Hip hop has dominated contemporary music with astonishing power and thoroughness. It has captured and refashioned taste in music, film, clothing to say nothing of patterns of speech and non verbal communication.
But ours is a dynamic culture and we know better than to suppose that any cultural phenomenon has installed itself in our hearts forever. Hip hop reigns triumphant, but this is what culture always does: persuades us that the present terms of reference are the only terms of reference. A decade later we shake our heads, and wonder to ourselves "what was I thinking?"
A couple of days ago, I was in a mall in Connecticut and I saw a 10 year old girl, the very picture of suburban privilege, whistle past in an "I [heart] hip hop" t-shirt. There is an ad on TV that is "targeted" at kids in Junior High that uses a hip hop voice over.
For many trends, this is the kiss of death. Any cultural development that claims a certain street cred, a certain outlaw menace, cannot survive this kind of company. Ten year old girls are supposed to recoil from hip hop, not proclaim their affection for it. The classic diffusion model says that early adopters drop things the moment these things are embraced by late adopters. In this case, the meanings of the brand are erased by some of the consumers who adopt it. This is the tragic condition of many brands. Expansion is the beginning of the end.
The experts are divided. The Times has been arguing in the last several weeks that hip hop may have peaked. (Yeah, I know, I can’t quite believe I am using the Times as a cultural indicator, either. I really should get out more.) But I just had lunch with a highly placed executive at a Santa Monica label and she said she’s not worried. Her label has made a prince’s ransom from hip hop and she believes it will continue to do so for the forseeable future.
And who knows she may be right. We know that the fragmentation of the marketplace has actually (and ironically) been very good for some brands in the mainstream. As plenitude creates lots of little brands, the very large ones have taken on a certain anthemic significance. As everyone pursues many minor enthusiams, they are sometimes inclined to keep a large brand in their preference portfolio, the better to stay in touch with a larger community. This could be very good for hip hop.
It is also true that the hip hop community in general and Dr. Dre (as pictured) in particular, have been ecumenical in their approach to things (and late adopters). Unlike the alternative music of the 1990s, hip hop has been open to diverse audiences and unexpected musical partners. Naturally, there must be limits to this patience and the new segments may have tested these limits. In general, though, if it’s ok with Dr. Dre, it’s ok with the rest of us.
Please do not open the booklet or pick up your pencil until told to do so.
You may begin.
1. Hip hop as a mass phenomenon and the magnetic north of contemporary culture
a. has already peaked
b. is good for another year
c. is good for another three years
d. is good for another five years
e. is here for the duration
2. Please explain.