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There's little doubt that the Rock the Bells festival, rolling through the Twin Cities this Saturday, is the hottest hip-hop ticket for this summer's touring season. This year's edition of the annual rap circus collects more than 20 of the genre's best live acts on two stages (among them Public Enemy, Nas, Talib Kweli, and MF Doom) and is expected to draw 200,000 strong as it rolls through 17 major urban markets. But Rock the Bells is more than just a cash cow. As organizer Chang Weisberg recently told me, "Rock the Bells is a platform for the sort of hard-core, socially conscious music that isn't being represented in the mainstream."
There's little doubt that Weisberg is right about the lack of major representation for this type of music. While the draw of these concerts proves that there's still a thirst for quality hip hop, most of the acts highlighted here have long since disappeared from the charts. In fact, out of all the Rock the Bells artists, only Nas has enjoyed substantial play on commercial radio in the past five years. Even Public Enemy's Chuck D noted this when I recently spoke with him via cell phone. He admitted matter-of-factly that he glanced over the Rock the Bells lineup and realized that "everybody is past their record-selling prime."
What's troubling about this dynamic isn't that your favorite act no longer charts, but rather that the groups on the Rock the Bells marquee made some of the most politically acerbic, artistically challenging popular music of the past two decades, and no one has risen to take their places. Rage Against the Machine's classic debut sold three million, and Wu-Tang releases regularly debuted in the top 10 and achieved platinum status. It's hard to imagine bands with similar m.o.s being allowed into the pop universe these days.
Sure, there is a modicum of dissent in the pop ranks—for instance, we all gasped when Kanye West famously suggested that George W. Bush doesn't care about black people—but it's difficult to consider him a suitable heir to the socially conscious throne that Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy once reigned from. For the most part, today's pop charts reveal an innocuous fantasy land of teen rappers, R&B automatons celebrating their shawties, and warmed-over gangsta rap long since divorced from the political implications of NWA.
This shift is in part due to the dramatic transformation the recording industry has undergone. With the internet's virtually limitless shelf space, the blockbuster's market share is supplemented by more specialized niches. For a full examination of this dynamic, pick up Chris Anderson's excellent book The Long Tail. There are ample statistics to back Anderson's assertion that the era of the mega-hit is over. There was a 25 percent decline in album sales between 2000 and 2006, for example, but among the 10 top-selling pop albums in the U.S., there was a 60 percent free-fall over that same time period. The news for hip hop is even worse. Overall, rap sales are down 45 percent and, for the first time in five years, no hip-hop albums were among 2006's 10 biggest sellers.
The dynamic is clear: Pop music (and, particularly, popular hip hop) is transforming the world of the smaller audience and more specialized aesthetic.
The bad news is that you're unlikely to hear Saigon or Madlib on your local Clear Channel outlet, but the good news is that none of this really matters for the consumer. If anything, this new market is a boon for music lovers. The major labels' grip on art is loosening, and we have increased access to a wider spectrum of music, or, as the loquacious Chuck D puts it, "The underground is the overground.... There is no such thing as mainstream and there is no such thing as underground. If you're able to make a recording and able to get it out, people will flock to it one way or another. If it's one person or three billion, it's all the same."
Chuck D also suggests that both the artists and their fans should reevaluate using platinum sales as a measure of success. "Once you think that the music is only about sales, you're taking the mindset of an accountant," he says, "and that's never healthy for an artist. It's like a basketball player who's playing with the stats in his head and is only thinking about his contract. How romantic is that?"
Fellow Rock the Bells performer Talib Kweli also takes issue with focusing on chart rankings. "I saw an interview with Lauryn Hill, and she was talking about how mainstream hip hop used to stand for something and it doesn't anymore. She seemed visibly pained by that...I hear that often. But it doesn't bother me that much," he says. "The hip-hop community is now on the internet...and everything is [available] there."
While the larger music industry, to its own detriment, has desperately clung to an outmoded paradigm, many performers have adjusted accordingly. Kweli started his Blacksmith Music imprint in 2006 after seeing his Beautiful Struggle album mishandled by Geffen, and has been regularly releasing mix tapes and one-off collaborative projects, understanding that in this decentralized industry, a half-dozen small successes are more feasible than a single big hit.