All In The Game

All In The Game Columns by Clyde Smith for Pound [2005]

Back in the early days of ProHipHop (which I founded, authored and eventually sold), I wrote a series of three columns for Pound Magazine out of Toronto.  It was a print magazine at the time but, looking at their website, I get the feeling they're no longer in print.  Maybe they are but it was really a Toronto thing with a lot of great content and I was quite happy to appear on their pages.

Here are the three columns.  The first explains the series title, All In The Game:

How Much Longer Can Hip Hop Claim Outsider Status?

50 Cent and the Violence of Money

When Did Selling Out Become Cashing In?


How Much Longer Can Hip Hop Claim Outsider Status? by Clyde Smith

[My first All In The Game column for Pound published in the March/April 2005 issue.]

All In The Game is my first opportunity to expand upon ProHipHop, a trade weblog at that provides daily hip hop business news and commentary across industry categories. Each column will allow me to step back and look at the bigger themes of hip hop business, while digging deeper into the underlying details. For example, hip hop business is pervaded by the entrepreneurial theme of the upstart and outsider ignored by established forces until the upstart triumphs and the outsider becomes the leader. Yet, with hip hop widely lauded as the new mainstream, how much longer can hip hop entrepreneurs successfully play the outsider card? The exploration of such concerns will be an ongoing feature of All In The Game.

I decided to title this column after a ‚"traditional West Baltimore‚" saying used in the 13th episode of The Wire, the HBO series that successfully evokes the similarities between games played by dealers, cops, politicians and executives. Though The Wire does not focus on rap music or hip hop culture, it's a reminder of the role of the streets in hip hop business and of the harshness of struggles in any marketplace. Just as this column allows me to step back and reflect upon the bigger picture, so too The Wire allows me a vantage point from which to reflect upon the business of hip hop as a part of society.

The entrepreneurial theme of the upstart/outsider rising to dominance within an industry is a recurring one in the career of Russell Simmons. In a cover story for Business Week in 2003 titled‚ "The CEO of Hip-Hop," Simmons points to the "arrogance" and "stupidity of the old guys" who gave him room to build Def Jam in the face of their neglect. Though he could also mention fashion, he names Def Comedy Jam and the Rush Card as opportunities that existed because markets were underserved and emerging trends unrecognized. But how many markets are truly underserved by hip hop and for how much longer? Furthermore, can Russell Simmons still honestly claim outsider status?

One indication of Simmons' mainstream status was his presentation at a 2004 meeting of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. Multiple reports indicate that Simmons' casual attire and plain speaking peppered with curse words and familiar sound bites was a big hit and received a standing ovation. Such is not the reception of an outsider or an upstart, but of a well known public speaker whose iconoclastic approach is viewed as refreshing, like Def Con 3, rather than challenging, like Public Enemy. Though the upstart/outsider theme is growing threadbare, it still resonates for Marc Ecko, whose presentation at a recent gathering of game developers was not so well received.

Marc Ecko was the opening speaker for the DICE 2005 conference taking the role of firebrand. Well known for using graffiti as an initial entry point into the fashion world, Ecko is now using graffiti as the basis for a new video game to debut in September. Though advertising his fashion lines on game demo disks since at least 1999 and well established in the fashion industry beyond his basic lines, Ecko's status as a new face in game development allowed him to play the role of both upstart and outsider. His opening gambit basically encouraged the audience to tell him to f*ck off, cause he's an outsider. But he followed with an attempt to win the audience over using Star Wars metaphors and defining essential trends while emphasizing that game developers should now serve a wider market than the hardcore gamers on which, he maintains, the industry is currently focused.

Hilary Goldstein covered the presentation for and said that about half the industry audience seemed to be visibly rejecting Ecko's statements while the other half was as "attentive" as anything he'd seen at the conference. GameSpy's Dave Kosak confirmed the mixed reception while adding it stirred up discussion among GameSpy editors. Kosak also stated,
"[Ecko's] used to being the outsider. When he was trying to sell his tee-shirts to chain stores, fashion industry executives rankled or told him he didn't know the business and didn't know what he was doing."

Ecko's early negative reception is a story told by many hip hop entrepreneurs. These tales often include elements of a narrative in which initial failure precedes an eventual victory based upon tenaciousness, skill and the inherent rightness of the enterprise. With Marc Ecko's first game, Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, not due from Atari till September, this appearance can also be read as part of Ecko's personal rebranding from fashion industry success to entrepreneur on the diversification tip. Such goals require continual expansion into new markets, like a public company from which obsessive growth is expected.

