Kanye West, the rap superstar and stranger to modesty (“I realise that my place and position in history is that I will go down as the voice of this generation”) moved to London earlier this year for an extended visit.
West stayed at one of the city’s costliest hotels, The Lanesborough, an ornate Regency pile near Buckingham Palace. Naturally, the voice of this generation didn’t stay in some piffling suite (the most expensive is £14,000 a night). No: he hired the entire top floor, where he installed a makeshift recording studio, a fashion atelier and his entourage. It was as if a powerful plenipotentiary had taken up residence in the city.
West was in London designing outfits for his range of womenswear for Paris fashion week. He was also recording songs for a forthcoming album. Other guests at the hotel, including members of the royal family, reportedly didn’t take kindly to the thud-thud-thud and funny odours emanating from the top floor. “Every room was a studio,” West’s rapper-protégé Big Sean said afterwards. “The royal family below were complaining, like, ‘We got all this loud-ass rap music above us and weed smoke.’ ”
The royals should stock up on ear plugs and air freshener. There will be more loud-ass rap music and weed smoke next week when West returns to London with fellow superstar rapper Jay-Z. The pair are playing their joint album, Watch the Throne, for five nights at the 20,000-capacity O2 Arena – the hip-hop equivalent of a 1970s rock supergroup tour. Their stay in London will be a bonanza for the capital’s top-end services industry. The big-spending rappers have an expensive image to maintain. West describes Watch the Throne as “luxury rap”.
Ostentation and rap have a long history, going back to the first emcees flaunting their gold chains in the 1980s. Yet Watch the Throne takes the swagger to unprecedented levels. Scarcely a track goes by without its creators boasting about their elite lifestyle, from West relaxing on his private jet (“Sorry I’m in pyjamas but I just got off the PJ”) to Jay-Z’s high-fashion shopping tips (“I dress in Dries [Van Noten] and other boutique stores in Paris”). The roll call of brands – Gucci, Rolls-Royce, Hublot, Porsche – is relentless. The cover of the album, devised by Givenchy fashion designer Riccardo Tisci, is embossed with gold metallic patterns.
Meanwhile, in the real world, the west struggles to cope with the worst financial crisis since the Depression. Unemployment among black Americans was above 16 per cent when Watch the Throne came out last August. In the week before its release, the US lost its triple A credit rating and Wall Street saw billions of dollars wiped off share prices. There’s a surreal disconnection between the gilded values that Jay-Z and West project and the daily struggle faced by many of their fans. Rap prides itself on being street smart, on keeping it real. Does Watch the Throne mark the moment that it sold its soul?
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“Rap has lost touch with a lot of its roots,” says Chuck D, leader of Public Enemy, the New York rap group whose militant beats and forthright black power politics dominated the late 1980s. “For example, its individualist thing is just overblown. You have the mass disappearance of rap groups. Also, it has alienated women and older demographics.” (In Watch the Throne’s “That’s My Bitch”, West smirks about buying breast implants for a woman: “I paid for them titties, get your own.”)
Rap began in the late 1970s as a party music invented by pioneering black DJs and emcees in the Bronx. It was a time when swathes of that part of New York lay in ruins, a legacy of Robert Moses’ road-building programme. Its founding fathers – Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kool Herc – created an extraordinarily adaptive form of music in which records were manipulated by a DJ at a pair of turntables to create a mongrel soundtrack that was then rapped over.
The first rap hit was The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. Record labels initially dismissed the music as a gimmick, a misjudgment to rank with Decca Records’ refusal to sign the Beatles. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s account of Bronx ghetto life, “The Message”, took rap into the realm of social commentary, while the related activities of graffiti and break-dancing created a new subculture: hip-hop. By the end of the 1980s, when Public Enemy blazed a trail out of New York with their knockout beats and political sermons, rap had become an international phenomenon.
Jay-Z is rap’s most famous mogul. His ascent from drug dealer to tycoon is rap’s version of the American dream. As he raps in Watch the Throne: “I did all of this without a diploma, graduated from the corner.” He has parlayed his own highly successful recording career (more number one albums than Elvis) into a boardroom role, first as chief executive of Public Enemy’s former record label Def Jam, and now as chief executive of his own company Roc Nation.
