How Rap Tears Up the Boring Art Vs. Commerce Argument

Last week, HBO put out a promotional video for their vampire series True Blood that featured Snoop Dogg rapping about the show’s characters. (I liked it. Not everybody did.) Now the great Port Arthur, Texas-based MC Bun B has recorded a rap over the instrumental track from Outkast’s “ATLiens” in celebration of the seventh anniversary of the Japanese clothing company Lafayette.

It is essentially an advertisement and it is also excellent-proof that rap, pretty much from its beginnings, set itself beyond the art vs. commerce argument that plagues artists in so many other forms. Remember Kurt Cobain wearing the “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” T-shirt on the cover of Rolling Stone? Hard to imagine a rapper struggling like that. Back in the mid-’90s, when the tech boom was starting to boom and Puffy was ushering in the “bling era” with Biggie and Bad Boy records, lots of people were upset about it.

I was one of them. I loved Biggie’s music, of course, but the ostentatious fashion and videos bothered me. I’d come out of college hoping that Jeru the Damaja and the Wu-Tang Clan would lead some kind of Marxist revolution on the streets of New York. I loved EPMD’s purist anthem “Crossover,” wherein Eric Sermon scolded other rappers for changing their style from jeans to suits in an effort to “To go platinum and clock mad green/AKA, a sellout, the rap definition/Get off that boy, change your mission…”

Rap was getting more and more popular and generating huge amounts of money, and artists I greatly respected were appearing in television commercials selling malt liquor or blue jeans or whatever and it made me sad. Then I remember I saw Missy Elliott rap in one of those “How Easy Is This” Gap commercials, and it really changed the way I thought about things. It was an excellent commercial, nothing if not entertaining: stylish and slick and clever and fun: just like lots of the songs I loved on the albums I loved by artists I loved. Not a lot of difference. And it made me think about what so many rappers had professed in their lyrics and image all along: they were doing this for money. Rap was art, for sure, but looking at some of the pinnacles of the form-Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid In Full, Slick Rick’s ridiculously large gold rope chains, the dollar sign Too $hort put in his name, Snoop keeping his mind on his money and his money on his mind-it was also, very clearly, as EPMD themselves had told us with the title of one of my favorite albums of all time, Strictly Business. Art and commerce both. (Come to think of it, those “Crossover” lyrics are about as awkward as Cobain’s T-shirt. EPMD stands for “Eric and Parrish Makin’ Dollars,” the duo posed with matching Mercedes for the cover of their second record, and worked the word “business” into the name of each and every album they made.)

Then Wu-Tang Clan, my ultimate rap-for-art-sake heroes, launched their own clothing line, Wu-Wear, and made a commercial for it with a song called “Wu-Wear The Garment Renaissance.” And I loved it. So that was that.

This is maybe a too-surface-level take on a bigger issue, and it can of course lead into deeper discussion of race and the socioeconomic conditions that rap came out of and art and politics, etc. (I always think of James Brown singing “You Can Have Watergate But Gimme Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight” here.) But you’re probably already bored. And this is not to say that there is no such thing as selling out, either, or that commercialism is healthy for all art. But just that again and again, rap music seems to prove itself largely immune. And that Bun B is awesome. Check him out.