Rihanna’s next boss?
Now that Jay-Z has stepped down from the Def Jam presidency, the label might need a new president, but that position is definitely not going to Chuck D. If the label ends up hiring a new figurehead, it’ll probably be Jermaine Dupri or some such asshole. Jay is basically an irreplaceable figure; there’s not a single other person in rap with his combination of credibility and business acumen, and even he couldn’t do much with the label during the business’s last couple of lean years. The best thing for the label to do would probably be to eliminate the position altogether, since Universal seems to have enough executives on the payroll and since they’re downsizing these days anyway. Still, I like the idea of Chuck throwing his name into the race, partly because there’s something so admirably quixotic about it. The last time Chuck was a vital figure in rap was maybe fifteen years ago; he has exactly none of Jay’s glamor, and it’s hard to imagine a younger generation of rappers flocking to the label with him in charge. He’s also got a long history of questionable business decisions behind him: doing the (underrated) He Got Game soundtrack, releasing an internet-only album before most of the people who would’ve cared had figured the internet out, endorsing those Rio mp3 players that no one bought, hosting a show on Air America, failing to talk Flavor Flav out of becoming VH1’s ironic mascot. And still, it’s not entirely impossible to imagine Chuck getting the job, partly because the music business is in such a chaotic funk that anything could potentially happen and partly because he has a few good ideas.
Over on Allhiphop, Chuck outlined his four-point plan to improve Def Jam’s profits, and it’s at least better than anything current Def Jam in-house old guy LL Cool J could’ve come up with. Point 4 is grammatically muddled enough to be borderline nonsensical (“Any criminal mindedness in artistry, and management would have sit this one out, go their own way.” I guess that means no more gangsta rap? Maybe?) But the rest of it seems completely reasonable, though he’ll have a hell of a time implementing any of them in the unlikely event that he gets the nod. He wants Def Jam to be ahead of the curve on technology, which is both entirely vital and vague enough that no one, Chuck probably included, has any idea what it means. Chuck’s right that the labels missed the boat by not selling legal downloads accessibly and letting Apple take that role over, but it’s happened now, and the labels can’t really do anything about it. If anyone can figure out a way to for them to take advantage of downloading, they need to jump on it as quickly as possible, but I can’t imagine that any further ideas like that will come along. Chuck also wants to slash budgets, which strikes me as being a great idea. Once labels get used to the idea that the blockbuster album is dead, they can get start operating more like indies, putting out stuff with well-defined niche appeal that doesn’t cost too much to produce or market. But Chuck’s most interesting point is the idea that artists need to start touring hard, killing themselves onstage to gain audiences. As CD sales continue to drop, touring revenue is going to be pretty much the only thing anyone can count on, and so the rappers who look most likely to survive are guys like Lil Boosie, people without much mainstream presence who do shows constantly, maintain word-of-mouth appeal, and keep their overhead low.
So Chuck has some good ideas, but a good idea isn’t worth a whole lot in a corporate culture as corrupt and dysfunctional as those you find at pretty much every major label. Chuck’s not going to become the president of Def Jam, and even if he did, he wouldn’t get to make all the changes he’d want. But the interesting thing about his ideas is that they’ll probably all come to pass eventually even without him guiding them. Last week, Kelefa Sanneh had a Times article about sudden drought of money in rap and how it might affect the music. The figures in the article are pretty staggering, like how Project Pat sold the same number of records in 2000 that 50 Cent sold in 2007. But he also profiled three indie artists (Pat among them) who have rolled with their changing circumstances and made music that more directly appeals to smaller, more dedicated audiences, which is basically what Chuck seems to want artists to do. If any one figure came into the major label system and making sweeping changes, he’d end up like Bunny Colvin on the third season of The Wire; the system is bigger than any one would-be reformer. But systems have a way of adapting, and it’ll be interesting to see how rap’s focus changes when the money runs out.