The State of Hip Hop ... sort of.

Every once in a while I’ll have a conversation with a friend about the state of hip-hop and how I feel that it’s no good. And before I jump into this rant I think I should mention that I’m a white kid from the Midwest. If you didn’t just click off this page it either means you’re also white… From the Midwest… Or you are holding something in your hand and can’t click away. Point that I’m trying to get at here is that hip-hop (rap) isn’t always associated to people like me, although I would argue it is, but that’s a different story.

As I was saying hip-hop as I know it has kind of faded away, I was in college and high school during the birth of such superstars like Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, 50cent, and Eminem. These were the guys that really got me into liking rap, actually I loved it, but as years went on my music preferences changed and I occasionally dabbled in the hip-hop but not nearly as much as when I was a teen.

I was trying to figure out why my interests has faded with rap, was it because I was a lame adolescence who thought he was cool and secretly wanted to be a rapper… yes. OR was it because rap music at that time was just starting to really seep into pop culture, especially when Jay-Z released Hard Knock life with the Annie sample, and I’m actually a product of pop culture, …. Yes to this too.

Rap 10 years ago was the perfect storm. As far as I know, rap was just seeping into the mainstream and affecting the likes of people like me. Also, it didn’t hurt that this was the primetime of Napster and Limewire so attaining free music was getting easy. Since that moment rap entered mainstream and hasn’t really settled down. It’s flourished and has been reproduced time and time again.

It’s not uncommon to hear Ludacris on a track with Justin Bieber or Snoop Dogg with Katie Perry, that’s just the state we’re in. And let me be clear that I actually kind of like this state. I think from a financial standpoint it’s good for both parties, but for street cred not so much.

So where are we with rap? Is this mainstream rap still considered rap, or is it a saturated version of it? You know when there was just “Rock” then we had all these hybrids of it ie: “punk rock” “indie rock” “pop rock” “grunge rock” etc… Well, that’s kind of how I think rap is now.

Is rap, hip-hop? Are the not so mainstream under grounders pissed about what has happened with rap? And do those up and coming underground rappers disrespect the big guys for being on tracks with teen pop stars? I actually don’t know. But I do think it puts the underground hip-hop stars in a very tough position –

First: If they’re all about image and their idol, lets say a member from Wu Tang, is on a track with Bieber (true story) then what does that do to the image of their idol?

Secondly: Their idols are bringing in a ton of cash by doing these pop collaborations, and cash is the ultimate goal, right?

Third: Since cash is king, the underground star knows they’d sell out too, if it is in fact selling out.

Does it take someone selling out to put his or her name on the map? No, it doesn’t. But lets bring this full circle to the conversations I have with my friend - I always argue that there are no good up and comers, where he says there are. To his credit, he listens to a lot more mix tapes, and I’m a mainstream type of person.

But I think that to break into the limelight of the rap game it’s become increasingly difficult and unless you sell out or market yourself, probably the opposite direction of what you are, you’re not making money. Where is the new breed of rappers? I asked my buddy and said “there are none” he disagreed, and then this week Forbes listed hip hop’s top money makers and I think I proved my point even more.

Out of 20 only 6 are “fresh” to the scene. Looking at this list makes me wonder if it’s impossible to make an empire anymore if you’re an up and comer? You have to be able to, right? What is the below list doing differently than anyone else? Let’s break this down, and look at the top moneymakers and WHY they’re the top moneymakers…

1. Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, $37 million: He’s said it himself. He’s not a businessman; he’s a business, man. He really is a business. Dude owns a lot. But lets focus on his music for a second, he still puts out some of the best tracks each year. Is this because he’s top dog in the rap game and everyone wants to give him his or her best beats… yes.

2. Sean “Diddy” Combs, $35 million: Puff Daddy hasn’t been in a song since he made a grunting noise in an album probably made in 04. But, Diddy is also a business. He’s been around for god knows how long.

3. Kanye West, $16 million: I wouldn’t consider Kanye new to the game but he’s Kanye. Aside from his ego and questionable antics (which I don’t question) he still has the best beats and ehhh, good verses.

4. Dwayne “Lil Wayne” Carter, $15 million (tie): I can’t believe this guy was on Nelly’s first album, by the way, where is Nelly?