A recent rap rich list placed P Diddy at number one with an estimated fortune of $550m. Jay-Z was second with an estimated $460m. Much of this is due to entrepreneurialism rather than record sales. (Hip-hop is especially affected by illegal downloading: poetic justice for a genre obsessed with criminality.) The most successful rappers have built sprawling business empires, from 50 Cent’s vitamin water – he reportedly made up to $100m when it was sold to Coca-Cola – to Dr Dre’s high-definition headphones. “I think the biggest difference from 15 years, 20 years ago, is that today hip-hop is more responsive to the 360 world around the sound,” says Chuck D.
Its transformation from its impoverished Bronx beginnings into a multibillion-dollar global business is remarkable. Yet Chuck D argues that in the 25 years since Public Enemy released their debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, rap has created a false prospectus of black success. A select tier of black stars at the top masks a corporate takeover of the music. “Rap music was an independent music,” he says. Now, he believes, it is “white-owned and blackfronted”.
Jay-Z’s path to the boardroom doesn’t reassure him. “I would say that there are people behind him who have invested in him heavily,” says Chuck D conspiratorially. The title Watch the Throne inspires a Chuck D staple, the didactic pun. “One thing is: who is going to catch the thrown? T-H-R-O-W-N. That’s the 99 per cent of the masses that have nothing.”
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Superabundant, super-confident, flashy – rap is channelling the spirit of rock music’s golden age. In the 1970s, booming album sales transformed rock into a highly lucrative business, dominated by a handful of major record labels. By 1973, the US music industry was pulling in $2bn a year, about the same as the film and sports industries combined. Rock was the dominant genre: it accounted for half of all albums sold.
The influx of money fuelled a new mood of extravagance. Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones staged tours infamous for their depravity. Elton John and David Bowie dressed outlandishly and sang about rocket men and spiders from Mars. Progressive rock stretched rock’s format as far as it would go. It was the era of 10-minute drum solos, ambitious concept albums, larger-than-life personalities and elaborate stadium shows.
Forty years later, rock’s sales dominance is over: pop sells more now. Rock’s cultural space has also shrunk. Its biggest names are ageing, its rising stars are faceless. Keith Richards’ memoir topped the book charts, but you won’t find a successor to the gnarled hellraiser in the music charts. Bruce Springsteen’s new album lambasts Wall Street for the financial crisis – yet younger rock stars hardly comment on the world around them. Rock’s claim to be the voice of youth culture is shrivelling faster than its sales.
Rappers are rushing in to fill the vacuum. They may sell fewer records – 27m in the US in 2010 to rock’s 103m – but culturally and financially they are in the ascendancy. Crossover collaborations with pop and rock acts have widened the music’s appeal from its core black audience. Jay-Z’s triumphant appearance headlining Glastonbury in 2008 announced rap’s arrival on the stadium and festival circuit that rock created in the 1970s. Now hip-hop looks set to take that over too. The hologram of the murdered rap icon Tupac Shakur that was projected at a Californian festival last month is a foretaste of a new era of high-tech spectacle. If there is ever a remake of This is Spinal Tap it will have to be set in the rap world.
West’s claim to be “the voice of this generation” is egotistical – but not totally delusional. When he brags about his “rock star lifestyle” in Watch the Throne, he makes a provoking comparison. The decadence in which he revels (“Coke on her black skin/Make a stripe like a zebra”) is no different from Led Zeppelin doing infamous things with mud sharks and groupies or the Rolling Stones setting up court in the south of France as tax exiles. Rock stars are allowed to get away with behaving like louche sex-crazed plutocrats; indeed it used to be part of the job description. The question at the heart of Watch the Throne is: why is it any different when a black man does the same?
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West and Jay-Z demand that we welcome black extravagance as proof of hard-won upward mobility in a racist society. They insist they should be applauded for behaving like 1970s rock stars. “If you escaped what I’ve escaped/You’d be in Paris getting f***** up too,” raps Jay-Z, drug dealer-turned-mogul. Later, in a song about black-on-black murders, he holds up “the new black elite” that he and West represent as a counterweight to the abysmal African-American history of poverty and violence: “It’s a celebration of black excellence/Black tie, black Maybachs/Black excellence, opulence, decadence.” West, whose father was in the Black Panthers, weighs in on the same theme: “It’s time for us to stop and redefine black power.”
