Fans Are the New Record Labels

“Slave

to a label but I own my masters/

 Still get it poppin’ without artist and

repertoire/”

—Pharoahe Monch, “Desire,” Desire, 2007.

Last week, LA Times Staff Writer Chris Lee revealed the details of Cash Money

artist Drake’s blockbuster record deal. In addition

to a $2 million advance payment, he “retains the publishing rights to his songs

and cedes only around 25% of his music sales revenues to the label as a ‘distribution

fee’.” Drake’s deal was unusual to say the least; more so at a time when

recording contracts have taken a few steps up the draconian ladder, as CD sales

bow before the internet age of legal and illegal downloading.   

But Drake’s popularity and, perhaps,

patience steered him away from engaging in a rush-hour deal that could have

hampered his future. For that, I give him credit.. A couple of weeks back, I expressed

deep regret that the Canadian rapper seemed to have digressed from the

socially responsible content his mixtape start (Room For Improvement, 2006) was littered with. While still holding

those views, I was nonetheless proud to read that this emerging superstar had

enough sense to demand full

publishing rights—a booby trap record labels have historically set up to

control the message and music of their maids (artists).

Unfortunately, Drake’s hard work might

have been for naught.  

Cortez Bryant (Lil’ Wayne’s manager),

who helped establish this deal, proudly announced that the “record company

doesn’t have any ownership of Drake.” It doesn’t “have participation on

profits. They don’t have ownership of his masters. We control his entire

career. Those deals don’t happen anymore.” And

they don’t have to. 

Yes, things have changed. Yes, the four

major record labels—Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, EMI, and Sony

BMG—have suffered a sharp decline in record sales the last decade. Yes, label

bosses aren’t as confident as they used to be. But that hardly guarantees that

the music being produced and packaged for an international audience will

witness a dramatic shift in course anytime soon. 

The Misogyny, Minstrelsy, and Materialism

contained in most popular radio and TV hits is unlikely to give way to socially

constructive music for one specific reason: Fans. Are. The. New. Record.

Labels. 

Who needs middle-age White men in suits lecturing

you about the music young Black, Latino, and suburban White kids want to listen

to, when the fans themselves have chosen Soulja Boy over Slick Rick, Lil’ Wayne

over Lupe Fiasco, and T-Pain over Talib Kweli? The implications are obvious. 

Gone are the days when record labels ruled

with an iron fist, dictating to artists their agendas and what kind of music

was to meet it. As Canibus once rapped, “them days is gone.” In these times,

the fans, by-and-large, decide what they want to hear on the radio and watch on

TV. Whether they take full responsibility for this reality or not doesn’t deter

it: With fans downloading Drake’s latest chart-topping single, “Best I Ever

Had,” over 600,000 times in one month, it shouldn’t surprise anyone when radio

stations and TV stations—do the math—play it endlessly on their airwaves.    

Though I believe record labels played a

great part in enforcing upon innocent listeners crude lyrical content, I also

think the fans must be held accountable for the artists they’ve supported this

past decade. By no means does this exonerate record label executives, whose

fingerprints are printed all over the evidence.   

“Industry rule #4080/

Record company people are shady/”

Through the power of suggestion, the

label bosses, in conjunction with radio and TV outlets, shifted the social

consciousness of Hip-Hop in less than 10 years. They made sure that ‘90s

luminaries like Public Enemy, KRS-One, Monie Love, A Tribe Called Quest, and

Queen Latifah were completely shut out of the roster that burst forth in the

new millennium, rendering them nearly arcane in this volatile age. So, yes, I

fault the labels, too. But the fans aren’t entirely inculpable, either. And I

can prove it.   

No one can put my contention in more

candid terms than Atlanta rapper Soulja Boy. In a radio interview earlier

this year, Soulja Boy commented on the disappointingly low sales of his

sophomore release, iSouljaBoyTellem,

which sold 46, 000 copies its first week, compared to his debut album’s: 117, 262

copies. 

According to him, because on his second

release he “went more in-depth, and tried to step my game up, come with the

lyrics, go in on deeper topics, talk about life, and what it’s like being a

celebrity” (no kidding!), the fans who had catapulted him to international fame

in 2007 couldn’t comprehend the content. “Nobody wanted to really hear that,”

he said. The lesson learned is that successful rappers “gotta rap about what the

people wanna hear, per say.” And that magical element? “Nothing.” (I’m not

making this up!) souljaboytellem.com,

his official debut, “went platinum” because “I wasn’t talking about nothing.”  

