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All About the Benjamins 

Hip-hop: The need, not the greed

Wednesday, Mar 25 1998
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Revolution is in the air. At a recent capacity-crowded concert by De La Soul in downtown Manhattan’s Tramps nightclub, the die was cast. Puff Daddy, crowned Rolling Stone’s new king of hip-hop less than a year ago, was resoundingly booed.

Lest the irony be lost, when De La released their 3 Feet High and Rising debut in 1989, they were perceived as flower-power pop purveyors. Afraid of offending "true" hip-hop listeners with their crossover aspirations, however, they’ve since backed down from that image, and dropped some of the most quality-consistent recordings in hip-hop (or music in general) in the process. The golden-age-of-rap trio now commands a sparse but ardent fan base (De La Soul Is Dead sold 355,000, Buhloone Mindstate 223,000 and Stakes Is High 265,000), fans of the type eager to topple Sean Combs from his hip-pop pedestal. But why, exactly?

"This is true hip-hop you listening to right here," railed RZA on an intro to Wu-Tang Clan’s sprawling 1997 double CD, Wu-Tang Forever. "This ain’t no R&B with a wack nigga taking a loop, relooping that shit, thinking it’s gonna be the sound of the culture. All that player bullshit, dressing up — act like this is some kind of fashion show, man. Fuck that. This is emceeing right here. This is hip-hop." Forever failed to make the hip-hop nation safe for democracy (that is, the rap purist’s totalitarian state), but at least one message was clear: No more tales of Versace and linen, waving Rolexes in the sky, or money hanging out the anus.

At Tramps, as derogatory hoots and hollers from the De La audience continued for Lil’ Kim (whose Junior M.A.F.I.A. collective hit big with "Get Money") and Foxy Brown (who sings praises for the sartorial skills of Coco Chanel), the shifting spirit of the times revealed itself: MC incumbents who ran on the platform of materialism are about to be impeached, and the grassroots candidates (Canibus, DMX, Cappadonna) for these offices are steering clear of fashion designers and big-money, Big Willie relationships.

In order to keep things really real, though, materialism would have to be recognized for being as much of a hip-hop culture staple as braggin’ & boastin’, or (yes, RZA) sampling. At least as old as Run-DMC’s gold-plated, hollowed-out dookie rope chains, or Kurtis Blow decked out in a tuxedo with Jheri curls beneath his top hat, money — in vast amounts — has always made the hip-hop world go ’round.

Ghetto fabulous — it’s like having an edge with a lot of style and a lot of creativity. And you always have drama with it. ’Cause you’re young, you’re urban, you never did it before, so you don’t know quite how to handle it. So there’s drama that’s gonna have to come with it. This is a very dramatic generation.

—deposed Motown CEO

Andre Harrell

in One World magazine

You want drama? How about those Lee jeans patches from back in the day? Unfounded rumors circulated throughout New York City public high schools in the fall semester of 1984, about free sneakers given away at stores in exchange for x-amount of Lee patches. So, to the mangled-lyric chant of a Tears for Fears tune ("Shout! Shout!/Lees are played out!"), bands of B-boys went ripping through hallways, tearing the backsides out of unsuspecting victims like duly deputized fashion police. There was retribution for not staying current with hip-hop style, back in the day.

Suffering 15-year-old puppy love, one day I traveled from the Bronx to the tree-lined suburban streets of Elmont, Long Island, and experienced several boldfaced perceptions, including this one: Kids from around my way took pains to appear moneyed, and kids from the ’burbs wanted badly to look broke. White, toothbrush-scrubbed, shell-toed Adidas gave way after two-hour train rides to beat-up, scrawled-on high-top Converses in dingy shades of gray. Iron-pressed pairs of $50 two-tone AJ jeans worn at the handball courts of the Bronx were a peculiarity to those Green Acres mall rats in faded $20 Levi’s with holes worn through the knees.

Is it remotely possible that these highly style-conscious teens, maturing into the black 20-somethings of the hip-hop generation, retained their high-fashion fixations? Run-DMC made the glaring contrast crystal clear to both contingents when they resurrected Aerosmith’s career with 1986’s "Walk This Way" video for MTV and local New York Hot Tracks viewers alike. The group had been acknowledging their interest in creature comforts ever since their "Sucker MCs (Krush-Groove 1)" introduction in March 1983: "I got a big long Caddy/Not like a Seville/And written right on the side/Is ‘We dressed to kill.’" The intrinsic bond between Run’s sentiments and those of Ma$e from last autumn’s "Do You Wanna Get $?" is plain: "I could go the whole summer/Gold Hummer/But I’d rather go Lex bubble/’Cause it’s less trouble."

Hip-hop culture in the ’80s had its own materialistic trappings; MCs like Jay-Z ("Being broke is childish/And I’m quite grown") were quite enamored of articles of old-school adornment such as sheepskin coats, leather-bubble goose-down coats, Gazelle sunglasses, Nissan Maximas, Kangol hats, $100-plus Air Jordan sneakers, Bally’s shoes. In 1998, preoccupation with cellular phones, Nautica vans and Fendi shades is not the spawn of Bad Boy Entertainment; it’s a natural progression for a full-grown culture of folk with bigger bank accounts.

Our initial direction as Public Enemy was to market nationalism. Our concept was to wear African leather medallions or something other than gold because people were getting their heads taken off for gold back then. We knew that if our people were going to be trendy, we could at least make it trendy to have them learn about themselves and their history . . . People call hip-hop a culture. Hip-hop is a subculture. Black people’s culture is culture. Our whole existence is culture.

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My great-grandpa Johnson is a longtime deacon at Harlem’s Convent Avenue Baptist Church. Shaking off early-morning lethargy and lamenting the passing of Sunday-morning cartoons, I attended an occasional service with my parents back in my single-digit-aged youth. Under my drowsy circumspection were the wooden pews, colorful stained-glass windows and hand-held fans adorned with the images of young, virtuous church girls or the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. More relevant, I noticed the dress of the worshipers: broad-brimmed, often elaborately styled hats and elegantly puritanical dresses on the women; handsome yet unyielding suits on the men. Sunday best. Easters were especially voguish — my young cousins and I always wore brand-new suits, which we were certain to outgrow by the following Easter. Church was the social life for many migrated Southern blacks who worked diligently six days a week, which accounted for the grand visual display.

Black materialism spans back to civil-rights-era baby boomers, and back further to zoot-suited Harlemites of the jazz age. America is the birthplace of custom-tailored gangsters and Dynasty and Dallas, and of the snooty material elitism of the ’80s yuppie tome The Bonfire of the Vanities.And since the very beginning, mainstream black America has inevitably acceded to wealth’s influence. If hip-hop culture is negatively beset by materialism, it’s essential to dig a little deeper before placing the blame on Puff Daddy.

In his essay "Greed Is Only the Begin- ning," Chicago State University professor Haki R. Madhubuti wonders, "Where are the serious rich among our people who are concerned about the vast majority of black people? It is sad to say there are tens of thousands of black people in the United States with serious money, skills and talent who do nothing except compete in the Western race for conspicuous-consumption champions. The money that black people earn in the U.S. stays in the black community for about four hours. The real dilemma among most blacks with money is that of values."

This is why sociopolitical purists of the hip-hop nation boo Sean Combs.

Don’t knock me for trying to bury

Seven zeros, over in Rio Dijanery

Ain’t nobody’s hero . . .

—Puff Daddy, "It’s All About the Benjamins"

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