Given the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) screaming sensationalism of piracy’s effect on sales, it’s surprising how little noise the latest Neilsen SoundScan sales figures, especially those related to rap/hip-hop, generated. It is also interesting that while rap/hip hop sales are plummeting countrywide, the local scene is growing so strongly.
SoundScan’s year-over-year report revealed a drop of about 20 percent in hip hop and more than 18 percent for R&B. The first question most people are prone to ask is why. This has been and will continue to be the source of countless debates, usually involving a number of poorly thought out reasons.
My take? Whether it’s foodstuffs or a given music genre, when a product is exploited and commercialized to the point of becoming an everyday item, one should expect both sales and buzz to slow; if the major labels were less self-centered and more forward-thinking, they would have had the majority of this problem solved long ago.
The irony of the commodification explanation, though, is that hip hop is an incredibly varied art form, yet both the artists and industry—each of which is currently blaming the other for the lack of sales—fail to ‘push things forward’. For example, Dizzee Rascal’s latest album, in his quest to go platinum, is disturbingly Americanized from the lyrics to the guests to some of the beats. At the same time, the album isn’t even slated for a full US release (you can only buy the album online).
But the more interesting dimension to the trend in sales is its relation to the District. While US ‘urban’ sales are hitting a wall, DC’s hip hop scene is about to blow. Its growing presence is evident by the increasing number of regular nights featuring MCs and DJs and the expanding list of clubs booking such acts. For example, Velvet Lounge had recently featured a near-weekly hip-hop night and even rock institutions such as the Black Cat has tried to bump it’s beats per night average. One reason behind Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel’s near overnight success is the number and quality of it’s non-rock bookings, which have recently included Kid Koala, Sage Francis, and the unfortunately canceled show of Digital Underground.
The reasons for hip hop’s DC growth to a large extent revolve around the business, and probably overlap nicely with why the major labels pushed rap so hard the past several years. As operating costs for clubs climb, there’s a growing desire to book easier less expensive acts, such as MCs and DJs. Think cost isn’t important? Read up on Warehouse Next Door and recall key points in DC’s house/electronica/techno scene, including Red.
At the same time, there has been a strengthening of local hip-hop supply. Formerly independent acts have joined together to form collectives, which provide an easy way to book an entire night’s lineup and an immediate mini-army to push the good word. For better or for worse, this has meant the decline of mixed shows where MCs spit over CDs, DJs spun to a dance-less crowd, and laptoppers glitched their way to the end of the show.
As loose groups such as Urban Ave 31 and promoters like MN8 increase, the expectation will be that a sizable, healthy, and evolving scene emerges. Perhaps in five years, DC will have the same presence as a Minneapolis or Seattle. Whether DC can rise above its current level of quality and visibility, however, remains to be seen–and heard.