1. I hear variations of these all the time:

    "I listen to Hip-Hop, but the good stuff - old school"
    "Modern rap is terrible! 50 Cent, Lil Wayne? Total crap"
    "New rappers are a disgrace. Soulja Boy? What happened to the four elements?"

    Now I'm fully aware that Things Ain't What They Used To Be arguments have existed since time immemorial (and will exist evermore), but I find this particular flavour of it especially corny. As in most things, money has played an important role in Hip-Hop since the very beginning, and the origins of rap music have become as exaggerated and romanticized as the American West.

    The above phrases usually allude to a time when Hip-Hop was about self-expression and revealing harsh realities, rather than making lots of money, exploiting people, and wearing lavish jewellery. The problem with this take is that Hip-Hop - both today and yesterday - has always been about all of the above. Not every MC rocks gold chains, and not every track is full of penetrating insight, but Hip-Hop (like any culture) is a chaotic mix of authenticity and posturing; materialism and art.

    This conflicted nature is demonstrated beautifully in Hip-Hop's first major radio hit "Rappers Delight" . Eventually becoming a platinum record, this hugely influential song changed the rules for everyone from Chuck D to Grandmaster Flash. It was also as unauthentic as it gets. In Can't Stop, Won't Stop, Jeff Chang carefully describes how the three members of the Sugerhill Gang were not only a manufactured group and a non-entity on the Bronx scene (until their hit broke), but used jacked rhymes for some of their lyrics. After the huge success of Rappers Delight, other crews, including the Furious Five, were so eager to capitalize on hip-hop's money-making potential that they changed their live sound to better fit a studio setting. This isn't to say that Flash & the Five were sellouts, but simply that art coexisted with money.

    With this all in mind, artists like 50 Cent take a lot of flack for being focused on killing, sex and cash, but a closer look at 50 (aka Curtis Jackson) reveals a larger picture than the cold-blooded gangsta persona allows. See, 50 also sells vitamin water. And fiction novels. And male cosmetics. This is because 50 is less of a street poet and more of a businessman who sees a market opportunity. This may be artistically dubious, but every genre has its Gene Simmons. Furthermore, even artists for whom art is actually #1 still think about money.

    50 Cent becoming popular by rapping about 'Guns, Bitches and Bling' says much less about 50's artistic soul (or lack thereof), and much more about his sensibilities as a businessman. It also says a fair amount about what many North Americans want to listen to (supply & demand and all), and that should make 50 Cent's monumental success even less baffling.

    Even years after 50's biggest hits, a certain portion of the American people still want to hear a successful businessman talk about killing people.

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