Student drops a beat on hip-hop careers

All things considered, hip-hop music, as a genre, is still relatively new – both in popular culture and in academics.

And while the genre has, over the past three decades, cemented itself in our cultural landscape, it hasn’t generated much serious, equally deserved discussion among those who’ve spent years researching and writing countless words on the nuances and successes of other genres, primarily rock ’n’ roll.

Enter Christopher White’s MA thesis, topping off his Popular Music and Culture degree at Western.

In ‘Rap is easy, career is the hard part’: Analyzing success, longevity and failure within the framework of the hip-hop career, White examines the evolution of the genre, drawing parellels between hip-hop, pop and rock to show how established patterns act as guides to successful careers for all musicians.

“Hip-hop was seen by many as a fad during the earliest years of the genre, and now, 30-plus years later, we can clearly see that it has established itself (as one of) the most popular forms of music,” White said.

“Due to the fad status, early hip-hop artists likely didn’t see many long-term opportunities to turn rapping into a career. However, there are a number of current hip-hop musicians – like Jay-Z and Diddy – who have highly successful and long-term careers, and emerging rappers can look to them as evidence that a hip-hop career can/does exist.”

So, how did hip-hop evolve over the years, and what steps have led to the success of artists like Jay-Z? Because the genre, relatively speaking, differs from rock and pop in areas such as the subject matter of its songs and overall culture, White was expecting the hip-hop career pattern to different as well.

“Initially, I thought the hip-hop career (pattern) would be a very unique thing; that it would be much different from a rock and pop career. What I’ve realized is that it’s actually very similar to other genres of music,” White noted.

He found the steps to get a career off the ground, and keep momentum moving, are similar in all respects.

“You have to go through a certain hierarchy of events to get to where you’d have what you’d call a career – starting as an independent musician, working your way up, becoming better through practice, live performances and recording experiences and then, performing live on an increasingly wider scale.”

The other similarity, in all genres, White added, is there’s no single formula for success. What’s more, broader trends in the music industry change.

There’s no guarantee that once it’s attained, a successful career will last. Just look at Vanilla Ice or MC Hammer.

“Where the hip-hop, pop career or rock career differ is when the musicians start to go into non-musical pursuits, like business or acting. In rock music, there’s this worry about selling out, and in hip-hop music, while it definitely does exist, it is almost as if it’s encouraged to go on to the next big thing,” White explained.

“Financial success is a big motivator for success in hip-hop music; (musicians) often flaunt it in their lyrics whereas rock musicians, when they get to a certain level of popularity, you don’t hear them singing about being rich.”

Ultimately, White’s thesis shows the shifts in the economic and cultural landscape associated with the hip-hop genre, providing a better understanding of its growing success and respect in the music industry.

But still, at the end of the day, while he can’t speculate as to why, White said it’s likely rock music, as a genre, will always trump hip-hop.

“I think if there’s a hierarchy of music, I think rock music will always be at the top. Genres like pop and hip-hop that have been around now, for so long, are used to some levels of respect in academics, culture and with the average listener. They do well, but I think these other non-rock genres will never reach the same level of respect.”