We Keep You Posted… 7/19-7-25 of 2009.

Posted on July 28, 2009

Last week, LA Times Staff Writer Chris Lee revealed the details of Cash Money artist Drake’s blockbuster record deal. In addition to a $2 million advance payment, he “retains the publishing rights to his songs and cedes only around 25% of his music sales revenues to the label as a ‘distribution fee’.” Drake’s deal was unusual to say the least; more so at a time when recording contracts have taken a few steps up the draconian ladder, as CD sales bow before the internet age of legal and illegal downloading.

But Drake’s popularity and, perhaps, patience steered him away from engaging in a rush-hour deal that could have hampered his future. For that, I give him credit.. A couple of weeks back, I expressed deep regret that the Canadian rapper seemed to have digressed from the socially responsible content his mixtape start (Room For Improvement, 2006) was littered with. While still holding those views, I was nonetheless proud to read that this emerging superstar had enough sense to demand full publishing rights—a booby trap record labels have historically set up to control the message and music of their maids (artists).

Unfortunately, Drake’s hard work might have been for naught.

Cortez Bryant (Lil’ Wayne’s manager), who helped establish this deal, proudly announced that the “record company doesn’t have any ownership of Drake.” It doesn’t “have participation on profits. They don’t have ownership of his masters. We control his entire career. Those deals don’t happen anymore.” And they don’t have to.

Yes, things have changed. Yes, the four major record labels—Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, EMI, and Sony BMG—have suffered a sharp decline in record sales the last decade. Yes, label bosses aren’t as confident as they used to be. But that hardly guarantees that the music being produced and packaged for an international audience will witness a dramatic shift in course anytime soon.

The Misogyny, Minstrelsy, and Materialism contained in most popular radio and TV hits is unlikely to give way to socially constructive music for one specific reason: Fans. Are. The. New. Record. Labels.

Who needs middle-age White men in suits lecturing you about the music young Black, Latino, and suburban White kids want to listen to, when the fans themselves have chosen Soulja Boy over Slick Rick, Lil’ Wayne over Lupe Fiasco, and T-Pain over Talib Kweli? The implications are obvious.

Gone are the days when record labels ruled with an iron fist, dictating to artists their agendas and what kind of music was to meet it. As Canibus once rapped, “them days is gone.” In these times, the fans, by-and-large, decide what they want to hear on the radio and watch on TV. Whether they take full responsibility for this reality or not doesn’t deter it: With fans downloading Drake’s latest chart-topping single, “Best I Ever Had,” over 600,000 times in one month, it shouldn’t surprise anyone when radio stations and TV stations—do the math—play it endlessly on their airwaves.

Though I believe record labels played a great part in enforcing upon innocent listeners crude lyrical content, I also think the fans must be held accountable for the artists they’ve supported this past decade. By no means does this exonerate record label executives, whose fingerprints are printed all over the evidence.

“Industry rule #4080/

Record company people are shady/”

Through the power of suggestion, the label bosses, in conjunction with radio and TV outlets, shifted the social consciousness of Hip-Hop in less than 10 years. They made sure that ‘90s luminaries like Public Enemy, KRS-One, Monie Love, A Tribe Called Quest, and Queen Latifah were completely shut out of the roster that burst forth in the new millennium, rendering them nearly arcane in this volatile age. So, yes, I fault the labels, too. But the fans aren’t entirely inculpable, either. And I can prove it.

No one can put my contention in more candid terms than Atlanta rapper Soulja Boy. In a radio interview earlier this year, Soulja Boy commented on the disappointingly low sales of his sophomore release, iSouljaBoyTellem, which sold 46, 000 copies its first week, compared to his debut album’s: 117, 262 copies.

According to him, because on his second release he “went more in-depth, and tried to step my game up, come with the lyrics, go in on deeper topics, talk about life, and what it’s like being a celebrity” (no kidding!), the fans who had catapulted him to international fame in 2007 couldn’t comprehend the content. “Nobody wanted to really hear that,” he said. The lesson learned is that successful rappers “gotta rap about what the people wanna hear, per say.” And that magical element? “Nothing.” (I’m not making this up!) souljaboytellem.com, his official debut, “went platinum” because “I wasn’t talking about nothing.”

