By Allison Babka
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By Dew Ailes
In 1977, the Sex Pistols were named "Young Businessmen of the Year" by the buttoned-down publication Investors Review. The honor belonged as much to the group's manager, Malcolm McLaren, for his role in the hijinks that helped the Pistols get tossed off two labels (while keeping their advances).
This article is a largely forgotten part of the Sex Pistols' legend, but it introduced a stunning philosophy to rock's powers-that-were: making money was both desirable and subversive.
McLaren was one of the first industry figures to suggest openly that music was really "all about the Benjamins." He was happy to outrage the public with sex and violence, if he thought it made good financial sense, and he foresaw and encouraged the devolution of music into a means to an end specifically, a way to market bigger, more lucrative ideas.
In other words, McLaren is the spiritual godfather of 50 Cent and today's businessmen MCs and not because he once dabbled with hip-hop as a solo artist.
"What Malcolm McLaren did was to reveal the inner workings of the record industry. And it was all new knowledge," says British-born author Simon Reynolds, who was thirteen years old when the Pistols turned England on its ear. "Before that...rock was about art and expression, and money was felt to be corrupting."
The antithesis of this belief reached its full expression in post-punk, which Reynolds covered definitively in his 2005 book Rip It Up and Start Again: PostPunk 1978-1984. One major theme traced in the book is that of "musicians playing at being businessmen" as when ex-Pistol John Lydon, after splitting with McLaren, formed the band Public Image Ltd. as a pseudo-corporation.
But the philosophical underpinning of this early-'80s "New Pop" movement a concept also discussed in Rip It Up frequently involved a Marxist idea Reynolds has explored in his writing, that of the "commodity fetish." Artists like Scritti Politti celebrated desire in their packaging and presentation, even as they deconstructed it musically. And Frankie Goes To Hollywood through their McLaren-inspired theorist, music journalist Paul Morley wielded the biggest double-edged sword. The group satirized consumerism with the fanciful merchandise (like "Jean Genet boxer shorts") advertised on the inner sleeve of 1984's Welcome to the Pleasuredome even as a series of "Frankie Say" T-shirts became an authentic marketing phenomenon, the precursor of today's hip-hop clothing lines.
Besides McLaren, another major inspiration for "New Pop" was the work of black American production companies, such as the Chic Organization. However, artists like Nile Rodgers and George Clinton rarely got credit for their role in making business a visible part of the music business. In part, Reynolds believes, that's because black pop artists have always been far less tortured about the divide between art and commerce.
"To put it crudely, black people have always had to be more sensible about money," he says, citing the exploitation of black artists by white-owned labels as one example. "In black culture, there's always been more honesty about it."
Not everyone believes there's a divide between hip-hop's commercial mainstream and its more theoretically pure underground. One of 50 Cent's more unlikely defenders is the rapper Wise Intelligent, a former member of the Golden Age hip-hop act Poor Righteous Teachers. As propagators of the message that one could be righteous and poor, it might seem natural to suppose Wise would view 50 Cent and his ilk as enemies.
But in fact, Wise devoted the latest installment of his IntelligentNewzNet newsletter to an impassioned defense of so-called "commercial rap." Sarcastically titled "You Ain't Hip Hop!" the editorial makes a provocative comparison between Fiddy and revered underground rapper MF Doom.
"The only apparent difference is production styles," Wise wrote. "Music aside, MF Doom, like 50 Cent, is a marketing genius. MF Doom is doing voice-over work (Sherman the Giraffe) on a cartoon series on Adult Swim...and 50 Cent has landed a couple of movie roles. MF Doom has a super-hero doll on the market, and I read that he also has teamed up with Nike to create his own shoes now known as the 'Nike Dunk High Premium SB (MF DOOM).' 50 Cent has sneakers, clothing, a book and Vitamin Water on the market...
"My point is that MF Doom is just as commercial as 50 Cent no matter how we slice it, AND THAT IS NOT A BAD THING!"
Implicit in all this is the notion that artists like 50 Cent and Doom are only following established examples. Brian Coleman author of Check the Technique, an indispensable new history of hip-hop through the Golden Age points out that concept of the hip-hop star who's more businessman than artist didn't originate during the mid-'90s rise of Sean "Puffy" Combs.
"People forget," Coleman says, "but [MC] Hammer played a big role in changing hip-hop culture."
In Coleman's eyes, the change wasn't necessarily a good one. He believes the demise of what he calls hip-hop's "working-class, blue-collar work ethic" has gone hand-in-hand with the erosion of artistic standards.
"When you saw Run-DMC, you said to yourself, 'Wow, I could be like these dudes,'" he says. "Now, there's nothing to connect you unless you want the artists you love to be rich. And I don't really give a shit about that."
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."
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."