In its early days, rap is just “black trash,” the music of the ghettos into which African Americans are. A true counter-cultural expression, it remains associated with banditry for a long time, labelled as the gangster style par excellence. White America is offended, shocked by the violence of these punchlines that risk turning its nice kids into thugs. On the French side, the situation is more or less similar. Rap is intrinsically linked to the suburbs, often designated “lawless zones” by the Republic… when it is not yet trying to bring it before the courts.
Yet it is difficult to deny its omnipresence. Personally, I must be 8 years old when I buy my first record and start spending my days in front of MTV. Since then, Akhenaton of the IAM group has become a museum curator, while Jay-Z has dinner with Obama.
Last year, for the first time in history, rap sales surpass rock, making it the most popular style (Nielsen data, ed.). From Harlem to Hollywood, how did we get here?
1991: the pivotal year
Billboard regularly publishes its results. Logically enough, the better an artist is positionned, the more likely he is to get attention. However, hip hop only makes its entry there late…
For a long time, to establish its ranking, the organization simply relies on the information transmitted by record companies — which do not hesitate to lie in order to favour their artists… In 1991, the game changes. Billboard finally integrates reliable data: devices measuring sales are installed at checkouts, without passing through the mastodons of the industry. The numbers finally speak for themselves, rap is on the list and benefits from this exhibition.
That year, he even reaches first place — for the very first time — with N.W.A. The success of Compton’s band is such that it will influence music produced afterwards, all styles combined… I am not the one who says it, but the serious Royal Society Open Science.
The lifestyle of these stars also serves their promotion, much like the Sex, Drugs & Rock’n’Roll of the 70’s. The public is passionate about gang stories in the press headlines, discovers another approach to music by dreaming of hanging out with Ice Cube…
If rap is replacing rock, the message it carries probably has something to do with it. While the latter accompanies the need for rebellion inherent in youth, the former also brings a materialistic dimension. In other words, we revolt against the system, point out inequalty, while wearing Tom Ford at the wheel of a Bentley. A paradoxical combination, but one that fully reflects our times.
In addition, our way of consuming music has been disrupted by streaming platforms, now accounted for in album sales. As a result, a genre plebiscited by the millennials will necessarily find itself privileged. Not surprisingly, Snoop Dogg is listened to on Spotify more often than Metallica or Tony Bennett.
This same digital revolution favours the appearance of new subgenres. No need for an orchestra, everyone can go with their homemade and vocoded touch from their teenager’s room. Gangsta rap is no longer the only option; from Nicki Minaj to Lil Peep, there is literally something for everyone.
So the good days of rap are far from over. It could even storm the government, with Kanye saying he wants to run for the White House in 2024… Will we see Kim as first lady? • —