The Cotton Club

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

That's no longer the case. In today's mainstream hip-hop, the mark of success is multiplatinum sales. 50 Cent's most recent release sold over 1 million units in four days; Nelly's 2001 Country Grammar to date has moved over 9 million units. By contrast, dead prez, the sole contemporary political hip-hop group with mainstream distribution, struggled to top 500,000.

Dead prez aside, the most widely circulated conscientious commentary in mainstream hip-hop mostly comes in the form of surprise protest tracks from artists who would never be deemed "political"—Jadakiss's and Eminem's pre-election hits "Why" and "Mosh," for example.

And whereas a decade ago artists consistently banged out social commentary with mass appeal, today the closest equivalents are Kanye West, Common, and the Roots, whose stance on wax focuses more on aesthetics than resistance—closer to A Tribe Called Quest, say, than to Public Enemy. PE's more direct lyrical descendants have been ghettoized in the underground, with high-end sales in the 25,000-to-50,000 range—over months or years, rather than weeks.

"Today, there are no purely conscious MCs competing on the level with the top-selling artists in the game," says Erik Smith of Critical Mass Consulting, a firm that does street-level lifestyle marketing for major labels' new releases. But does this mean there is no longer a Black market for Black consciousness in hip-hop?

In the '80s the gap between the civil rights generation and their hip-hop generation offspring was less severe. Culturally centered artists in that era were often steeped in the politics of the turn-of-the-'70s Black power movement. The lyrical content of the time didn't venture far beyond those borders. Such was the case of Public Enemy's 1990 Fear of a Black Planet. The CD jacket even extensively quoted psychologist Frances Cress Welsing's "Cress Theory of Color Confrontation" that emerged in the 1970s, likening to white supremacy football, basketball, baseball, and other ball games where the color of the ball and what is done to it are subconsciously connected to America's racial politics.

Welsing also had another, less-known theory, regarding the inferiorization of Black children. Welsing argued that soon white supremacists wouldn't have to worry about making Blacks seem inferior—they'd just need to keep providing them with inferior education, housing, health care, child care, and the like, and in a generation or two they would be. After 15 years of gangstas and bling, perhaps hip-hop's Black audience has been so inundated with material garbage that they don't want an uplifting message?

Zion, who believes the withering Black audience reflects the diminishing discussion of Blackness in public discourse, thinks so. "I do so many shows in front of mostly white audiences that it's the norm," says Zion. "When I get in front of a Black audience it's like, 'Finally you're here, feel me.' We've done shows in Chicago and São Paulo, Brazil, and it feels good to be in front of our people when they are feeling it. But there are some thugged-out crowds where our message doesn't resonate, and Black folks will say that they aren't trying to hear hip-hop artists remind them of their problems."

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Brother Ali
photo: courtesy of Biz 3 Publicity

Today's climate is indeed a far cry from the African medallion mania of the 1980s. In the academy, we've gone from 1980s discussions of Black studies and Afrocentricity to multiculturalism to current-day debates about post-Blackness and polyculturalism. At the same time, in the arena of mainstream politics we've gone from discussing the collective Black impact of Jesse Jackson's run for president to the individual career successes of Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice. In the streets we've gone from the Nation of Islam patrolling housing projects to whites reclaiming Harlem, South Side Chicago, and East Oakland, and Black scholars like Columbia University's Lance Freeman arguing that poor Blacks aren't significantly displaced by gentrification. "So many Black people don't want to hear it," Zion continues. "They want that thug shit. That's why I'm thankful for the audience we do have."

Mr. Lif, whose success as a solo artist led him to the recent partnering with Akrobatik and DJ Fakts One to form the Perceptionists, agrees. "It's disorienting. It's bizarre," he says. "But no artist is in a position to choose his fans. Whoever is in the audience, I love them for being there. They are allowing me to make a living doing what I love."


And the demand for art-as-a-weapon hip-hop music is so great that the best-known independent MCs are able to book from 150 to 200 concerts a year in venues where the capacity ranges from 200 to 1,500, all the while not breaking through to the mainstream.

Recognizing the success of such underground white MCs as Aesop Rock, El-P, and Sage Francis—all moving around 100,000 units per release—Brother Ali says, "Our genre is looked at as white rap. It's almost like a white chitlin circuit of underground rap music." The more popular underground white hip-hop artists are helping to nurture the audience at venues that now regularly feature conscious Black hip-hop artists. At the same time as political hip-hop's audience has gotten whiter, audiences for old-school socially conscious hip-hop (think De La Soul) and politically conscious hip-hop (think Chuck D and KRS-One) have merged. It's an audience that includes white kids, college students, and those tapping into what remains of the counterculture of hip-hop. This requires fans with the time on their hands to search out MCs in independent record stores and on the Internet.

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