Moving On Up
On November 28, near the end of another year of plunging record sales, Jay-Z made good on his claim to being "hip-hop's savior." Kingdom Come became his ninth No. 1 album, tying him with the Rolling Stones in chart toppers and making him the most successful rapper of all time. Its first-week sales of 680,000 copies made it one of the biggest pop blockbusters of the year. By any measure, Jay-Z has accomplished his goal: He is the black face of the new establishment.
But wasn't hip-hop supposed to be the new counterculture? It certainly felt that way in the late 1970s and early '80s, when the movement was led by politically abandoned youths of color like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. The culture's first institution, Bambaataa's Universal Zulu Nation, was inspired by black radical ideologies and presented itself partly as an alternative to gang warfare.
While pundits dismissed the culture as a youth fad, the ecstatic encounter between hip-hop's adherents and downtown's avant-garde in the morning of Reagan's America produced genuine excitement. Young hip-hop heads found open doors to formerly exclusive circles. White urban hipsters saw poor youths of color as bleeding-edge prophets of social rebellion and aesthetic iconoclasm, raw voices of truth and freedom. (Such ferment had not been felt since John Sinclair and the White Panthers were inspired by free jazz and the Black Panthers to talk dope, rock and roll, and fucking in the streets.)
Of course, first-generation rappers had always been more likely to talk champagne, caviar and bubble baths--to drop brand names rather than reality raps. In 1982, while "The Message" captivated downtowners, uptown DJs were snapping the records over their knees and throwing them away. Many hip-hop heads didn't have any romanticized notions about living close to the edge.
In the mid-'80s, hip-hop's first crossover fired the imaginations of kids from Coxsackie to Cairo. As they grew older, many of them came to believe that diversity could triumph over American monoculturalism. By the end of the decade, they were moving both musically and politically with confidence and urgency, determined to blast away rock orthodoxy and racism with word, sound and style.
Then they won. Unlike Parker and his fellow beboppers, who often felt like exiles in their own country, hip-hop entrepreneurs like Russell Simmons, Combs and, later, Carter rode a wave of demand and brought hip-hop into the mainstream. When rock counterculture became the dominant pop culture, most musicians or managers didn't become brand stars. But in the postindustrial economy, Simmons, Combs and Carter embodied--in the clothes they wore, the consumer goods they endorsed, even the political causes they championed--a hip-hop lifestyle.
Simmons and Combs grew up in black inner-ring suburbs enamored with the style of the kids from the other side of the tracks, but Carter was one of those kids. He came from the Marcy Houses, the projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant once overtaken by drug gangs. As Jay-Z, he wrote songs about cocaine, but these were not tales of rock-star high times, à la J.J. Cale and Eric Clapton. They were often harrowing stories of wise-beyond-their-years teen dealers who had to "learn to live with regrets." He and fellow New York rappers Nas and The Notorious B.I.G. borrowed from West Coast "gangsta rap" the figure of the hustler, but they focused on the low end of the hierarchy, on the kid who could be found "grinding" on the corner day to day--always restless, always endangered, hoping to outwit cops, murderous rivals and turncoat allies to rise above the scrum. Release came in classically American displays of conspicuous consumption--bawdy, garish, often sexist--the line connecting music-video bling to Tony Soprano's bada-bing.