"It's collapsing because they can no longer fool the white kids..."
When the political activist Al Sharpton pivoted from his war against bigmouth radio man Don Imus to a war on bad-mouth gangsta rap, the instinct among older music fans was to roll their eyes and yawn. Ten years ago, another activist, C. Delores Tucker, launched a very similar campaign to clean up rap music. She focused on Time Warner (parent of TIME), whose subsidiary Interscope was home to hard-core rappers Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. In 1995 Tucker succeeded in forcing Time Warner to dump Interscope.
Her victory was Pyrrhic. Interscope flourished, launching artists like 50 Cent and Eminem and distributing the posthumous recordings of Shakur. And the genre exploded across the planet, with rappers emerging everywhere from Capetown to the banlieues of Paris. In the U.S. alone, sales reached $1.8 billion.
The lesson was Capitalism 101: rap music's market strength gave its artists permission to say what they pleased. And the rappers themselves exhibited an entrepreneurial bent unlike that of musicians before them. They understood the need to market and the benefits of line extensions. Theirs was capitalism with a beat.
Today that same market is telling rappers to please shut up.
While music-industry sales have plummeted, no genre has fallen harder than rap. According to the music trade publication Billboard, rap sales have dropped 44% since 2000 and declined from 13% of all music sales to 10%. Artists who were once the tent poles at rap labels are posting disappointing numbers. Jay-Z's return album, Kingdom Come, for instance, sold a gaudy 680,000 units in its first week, according to Billboard. But by the second week, its sales had declined some 80%. This year rap sales are down 33% so far.
Longtime rap fans are doing the math and coming to the same conclusions as the music's voluminous critics. In February, the filmmaker Byron Hurt released Beyond Beats and Rhymes, a documentary notable not just for its hard critique but for the fact that most of the people doing the criticizing were not dowdy church ladies but members of the hip-hop generation who deplore rap's recent fixation on the sensational.