Filthy Lucre

Malcolm McLaren is the godfather of today's mainstream hip-hop.

Malcolm McLaren Simon Reynolds post-punk punk The Sex Pistols hip-hop 50 Cent Sean “Puffy” Combs Bow Wow Wow Nike
Malcolm McLaren at SEX, circa '76, pondering a thing called bling.
Malcolm McLaren at SEX, circa '76, pondering a thing called bling.
In 1977, the Sex Pistols were named "Young Businessmen of the Year" by Investors Review. The honor belonged as much to the group's manager, Malcolm McLaren, for his role in the high jinks that helped the Pistols get tossed off two labels (while keeping their advances).

McLaren was one of the first industry figures to suggest that music was really "all about the Benjamins." He was happy to outrage the public with spectacles of sex and violence, if it made good financial sense. And he foresaw the devolution of music into a means for marketing bigger, more lucrative ideas.

McLaren, in fact, is the spiritual godfather of 50 Cent and today's businessmen MCs.

"[He revealed] the inner workings of the record industry," explains British author Simon Reynolds. "Before that, rock was about art and expression, and money was felt to be corrupting."

The manager's approach reached its fullest expression in post-punk, a movement Reynolds chronicled in his 2005 book, Rip It Up and Start Again: PostPunk 1978-1984. One major theme traced in the book is that of "musicians playing at being businessmen" -- as when ex-Pistol John Lydon, after splitting with McLaren, formed the band Public Image Ltd. as a pseudo-corporation.

Artists like Scritti Politti celebrated desire in their packaging and presentation, even as they deconstructed it musically. Frankie Goes to Hollywood satirized consumerism with fanciful merchandise -- like "Jean Genet boxer shorts" -- advertised on its records. Meanwhile, "Frankie Say" T-shirts became an authentic pop trend, the precursor of today's hip-hop clothing.

Besides McLaren, another inspiration for post-punk was the work of black American production companies such as the Chic Organization -- in part, according to Reynolds, because black pop artists have always been less tortured about the divide between art and commerce. However, artists like Nile Rodgers and George Clinton rarely got credit for their role in making business a visible part of the music industry.

Not everyone believes there's a divide between hip-hop's commercial mainstream and its underground. One of 50 Cent's more unlikely defenders is the rapper Wise Intelligent, a former member of the Golden Age hip-hop act Poor Righteous Teachers. Wise devoted the latest installment of his IntelligentNewzNet newsletter to a defense of so-called "commercial rap." Sarcastically titled "You Ain't Hip Hop!" the editorial draws a comparison between Fiddy and revered indie rapper MF Doom.

"Music aside, MF Doom, like 50 Cent, is a marketing genius," writes Wise. "MF Doom has a superhero doll on the market, and I read that he also has teamed up with Nike to create his own shoes now known as the 'Nike Dunk High Premium SB (MF DOOM).' 50 Cent has sneakers, clothing, a book and Vitamin Water on the market . . .

"My point is that MF Doom is just as commercial as 50 Cent no matter how we slice it, and that is not a bad thing!"

Brian Coleman -- author of Check the Technique, an indispensable new history of hip-hop through the Golden Age -- points out that the concept of the hip-hop star who's more businessman than artist didn't originate during the mid-'90s rise of Sean "Puffy" Combs. "People forget, but [MC] Hammer played a big role in changing hip-hop culture," says Coleman.

In Coleman's eyes, the change wasn't a good one. He believes the demise of hip-hop's "working-class, blue-collar work ethic" has gone hand-in-hand with the erosion of artistic standards.

Washington D.C. rapper Tabi Bonney is on the cusp of a major-label deal, thanks to his independent single "The Pocket." The African-born MC also began marketing his own line of T-shirts.

The line became a surprise success, but Bonney shelved it. As a one-man start-up, the shirts were getting in the way of the music. "If you can't devote 100 percent to what you're doing, it shows," admits Bonney.

However, the appeal of peripheral businesses to an artist still waiting for his music to pay off can't be denied. "There's nothin' like the clothing business," he says. "You more than triple -- sometimes quadruple -- your investment."

But there are signs that hip-hop's preoccupation with other businesses may be affecting the music's DNA. "Artists like 50 Cent and Young Jeezy -- it's all made to sound good as a ringtone," offers Reynolds. "If you listen to the frequencies used -- the nasty digital sound, the emphasis on simple hooks -- that's the reason."

Hip-hop tailoring itself to the ringtone market isn't that different from a rock artist writing commercial jingles. But Coleman doesn't buy it. "Anyone who's trying to sell ringtones is probably not going to be an artist I care about," he says.

There are already ways in which Malcolm McLaren's tactics have been successful beyond his wildest dreams. Thanks to illegal downloading -- presciently anticipated by McLaren's advocacy of home taping in Bow Wow Wow's "C30, C60, C90, Go!" -- music has slowly become merely the means to an end, the fodder for a delivery system, just as McLaren once predicted that it would serve the nascent Walkman.

And hip-hop has become ground zero for this transition. Not only has file-sharing had a tangible effect on the industry, but mixtapes -- many of them available for free download -- now flood the market with even more new music each month.

But as music has become more digital and less packageable, consumers still need a locus for their commodity fetish. Is it possible that hip-hop's growing focus on outside product -- a pair of jeans, or the cell phone that can play a collection of ringtones -- is simply a way for consumers to locate the desire they can no longer fix on an increasingly disembodied music?

If so, it's a concept hip-hop is probably pioneering, as it's pioneered so many others over the last 30 years. Give some of the credit to black music pioneers who didn't need punk to tell them business doesn't automatically equal bad. But don't forget Malcolm McLaren, the man who named the Pistols after his London clothing shop, "Sex" -- the man whose creative cynicism helped pave the way for the commodification of hip-hop.

"It's hard to have a fetish," agrees Reynolds wryly, "for something that's intangible."

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