Today, there’s a lot of tension between the younger generation and the “old heads” who grew up in hip-hop in the 80’s and 90’s. The younger generation are into “vibes” while we were into lyricism. As a result, a lot of older people in hip-hop blame the younger generation for ruining hip-hop. Meanwhile, the younger generation have had enough of our criticism and complaining.

Up until a few years ago, I was one of those OG’s lamenting the state of hip-hop. I used terms like “mumble rap” and scoffed at the lack of depth and substance in hip-hop today. But then something changed. I learned to appreciate and eventually love the new sound of hip-hop as much as the music I grew up on.

Nevertheless, there’s one area where I feel rappers and hip-hop on a whole are falling short today compared to the era I grew up in that we don’t talk about enough. It isn’t lyricism or community, but business ownership.

The 90’s gave rise to the black-owned record labels — Bad Boy, Death Row, Wutang, Murder Inc., Ruff Ryders, No Limit, Cash Money. Through competition, and the occasional collaboration, these artists and labels pumped out a high volume of music, satisfying our insatiable appetite for more as group albums eventually led to solo albums. But these labels weren’t just crews, they were business empires, including clothing, touring, and even video games. Today, the hip-hop moguls of the 90’s are all but extinct, going the way of dinosaurs and the Tasmanian Tiger, and with them have gone the buffer between the big labels and artists, as well as the brands they created.

The 90’s also gave rise to a number of black-owned clothing brands during that time — Karl Kani, Sean John, Roca Wear, Wu Wear, FUBU, and Phat Farm. If you look outside of the black community, the 90’s gave us record labels like Loud Records and hip-hop clothing companies like Echo.

This brings me to my beef with today’s rappers and young people in hip-hop — you don’t own anything. Today we see a lot of rappers wearing luxury brands like Gucci and Fendi as a sign of affluence, but the real sign of affluence isn’t wearing brands, it’s building and owning brands (most artists today don’t even own their own music because of the deals they sign let alone own businesses).

Yes, luxury brands like Polo and Tommy Hilfiger made their way into many hip-hop songs, making a lot of money off of hip-hop, but that didn’t stop the rapper-entrepreneurs and moguls of the time from starting their own brands and profiting off of their success.

In fact, the richest people in hip-hop today are those who started or own brands — Jay-Z with Dusse, Ace of Spade, Tidal and Roc Nation, Drake with OVO, Kanye with Yeezy, Diddy with Ciroc and Revolt, and Dr. Dre with Beats. All of them are either billionaires or on their way to being one, while young rappers fight for scraps, including streaming money. 

“Millionaires make music and wear other people’s brands. Billionaires build and promote their own brands.”

If the black-owned labels and fashion companies are a thing of the past, who exactly owns hip-hop today? I’m not just talking about the culture of hip-hop but the business of hip-hop.

To borrow from Dead Prez, it’s even bigger than hip-hop. At the recent NFL Draft, one of the glaring observations was that all of the owners, executives, coaches and decision-makers were white while the talent were mostly black. It looked like a modern day plantation of sorts. As black people, we need to no longer be satisfied with simply being players on the field, working other people’s fields (even if the money is good) or getting a record deal; we need to start owning because that’s where the real money is made. A lot of the businesses that serve black people today aren’t even owned by black people, from hair and beauty to media and music.

This is why late in 2019 I decided to prioritize SHIFTER over some partnerships I had. I realized I was prioritizing partnerships to the point where I started to spend more time on other people’s initiatives than my own. I then had an epiphany — I can’t spend more time building things that belong to other people than things that I own. Either you give me equity (aka ownership), you hire me as a consultant or some kind of win-win situation must be created. That’s also why part of what I do at SHIFTER Agency is help artists and talent transition to becoming entrepreneurs and business owners. 

Going back to hip-hop, there are definitely some rapper-entrepreneurs who have business on their minds. On “All Of A Sudden”, Lil Baby says, “I can’t be rappin’ for free, they gotta send me the budget” and on “I Get The Bag”, Gucci Mane says, “I don’t even like to freestyle for free”.

For those of us who grew up on real hip-hop culture, these are cringe-worthy bars, but at the same time you can’t blame them for getting their business right and knowing their value. But there are levels to this. Getting paid to rap is at the bottom of the totem pole; building brands is where the money is at and the only person doing it right today is Drake. Not only has he been a student of hip-hop when it comes to the music, but also of the business of hip-hop.

So again I ask, “Who exactly owns hip-hop?”

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