An Oct. 5-9, 1999, conference sponsored by
NYU's Institute for African-American Affairs.
Coverage by undergraduate journalism students.


Hip-hop and slavery in the 1990s

By Benjamin Meadows-Ingram

Professor Tricia Rose sat in the sixth floor conference room of New York University's Institute of African-American Affairs, an extensive library of books by and about African-Americans lining the glass-enclosed shelves behind her. Boxes of promotional t-shirts lay on the table and floor and just outside the slightly opened door, visiting dignitaries conversed in foreign tongues.

Rappers Eightball and MJG

The institute was busy orchestrating the international symposium, "Slave Routes: The Long Memory," which took place Oct. 6-10. But at that moment, Rose was focused on a television where the latest music video by southern rappers Eightball and MJG danced across the screen. As the video's last scene faded to black, Rose, author of Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, began an in-depth analysis of the video's use of slavery images and the relationship of slavery, and notions of slavery, to the hip hop music industry as a whole.

Eightball and MJG's video "We Started This" (Suave House/ Universal Records/ Universal Music Group, 1999) depicts in a slave metaphor the exploitation of hip hop artists by rich record executives. The video shows black males being trapped, shackled, and then forced to rap into microphones hanging from a factory ceiling. The suit-clad executives appear throughout the video laughing and throwing hands full of money at the artists under their control.

"The notion of capitalism and the exchange of black bodies is being reproduced narratively," explained Rose, who is acting head of the institute and NYU's Africana studies program this year. "That's what slavery was. It was the control and exchange of black bodies in a capitalist system. Now, the physical domination isn't as obviously severe. We are free, we are full citizens, but the psychological as well as the economic domination seem to still be of concern."

According to the music retail store and rack sampler, SoundScan, the rap genre gained the largest percentage of total album sales in 1998, moving from 9.5 percent of total sales in 1997 to 11.4 percent in 1998. While this trend may have benefited the year's multi-platinum rap artists, all of whom were black, they received little in comparison to their white, or black-owned record labels and even less compared to their label's white or foreign-owned distributors. In 1998, six major distributors operated in the American music industry, WEA (Warner, Elektra, Atlantic), Sony, Polygram, Universal, BMG (Bertelsmann Music Group), and EMD (EMI Music Distribution). Between them, these six distributors accounted for 84.8 percent of the total album sales and owned most major labels. (Earlier this year Polygram and Universal merged to form UMVD, Universal Music and Video Distribution, further consolidating the power of the music industry's top tier.)

Paul D. Rosenberg is an attorney with the firm of Cutler & Sedylmayr, LLP, and owner of Goliath Artists Management. Reclining in a plush black leather chair in his firm's conference room, he offered a simplified version of music industry math: "The distributors are the ones that really make the money," he says, noting that this problem is hardly unique to hip hop. Artists of all colors and in all genres complain about their cut.

"[The distributors are] the ones making like four or five bucks on a CD just for putting it in the store," Rosenberg said. By contrast, an artist can only expect about $1.30 per CD in royalties (the fee paid per CD sold usually based on 12-to-16 percent of the CD's retail price). From that comparatively small sum the record labels expect the artist to recoup, or pay back, all advances received before and during production.

"It's utterly fundamental to distinguish slavery from contemporary circumstances..."

--Tricia Rose

As a result, while the distributor continually profits from all sales free from any real risk, some of the more unsuccessful artists will still owe money to their respective labels when they begin recording their next albums. Unless that new album is a breakthrough hit, the cycle continues.

Despite the economic disparities between the earnings of artists, their labels and their distributors, Rose warned that "it's dangerous" to make the analogy between the record industry and slavery.

"It's not the same because we have choices," she said. "It's utterly fundamental to distinguish slavery from contemporary circumstances, and many people use it easily in a way that diminishes the utter brutality as well as the total domination of people when they are physically enslaved. Rappers don't have to rap. They choose that, [but] that get's dropped out when you use slavery metaphors 'cause it looks like, well, I don't have a choice, ...and the answer is then absolutely no."

Percy Coles is a well-known rapper, better known as Tragedy Kadahfi. The Queensbridge, New York, veteran is the co-CEO of the record label and production company 25 II Life. Tragedy called late Monday night from his label's office, two nights after the "Slave Routes" symposium officially closed. After a full week of high profile panels, well-attended events, and intense discussions about race relations, Tragedy's life remained relatively unchanged. He opened with a few jokes and then launched into a discussion of his label and his perceptions, as an artist and a businessman, of the hip-hop industry.

"I mean, as far as distributors are concerned," he said, "I'm not in conflict with anybody's piece of the pie, but let me just say this: The overall big picture, the overall big scheme of things is full ownership. Master P doesn't even have full ownership. Full ownership is supremacy. We're living in a capitalist country so things are based on capitalism and that's what labels do... If you can't be used, you're useless... So, in terms of slavery? I wouldn't term it as slavery, it's just business."

Produced for the Web by Michael Kaplan


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University Press of New England's review of Black Noise
New York University Africana Studies Department
Eightball and MJG on The