i’m not a rapper
a funny thing happened on hip-hop’s way to the hospice. as internet piracy shook the music industry to a naked, penniless low, rappers refused to give up their claims to obscene wealth. the few who were making any money were bragging about it to no end, and those who weren’t simply fabricated an image of richesse and dared the audience to decipher the difference. it wasn’t news that no one was selling albums any more, but it was news to rappers who constantly claimed they could out-sell rivals, buy bigger homes, and remain recession-proof. then came the most audacious and repeated claim of them all:
“i’m not a rapper.”
rather than admit that rap money had dried up, or that rap music couldn’t sell the way it did in the late nineties and early 2000s, the heroes of rap music, who made countless rap songs, rap mixtapes, rap clothing lines…refused to even admit that they were rappers. “i’m not a rapper” became the clarion call of the thug or the trap boy. it became the mantra of the budding entrepreneur in rap music. it became the refrain of the rapper-turning-pop-icon-and-discarding-his-rap-beginnings. the value of being a rapper (and by extension “the blackness” of being one) had deflated so greatly, it was a bad look to claim what it is they were actually doing.
this claim had its origins in a boom period for hip-hop. biggie smalls famously named himself the “black frank white,” after christopher walken’s gangster scion from the film king of new york. that phrase, “the black [something]” took on a life of its own, as rappers raced to be the “black [insert-anything-but-black-thing-here]” and to begin a dissociative stride away from blackness as a whole, which had again found its ties to poverty, unemployment, disenfranchisement and dearth all over again. where rap music had made leaps getting brothers into boardrooms, birthing Black Music Divisions at labels that previously didn’t have them, getting filthy rich, it had now sunk again to pedestrian, poor blackness. it was time to sell.
as blackness itself became territory for mockery, artists like paul wall and lil wyte began to see success as a send-up of black ratchet culture. they were the unlikely Hood Rich Whiteboys who had earned their pass by remaining aesthetically ghetto when it was least valuable in hip-hop to be “stuck in the hood” still. today, riff raff occupies this space, along with the long-forgotten kreayshawn, v-nasty, and newcomer nova rockafeller. these artists will be the face of hip-hop for years to come. even a white rapper like macklemore benefits from his allegiance to “thrift-shopping” and celebrating a Poor Whiteness, rather than the opulence-obsessed value set of peers like pusha t and rick ross (who may, at long last, struggle to keep up with the image they present in a landscape of limited sales revenue).
but the ultimate irony will be when these aforementioned white artists are the only rappers on the commercial scene. the audience has conditioned itself to accept “coolness” as a bedfellow to rap music, and the black artists who once claimed largesse but fail to live up to it seem increasingly uncool and fraudulent, while the white artists who are willfully ratcheting up the Ratchet Factor have a novelty element among mainstream listeners and viewers that they’ve never had. before long, the iconography that sells rap music will start its timeline at marshall mathers…and end it, appropriately, at the riff raff.