Filthy Lucre

Malcolm McLaren is the godfather of todayís mainstream hip-hop. But not for the reason you think.

Sometimes, the artist himself recognizes the peripherals may be inhibiting the main product. Washington D.C. rapper Tabi Bonney (pronounced Bone-ay) is on the cusp of a major-label deal, thanks to his independent single "The Pocket." The African-born emcee also began manufacturing and marketing his own "Bonney Runway" line of specialty T-shirts when he couldn't find designs he liked in stores.

The line became a surprise success, but Bonney recently decided to put it on hiatus. The reason was simple: As a one-man startup, the shirts were taking away from time he needed to devote to music.

"It just started feeling like work to me," Bonney says. "It was like, 'Dag, I have to make 200 shirts in two days. That's not fun.' I just feel like, if you can't devote 100 percent to what you're doing, it shows."

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However, Bonney makes an important point about the appeal of peripheral businesses to an artist still waiting to see a big payoff from music.

"Moneywise, there's nothin' like the clothing business," he says. "You more than triple — sometimes quadruple — your investment."

There are signs, however, that hip-hop's preoccupation with other businesses may be affecting the DNA of the music itself. "My one big insight is that the sound of these records has changed," Reynolds offers. "Artists like 50 Cent and Young Jeezy — it's all made to sound good as a ringtone. If you listen to the frequencies used, the nasty digital sound, the emphasis on simple hooks — that's the reason, it seems."

There's an argument that hip-hop tailoring itself to the ringtone market is little different than a rock artist writing a song with the hope that it'll become a commercial jingle. But this blatant blurring of the line between art and commerce strikes Coleman as a new and dangerous proposition.

"To be honest, anyone who's trying to sell ringtones," he says, "is probably not going to be an artist I care about."

There are already ways in which Malcolm McLaren and his theorizing have been successful beyond his wildest dreams. Thanks to illegal downloading — presciently anticipated by McLaren's advocacy of home taping in Bow Wow Wow's "C30, C60, C90, Go!" — music has slowly become merely the means to an end, the fodder for a delivery system, as McLaren once predicted it would serve the nascent Walkman.

And hip-hop has become ground zero for this transition. Not only has file-sharing had a tangible effect on the industry, but mixtapes — many of them available for free download — now flood the market with even more new music each month.

But as music has become more digital and less packageable, consumers still need a locus for their "commodity fetish." Is it possible that hip-hop's growing focus on outside product — a pair of jeans, or the cell phone that can play a collection of ringtones — is simply a way for consumers to locate the desire they can no longer fix on an increasingly disembodied music?

If so, it's a concept hip-hop is probably pioneering, as it's pioneered so many others over the last 30 years. Give some of the credit to black music pioneers who didn't need punk to tell them business doesn't automatically equal bad. But don't forget Malcolm McLaren, the man who named the Pistols after his London clothing shop Sex, the man whose creative cynicism helped pave the way for the commodification of hip-hop.

"It's hard to have a fetish," agrees Reynolds wryly, "for something that's intangible."

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