Ringtones Killed the Hip-Hop Star

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:11

    DURING THE 1990S, it would have been unthinkable anywhere and everywhere: In Queens, where Nas held court and Mobb Deep trolled the back alleys; in Brooklyn, where first the Notorious B.I.G. and then Jay-Z ruled the borough with iron fists; in Harlem, where the Children of the Corn (Big L, Ma$e, Cam’ron, Mc- Gruff and Bloodshed) called all the shots; in The Bronx, where Big Pun was dead in the middle of Little Italy riddling middlemen who didn’t do diddily; and finally, in Staten Island, where the Wu- Tang Clan reigned supreme. Nobody could have predicted hip-hop in the Big Apple would decline so precipitously in just a few short years.

    New York rap’s success was fitting: As the birthplace of hip-hop, nobody could question New York’s seat at the table. From Run-DMC to Public Enemy, from KRS-One to Rakim, New York had the vast majority of the most popular and controversial rappers. Hell, nobody really questioned why it was, more often than not, the only seat at the table.

    Aside from a brief stint during the mid-1990s when Los Angeles’ Death Row Records challenged NYC for the crown, hip-hop—at least commercially speaking—was predominantly a New York phenomenon. While regional movements bloomed in the South, they tended to stay there. Sure, some crossed over in varying degrees—No Limit Records in New Orleans, Outkast in Atlanta, UGK in Houston, 8Ball and MJG in Memphis, 2 Live Crew in Miami—but, for the most part, they were outliers, exceptions to a rule in which everything in the hiphop universe revolved around the five boroughs.

    Not so anymore. For the week ending Sept. 27, only two of the top 10 hip-hop albums on the charts are from NY artists (LL Cool J and Nas). Last year, of newer rappers (with two or fewer albums to their name) with records in Billboard’s top 200, only two were from New York: Mims and Jim Jones. Making that one less than Atlanta (Young Jeezy, Soulja Boy and Lil’ Scrappy), and one more than Mobile, Ala. (Rich Boy) and Fort Myers, Fla. (Plies).

    As Jay-Z once rapped, New Yorkers used to “Argue all day about who’s the best MC: Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas.” Today they’re more likely to argue whether Lil’ Wayne, T.I. or Kanye West takes the crown. And today’s best New York rappers—Saigon, Joell Ortiz and Papoose—are mired in record label purgatory, more likely to wild out on a record exec than they are to release a platinum album. That’s not to say that they’re not skilled, all three are good, if not great; it’s just that hip-hop has moved on to other things, leaving New York in the lurch.

    While hip-hop in New York may not be dead, exactly, it is (at the very least) gravely wounded. But if you’re looking where to lay blame, look no further than: ringtones.

    For many “traditionalist” hip-hop fans, the faintest whiff of the word attracts ferocious derision. With album and single sales on the decline— rap sales dropped a stunning 44 percent from 2000 to 2007—the industry can’t help but milk any new cash cow, and the increasingly popular ringtones have proven themselves to be especially profitable.

    Last year 220 million ringtones were sold, according to Nielsen Ringscan, for sales of $567 million. And New York is on the outside looking in. A look at 2007’s most popular ringtones reveals that while the chart is top heavy with rap songs, it is almost completely void of New York artists. While Shop Boyz, Soulja Boy and Hurricane Chris ensure that the South is well represented, the only New York representative is Mims, whose “This Is Why I’m Hot” single is notable for its strict adherence to Southern hip-hop trends more than anything else. The reasoning is easy: New York beats are more head-nodding backdrops for intricate rhyme schemes than they are catchy ringtone fodder for teenyboppers. Absent a catchy hook, too many NY rap songs are consigned to non-ringtone irrelevance.

    “If you don’t write [a hook], you don’t get on the radio, don’t make easy ringtones and you don’t get teenagers to download them,” author Nelson George explains. “At the end of the day, hip-hop is now dance music. Clever rhymes are cool commercially, but they’re not what sells records these days.” In the words of Biggie: “Things done changed.” Rap long ago moved from percolating subculture to full-fledged global phenomenon, with everyone eager to get a piece of it. Hiphop became a commodity, and with its stunning rise in popularity, it became mere pop. And New York rap has never easily lent itself to pop. Of course, as hip-hop has become a driving cultural force, increasingly popular rappers and their fans have emerged all over the country—not just New York. The distinctive accent of Southern rappers like T.I. and Lil’ Wayne may have something to do with it, according to cultural critic, author and BET television personality Touré. “The number of people in America who talk like New Yorkers is really small,” says Touré. “The number of people in America who talk with some sort of twang is really large… [And] people like to see their lives reflected [in their music].”

