francisco Bay Area Book Festival. “Rap has generated thousands and thousands of jobs for twentysomethings who may not be that skilled.”
George has written eight nonfiction books on African American culture and two novels. “Hip Hop America” is his latest effort, a neatly written account of the collision between black youth street culture and mass media and its effect on consumers, mainstream culture and politics.
Look around, argued George.
Gangsta-style movies and graffiti have spawned in-your-face attitudes that mark this first post civil rights generation. Hip-hop culture’s most noted form, rap music, has engulfed America, spilling its influence over into art (graffiti), fashion (baggy pants), sports (Allan Iverson) and advertising (almost any sneaker commercial). It’s all about mixing street skills and technology, George said.
But there’s nothing for adults to fear. George reminds us that it’s just “age and responsibilities changing your perception,” just as baby-boomers parents’ minds were altered by 1950s blues music and later, rock ‘n’ roll.
“New music of any generation is always scary to the parents,” said George, at 43 a baby-boomer who has kept up with youth culture.
“You’re only afraid of hip-hop in its extreme aspects – like your parents were afraid of Black Sabbath. You’re not afraid of your kids listening to Lauren Hill. If they like movies, they’re watching Halloween Part 4 or 5.
“Hip-hop creates mental pictures. In rap, it’s just young black men telling these stories. Run DMC said it loud – a yelling black man is a scary thing to some people, especially if they’re wearing black.”
But in the midst of the public attention-grabbing, misogynist lyrics and violent tales of urban life, rap music has produced a ghetto industry. “Bad Boy (Records) had 20 to 30 (black employees) inside the office in mail rooms, as secretaries and assistants. Street teams plaster the street with flyers and stickers. On the road, stylists, makeup artists and truck drivers. Not all (those jobs) go to black people but a lot of them do,” George said.
As people moved up, others were hired to repeat the cycle.
“Master P. employs people. A black woman manages his recording studio. No way that happens if Puffy (Sean Combs a k a Puff Daddy) doesn’t exist. He owns a restaurant now – more jobs. Next year a clothing line. Russell Simmons employs people in jobs that wouldn’t exist without the music,” George said.
“There are young black attorneys, black accountants. You notice it more and more. You forget how much money is spilled off by success. That hip-hop is a positive economic force can’t be disputed and it’s not just the artist. People around them are the beneficiaries. There’s no Vibe (magazine) without hip-hop.”
And perhaps there’s no Nelson George without hip-hop.
George grew up in Brooklyn, where his mother taught him to read before he attended elementary school. Her success inspired her to become a schoolteacher, which allowed her to move the family to a better section of Brooklyn. In Brownsville, the neighborhood was a bit more middle-class, noted George.
“I found language seductive,” George said, referring to his early attraction to the writing of Ernest Hemingway and Claude Brown, author of “Manchild in the Promised Land.”
But his first spark to write came from reading Richard Wright and New Journalism gurus Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin and Esquire magazine. Reading a review of a Brothers Johnson concert, which he thought showed the reviewer didn’t understand the music, led him to music writing. After stacks of rejection letters from Rolling Stone and The Village Voice, he began writing about hip-hop as an intern at New York’s largest black weekly, the Amsterdam News in 1978.
“My true entry into hip-hop happened in 1978,” wrote George in his latest book. “I was ordering lunch when a teenager came strutting by with his ghetto blaster cranked to 10. . . . He was jamming a tape with a man talking very fast in rhyme over, I believe, “Love Is the Message.’ ”
It was a homemade tape that urban rappers – like Hammer did in Oakland later – sold from the trunks of their cars.
It formed an underground musical economy.
And as George has duly noted, it was the changing of the guard, the passing of the torch from the civil rights and soul generation to the first post-soul and post civil rights generation.
As George documents hip-hop, he provides insight into this new generation.
“Post-soul kids grew up with the Vietnam War. Their fathers came back with drugs and bad dreams – if they came back at all,” George writes in the new book.
“As they grew up, both the black middle class and the black lower class expanded; they grew up with Wall Street greed, neo-con ideology, Atari Gameboys, crack, AIDS, Afrocentricity and Malcolm X as movie hero, political icon and marketing vehicle. They saw Nelson Mandela walk out of jail and Mike Tyson walk in. Some say this is the first generation of black Americans to experience nostalgia. And it all showed up in the music.”