From B-Boys To Billions, A Brief History Of Hip-Hop As Business

May 13, 2014
Originally published on May 13, 2014 6:26 pm

Apple is expected to buy Beats Electronics for more than three billion dollars, meaning Beats co-founder Dr. Dre would be close to becoming the first hip-hop billionaire. Professor Travis Gosa, who teaches hip-hop culture at Cornell, comments on the trajectory of hip-hop, from the underground to international markets and brands.

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Apple is expected to announce any day now that it's buying Beats Electronics. The deal would be worth more than $3 billion. Beats is a headphone maker and music streaming distributor, and the company was started by hip-hop star Dr. Dre and record producer Jimmy Iovine. The purchase would be the largest in Apple's history. It would make Iovine a billionaire and Dr. Dre would be pretty close to that mark.

Social Science Professor Travis Gosa teaches hip-hop culture at Cornell University. And he says hip-hop entrepreneurs have come a long way, from the days of Russell Simmons and Run DMC singing about their sneakers. We talked to him about that evolution.

TRAVIS GOSA: In 1985, we didn't have hip-hop millionaires and hip-hop billionaires. Many people were using rap music DJ-ing, to a less of a degree, break dancing, really to make ends meet, right, to just get by. And so, Russell Simmons had a foresight to take the clothes that Run DMC was already wearing, and create a merger between the actual corporation and the group. And so, my

CORNISH: This went on to be a kind of model. I mean fast forward to the '90s. You have Bryan Birdman Williams, cofounder of Cash Money Records. Him founding that record label and now he's on the Forbes list - I think net worth they're saying $150 million. And of course Jay Z cofounded Roc-A-Fella Records in 1995. Is the model the branding and the licensing? Is that how people kind of built up this status?

GOSA: I think the formula for these entrepreneurs is to use the music as a loss leader, right? To use the music as in place marketing and branding for other types of products. And so when consumers want to buy bed linens, when they want to buy liquor and beverages they associate the coolness and the mystique of the artist with these otherwise everyday products.

And so today we have someone like Drake who is actually branding lint rollers, right? And so when you think about a...

CORNISH: Wait. Did you say lint rollers? Like for clothing?

GOSA: Lint rollers. For clothing. Right.



GOSA: And so when you think about how to keep your clothes lint free you can now think about the coolness and popularity of someone like Drake.

CORNISH: You know, hip hop has always been about, like, boasting and showing off wealth, right? Like, that's kind of built into the music. But now that these artists are really wealthy, I mean, has this made for some awkward moments in terms of the economics of the politics of them versus their audience?

GOSA: Back in the 1970s when Sugar Hill and the Gang was rapping about going to the Holiday Inn, driving around and having a swimming pool, they were certainly speaking about the aspirations of artists who had little to nothing.


SUGAR HILL GANG: (rapping) Hotel, motel, Holiday Inn...

GOSA: Today in many ways this is a great contradiction of a culture that originally started out as the poor man's CNN, as the representatives of the poor. And so when someone like Dr. Dre or Jay Z or PDiddy, right, continue to rap about and make music about the streets we have to wonder about the reality of their lyrics.

CORNISH: You hear artists like Jay Z essentially argue that what they're creating is an aspirational image just like fashion magazines and that this is OK. But doesn't it feel awkward, given what was once the politics of hip hop?

GOSA: Yes. So hip hop has always been anti-establishment. There's been songs about the police, about injustice in society. And now we really have a generation of artists that are not fighting the power. They have become the power.

CORNISH: Social science Travis Gosa. He teaches hip hop culture at Cornell University. Thanks so much for talking with us.

GOSA: Thanks for having me.


NOTORIOUS BIG: (rapping) ...down at Times Square. Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

KELLY PRICE: (singing) I don't know what they want from me. It's like the more money we come across, the more problems we see.

CORNISH: ALL THINGS CONSIDERS continues right after this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.