Hip-hop began as a cultural movement that arose from a period of civil outcry against injustice in the 1970s in the boroughs of New York. The culture as whole consists of various components but four most important artistic elements are DJ-ing, rapping (poetry), graffiti art, and breakdancing. The decline of once major genres, such as Disco and Jazz, led to the creation and rise in popularity of hip-hop music). The mediums by which people receive, consume, and listen to popular music genres, including hip-hop, have changed significantly since the 70s. In analyzing the progression of hip-hop, crucial technological advances within the music industry can also be noted. This essay will discuss the effect of technological changes on the reception of hip-hop by audiences since the 70s while discussing the types of “flows” these changes follow as described by George Ritzer and Paul Dean in the second edition of their book “Globalization: A Basic Text”.
As the world becomes increasingly globalized, changes in the flow of commodities can be identified. Ritzer and Dean centered their theory on a metaphor of solidity, liquidity, and gaseousness on the global socio-economic conditions of the world. However, these same metaphoric notions of change can be applied to the technological advancement in the music industry, more specifically throughout hip-hop music.
In terms of globalization, “solidity” refers to the stagnant nature of people, things, information, and places. As for music however, solidity can refer to the limited mobility of the initial forms of musical genres. For example, as the hip-hop movement began, DJs would conduct live performances showcasing their music. Rappers, b-boys, and b-girls would often perform alongside DJs. In this sense, hip-hop music was in a state of solidity as audiences could not take the music home with them – it was only something to be experienced live. The first DJs began by simply playing, mixing, and compiling existing records (vinyls), to produce new, unique, songs or what would soon become known as “beats”. Moreover, DJs relied heavily on the use of vinyl records as instruments as they were the most portable form of music at the time. The dependence they had on vinyl records can also be seen as an example of hip-hop’s state of solidity as DJs were constrained by the immobility of turntables, records themselves, and other technologies required to conduct shows.
Though vinyl records are associated with the solid era of hip-hop as a popular music genre, they are also credited toward the creation of “Sample-based Hip-hop” as described by Joseph Schloss. Amongst other things, like the idea that hip-hop was not an inevitable genre, (criticizing Robert Thomson’s viewpoint) he makes a distinction between DJ-ing and producing but draws a relationship between the two. Schloss argues that the emergence of digital sampling only made it easier for DJs and record companies alike, to manipulate songs to a greater extent. Eventually, artists like DJ Kool Akiem had sets that both involved turntables and samplers.
The second characteristic of flows in the global environment is “liquidity”. Liquidity refers to “increasing ease of movement of people, things, information, and places in the global age”. As for hip-hop however, the notion of liquidity can be used to describe the increased ease by which audiences gained access to hip-hop music. Much of this increase in access is attributable to improvements in technology. In the 60s, technology revolving around audio cassette tapes had improved significantly with cassettes outselling all other forms of audio at the time, they also became momentous audio transporters to the developing world. They were extremely crucial to the spread of hip-hop as they allowed for an increased ease in production methods, copying, and sharing of not only mainstream, but local, lesser known music such as hip-hop and punk. The independent success of DJs and Rappers alike in getting their music heard by the masses – without corporate assistance because of such technology can also be deemed as a compelling reason for corporate attention.
In 1972, the Harvard Report was conducted for the Columbia Records Group. The report encouraged the record company to implement the boutique model of business in which the larger company would provide smaller boutique labels with means of distribution and commoditization in large scales in return for profits. This was different from the model already in place, in which the larger corporations would try to convince artists signed to smaller labels to sign to their labels instead, or simply buy out the existing minor labels. Some examples of the latter model include Sony Universal Music Group’s ultimate ownership of Kanye West’s GOOD Music, and Jay-Z’s Rock-A-Fella Records. A number of additional issues regarding power, authenticity, and variety within mainstream hip-hop arise when discussing major and minor record labels. For example, many argue that the stereotypical “gangster” image of hip-hop rappers is due to major labels and what they assume is appealing to the mainstream population.
The last type of global flow discussed by Ritzer and Dean is “gaseousness”. The word is used to describe the “hyper-mobility of people, things, information, and places in the global age”. In relation to hip-hop music, gaseousness can be used to describe the state of unlimited access that listeners have to it. As Dr. Jeffries explains in “Thug Life”, unlike in its initial solid state, hip-hop today does not have to be experienced live. A larger demographic of listeners can now access and experience hip-hop music from the comfort of their homes without ever even having to step foot in a record store, concert hall, or block party. The internet has made it possible for audiences and artists alike, to share music electronically. Through websites such as Youtube, Soundcloud, Tumblr, and streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal, it is highly evident that music, in general, regardless of genre, is in a state of hyper-mobility as the word gaseousness insinuates. Along with the creation of the internet, the gaseous state of hip-hop music would not have been possible without the invention of the MP3 in 1991. The MP3 file alone was a monumental breakthrough in the sharing of hip-hop because even if individuals did not have access to the internet, they could continuously find ways to share music through examples such as floppy disks, CDs, and USB flash drives. These all hold encrypted MP3 files within them, once again proving how crucial the MP3 file is to the gaseous state of hip-hop.
Although the Internet and access to MP3 files are often deemed as positive changes in the music industry, controversy arises as people illegally download and share copyrighted work. Artists such as 50 Cent and J. Cole did not have great success in the initial stages of their careers. 50 Cent became more popular after working with producers such as Dr. Dre and Eminem. 50 cent has more recently experienced a noticeable a decline in album sales and profits because of audio files and such leaking onto the internet before agreed upon release dates by record companies and artists. However, other artists such as J. Cole have expressed their frustrations with the way record labels decide upon release dates. Such frustrations are evident in his lyrics, “the best kept secret, even Hov tried to keep it, til I leaked the damn tape” from the song “G.O.M.D”. This line refers to the struggle behind his first album under Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label. Cole’s single “Who Dat”, though charismatic and witty, did not reach the desired level of radio success, thus alarming executives that were paying close attention to the hit-making activities of Drake, a then up-and-coming artist too. The lyrics basically admit that J. Cole himself leaked the mixtape “Friday Night Lights” in an effort to stay relevant amongst hip-hop fans, though it was actually supposed to be his debut album. He did so out of frustration as Jay-Z was hesitant to declare a release date for the body of work. In such situations it is difficult to decide whether or not the creation of the internet and MP3 files are destructive or empowering to the careers of hip-hop artists. In 50 Cent’s case, these technological advancements were crippling to his flow of income, however in J. Cole’s situation, they were empowering and helped him later prove that a loyal fan base is just as important as radio success. All four of his studio albums are now certified platinum, despite the fact that he did not release any singles prior to the two most recent ones, “2014 Forest Hills Drive” and “4 Your Eyez Only”. Thus, the default model of the music industry in which the success of singles determines an artist’s potential for album sales were challenged by J. Cole’s actions. Again, this gaseous state of hip-hop has both positive and negative aspects to it.
Throughout this essay, the theory of global flows presented by Ritzer and Dean is used to describe the decentralization of hip-hip music through technological advancements. The technological changes in the past several decades have allowed for monumental adaptations of the music industry. In relation to hip-hop specifically, technology such as the vinyl record, cassette tape, CD, and MP3 file, not only aided in the creation and development of the genre and subgenre known as “Sample-based Hip-hop” but also in increasing the access to hip-hop music by audiences regardless of geographical location. Along with the positive repercussions of such technologies, there have also been catastrophic ones such as the rivalry between major/minor labels and the doubting of the default model used to predetermine artists’ future success.