For Artists, Does 'Brand-Building' Equal Selling Out?

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I was at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle last weekend, and during a free associative panel discussion on pop and the 2000s, conversation gradually shape-shifted toward the notion of "selling out." Artists, no longer drawing checks from record sales (if they ever were...), now look toward new platforms to sustain their careers, resulting in uneasy marriages of art and commerce's blunter forces, etc. etc.

It sounds like a previous era's concern, and in many ways, it is naive to think there was ever a time before music was a commodity. But there does seem to be something qualitatively different about how music and money converge nowadays, if only because the possibilities multiply daily, infinitely. A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal described the Black Eyed Peas as "the most corporate band" around, and some of the ways in which they align themselves with their sponsors are both brilliant and unprecedented. They've taken the logic of the arena call-and-response to its very literal end.

"I consider us a brand," Peas brain will.i.am explained to the writer. "A brand always has stylized decks, from colors to fonts. Here's our demographic. Here's the reach. Here's the potential. Here's how the consumer will benefit from the collaboration." On one hand, their ingenuity is breathtaking—their career refutes the commonsense that the recording industry is in irreparable decline. For many artists, the only way to advance a career will be to figure out creative partnerships with neighboring industries. But, on the other hand, this inevitability forecloses upon the possibility of having that conversation about "selling out," for whatever it's worth.

Back to Seattle. Elliott Wilson, the panel's designated informant from the land of hip-hop, remarked that it had always been hip-hop's ambition to make money, conquer the world and cross-over toward pop audiences. While we can wonder whether this has indeed always been the case—one could make many mixtapes of back-in-the-day, props-over-riches raps, but then maybe they just lacked imagination or sought to moralize their own career arcs—Elliott does deliver us to the logic of the present: the merger of art and commerce isn't merely something that happens a lot nowadays, it's become a celebrated part of the culture, top to bottom. There's nothing wrong with hailing this merger, beyond its compromise of some (possibly) old-fashioned spontaneity-originality-authenticity understanding of art. But it's an ever forward-looking logic, and in embracing it too tightly and ignoring bygone battlegrounds, we forget about those who existed before such alliances were possible, let alone imaginable (save for the occasional Nike commercial).

He who controls the future controls the past. Hip-hop is one of these spheres that has vigilantly guarded against this view that history is only useful to us insofar as it anticipates the present. The trajectory has been revised and edited over and over, but there has always been a romance of those who didn't make it. There were two such interruptions last week, the first being KRS-One's rant against the National Museum of Hip-Hop:


 
KRS—he of "It's not about a salary it's all about reality" fame—is ostensibly raging against the Museum, but it's only a version of a longer-standing target of his: the failure of a hip-hop industry to care after its own. (Maybe it's a version, too, of what's going on in the NFL.) This KRS clip is absorbing, righteous and crazy, all at once. He expresses a bitterness toward an industry that has left its pioneers behind; yet he is also too proud to admit bitterness, and too deeply scorned to confess what he wants.

And, rather than picketing in front of Interscope or shaking down the Black Eyed Peas for some of that DipDive dough, he's savaging a museum, the site where memorial and money meet. KRS' rant is situated at the collision of two sensibilities, one that moralized its inability to draw that just salary, the other that sees no aspect of itself that can't be successfully monetized. Whether or not you buy the altruistic aims of KRS' gate-crashing, he's describing a very real contestation here, wherein a lot of old school artists, still waiting by the mailbox for those checks, are realizing that their stories can be sold, not just told.

Guru, who passed away a few days back, makes very few people's list of top five all-time rappers; but, as one-half of Gang Starr, his voice blesses some of hip-hop's most beloved songs. Hours and hours of classic material—a claim very few hip-hop artists can make. For many, Gang Starr—Guru and DJ Premier—embodied the platonic ideal of hip-hop. Caramanica, Oliver, Noz and others have written beautifully and effusively about the significance of his career and the tragedy of this loss. What's doubly tragic here are the conditions of memorializing him, most notably Guru's controversial and profoundly unspectacular post-Gang Starr collaborator Solar and the (probably fake/opportunistic) "deathbed letter" he produced upon Guru's death.

As such, the mourning has taken on a righteous dimension--listen to Mister Cee's unmissable set on Hot 97, Tony Touch's interviews with Scarface, Bun B and others, Cipha Sounds and Peter Rosenberg's stirring close reading of the letter, the when-I-reminisce clips by Fat Joe, Capone, Noreaga, Raekwon, and others. Each of these tributes, as well as the outpouring of love online, freezes Guru in his 1990s incarnation: one of the most distinctive voices ever, an uncompromising spirit, a new rap character—the weathered sage. It's how we would all prefer to remember Guru, lopping off the past few years, when he seemed to betray his legendary work with Premier and, in a way you can feel but never prove, his truest self.

There's something rare and powerful about this week's emergence of a Guru consensus, and it seems powered by a nostalgia for a time before, when there was a finite horizon that bounded the shared aspirations of Cee, Premier, Guru, the Foundation, and all the rest. It's an infectious feeling, hearing all those songs again. They describe a different imagination, one that we surpassed long ago, but one that should never be forgotten. Gang Starr turned the limitations of the path they had chosen, a strain of hip-hop that was moralistic but never embittered or preachy, into a design for life. It's in the grain of Guru's voice, the reverent sampling of Premier. Together, they initiated a world of followers, who shall never forget that there is a right way to live. As Guru put it in "The Militia," "One of us, equals many of us/Disrespect one of us, you'll see plenty of us..." All of us.

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.
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