    Record labels appear likeminded. Long gone are the halcyon days of Def Jam Records, when the label planted the seeds for an incredibly fertile local movement to spring up around it. Of New York rappers ready to blow—like Saigon, Joell Ortiz and Papoose—only Ortiz has released an actual album, and all three have had problems with record labels that have delayed, if not indefinitely postponed, their record releases.

    Saigon, after seeing his proposed first album, The Greatest Story Never Told, go through delay after delay, announced he has started recording a second album, even though his first was never released.

    Ortiz signed to Interscope Records in 2007 only to sit on the shelf there, leading to him being granted release from the label. And Papoose, after signing a lucrative deal with Jive Records in 2006, left more than a year later without releasing a record, citing A & R problems.

    Touré also points out that rap was once an almost exclusively New York phenomenon, but it is now a national, even international, sensation.

    “There was a time when NY hip-hop was pretty much all there was,” he explains. “They had a 100 percent share of the market. But the market was very small. As time goes on, the market has grown.”

    Indeed, it seems that every week some six-rapper-featuring-posse cut thunders from somewhere below the Mason-Dixon. Whether it’s Atlanta, Miami or Houston, you can always rely on Southern rappers to throw each other on a remix, give each other props on their albums and trumpet their regional solidarity. When was the last time you heard that happen with New York rappers? A long time ago. New York rappers over the years have been far more likely to beef with each other than put out collaborative hit records. Some of the more notable beefs include Nas and Jay-Z (since resolved), 50 Cent and Ja Rule, 50 Cent and Nas, 50 Cent and Fat Joe, 50 Cent and D-Block, Papoose and Uncle Murda, and it goes on. Meanwhile, 50 Cent—one of the kings of New York—lives in a mansion in Connecticut, and one of the bigger New York hometown pride songs of last year, “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” by Jay-Z, featured New Orleans’ Lil’ Wayne instead of a local rapper.

    “I think that there’s one problem when it comes to New York rap, and it’s the fact that we need to have a movement like we used to have,” says Joell Ortiz. “If we came up in unison, we’d be making a lot more noise than we are individually.”

    New York rap crews haven’t had a solid run of it of late, though. Of the two most recent crews to blow up nationally, both have been devastated by internal beefs and declined commercially. The Diplomats, featuring Cam’Ron, Jim Jones and Juelz Santana among others, have fallen apart after conflicts between Cam’ron and a host of his fellow crewmembers. G-Unit, the toast of the early millennial New York scene, have seen the law of diminishing commercial returns take hold, with their most recent album debuting at No. 4 with a relatively paltry 102,000 discs sold. They too have seen their crew gradually lose members due to beef: Young Buck and The Game, two of the more talented rappers in the group, were kicked out in recent years.

    And where once fierce competition spurred New York rappers on to tighter couplets, better verses and greater albums, it now holds the region in place in a web of petty internecine rivalries. The battling that forged New York rap has come back to haunt it. The talent is still there, though, says Ortiz.

    “[I] know that New Yorkers still have some of the best pens, and some of the best lyricists that there are,” he says. “And if we pull together, our region would make noise just like any other region.”

    And that’s true. But that’s not the problem right now. New York rapper talent, as Ortiz notes, isn’t the issue. It’s the mind-set. Instead of grindin’ together like the South, New Yorkers are stuck grindin’ in neutral, more content to lob verbal grenades at each other than to join forces and blow up together.

    It’s also the audience’s fault. A song doesn’t necessarily have to have a dance associated with it to be excellent. If the lyrics are too complicated to sound good belching out of a cell phone, maybe it’s a good thing. That rap is best when you have to push rewind a couple of times to catch that tricky metaphor, unpack that sharp double entendre, fully appreciate the moral scope and complexity of a particularly good verse. That a couple of well-timed dance moves and fancy production do not always a good song make. Looking out on the horizon, the landscape is bleak: New York hip-hop is a long way from the top, and it has a long way to go to get there.

    Despite that bleakness, Ortiz stays hopeful. “I am the future of New York rap. Papoose is the future of New York rap. Maino’s the future of New York rap. Uncle Murda, Saigon, all of us man, all of us,” says Ortiz. “I can’t do it alone, and they can’t do it alone. And the minute that everybody realizes this, we’ll put our region back on the top.”