Marc Ecko – Sell Outs in the Rap Game -- Praise and Criticism
I dumb down for my audience
And double my dollars
They criticize me for it
Yet they all yell "Holla"
If skills sold
Truth be told
I'd probably be
I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
(But I did five Mil)
I ain't been rhymin like Common since
When your sense got that much in common
And you been hustlin since
Go with what makes sense”
- Jay Z, "Moment of Clarity"
If you’re an artist, there is no way to achieve success without attracting cries of “selling out.” People like to imagine that there’s a holy war between art and commerce. “One is creative and pure, the other is crass and dirty.” But the two aren’t mutually exclusive. There is a way to sell you, without selling out.
Personally, I define sellout as "someone who double crosses their creative intentions--in exchange for money or the wishes of the devil.” I challenge that just because you may not like someone else's aesthetic, does not mean that person has double crossed their creative intentions...and made them a sellout.
The critics along the way will always be quick to criticize any commercially successful artist. At the end of the day, there’s only one goalkeeper who matters: the folks who pay at the cash register. Sounds cynical. Vulgarian. But they keep the score. Know that.
You think Jay-Z cares how much more a blogger “respected” him after “Reasonable Doubt” (his worst selling album)?
“Niggas want my old shit, buy my old album”
- Jay Z, "On to the Next One"
The reality is, his most recent album, “Magna Carta Holy Grail”, sold a million copies BEFORE it was released. Think that partnership with Samsung is Jay-Z selling out? It’s not. That is Jay-Z being Jay-Z. The authentic businessman who today is just as much renown for gracing the cover of Forbes next to Warren Buffett as he is for the bars he lays on his tracks. His authentic brand is a business man. He is working with the best in both classes.
“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business… man.”
- Jay Z, "Diamonds from Sierra Leone Remix"
Contrast that to Lil Flip going from #1 on the charts with “Sunshine” to awkwardly rapping in a 19 year old’s backyard selling garage door openers for “www.GrandSlamGarageSales.com”. Now that one??? Not so sure ‘bout that one.
Or Common. The “conscious” rapper who for most of his career embraced the anti-brand as a large part of his creative intentions. He built himself up as the anti-Jay-Z (as Jay acknowledges in Moment of Clarity) not concerned with commerce, but only his pure love of hip-hop. Only to later to detail his partnership and product placement of Microsoft’s “Zune” in his music video during an interview with Ad Age. Ironically enough for the album "Universal Mind Control". Microsoft? Zune? Ad Age?
The same dude who went from saying:
“I might've failed to mention that the shit was creative
But once the man got you well he altered the native
Told her if she got an energetic gimmick
That she could make money, and she did it like a dummy
Now I see her in commercials, she's universal
But I'mma take her back hopin that the shit stop
Cause who I'm talkin bout y'all is hip-hop”
- I Used to Love H.E.R
“The Zune is something that I've been confident about associating myself with, because I think it's got a fly presentation to it.”
What?! Ok. I’m not saying an artist should not be in ads. Shit, Warhol changed those rules and broke through those stigmas a couple of generations ago. I’m just saying, be consistent with the narrative.
Other than Jay and “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” the fastest selling artist in 2013 was Justin Timberlake with his 20/20 Experience.
Is Justin Timberlake a sellout? Did he double cross his creative intent? I mean I saw him on MTV’s VMA Video Vanguard...and I had to acknowledge his talent and overall impact on pop culture. Undeniable.
But that doesn't change the fact that I thought N'Sync was corny as fuck (Jus sayin’, don’t agreee with me---? Okay) , back in the day. I always hated how they were put together "as a boy band". I mean--they were composed, with their Disney pedigree, to make loot. And they did. But funny, how now at 41, when I watch and consume JT's music..."sellout" is the farthest thing from my mind?
What about Drake, the “softest rapper in the game” according to Ghost Face Killa? Is the one-time child actor on Degrassi a “sellout” now that he ranks on Forbes’ “Cash Kings” list for making over $20 million last year?
Why does Drake catch so much flack over “Started from the Bottom”? What, he bottom wasn’t bottom enough? Says who and to what “standard” of bottom? He never claimed to be 2Pac. Dig? Was his creative intentions ever anything BUT becoming well known for his rap? Drake never preached an anti-corporate message. His Sprite and Kodak spots are just helping further his motives. He came up fast, not rapping about selling drugs, not rapping about “conscious” issues, but rapping about getting money. Exactly what hes doing. You may not like it. Perhaps you see the world through Kanye Lenses, and Drake doesn’t move you. He’s to “saccharine”. For some, “patronizing” even.
“When they want you to be like somebody else and you just want to be yourself
And you do it and get the feeling it's wrong
That there is when all the press articles happening and the cameras get to snapping
And they try to make you out as a lie
It's ironic because you were just trying to please them by using logic and reason
It's a lose lose why even try”
- Drake, "Try Harder"
Again, just because you may not like someone else's aesthetic, does not mean that person has double crossed their creative intentions. Just because you say it’s so, doesn’t make it so.
You may think they are corny, but that does not define them as a sellout.
The charge of being a “sellout” is loaded. If we were honest, the job of Justin, Jay, or Drake is to create awareness for a product and SELL IT. They are producers, creators, who make “Y”. It’s lame when a consumer who buys “X” begrudges the creator who did their job well...aligned with their intent.
The question is...what the fuck have you made lately?
“What the hell have y'all done
... to even have an opinion on what I've been doin”
- Jay Z, "Reminder"
Think of the old “No logo” meme. The 1999 book by Naomi Klein, and the overall movement, took a strong anti-brand stance and said, basically, that artists need to suffer for their work. That starving makes you somehow more divine. That the mere association with a brand or a dollar sign strips you of credibility. That branding ultimately sucks the life out of culture.
I call bullshit.
The “starving artist” mindset is for the minor leagues. Creation need not only be the work of the divine. And branding need not only be the dirty work of the ad man on Madison Avenue. In this fragmented media culture hyper enabled by efficiencies of social media and self-publishing, you are a brand. Deal with it.
You must strive to be both commercially responsible in your business and creatively fulfilled by the exhibition of your ideas. If you find that balance (which, in itself, will be more of an art than science), you will see that what makes you a good artist is what will make you a good entrepreneur. If you’re authentic in the one, you’ll be authentic in the other. The labels “they” will project on you will not matter. And if you’re willing but unable to commercialize your art? That’s okay, too. That doesn’t make you lesser.
Every artist should live by these words:
Never feel bad about successfully selling your creations.
Never feel bad about creating art you can’t sell.
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