Wednesday, April 16, 2014

All I Need To Get By is a Lexus: Authorship in Hip Hop, part two

Radiolab is an NPR show that frequently examines issues that are rooted in scientific inquiry, but expands beyond to explore culture and the human experience more generally.  Recently, one of the 'shorts' released as a podcast investigated a very different topic: the arbitration of hip hop, specifically with regard to the 2012 beef between Nicki Minaj and Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg.  This argument basically boiled down to Rosenberg stating that Minaj's song 'Starships' was commercially crafted to appeal to 12-year old girls because it succumbed to the tasteless style of electronic dance music (EDM), while Minaj's reaction was to refuse to perform at Summer Jam.  Spin unambiguously labeled this as 'The Worst Beef Ever.'  Worse than Arby's, you might ask?  So Spin would suggest.  Radiolab got into some of the bigger issues here, such as whether hip hop is becoming white-washed, with the white (Jewish) Rosenberg as one of its main arbitrators as a virtue of his position with Hot 97, a New York radio station that was one of the first to feature this format.

Audience reaction to the podcast has been mixed/skewing negative from the comments posted on their site.  While some have applauded this subject as mirroring their experience (nice white kids from the suburbs finding meaning in hip hop), more critics have questioned its basic tenets.  The matter of who gets to be a gatekeeper or why was ultimately not answered, although there was something about the fact that more and more 'white' people were getting involved with hip hop.  Certainly the specter of race was present, but it remained on the fringe instead of being at the forefront (the issue of gender, on the other hand, did not receive nearly enough coverage in my opinion).

As a historian, I also felt that the idea of labeling hip hop as 'black' versus other styles as 'white' was overly simplified and distorts the reality of what was happening earlier in its history.  This is important, because it privileges artists--or, in this case, blames them for deviating from an 'authentic' style (...especially when they are girls...).  I wrote previously on the thorny issue of how to define the creative force in hip hop, a question that is complicated by the web of associations that are frequently intertwined in this music.  To claim that Rosenberg is somehow the first white tastemaker of hip hop--or even the most powerful--ignores a great deal of influence that affected the genre in less public ways.  I am not simply talking about artists like the Beastie Boys who managed to occupy a place of great esteem among fans of hip hop and even those who were not particular fans.  Instead, I would like to consider the case of the very white and very Jewish Lyor Cohen, record executive extraordinaire, and his mostly hidden yet tremendous influence on hip hop.  Cohen was, in a way, a record executive who brought hip hop credibility by establishing Def Jam and its line-up of major artists.  In a 2000 article for Newsweek entitled 'Rap's Unlikely King,' Cohen is presented as an aid to major hip hop figures, the most significant of which is Russell Simmons.  By cultivating this relationship and demonstrating a knack for recognizing talented artists, Cohen was arguably the single most powerful tastemaker in hip hop since he controlled the means of disseminating much of this music.

I feel like you can guess who Cohen is in this photo.

This same Newsweek article presents Cohen as a laissez-faire executive, one who allows the real artists, such as Simmons and others associated with Def Jam, to take care of the creative side.  Yet this benign vision of Cohen is contradicted in a 1995 New York Times article about the song 'I'll Be There For You/You're All I Need to Get By.'

According to the Times, this was the 'No. 1 Summer Song of Love,' a surprise to virtually everyone in the industry since no one had expected it to become a sensation of this magnitude.  The song got to number one in the Billboard R & B and rap charts, even hitting number 1 in the Canadian Top 100--Complex has named this duet the bets in all of 'Best Hip Hop Love Songs' (admittedly, this may be a relatively small list).  The artists were Method Man and Mary J. Blige, with her vocals providing a great deal of the appeal of this version.  Arguably, it was the more significant appeal since Method Man had released an earlier version of the song that had obtained little commercial success.

So who came up with the brilliant idea to add MJB and turn this into the 1995 summer jam?  According to the New York Times, Lyor Cohen:

It was Lyor Cohen, chief operating officer of Def Jam Music Group, who persuaded Method to re-record the song with Mary J. Blige. Cohen tells the story from the New York offices of Def Jam, the company that helped usher rap from its New York birthplace onto the global marketplace. As it turns out, "I'll Be There" started, really, as a market expander. "I didn't know the original song," Cohen says. "Everybody told me that it was this old Marvin Gaye record, and I said, 'Wow, if we could only get Mary J. and Meth together on it.' I was just thinking of making Meth bigger and more mainstream and using her as a vehicle."
Cohen pitched the idea to Andre Harrell, a former rapper (whom Cohen once managed) and the president of Blige's label, Uptown Records. Blige is an R & B diva, but not the silk-dresses-and-white-limo kind. Growing up in Yonkers, she listened to more gangster rap than Diana Ross and knew her fair share of real-life gangsters. Her first album, "What's the 411?" released in 1992, sold more than two million copies.
Harrell and Blige jumped at the collaboration. One sticking point: "Meth never wanted to do this record," admits Cohen. "He wanted to make his next record much darker."
How did Cohen convince him otherwise?
"I gave him money for a Lexus," he says.
 The narrative here differs greatly from that in the Newsweek article, where Cohen is constantly taking a backseat to creative forces such as Russell Simmons or others.  Here, Cohen is actively involved.  He made the deal to get MJB.  It was his idea in the first place solely because he wanted to make Method Man 'more mainstream,' despite the artist's opposing opinion. How did Cohen achieve this feat?  By the most commercial means possible: bestowing a Lexus to the artist. Interestingly, MJB is explicitly called 'a vehicle.'

The New York Times article shifts between various people who created this song, and its fans, such as April Aikin, who calls Hot 97 (yes, the same one) to request it.  She believes fervently in the message that it promotes, hearing in the song a betrayal by Method Man that he is seeking to repair with his love.  She, too, has experienced betrayal and to her, the song mirrors the emotions that are experienced in this situation.  Aikin, in other words, hears this song not only as an example of hip hop, or R and B, but as a greater truth, one that captures her experience in a poignant way.  But, as the article makes clear, the commercial ways that this song was altered and promoted are far more crucial to its success than what Aikin understands as its authenticity to her situation.

It's worth noting that Cohen's influence is almost completely invisible, apart from anecdotal evidence from those involved with the song or this New York Times article.  He is not adding interjections to tracks as Puff Daddy did with Notorious B.I.G. or yelling catchphrases a la Lil Jon.  Instead, he is working in the background, but in an equally influential way.  This leads me to ask many more questions about whether this was part of Cohen's contribution to hip hop or if this song and his active intervention was the exception.  I suspect that it was more the rule. 

I do feel that Radiolab missed the point by focusing on such a recent--and perhaps ultimately meaningless--example of how race can collide in hip hop.  This story was part of a larger article that recently appeared in the New Yorker by Andrew Marantz, where Rosenberg comes across as even more of a self-promoter.  He is the white kid, he is the Jewish kid, he is 'trailblazing' the way for 'real' hip hop.  But as the case of Lyor Cohen shows, this is peanuts compared to what you can do when you control the label.  Then you gain the control to create these objects and mold them as you want.  In cases where your vision goes against that of the artist, all he needs to get by, as it turns out, is a Lexus and a vehicle.

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