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Abebe: Nicki Minaj, Hot 97, and the Fight Over ‘Real Hip-Hop’

CARSON, CA - MAY 12:  Singer Nicki Minaj performs at 102.7 KIIS FM's Wango Tango at The Home Depot Center on May 12, 2012 in Carson, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

We Americans have a lot of national pastimes (baseball, pornography, tipping), but one of the more intriguing minor ones has got to be “watching people have tiresomely protracted arguments about matters of ‘respect’ or etiquette that have very little to do with us directly.” I’d estimate it constitutes at least a third of all television programming and has given us some of the greatest moments in the history of the medium: dudes like Buckley, Mailer, and Vidal braying on sixties chat shows; a million seasons of Real World showdowns; or the time one Real Housewife of New Jersey called another Real Housewife a “prostitution whore,” which to my ear is damn near a six-syllable poem. (The sixth syllable, if you’re counting, is the second half of a Jerseyfied “whore,” which makes the whole thing trochaic trimeter, I think.) There is something fundamentally captivating about watching strangers use mass media to have dismal ego-driven arguments that are not actually pertinent to our lives.

Monday night’s hour-long phone conversation between rapper Nicki Minaj and D.J. Funkmaster Flex had all the sonic hallmarks of one of those arguments; it only failed the test of being entertaining. Its genesis, on the off chance you missed this, was Sunday’s Summer Jam, the annual concert held by the New York hip-hop station Hot 97. (They reported this year’s attendance at 55,000.) Minaj, whose dance-pop hit “Starships” is currently parked at No. 5 on the Billboard "Hot 100," was scheduled to headline. Early in the day, though, one of the station’s morning D.J.'s, Peter Rosenberg, tried to woo the audience at the event’s second stage by taking a shot at the single, and, in the process, any woman with the temerity to think she enjoyed hip-hop: “I know there’s some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later,” he said. “I’m not talking to y’all right now. Fuck that bullshit. I’m here to talk about real hip-hop shit.” Word of this quickly reached Lil Wayne, head of Minaj’s Young Money crew, who by most reports has never had a warm relationship with Hot 97; he decreed that no Young Money artists would play the show, and apart from an early appearance by Tyga, none did, Minaj included. Later in the night, Funkmaster Flex spent some microphone time complaining about “commercial rappers”: “If you lost the fucking streets,” he bellowed, “it’s your fault.”

Hence the phone conversation: full of endless cross-talk and sub-arguments about who needed to let the other person finish a thought (Flex), faux-reasonable pleading and theatrical sighs (Flex again), eye-rolling calm and flashes of dignified offense (Minaj), pointless shouting over questions such as whether one can get reliable cellular service inside MetLife Stadium (Flex), the pursuit of point-scoring gotcha moments (still Flex), and the obligatory point at which someone (Minaj) suggests that this conversation probably isn’t going to change either party’s opinion about anything. Flex’s goal was to get Minaj to accept some blame for not performing, but his hopeless blustering couldn’t accomplish that. Minaj’s goal was to get Flex to stop blustering long enough for her to speak, to announce that she’ll be making it up to fans with a free concert later in the summer, and to stand up for a professional principle you’d think would be pretty obvious: It’s a poor idea to sell tickets to see a star, cross-promote your event with that star’s fans, and then talk shit about her work — and those same fans’ taste — from the side stage.

According to many rap critics, one of the chief lessons to be taken from this spat is that the whole question of “real hip-hop” is a pointless and outdated one, and that Minaj herself — an artist who can spend one track forcefully out-rapping hip-hop stars, and the next goofily out-chart-topping pop stars — is living proof of precisely how pointless and outdated that distinction is. For the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica, “to reject ‘Starships’ is to reject the idea of hip-hop as a big tent with room for multiple ideas and micromovements and polarities. ... It is the kind of tactic once deployed to keep hip-hop as a whole at arm’s length from the mainstream.” Brandon Soderberg, writing at Spin, pointed out how bizarre it was for a commercial radio station — an entity whose entire survival is predicated on negotiating between a New York hip-hop identity and the songs the general public happens to like — to miss this point: Rosenberg was mocking “Starships” at an event whose tickets were sold by Minaj’s popularity; Flex was yelling about “commercial” records and “the streets” while playing Rihanna and Chris Brown to a massive audience, full of people with no connection to any such streets, who looked perfectly happy to dance to pop without the interruptions.

Both of those points are entirely correct, and there really has been something thrilling about watching Minaj prove it. While audiences were arguing over whether they wanted to see her as a rapper or a pop star, she was managing to become both at once: Her latest full-length, Roman Reloaded, begins with a long run of straightforward rap tracks, then ducks decisively into the world of pop, with production on “Starships” handled by the same guy behind several Lady Gaga hits. We’ve all spent years talking about taste in the age of the mp3, and how listeners can shuffle happily from Hank Williams to Too $hort to Katy Perry. Minaj might force some people to accept that a musician might have more than one inclination as well — that she might, unsurprisingly, be interested in steely rapping and sugar-rush pop at the same time. (It’s not as if the rap world and the pop charts haven’t overlapped for decades, right?)

There’s something about Caramanica’s phrasing that leaps out, though: the idea that conservative talk about “real hip-hop” has kept the genre at arm’s length from the mainstream. It leaps out because there are surely many people within hip-hop who have a vested interest in making sure that stays the case. It seems to me that the genre has spent a surprising amount of time in a precarious balance with the world: It’s a huge and lucrative commercial force, and it has a massive presence in pop music and pop culture alike, and yet it always maintains the mystique, for the majority of its listeners, of being Other and underground — a product of the streets Flex is bellowing about, which just so happens to be exported to the mass market. Most of that arm’s-length distance has to do with divides of race and class and, often enough, gender. (I can’t think of any better example than recent anger at Gwyneth Paltrow for tweeting the title of the multi-platinum single “N----s in Paris”: Here we have a popular, lucrative, and top-selling piece of music whose very title is tricky to speak for some 90 percent of the American public.)

Talk about “real hip-hop” is a staple of rap conversation, and when it comes to the music, it tends to go hand in hand with sonic conservatism, backward-looking dogmatism, and closed ears; it’s a kind of purist sclerosis, yes. But it also does the job of reinforcing the line between the people who can claim to control hip-hop’s heart and the people who will buy tickets and observe from the sidelines — a divide that is, in many ways, a profitable selling point for the genre, and comes accompanied by the fear that if the tent is ever big enough to fully admit the latter, they will just plain outnumber the former. It’s not just dogmatic musical gatekeeping; it’s also the gatekeeping of cultural and economic power, a kind of informal copyright that helps control the directions in which wealth will be transferred. This is the same thing that happens to all exports. To be called real Scotch, a whiskey has to satisfy conditions outlined by the Scottish government; to be called real Champagne, a sparkling wine has to satisfy conditions outlined by the French. To be called “real hip-hop,” an artist has to satisfy conditions outlined by … well, here things get hazy, but if you’re a Hot 97 D.J., you’d probably like to imagine you share in that power.

Photo: Kevin Winter/2012 Getty Images