The easy thing to do is laugh off Soulja Boy as a confused adolescent who lacks the intellectual competence to make an informed judgment about marketing and the recording industry; but that would miss the point. To a great, and scary, degree, he’s right. Many who had celebrated the sexual escapades he sang (not rapped) about on “Crank Dat” had a hard time being preached to about the life of a celebrity on his second album. And, whether we like it or not, in their world such radical switch is comparable to going from Bow Wow to Black Thought.

Even with this reality, certain artists including Soulja Boy, Rich Boy, and The Clipse are pledging responsibility in their career—from here onward.

Late last year, Soulja Boy released a taped apology to fans and parents for some of the derogatory content his music was associated with in the past. “Over the past few months, I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of my fans face-to-face and it made me realize that I got a large fan base of kids that look up to me,” he said. “I have a greater responsibility to the kids that want to be like Soulja Boy. I need to set a positive example for them.”

His heartfelt and unforced words included commitments I never imagined possible—coming from a rapper bound by certain constraints in his contract: “I wouldn’t say a role model because I think parents or a guardian should be a kid’s main role model; but, from now on, I’m going to make sure that every kid that looks up to me will get a positive image that the kids and parents can trust.”

But a few questions must be asked: Do those kids prefer positivity over negativity—as documented in the declining sales of his second album? Will the same kids who spent hours learning the “Crank Dat dance” check for a more lyrical and less theatrical Soulja Boy? Are the very parents themselves aware that the problem might not be the artists anymore, but rather the kids they think they know well?

Time will tell.

Alabama rapper Rich Boy, infamous for his 2007 hit single “Throw Some D’s,” recently reflected on an incident he promises will ensure “more substance” on his upcoming album. In an interview with Vibe Magazine, he explained:

I was riding through this project called Roger Wiliams, and this kid had asked me, ‘Why you rap about crack so much, Richy?’ And it just messed my head up to the point where I couldn’t get mad at the little cat. I was just like, I could tell he seen something real dealing with crack. So I was just like, Man, for the kids like that, I’d rather change my topic. If I know kids like that are listening to me. … I’m going to keep it real and rap about the sh** I’ve seen, but I’m not going to glorify it. … [T]he kids make me feel responsible. I didn’t ever feel responsible until a kid actually asked me myself. I heard it from the horse’s mouth, you know what I mean?

Certainly. I know what you mean. But the fight is far from over, comrade Richy.

How many fans are like the little kid who stepped up to Rich Boy, disgusted with commercial rap’s celebration of the crack epidemic? How many other fans, presented with the same opportunity, instead ran out for an autograph or photo-op? How many older fans commended Rich Boy—on blogs, forums, sites, etc.—for yelling frantically on his successful single: “Throw some D’s on that bitch?”

How many? Enough to keep his head above the waters his music might have left many drowning in, prior to his date with fate that day in Roger Williams projects.

Malice, 1/2th of rap duo The Clipse, recently expressed similar concerns in a Vlog. Currently, “there’s a lot of foolishness in Hip-Hop,” he said, and his crew, renowned for their witty street tales, has “been a part of the problem.” He also touched on the exaggerations a studio booth can demand from certain artists, and how he has, at times, fallen victim to it: “I guess, basically, what I’m saying is: when I get in that booth and I start recording I can drive as many Bentleys as I want. I can hop on as many G5’s or drop as many tops as I want.” To his fans, 25 and younger, the message was direct: “… you got to learn to separate the real from the fake.”

In the latest installment of his Vlog series, titled “Young Ni**a This Is You,” Malice crafts an all-too-familiar narrative of a young, ambitious drug dealer who drops the powder for the pen, but fails to accomplish anything substantive in the long run. (“And the Crack-Rap—leave that to me/ ‘Cause even Rap ain’t what it’s cracked up to be/.”)

But how many young Ni**as “want to hear that”? How many young Ni**as would actually take the time to contemplate the severity of Malice’s warnings? How many young Ni**as wouldn’t simply move on to the next rapper who’s willing to lie to them about how much fun and rewarding the dope deathstyle is?

How many? Enough to extinguish a whole generation of bright young people.

What these rappers are doing should be commended by those who truly care about the future Hip-Hop is inching closer to—drug-driven, crime-centered, fad-focused music. But if the very people whose ear-drums we’re fighting to protect appear unconcerned with the music record labels are directing their way, at what point do we draw the line, forcing them to fend for themselves?