The Cotton Club

Black-conscious hip-hop deals with an overwhelmingly white live audience

Armed with messages of Black political resistance, Black pride, and opposition to militarization and corporatization, designed in part to counter the commercial hip-hop party-and-bullshit madness dumbing down the nation's youth, hip-hop's lyrical descendants of the "fight the power" golden era today are booking concerts in record numbers—far beyond anything imaginable by their predecessors. Problem is, they can hardly find a Black face in the audience.

As the Coup (Pick a Bigger Gun), Zion-I (True and Livin'), and the Perceptionists (Black Dialogue) get set for a wave of touring to promote their new CDs this summer, the audience that will be looking back at them unmasks one of the most significant casualties of hip-hop's pop culture ascension: the shrinking Black concert audience for hardcore, political hip-hop.

"My audience has gone from being over 95 percent Black 10 years ago to over 95 percent white today," laments Boots Riley of the Coup, whose 1994 Genocide and Juice responded to Snoop Dogg's 1993 gangsta party anthem "Gin and Juice." "We jokingly refer to our tour as the Cotton Club," he says—a reference to the 1920s and '30s Harlem jazz spot where Black musicians played to whites-only audiences.

Boots says he first noticed the shift one night in 1995, in a concert on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Opening for Coolio, he stepped center stage and grabbed the mic as usual, but then saw something unusual about the audience: a standing-room-only sea of whiteness. Some were almost dressed like farmers, he recalls. Others had their heads shaved. "Damn, skinheads are out there," he thought. "They can't be here to see us." But the frantic crowd began chanting along rhyme for rhyme.

Zion, MC of the independent rap group Zion-I, agrees the similarities to jazz are striking: "Jazz went white, then Black, then white again. At this point African Americans aren't the ones supporting live jazz [performances]. It's the same in many ways with independent hip-hop. I've been to shows where the only Black people in the place are onstage. It's kind of surreal."

"I love Boots Riley's music, but in general people in the 'hood are not checking for the Coup," says Brother Ali, part owner of the Minneapolis-based hip-hop collective Rhymesayers Entertainment. "It's hard enough to get some of our people to go to a Kweli show. It has a lot to do with the fact that the emphasis on the culture has been taken away. It's just the industry now and it's sold back to us—it's not ours anymore. It used to be anti-establishment, off the radar, counterculture. People in the streets are now being told what hip-hop is and what it looks like by TV."

According to industry insiders and most media outlets, though, the shifting audience isn't just a Black consciousness thing—it's prevalent in mainstream hip-hop as well. Whites run hip-hop, they say, from the business executives at major labels to the suburban teen consumers. But the often-intoned statistic claiming that 70 percent of American hip-hop sells to white people may cover up more than it reveals.

No hard demographic study has ever been conducted on hip-hop's consumers. And Nielsen SoundScan, the chief reference source on music sales, by its own admission does not break down its over-the-counter totals by race. "Any conclusions drawn from our data that reference race involve a great deal of conjecture," a SoundScan spokesperson insists.

Wendy Day, founder of the Rap Coalition, a hip-hop artist-advocacy group, says she's attempted to pair up with several popular hip-hop magazines on such a study, but none would commit to help fund it. When she asked an executive at a major record label, she got an even more interesting response: "He didn't see the value in writing that kind of check," she says. "Because rap is selling so well, he didn't see the value in knowing who his market is. 'It's not broken, Wendy,' he said. 'We don't need to fix it.' "

And distinctions must be drawn between buyers and listeners. In terms of hip-hop's listening audience, Nielsen SoundScan doesn't weigh those passing on and burning CDs. (In July 2003 Nielsen SoundScan began tracking companies like iTunes that sell downloads for a fee.) Nielsen SoundScan, which claims to track 90 percent of the market, doesn't take into account underground mixtape CDs, mom-and-pop store sales, or big retailers like Starbucks and Burlington Coat Factory that refuse to share their sales information.

Concert crowds are another matter. Looking for the 70 to 80 percent majority white audience? In most cases you won't find it at a Nelly concert or any other top-selling hip-hop artist's show. At large venues like Detroit's 40,000-capacity Comerica Park, where Eminem and 50 Cent will headline the Anger Management Tour in August, estimates suggest that 50 to 60 percent of the seats are filled by white fans. By contrast, Caucasian concertgoers staring down culturally focused Black hip-hop artists topple these numbers. Although to date there's been no attempt to track concert demographic data, fans, promoters, and independent MCs who play live more than half the year give estimates of 85 to 95 percent.


Backnthaday, artists like KRS-One, PE, Brand Nubian, Queen Latifah, Poor Righteous Teachers, and others coexisted with more purely party-oriented acts like Kid 'n Play, Heavy D, and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. They could also be found alongside those who got a little more gritty wit' it, such as Schoolly D and Luther Campbell's 2 Live Crew. In those days Afrocentric MCs rolled neck and neck with their counterparts, routinely reaching 500,000 units—the gold sales standard of the mid '80s. By decade's end, a few such records—Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, for instance—had gone platinum.

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