Hip-Hop has been on the cusp of the mainstream for years, but now that it has taken over in both popularity and record sales, we’re starting to realize the true power that commercial pop music has had over much of what we hear today.
A recent article from OkayPlayer points out how Eminem’s music marked a pivotal point, expanding the genre to appease whiter audiences, and claims that he “may also be single-handedly responsible for rap’s great crossover to pop-level spectacle.”
I get that we’re blaming Eminem for more than just Asher Roth and Riff Raff, but to blame him for pop crossover entirely is a bit of a stretch. Hip-Hop has always been on the cusp of popularity going all the way back to the very beginning. What began as a countercultural movement, birthed during the citywide black-out of 1978, wouldn’t really see any commercial success until 1980, when Kurtis Blow released his hit single, “The Breaks.”
It took less than a year until Hip-Hop was picked up by pop culture for the first time when Blondie released the song, “Rapture”—which would become the first no. 1 song to feature rap lyrics.
Run-DMC was arguably the first to bridge the pop culture divide, gaining critical acclaim for “Walk This Way” their collaboration with the popular rock band Aerosmith—which appealed to the masses for its literal crossover of rock and rap genres.
It was around that same time that one of the most influential and commercially controversial hip-hop group from Compton, Calif., started making a name for themselves. N.W.A brought gangsta rap to the world stage where they became known for their outspoken political views on police, drugs, violence, crime, and censorship.
And we all know the rest… due to royalty and contract agreements Arabian Prince left shortly before the release of Straight Outta Compton and Ice Cube soon followed, a year later over the same thing. N.W.A. released the diss-track “100 Miles and Runnin’,” which was the first to get widespread airtime on TV and radio and Ice Cube returned fire with his single, “No Vaseline.”
Immediately after releasing their second and final album in 1991, Dr. Dre and The D.O.C. left to start Death Row Records with Suge Knight and Michael “Harry-O” Harris. While at Death Row, Dr. Dre worked with several artists. The first, of course, was Snoop Dogg, who worked with him on him on his 1992 debut The Chronic—which turns 25 this December—making him one of the best selling artists of 1993. The following year, Dre produced Snoop’s debut album, Doggystyle, which hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200 charts, selling more than 800,000 copies in the first week, making it the fastest-selling hip-hop album ever.
All of these things play a factor into the pop-culture crossover. After breaking ties with Suge and Death Row Records, Dr. Dre started his own label, Aftermath Records, and began working on production for other artists. In 1998, Jimmy Iovine, the head of Aftermath’s parent company Interscope Records, suggested Dre sign the Detroit rapper, Eminem.
Record executives sold the public on Eminem—whether he knows it or not—and perhaps it was done with the intent of marginalizing the disenfranchised voice behind the genre itself. But, perhaps we are casting too much blame on the industry because society’s increasing consumption of hip-hop also played a major role in crossing the stream into pop-territory. This year, the genre officially surpassed rock as the most listened to in the country.
It’s also important to remember, that the percentage of Americans who were upset with Eminem for speaking his mind about Donald Trump, is not the type of demographic to listen to anything beyond what is considered “mainstream.” And I mean, of course, they’ve heard of Vanilla Ice and the Beastie Boys, but you would never expect them to have listened to artists like R.A. the Rugged Man, Brother Ali, Atmosphere, CunninLynguists, Necro—each of whom has been labeled as “underground” yet remain outspoken about their views against racism in the genre.
Eminem’s image didn’t stop the counter-cultural movement, he just marketed it to us better. And can you blame him? I mean every musician dreams of making it rich, so why should it be any different for Marshall? Truth is that record executives like Iovine are always going to throw money and resources to set-up an elaborate guerilla marketing campaign for an artist like Eminem, because they know he will make them money no matter what.
Recent clues for his forthcoming album, REVIVAL, started popping up this week in the form of a snarky-sounding pill commercial from a phony pharmaceutical company. The clues were cleverly disguised on billboards and unraveled through a series of subreddits. But the crazy part is this is not unique. Guerilla marketing has been a tactic used by a great many artists as a way cleverly share with devoted fans.
Back in 2014, electronic music producer Aphex Twin announced his return to music after a 13-year hiatus by flying a blimp over London with his logo and the number “2014” on it. Simultaneously, his logo appeared in the form of graffiti spray-painted on the ground outside Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The elaborate tactic has been used by several artists, especially those who know how to communicate with today’s youth… but at a certain point, this too needs to become passé.
Think about it, the internet is filled with different ideas for releasing and promoting an album that appeals to today’s on the go, cell-phone addicted, public… but Eminem could just release it anytime he feels and people will still eat it up? So why put so much effort in? Perhaps he is trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, by seeing how many loyal fans will stick by his art? Isn’t he already too “mainstream” to do such an elaborate social experiment as that??
What really throws me for a loop is how after releasing his “Campaign Speech” single last year and his recent tirade during the BET Hip-Hop Awards, why has Marshall decided to stick to a theme? Creatively speaking, it makes sense that after Relapse (2009) and Recovery (2010) comes Revival… but maybe too much sense. It’s almost as surreal as Dr. Dre suddenly deciding to release his long-awaited project Detox [which will likely never happen, but one can still hope].
The bottom line, ladies and gentlemen, Eminem sold so many millions of records as a satirical mockery of pop culture only to become a symbol of the culture he once vowed to destroy… and it wasn’t anyone’s fault but our own.
So, back to the question at hand—did Eminem mark the beginning of the end for hip-hop as an entity separate from pop music? It’s hard to say for certain, given those mainstream performers who came before him, and the younger generation of artists like Drake, Rihanna, A$AP Rocky, Lil Uzi Vert, who came after. But it certainly did not help any in terms of further commercializing the genre into the mainstream.
Why do you think we are seeing young artists like Lil Yachty and Vince Staples being approached to help sell products? Well, maybe, the artists they looked up to did the same thing? Product placement in the beginnings of Hip-Hop went from artists like Notorious B.I.G. and the Wu-Tang Clan being featured in malt liquor commercials to eventually capitalizing on entrepreneurial ventures. Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons started Phat Farm and was one of the first to make it big by branching out to other industries. And soon, others would follow. Now we see endorsement deals being made left and right… Diddy has Sean Jean and CÎROC and Jay-Z has D’USSÉ and the 40/40 Club in New York City and so on.
There is a lot of truth in what was said in the OkayPlayer column. It’s not hard to understand where the author is coming from—hell, I would even argue that saying Eminem put out “four” solid albums is giving him a bit too much credit—but the truth is a lot of times music executives and corporate label heads are dictating what they feel is most marketable for the consumer.