APRIL’S GUEST WRITER: Chase March
There is an oft-repeated statistic that states, “70% of hip-hop’s audience is white.” While this statistic cannot be verified, it does seem to make sense. According to the 2010 United States Consensus, 65.1% of the population is white, and 12.9% is black. Record stores, both brick and mortar, and online don’t collect racial data, nor should they. However, if even only a small portion of the white population listens to hip-hop and all of the black population does (both of which are highly improbable) the 70% statistic seems to make sense.
However, we don’t need a decisive number to realize that hip-hop does indeed have a large white audience. As Tricia Rose states, “white teenage rap fans are listening in on black culture, fascinated by its differences, drawn in by mainstream social constructions of black culture as a forbidden narrative, as a symbol of rebellion.” One endearing thing about hip-hop is that it has remained true to its roots even amongst all of the commercialization and the attempts to silence it or assimilate it. Hip-hop had a primarily black audience for nearly ten years and even though it now has a large white audience, there are very few commercially successful white artists.
The first rap record was released in 1979 but we didn’t see an album from a white hip-hop group until Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill in 1986. This trio from Brooklyn was originally a punk rock outfit and kept much of that influence in their hip-hop albums. A lot of their audience were, and continue to be, white rock fans. Some of these fans are hip-hop heads while others simply enjoy the novelty of a comedic white rap group. 3rd Bass is another white rap group that came out shortly after the success of Beastie Boys. They used humour in their music as well but they had a more street sound to their records. They had a few hits but it still seemed that hip-hop was unable to produce a white megastar group or artist.
Other white rappers tried to tap into the large white audience of hip-hop consumers but none of them were able reach the level of success of their black counterparts. Run-DMC and Public Enemy sold large amount of records and earned multitudes of white fans without having to directly appeal to this new demographic. Some people argue that it was Run-DMC’s use of rock guitars that appealed to the white crowd. However Run-DMC had used rock samples and live guitars in their first two records and didn’t simply employ this tactic to crossover to white consumers.
Run-DMC wanted to use a sample for their third album but their producer coaxed them into redoing the record with the original band instead. At the time, the group thought it was a bad idea. They reluctantly went along with it and their version of ‘Walk This Way” with Aerosmith turned out to be one of rap’s biggest selling records. While it may be easy to see the appeal Run-DMC had with white consumers, it is a little more difficult to see that same appeal being had for Public Enemy. Their music could be described as militant and pro-black. Lead rapper Chuck D even referred to their music as “CNN for black people” and he was obviously directing his messages at that particular audience.
Tricia Rose believes that “the drawing power of rap is precisely its musical and narrative commitment to black youth and cultural resistance, and nothing in rap’s commercial position and cross-cultural appeal contradicts this fact.” Perhaps this explains why white consumers flock to records from black artists and why white artists have a hard time filling the bill. The latest success is Asher Roth and yet even he could be considered a label promotion rather than an organic success.
It took nearly 15 years for a white artist to come out with a highly successful album that sold millions of copies. This happened with the “To The Extreme,” the debut album from Vanilla Ice. He became a crossover pop success almost immediately as he entered the scene in 1990. People began to refer to him as “the Elvis of rap.” The success of both Elvis and Vanilla Ice, as well as countless other white popular acts, contributes to the “abundant evidence that white artists imitating black styles have greater economic opportunity and access to larger audiences than black innovators.” When Elvis saw commercial success with the forms and styles he adopted, he completely eclipsed the black musicians he emulated. It wasn’t long before other white artist followed upon this trend and, to this day, white artists continued to out-sell their black counterparts. Rock and roll became blanched.
This didn’t happen with hip-hop. We didn’t see it taken hostage by white artists. Instead, we saw a huge backlash against Vanilla Ice. He was criticized for being an outsider or a poser. He defended his use of rap music by claiming that he grew up in the ghetto and had a tough home life as well. When it was revealed that he was from the middle class, people stopped taking him seriously as a rapper. Tricia Rose explains, “Vanilla Ice’s desire to be a ‘white negro’ (or, as some black and white hip hop fans say, a Wigger), to “be black” in order to validate his status as a rapper hints strongly at the degree to which ghetto-blackness is a critical code in rap music.