The easy thing to do is laugh off Soulja

Boy as a confused adolescent who lacks the intellectual competence to make an

informed judgment about marketing and the recording industry; but that would

miss the point. To a great, and scary, degree, he’s right. Many who had

celebrated the sexual escapades he sang (not rapped) about on “Crank Dat” had a

hard time being preached to about the life of a celebrity on his second album.

And, whether we like it or not, in their

world such radical switch is

comparable to going from Bow Wow to Black Thought. 

Even with this reality, certain artists

including Soulja Boy, Rich Boy, and The Clipse are pledging responsibility in

their career—from here onward.

Late last year, Soulja Boy released a taped apology

to fans and parents for some of the derogatory content his music was associated

with in the past. “Over the past few months, I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of

my fans face-to-face and it made me realize that I got a large fan base of kids

that look up to me,” he said. “I have a greater responsibility to the kids that

want to be like Soulja Boy. I need to set a positive example for them.”

His heartfelt and unforced words

included commitments I never imagined possible—coming from a rapper bound by

certain constraints in his contract: “I wouldn’t say a role model because I think

parents or a guardian should be a kid’s main role model; but, from now on, I’m

going to make sure that every kid that looks up to me will get a positive image

that the kids and parents can trust.” 

But a few questions must be asked: Do

those kids prefer positivity over negativity—as documented in the declining

sales of his second album? Will the same kids who spent hours learning the

“Crank Dat dance” check for a more lyrical and less theatrical Soulja Boy? Are

the very parents themselves aware that the problem might not be the artists

anymore, but rather the kids they think they know well?  

Time will tell.

Alabama rapper Rich Boy, infamous for

his 2007 hit single “Throw Some D’s,” recently reflected on an incident he

promises will ensure “more substance” on his upcoming album. In an interview

with Vibe Magazine, he explained:

I was riding through this project called Roger

Wiliams, and this kid had asked me, ‘Why you rap about crack so much, Richy?’

And it just messed my head up to the point where I couldn’t get mad at the

little cat. I was just like, I could tell he seen something real dealing with

crack. So I was just like, Man, for the kids like that, I’d rather change my

topic. If I know kids like that are listening to me. … I’m going to keep it

real and rap about the sh** I’ve seen, but I’m not going to glorify it. … [T]he

kids make me feel responsible. I didn’t ever feel responsible until a kid

actually asked me myself. I heard it from the horse’s mouth, you know what I

mean?

Certainly. I know what you mean. But the

fight is far from over, comrade Richy.

How many fans are like the little kid

who stepped up to Rich Boy, disgusted with commercial rap’s celebration of the

crack epidemic? How many other fans, presented with the same opportunity,

instead ran out for an autograph or photo-op? How many older fans commended

Rich Boy—on blogs, forums, sites, etc.—for yelling frantically on his successful

single: “Throw some D’s on that bitch?”    

How many? Enough to keep his head above

the waters his music might have left many drowning in, prior to his date with

fate that day in Roger Williams projects.

Malice,

1/2th of rap duo The Clipse, recently expressed

similar concerns in a Vlog. Currently, “there’s a lot of foolishness in Hip-Hop,”

he said, and his crew, renowned for their witty street tales, has “been a part

of the problem.” He also touched on the exaggerations a studio booth can demand

from certain artists, and how he has, at times, fallen victim to it: “I guess,

basically, what I’m saying is: when I get in that booth and I start recording I

can drive as many Bentleys as I want. I can hop on as many G5’s or drop as many

tops as I want.” To his fans, 25 and younger, the message was direct: “… you

got to learn to separate the real from the fake.”

In the latest installment of his Vlog

series, titled “Young Ni**a This Is You

Malice crafts an all-too-familiar narrative of a young, ambitious drug dealer

who drops the powder for the pen, but fails to accomplish anything substantive

in the long run.  (“And the Crack-Rap—leave

that to me/ ‘Cause even Rap ain’t what it’s cracked up to be/.”)

But how many young Ni**as “want to hear that”? How many young Ni**as would actually take the time to contemplate the

severity of Malice’s warnings? How many young

Ni**as wouldn’t simply move on to the next rapper who’s willing to lie to

them about how much fun and rewarding the dope deathstyle is?

How many? Enough to extinguish a whole

generation of bright young people.    

What these rappers are doing should be

commended by those who truly care about the future Hip-Hop is inching closer

to—drug-driven, crime-centered, fad-focused music. But if the very people whose

ear-drums we’re fighting to protect appear unconcerned with the music record labels

are directing their way, at what point do we draw the line, forcing them to

fend for themselves? 

 Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic and a Columnist for BlackCommentator.com. He can be reached at Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.

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