4. Bryan “Birdman” Williams, $15 million (tie): Who, what the – yes, that’s right. Birdman. Yes, I also thought he was playing scrabble with Master P somewhere but apparently he’s raking in money. Not from making music himself but rather from signing the likes of Lil Wayne, Drake, and Nicki Minaj.

6. Marshall “Eminem” Mathers, $14 million (tie): Not much needs to be said about him, when Eminem is good, he’s great. When he’s bad, he sucks and keeps talking about his mom.

6. Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, $14 million (tie): Lets be honest, he makes questionable music now. But he rakes in money due to good investments ie: Eminem and 50 Cent.

6. Calvin “Snoop Dogg” Broadus, $14 million (tie): He’s a legend. He doesn’t age. He smokes more pot than anyone I know, even though I don’t know him, I just feel like I do.

That’s 8 “rappers” in the game that I just went through that have been doing it for almost 20 years. When I saw this list I was thinking that either we don’t get good music from the new guys OR it’s just that hard to amass this amount of money. I’m not sure, but in fairness, the above list generates this much mostly based off of reputation, right?

9. Aliuane “Akon” Thiam, $13 million: Akon is like the R&B Nate Dogg. He’s sort of new to this.

10. Christopher “Ludacris” Bridges, $12 million: Huh!? Ludacris. What the hell have you released? Ohhh, you made your money from endorsements? But seriously, what’s up with this list, this is ridiculous.

11. Cameron “Wiz Khalifa” Thomaz, $11 million (tie): This guy had that song Black and Yellow. So he’s new to this whole thing. And you have to hand it to him – apparently he tours all the time and is also one of Pittsburgh’s best rappers… so I’ve heard.

11. Aubrey “Drake” Graham, $11 million (tie): Drake, this guy just gets it. His money has come from endorsements.

13. Pharrell Williams, $10 million: WHAT!? Dude, I haven’t heard you on a track since… um… that one time we used to bump the Neptunes and drink a lot. How is Pharrell on this list? Because he has a deal with Rocawear (Jay-Z’s clothing label) - That’s how.

14. Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley, $7 million: Timberland and Magoo… I remember he released this one song that sampled the Spiderman beat - it’s completely underrated.

15. Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, $6.5 million (tie): Uber producer. Married to Alicia Keys, doing since he’s been 16.

15. Onika “Nicki Minaj” Maraj, $6.5 million (tie): Okay. Finally. I think right here is the first person to actually earn their way on this list. By the way, she’s the first female on this list. I honestly think Nicki Minaj has earned this position and I think is the perfect example of how to succeed in current day hip hop.

She’s got a persona, she’s marketable, has catchy songs, and she works hard.

17. William “Rick Ross” Roberts, $6 million (tie): No idea how he got here. Good for him.

17. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, $6 million (tie): Looking at this it’s like looking at Ludacris. This list is jacked up; 50cent hasn’t been on or in anything since that collaboration video with the little white kid on youtube.

17. Armando “Pitbull” Perez, $6 million (tie): I like this guy, and I think he earned his way here. Good for him.

20. Faheem “T-Pain” Najm, $5 million (tie): Auto-Tuuuuune.

20. Bobby “B.o.B” Simmons, Jr., $5 million (tie): We round out with this guy, who is best known for “Airplanes”. I think B.o.B. is also a good example of where we are in the current state of rap, I don’t seem him doing many endorsements (which he probably is) but he’s talented, and is sort of poppy.

So, what does this tell you? It tells me that if you want to get in the top 20 of earnings as a rapper you either need to sell out or have a game plan that will change the game. You better be different. I don’t like this list at all because lets be honest – these people aren’t top earners because of tours and they’re music. They’re top earners due to endorsements.

I called my friend and told him about this list and he replied with – “But yeah, they were underground at one point.” Wow, that was the stump card. He said…

“Josh this isn’t just hip hop, it’s all businesses. (no duh) Everyone on that list is smart, give it 10 years and there will be new people, trust me, there’s good rappers out there.”

I believe him but part of me feels like the majority of the above list came into the game at the right time. They made it where it is today and they’ve made the most, rightfully so. Have they altered hip-hop to make it insanely profitable? I guess to be successful in hip hop is like anything else…

Put out a good product, attach yourself to good people, attach yourself to corporations, embrace pop culture, and watch the money pile up. It sucks because like most art forms that the masses want, you have to sell out before you can be original.

Good luck up and comers.