Watch the Throne marks rap’s elevation to the pinnacle of the entertainment industry. Its extravagance celebrates hip-hop’s extraordinary journey from the run-down Bronx housing projects where it began in the late 1970s to the top floor of The Lanesborough hotel annoying members of the royal family. Yet Chuck D argues that rap’s wealth is “poorly distributed as an industry”. “With the major labels melting down a bit, it’s maybe at best 20 artists they can draw on who are financing and supporting them. I’d like to see 150 of them doing well,” he says.
“[Watch the Throne] is the hot record, it’s the only record they’re playing in the United States,” says Ice-T, the LA rapper who pioneered gangsta rap in the late 1980s and who documents rap’s rise in the forthcoming film Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap. He marvels at the “amount of artists that are out there now. When I came out there were maybe 15, 20 rappers. Now there’s maybe 500 records a week coming out, when you count all the people that are off the radar, just making their own shit. It’s hard to get to be top of that, to get somebody to actually buy the record.”
Competition runs deep in rap music. It’s enshrined in the “rap battle”, when rival emcees try to best each other with their microphone skills. Watch the Throne is the rap battle writ large. Yet its gold-plated swagger unfolds against a backdrop of growing inequality.
When rock was at its peak in 1972, Americans earning the equivalent of $1m a year took just over 1 per cent of national income. In 2010, this group’s share of national income had grown to almost 10 per cent. At the same time, the average tax paid by these top earners almost halved. The rise of Jay-Z’s “new black elite” reflects the growth in numbers of the super-wealthy. But the opulence that he and West flaunt also reflects the growing estrangement of those at the top from the rest. Will there be a backlash against “luxury rap”, as punk rebelled against the excesses of 1970s rock? Or was that the action of a more egalitarian era?
“I don’t give a damn about popping champagne,” Chuck D barked on Public Enemy’s last single “Say It Like It Really Is”. The veteran firebrand will celebrate his band’s 25th anniversary with two new Public Enemy albums this year. But he ploughs a lonely furrow. He claims radio and television stations refuse to play the socially responsible rap that people want to hear – but what if the appetite isn’t there? Watch the Throne has sold over 1m copies, and its tour grossed $48m in the US last year. In a time of economic hardship we are bedazzled by the way it conflates black power and wealth worship. It’s a document of our times, an expression of a broken system we don’t want to fix. Up there on the top floor, “the voice of this generation” does indeed have a message for the rest of us.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic
The birth of prog rap?
Are there musical links between classic rock and hip-hop? Kanye West thinks so. He sampled prog-rockers King Crimson on his latest solo album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, while Watch the Throne includes samples of proto-proggers Spooky Tooth and Roxy Music’s guitar maestro Phil Manzanera. There’s something about the age when rock was at its boldest that fires West’s imagination.
For Ian Anderson, leader of Jethro Tull, one of the most successful of the British prog bands that rose to prominence in the early 1970s, it was a period when artistic and corporate largesse fed off each other: “We were allowed to do what we wanted without fear of losing our record contract.”
I speak to Anderson as he prepares to stage Jethro Tull’s 1972 concept album Thick as a Brick. He’s in Perth, Scotland, about to indulge in some pre-tour shopping (though not of the luxury-rap variety: “deodorant, full tube of toothpaste, dental floss”). It will be the first time he has played Thick as a Brick in its entirety since it came out.
In 1972, Jethro Tull were riding high on the success of their breakthrough album Aqualung, which, to Anderson’s annoyance, critics labelled a concept album. Thick as a Brick was his riposte: a 44-minute suite of music about a fictional eight-year-old boy whose high-flown poems provide the album’s lyrics. It was, Anderson recalls, “the mother of all concept albums”.
The result was a flowing blend of folk, hard rock, medieval music and theatre, audacious even by the standards of prog’s heyday. “Freer spirits such as I got to be a little more egocentric in our work,” Anderson says. “The assumption was if your record sales were going up and you were selling lots of concert tickets: ‘Let him do what he wants.’” The risk paid off: Thick as a Brick became a number one hit in the US.
Anderson doubts rap can push itself forwards in the same way. “It’s hard to break out of that rap mentality. You don’t have anywhere to go in terms of metre. Rap has a strict 4/4 time [signature] and limited amount of tempo options.”
Yet West’s proggy samples show how rap has widened its creative horizons in its search for new audiences. Public Enemy’s Chuck D is also inspired by classic rock. He admires how rock’s history is kept alive by specialist radio stations and heritage tours such as Anderson’s Thick as a Brick. “That’s been my major goal, making a brand out of classic hip-hop,” he says.