THE REALNESS: What Happened When Hip-Hop Went Big

The Realness: a break beat play dives into an era when hip-hop exploded from the underground into the mainstream.

So here’s a little history for the uninitiated:

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Terrell Donnell Sledge, Joy Hooper, and Jessie Prez in The Realness: a break beat play. Photo by Meghan Moore.


Hip-hop came out of the Bronx in the 1970’s as a street culture. Financially and artistically, it was driven by the urban, mostly-black youth who were both its core artists and its biggest
But by 1994, hip-hop would not only take over 10% of commercial music sales; it would become a cultural and economic tidal wave, upending the way Americans of all demographics listen, think, and shop—and challenging the heart of the hip-hop world itself.

So what happened?


MTV played a huge role in getting rap into suburban living rooms across the country.

In in 1988, two middle-class, white Jewish kids took Harvard by storm with a love of hip-hop and one big idea: a nationally-distributed rap magazine. David Mays and Jon Shechter launched The Source from their dorm room, and in a few years it was everywhere. Rap had been covered in other magazines—Billboard, Rolling Stone—but The Source read with an authenticity that no other publication could capture. Mays and Shechter immersed themselves in hip-hop culture. What used to be decidedly underground was coming up to the sunlight.
Simultaneously, MTV tapped that same potential. Dozens of local stations had aired hip-hop shows with considerable success, so MTV swooped in with its first hip-hop program, Yo! MTV Raps, also in 1988. Mere months later, it was MTV’s most-watched show.
Videos of Dr. Dre and Snoop’s “Nuthin’ but a ‘G Thang'” and “Let Me Ride” went huge. A new generation was heralding its own definition of “all-American music,” and it didn’t sound like the Beach Boys.


Big money was on the line when it came to hip-hop endorsements in the late 80s and early 90s.

As the hip-hop audience grew, so grew the hip-hop economy. Vibe magazine followed hot on the heels of The Source, and its sleek, ultra-classy look commanded multi-thousand dollar ad pages. The allure of this “new cool” had reach all the way to the suburbs, and corporations recognized the opportunity—even necessity—of buying in. One endorsement from a rapper could be a windfall.
The Gap. Sony. AT&T. To be associated with hip-hop meant to be desirable, so selling rap wasn’t just about selling music, or poetry, anymore—it was about selling a lifestyle. If you wore the right jeans or drank the right vodka, maybe you too could be hip-hop.



Many urban youth donned camo garb in response to the coming “New World Order.”


While hip-hop burst out into suburbia, the places where hip-hop had been born found themselves in some tricky spots.
In a 1990 speech to Congress, President George H.W. Bush promised a “new world order,” referring to the end of the Soviet Union as the dawn of a global era ruled by law. But in lots of American cities, the new world order looked bleak. It was an order of soaring incarceration rates and police crackdowns, project housing and unaffordable college tuitions. Hip-hop youths donned combat boots and camouflage, calling each other “souljah” and toting M. William Cooper’s manifesto of conspiracy theories Behold a Pale Horse.
Still, the brands found a way in. Politically conscious hip-hop was, after all, still hip-hop; a market within a market. So alternative hip-hop developed its own set of alternative brands. You’d ditch Versace for Ecko, Alizé for Sprite.
And through it all, just ten companies controlled nearly all of American media—down from fifty a decade earlier. When one hit song could turn into a music video, movie, and high-end fashion line, big money was on the line.
As rapper Talib Kweli said, “We’re survivalists turned to consumers.”

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Terrell Donnell Sledge and Diomargy Nunez. Photo by Meghan Moore.

The Realness runs through April 10, 2016.

Source: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang


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