In his Business Week cover story, Russell Simmons claimed that the ‚"street wants us to grow . . . They love big. Not cool, small, and alternative. Hip hop aspires to own the mainstream‚" Simmons' narrative portrays hip hop as the new Goliath poised for a fall. And, with Ecko and Simmons apparently abandoning niche markets, a variety of opportunities await upstarts still rooted in the street.


When Did Selling Out Become Cashing In? by Clyde Smith

[My third All In The Game Column for the July/August 2005 issue of Pound.]

Lately I've been pondering the notion that hip hop went from viewing the relentless pursuit of money through wide ranging commercial endorsements and merchandising as "selling out" to "cashing in." This consideration was spurred by a David Kiley article at Business Week Online, entitled "Hip Hop Gets Down with the Deals." Kiley recounts a recent presentation by hip hop artists Ludacris, Big Boi and Jermaine Dupri for a gathering of marketing execs to clarify the sorts of marketing deals in which they were interested.

In discussing this startling development, Kiley quotes Josh Takeman, "Without three or four business deals with major brands, you aren't seen as cashing in, and cashing in is part of the hip hop culture" Kiley posits that earlier generations would have perceived such activities as "selling out" and I began to wonder, when did selling out become cashing in for hip hop culture?

Gangsta rap seemed like a good place to start with its shift from Public Enemy's politically motivated hip hop to the nihilistic viewpoint of N.W.A., the group that most popularized gunslinging, crack slangin' and the domination of b*tches, themes that remain central to popular rap whether lyrically or as backstory.

Eithne Quinn's "Nuthin' but a "G" Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap" offers a surprisingly useful academic take on the conditions and forms of production in which gangsta rap emerged, conditions providing both the context and subject matter for gangsta rap.

Quinn paints a picture of the deindustrialization of Compton and South Central, Los Angeles leaving few options for entrepreneurial activity or even regular employment. In a devastated terrain, dealing crack was an aggressive response to limited opportunities. Drawing on this reality for lyrical content and style, gangsta rap exploited the gap in major label offerings to hip hop consumers, forming small flexible labels that could quickly produce cheap products for local markets, aided by local radio.

As gangsta rap grew in popularity, small labels were able to exploit their ownership of content to force major labels into joint ventures, an approach that has characterized much hip hop entrepreneurialism since. In fact, this amazing accomplishment required something like gangsta rap, initially indigestible by major labels, opening a space to exploit for independent empire building and endorsements of such products as St. Ides malt liquor.

Yet, though the content shifted, I don't believe that period signaled a sudden shift to cashing in that had not previously existed. In fact, from the very beginning we see that hip hop had an entrepreneurial element, though limited by immediate circumstances and the fact that no one could see the potential for big money.

The devastated South Bronx, the birthplace of hip hop, is an even worse case scenario than South Central and the creators had far less to work with financially than folks like N.W.A. As Nelson George puts it in the introduction to "Yes Yes Y'all",

"The lack of employment for minority youth made gang culture and, later, hip-hop posses (where kids could be MCs, DJs, dancers, graffiti artists, or security guards) quite attractive . . . the lackadaisical criminal enforcement policies of the '70s encouraged the experimentation that was eventually organized into the hip-hop industry."

George's description of the South Bronx seems surprisingly similar to that of South Central. And, if we turn to DJ Kool Herc, a central figure and for many the originator of hip hop, we find a well-rounded businessman who states in "Yes Yes Y'all",

"I was giving parties to make money, to better my sound system. I was never a DJ for hire. I was the guy who rent the place. I was the guy who got flyers made. I was the guy who went out there in the streets and promoted it. . . I was seeing money that the average DJ never see. They was for hire; I had my own sound system."

Kool Herc even states that once he made sure money was being handled properly at the door, "after that they would say, 'Kool Herc and Coke La Rock is makin' money with that music, up in the Bronx.' We was recognized for hustlin' with music."

As Herc points out, nobody knew rap was "going to turn into a world-wide phenomenon, billion-dollar business and all that." In fact, it has to be understood that no one recognized the possibilities prior to "Rapper's Delight," and even then many thought it was hip hop's one hit wonder.

In looking back, we can see that an entrepreneurial spirit pervaded hip hop from the beginning and that a business-like approach was often highly regarded. Yet, at the same time, we have to recognize that rap music is at the forefront of eliminating barriers between creativity and commerce as artists experiment with lyrical product placement and profess their desire to be viewed as businessmen. So, though I think that things are changing, I don't believe we can understand or influence such changes by imagining earlier ages of purity and paradise lost. Rather, we should leave behind such simplistic formulations and dig into the messy realities of today with an understanding of the complexities of the past.