In the summer of 2008, Ice-T did something strange. On a mixtape called Urban Legend, the MC cum actor, who had recently turned fifty, lashed out at Soulja Boy, whose song "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" had taken over radio and the internet. Ice-T didn't know the 17-year-old, but he intensely disliked him.
"Soulja Boy, I know you're young enough to be my kid, but you single-handedly killed hip-hop," he said. "That shit is such garbage. You can't do that. We came all the way from Rakim, we came all the way from Das EFX . . . and you come with that Superman shit." He paused to insult Hurricane Chris, an eighteen-year-old rapper from Shreveport, Louisiana, and concluded with stern words for both of them.
"C'mon, man up, you niggas. Stop bullshitting. You niggas is making me feel real fucking mad about this shit. We took it all the way to khakis and straps, and you niggas looking
happy, man. That shit's wack."
Soulja Boy couldn't have asked for a better compliment; that he supposedly had the power to destroy a preeminent American cultural institution said a lot about his influence. Still, he immediately fired back via YouTube. "You were born before the Internet was
created," he said. "How the fuck did you even find me?"
Why had the streetwise West Coast rapper taken time out of his day for this diatribe? Drumming up publicity for himself didn't seem a primary concern; rather, he was taking what he felt to be a principled stand out of genuine worry for the discipline he helped
He wasn't the only rap elder statesman to get in his licks against Soulja Boy. Aging West Coast icon Snoop Dogg and Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man followed suit, calling his songs "bullshit" and "garbage," respectively. Along with their invective, each made impassioned points about the changing state of their business. "It's turmoil, because all of these kids have finally recognized their power. All the downloading and all that, it's crippling the music industry," said Method Man, adding that he put some of the blame on music industry executives. "Now they treat it like fast food. There's no movements anymore, it's just this rapper this week, that rapper next week. No MCs, all rappers."
He almost seemed to be saying that these next-generation artists were hurting hip-hop with their technology-savvy fans; that an elderly demographic unable to pirate electronic music was preferable. That doesn't ring true, and neither does his assertion that "MCs" benefit the industry more than "rappers." Sure, I prefer the chiseled-in-granite stylings of the Wu-Tang Clan to the clunky rhymes of Soulja Boy, but I came up on Wu-Tang. They're my generation. Different people look for different things in their hip-hop; there's more to the music than lyricism, and I can understand why younger folks find Soulja Boy's hooks, singing, and image inviting.
Besides, it's hard to prove that artful music sells better. Inelegant drivel like the Eagles' greatest hits and The Bodyguard and Dirty Dancing soundtracks, for example, sit atop the all-time best-selling albums list next to the critically respected work of Michael Jackson and Fleetwood Mac. Sure, OutKast has the top rap seller of all time, but Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was a double disc, so each purchase counts as two. If you go by individual unit sales, guess who's #1? MC Hammer.
Two more quick points: 1) The popularity of artists like Method Man, Ice-T, and Snoop are waning, and if they're not replaced by a new crop, hip-hop will fade. 2) Divergent styles undoubtedly strengthen the genre as a whole, rather than weakening it. In the words of Luther Campbell: "You need versatility in the music...It can't be all about just one sound because it'll turn into disco or house."
Soulja Boy's mentor DJ Smurf calls the artist's detractors "sore losers," noting that once upon a time New York rappers made gimmicky dance records too, like Joe Ski Love's "Pee Wee Dance" and Salt-n-Peppa's "Push It." "Here's one thing I know about East Coast rap: they stopped giving a fuck about the public," he says. "They were making records for each other."