Fans and critics agree that hip-hop's image is over-commercialized. It has become inextricably linked to baggy clothing that flaunts the names of designers or sport teams, diamond jewelry and pimped-out automobiles that reflect the bravado of the machismo, associating materialism with success and sexual prowess. On Savage Life (Atlantic), Baton Rouge rapper Webbie brags that his "rims are bigger than yours."
West Coast acts like N.W.A. and Tupac Shakur made the gaudy lifestyle of the gangsta mythic, so much so that hip-hop scenes around the country were transformed by it, and New Orleans was no exception. Here it became the sub-genre Dirty South by becoming more lascivious, violent, and bass-oriented, and Dirty South rappers B.G., Master P (both from New Orleans), and Webbie echo the grittiness of the West Coast gangstas. However, they have commoditized the G-thing in ways the West Coast rappers never imagined.
Master P raps in "Best Hustler," from his new release, Ghetto Bill The Best Hustler in the Game Vol. 1 (New No Limit): "Most rappers rap for fame / I'm Ghetto Bill, best hustler in the game." The CD title refers to his chosen nickname, the Bill Gates of the ghetto. He and B.G. own their labels, and they refer to themselves as CEOs in their press releases. In the liner notes of Ghetto Bill, Master P advertises the upcoming releases from New No Limit rappers Tru and the Black Sopranos as well as his line of P. Miller Footwear, his upcoming book, and his signature series of diamond-encrusted Asanti rims. He uses the track "I Need Dubs" to advertise his rims, rapping, "Asanti rims, they really bling bling." The CD's label resembles a rim, and in the jewel case beneath the disc lies an advertisement for Ghetto Bill Vol. 2. Critics might castigate Master P for shameless self-promotion, but a CEO would more likely laud his synergy.
Jay-Z is the poster boy for the rapper/CEO that heads Def Jam Records, but his music takes on a wider scope of themes and styles than Master P, B.G. and Webbie. Their rhymes sound off the cuff, emotionless and violent. In B.G.'s "Do That S*%#," for example, he deadpans, "I should a' went to barber school and worked the clippers homie / but I stayed on Bienville and worked the triggers homie / See I'm shooting for the stars and I ain't missing homie / For my Chopper City boys I got a vision homie / Get in my way it be a killing homie."
The three do, however, cater to their young, ghetto-centric audiences the way McDonald's caters to its market. Just as the flavors of the Big Mac are deliberately simple and familiar, these rapper/CEOs offer easy rhymes using tropes the buyers recognize from their neighborhoods and other hip-hop CDs, and bass engineered for booty-shaking and rattling the trunks of cars. And like McDonalds, these rappers value quantity over quality; their albums have close to 20 tracks, and they release albums frequently. B.G. has released 10 albums in less than eight years.
McDonald's' marketing suggests that it makes food for salt-of-the-earth types; similarly, Master P's marketing emphasizes his ghetto connection. Master P and B.G. create the image that they are local African-American entrepreneurs, and the people buying their CDs and products could think of themselves as participating in a form of Malcolm X's notion of black economic nationalism by supporting African-American businesses. However, gangsta rap undermines Malcolm X's aspirations for black self-respect and self-help, and many African Americans don't identify with gangsta rap for that reason. Neither Master P, B.G nor Webbie suggest that people get ahead through education or work; they lyrically depict a world where the most important thing is "keeping it real" -- which means staying true to "the streets" -- and hustling is the only way to do this.
Many cultures champion the hustler and gangster/gangsta as anti-heroes, and one of the most powerful incarnations of it was depicted in 1972's Superfly. In his soundtrack, Curtis Mayfield describes Superfly as "a man of odd circumstance / a victim of ghetto demands." This mythic ghetto figure is often romanticized as an outlaw, but this notion of living beyond the law like Jesse James or Robin Hood is missing from their lyrics. Rather, these rappers subtly lament their lifestyle and cast blame on society for making them victims. In Gar's guest appearance on B.G.'s "Same Ol' S*%#," he raps in a downtrodden tone about killing for retribution and ghetto economic opportunity: "You take one of mine / We doing the same ol' shit / eye for eye is the right to die [...] the dope game and the rap game is the same ol' shit."
In New Orleans Exposed, a straight-to-DVD documentary from earlier this year, B.G. says, "I realized [rapping] was all I had. It was either this or the street." This is a common rationalization for hustling, that this lifestyle is the only opportunity in the ghetto. He suggests that he is trapped and rapping is his safest option, yet he employs the image of the gangsta in his rap because it's one that is revered in some circles in the ghetto. These rappers are selling the gangsta image and have made it into a commodity. As Webbie says in "G-Shit," "Want G-shit? / Well, I'm going to give it to ya."
Assuring the audience that Master P, B.G. and Webbie feel oppressed by the same system that oppresses it is part of this music's allure. It says that they're together in this struggle, which evokes the historically effective rhetoric of the oppressed that has rallied groups throughout history. B.G. and Ghetto Bill/Master P are by no means the only American businessmen exploiting a victim niche, though. For years, Republicans have opined that they are oppressed by a "liberal media bias," and Rupert Murdoch used the "liberal media" boogieman as a pretext to launch the conservative Fox News Network.
Fox is now the number one cable news network in the country, and Master P's album Ghetto Bill was No. 1 on Billboard's Independent Albums Chart its first week of release, selling more than four million copies. B.G. is one of the top sellers this summer at Peaches Record Store on Gentilly Boulevard, and Webbie's "Give Me That" is No. 10 on Billboard's Hot Rap singles chart. The oppressed in America are clearly a lucrative market.
- B.G. (pictured), Master P and Baton Rouge's Webbie echo the grittiness of the West Coast gangstas, but they have commoditized the G- thing in ways the West Coast rappers never imagined.