I remember seeing an episode of Rap City on Much Music where a new white hip-hop group was being introduced in 1991. The group was called Organized Rhyme and they were signed to Beat Factory. Ivan Berry was defending why he was excited to be releasing music by this group. I remember this quite clearly because I closely followed everything that happened on Rap City back then and paid special attention to the few Canadian releases and videos that were aired. Ivan Berry sat beside the two white rappers and their white DJ and said something to the effect of, “I only sign black artists.” He paused and said, “Let me explain that” and then he continued to validate why this group deserved to be included in the cannon of hip-hop culture. I wish I had taped it so I could share that interview with you here but that’s the gist of it any way.
Organized Rhyme never tried to be black. They did, however, align themselves with black management and artists. In the narrative of their debut music video, “Check the O.R.”, the white rappers go to Jane and Finch, which is often referred to as Toronto’s ghetto. You can see them going around the housing projects. They try to get into one building but are refused entrance by some residents. They sneak in around the back and rap their song as they make their way down the hall. At the end of the video, they finally meet their black counterparts and label mates Dream Warriors. MC Bones aka Tom Green says, “We had a hard time getting in,” to which King Lou replies, “Wait till it’s time to get out.”
This could be read as a veiled threat or a note of warning that the black residents don’t appreciate white artists. It could also reference how hip-hop is something that you physically embody and therefore it would be hard to remove. It reminds me of the famous line in The Godfather Part 3 film, “Just when I thought I was out, THEY PULL ME BACK IN!”
Young Black Teenagers knew that there was a negative perception of white artists and they tried to battle this with their name. It was at once an homage to the origins of hip-hop and a way to have their music heard without calling attention to their race. Their album cover was done in black and white in a further attempt to hide their true skin colour. Their lyrics paint them in realistic colours but one must listen closely to pick this up. Interestingly enough, they were also supported by black artists including Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad.
When Kish, an Asian rapper from Canada, first came out with his record, he didn’t want to call attention to his race either. He just wanted people to hear and experience the music for what it was. He explained this on The Mastermind Street Jam show on the now defunct Energy 108 radio station.
“When you look at the photos of the album or the shots in the video, a lot of them, you can’t see my face… On the album you can’t see my face and it’s not my grill for the entire video. And there’s a real specific reason behind that. And that is, if you enjoy my music, then it shouldn’t be my face plastered all over the place. It should be, you enjoy the music as the music.
The music has no face and it has no name. And it’s not a conscious decision to say, ‘I don’t want to put my face on it for certain marketing reasons.’ No. It’s just the fact that I’m come to the point where the music is the first and foremost thing, and that is the thing I concentrate on the most. I’ll worry about the peripheral extra things later on because they’ll come and go. Hopefully, my creativity will outlast those things that I’ll acquire along the way.”
Hip-hop started out as an inclusive community event and it needs to return to that ideal. Racism is simply not acceptable in this day and age. It doesn’t even have a place in rap music. You would actually be hard pressed to hear blatantly racist lyrics in songs. Instead you experience “a social form that voices many of the class-, gender-, and race-related forms of cultural and political alienation and it voices this alienation in the commercial spotlight.
With rap music and hip-hop culture you experience “a social form that voices many of the class-, gender-, and race-related forms of cultural and political alienation and it voices this alienation in the commercial spotlight. I think teenagers of all races find hip-hop appealing due to this “voiced alienation.” Teenagers regularly deal with issues of identity and alienation, so it only makes sense that they identify with the themes presented in rap music. I remember that I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere until I discovered hip-hop.
