It has long been debated in the music industry how the larger labels stifle and shun the creativity of their artists in favour of making “hits” that generate the most revenue. The hip hop industry is one of the worst offenders of this. Along with RnB, mainstream hip hop has taken a particularly harsh battering in recent years. The talent in the genres is still out there – thanks to the plethora of self-promotion and social media platforms that exist nowadays – however, it is now more than ever confined to the underground scene. The true talent and creativity is found only if you have the patience and the time to scratch – or more like dig – way beneath the foamy, glittery, spongy surface that makes up the commercial hip hop world.
Perhaps this is due to certain hardcore artists – some being veterans and even founders of the hip hop genre – reaching a point in their careers when they decide to “sell out”. Take the legendary Snoop Dogg, for example. Snoop’s earlier career was, of course, full of X-rated, raw and downright dirty material. Both his lyrics and his sound were without a doubt among the best the industry had to offer. He set the tone and pushed the boundaries, and hardcore hip hop lovers around the world rejoiced at the very sound of one of his unmistakeable and unforgettable tracks. Imagine how his original fan base felt when he one day decided to team up with serial cheese-inducing hit-maker, David Guetta. Guetta, who had himself once been one of the talents of an underground house music scene (he had DJ’d for over 20 years before making it “big”) had recently hit the limelight through an Ibiza residency at the world-famous Pacha night club. His club night, F*** Me I’m Famous, quickly became a worldwide sensation – largely thanks to his promoter-guru wife, Cathy. His following collaboration with former Destiny’s Child star, Kelly Rowland, took him out of the underground and firmly into the mainstream.
A Hit Factory
What followed was a line of collaborations with some of the world’s biggest “stars”, and hit after hit that sounded, quite frankly, the same as the last. Singers and rappers who had once enjoyed the portrayal of their own unique sound – such as Akon, Rihanna and Lil Wayne – found themselves “Guetta-ifed”. They “sold” their original style to make a sure buck. What was the biggest shock though, was when Guetta and Snoop Dogg released ‘Sweat’.
Hip hop fans were horrified to hear Snoop’s distinctive voice heavily diluted somewhere within a clumsy and crass generic electro synth and booming commercial dance beat. The hit made millions for record label, Priority Records, but Snoop’s longer-standing fans were not impressed, accusing the hip hop star of giving in to commercialisation.
The great thing about today’s underground hip hop scene – as with other genres – is that it encourages creativity like never before. These days we are seeing the birth of new sounds as people seek to get noticed over increasing amounts of competition. Groups such as Die Antwoord, for example (a South African rap and hip hop crew) are coming up with never-before-seen sounds to the point where they have created their own sub genre, Zef. However, when this experimentation is converted into the mainstream music world, the outcome is a generic, diluted sound. The main record labels have recognised this universal sound (typically a mixture of RnB, hip hop, dance and electronic) to be a money spinner. By combining the sounds of each genre (which are each liked by only a limited number of listeners) they are creating a mass appeal. The industry’s obsession with mixing genres is diluting genres like hip hop, stifling creativity of artists signed to the major labels as they all seek to follow this preconceived hit formula.
Diluting Hip Hop
The Big Four record labels continue to serve about 80% of the music industry and since the 2004 merger of Sony BMG, this has become more apparent. They are basically not as good at spotting unique new artists, instead favouring those that are already established and have a good fan base that they can make even wider (by diluting down the originality of the artist and adding the trusted hit-making ingredients). Helen Smith, general secretary of Impala, once said of Universal: “Key independents like Island, Chrysalis, Sanctuary, Mute, Mushroom and V2 have been acquired by the majors over the years. Universal is currently on a huge shopping spree. The effect of that is to reduce the competitiveness of the market.”
Let this be a warning to hip hop fans. If you want to hear real talent, there is plenty of it out there. Before you take out bank loans to follow your favourite Universal artist on tour, consider the authenticity and “realness” of the underground scene. Having a record deal used to represent the epitome of talent. However, these days, an artist stands more chance of having talent without one.