It took nearly ten years after Vanilla Ice had briefly ruled the charts for us to see another white rapper reach and eventually surpass that level of success. Eminem seemed to come out of nowhere in 1998 with a track called “I Just Don’t Give a Fuck.” It was in stark contrast to the pop sounding records of other commercial hip-hop artists. It got a lot of play on campus radio shows and mixtapes. Eminem was quickly accepted in the underground circuits but, at the time, it didn’t seem likely that he would become a popular star and one of the biggest selling hip-hop artists of all time. To date, Eminem has released seven studio albums and has sold millions of records. There aren’t many hip-hop artists, regardless of race, who have managed to have that kind of longevity and dedicated fan base.
Eminem’s success lies in his skill and not in his colour, however. Nothing sounds forced in Eminem’s delivery. You can’t guess what is coming next like you could with some of rap’s earliest records. He doesn’t use words simply because they rhyme. He doesn’t merely rhyme at the end of his lines. He often rhymes each and every syllable in consecutive words and makes them blend together seamlessly. It took his song “Brain Damage” to get me to stand up and take notice. He can rap words that don’t even rhyme by focusing on the syllables and how they are pronounced. Some rappers try to do this but it is so obvious that they are trying. Eminem does it effortlessly in the narrative of his rhymes and this doesn’t call attention to the brilliant mechanics of his poetic work.
For example. Eminem rhymes “orange juice” which would be impressive enough since nothing really does rhyme with orange. However, he takes it even further by matching up every single syllable of that phrase and rhyming it repeatedly over a few seconds of time. Not content with that, Eminem does the same thing with “chocolate milk.”
Here is the lyrics:
Then I got up and ran to the janitor’s storage booth
Kicked the door hinge loose and ripped out the four inch screws
Grabbed some sharp objects, brooms, and foreign tools
“This is for every time you took my orange juice,
or stole my seat in the lunchroom and drank my chocolate milk.
Every time you tipped my tray and it dropped and spilt.”
Here are the slant rhymes
– storage booth – door hinge loose – four inch screws – foreign tools – orange juice
– chocolate milk – dropped and spilt
Eminem’s success is clearly built upon his phenomenal skills. There can be no doubt about that. However, having the backing of Dr. Dre and some notable black rap stars probably helped him establish credibility as a bona-fide hip-hop artist. He quickly earned an audience of both black and white hip-hop fans and did not suffer a backlash like Vanilla Ice had. The music industry often follows trends and many people were predicting a new era of commercially successful white rappers. It really didn’t happen though. Bubba Sparks and Paul Wall saw a bit of commercial success and several others became underground stars (Brother Ali, Eyedea, Sweatshop Union, Slug, and Eternia, to name a few) but not one of these artists were able to build as large an audience as Eminem.
Canada, however, managed to produce a popular white artist by the name of Classified. This MC paid his dues by putting in a lot of work and releasing several albums on his own independent label. He now enjoys a loyal fan base and receives airplay on commercial and campus radio. To date, he has released 14 albums and has seen commercial success with a number of singles and videos. This article was not meant as a history of white MCs. My goal was to focus on the audience share of white rappers in comparison to that of the more historically successful black artists. To that end I have left out several notable acts, which only makes sense since there is so much history to this art form.
I have also left out successful rap artists of other persuasions. There are several different races that actively participate in hip-hop culture. Francophone and Aboriginal rappers often enjoy success in their communities but have a hard time breaking through to the rest of the hip-hop audience on a worldwide scale. Latino rappers are more readily accepted by the general audience as shown by the success of Cypress Hill, Fat Joe, and Big Pun, to name a few.
For this paper, I’ve focused on the nature of hip-hop culture and how it “draws international audiences because it is a powerful conglomeration of voices from the margins of America society speaking about the terms of that position.”
Hip-Hop is a way of life that has unique rules and customs that are observed by its members. As such, hip-hop is clearly a cultural movement. This culture now involves several different races, both as listeners and active participants. It can no be seen in a simple dichotomy of black and white. And that’s a good thing.