Hip hop is renowned for being one of the most profitable genres in the music industry. It is also one of the most controversial. Rupa Sudra steps into the murky world of hip hop to find out why it's okay to hate women and tote guns - all in the cause of good rap.
Hip hop artists like P Diddy, 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg have enjoyed phenomenal success in the commercial mainstream. Unashamedly they have cashed in, by representing women as sexual objects and glamorising violence to no end in their lyrics and videos.
Loyal fans are comfortable listening to sexually explicit lyrics, just as they are happy to emulate their favourite rapper's dress sense and attitude. It's all too easy to say that hip hop has an undeniable influence over its audience, who are keen to be part of the aspirational world that pours out of their speakers. However, new research shows that there is a link.
A US study has shown a startling relationship between rising teen pregnancy and rap music. According to Dr Steven Martino, from the RAND Corporation, "sexually degrading lyrics" caused changes in adolescents' sexual behaviour. "These lyrics are likely to promote the acceptance of women as sexual objects and men as pursuers of sexual conquest. Despite the fact that degrading sexual lyrics are particularly demeaning for women, they affect adolescent boys and girls similarly."
Switch on any urban music channel and you stand to be confronted with images of gyrating, semi-clad females dancing to a throbbing beat. These women are as much part of hip hop videos as the silver rimmed Hummas, flash designer clothes and explicit violent lyrics. The models who jiggle non stop are known as 'hip hop honeys', 'dimes', 'video vixens' and 'eye candy', names which have an air of disposability about them.
Women's rights groups have often criticised hip hop honeys for the negative, subservient roles they play in these videos. Recently American soul singer Jill Scott jumped on the bandwagon and branded the portrayal of hip hop honeys as "degrading" when she appeared at a specially organised concert to support the 'Take Back the Music' campaign. An angry Scott said: "It is dirty, inappropriate, unhealthy and polluted. We (women) can demand more."
Since the launch of MTV, music videos have become essential viewing as much as the songs themselves. Nowadays, directors have to work hard to push away the innovative barriers, to ensure audiences are shown something different each video. Unknown to most, the majority of big name rappers usually make two versions of a music video.
One version is suitable to be shown on mainstream music channels, and can be shown at any time of the day, whilst the other version is what the industry calls 'uncut'. Uncut, is a niche market of hip hop videos which contain even more sexually explicit content and can only be shown on late night TV.
Uncut is the secret sexual commerce which often compromises the women that appear in the videos, and is slowly forming as the underbelly of the genre. One former hip hop honey, Karine 'Supahead' Steffans, believes honeys should be treated more sympathetically. Quoted in XXL music magazine, she says: "What I've seen on music video sets is complete degradation."
However James Kerrison, 27, a project manager from Cambridge points out that most fans don't mind. "You get to see one of your favourite rappers performing surrounded by great looking women." He continues, "As a lot of the lyrical content is sexually orientated, this invariably means them getting down and dirty with a 'hottie', which is usually worth a watch." In fact, James fits into the typical white male stereotype that record executives (usually white, middle-age men) perceive hip hop listeners to be.
Another male fan, who goes by his tag name 'Vybe' agrees videos aren't offensive. "Of course sex sells. I don't have a problem with it, and I don't think most women do as long as it (the video) is done well." He adds: "Good dancers are important, especially if they're showcasing their talents and not their 'talents'." However, not all fans agree.
Graphic Designer Dina Vara, 25 has listened to hip-hop since she was a teenager but feels that the videos are far too clichÃ©d. "Hip hop is full of so many fantastic artists. What I can't stand is the videos — they underrate women and pigeon hole us as sexual beings simply for male pleasure," she explains.
The genre wasn't always known for it's over the top, sensationalism style. Born into humble beginnings, hip-hop started life in New York, during the black and Latino block parties of the seventies and eighties. DJs would isolate the percussion breaks from funk and disco songs, while MCs would literally 'rap' over the beats. Known as 'old-school' hip hop, it quickly became the definitive music genre, spawning key trends like break-dancing, deejaying and graffiti — all which remain very popular today.
The original sound of hip hop embodied the street reality that young black men were facing, including poverty, the desperation to make money or 'hustle' and the keen sense of survival in a conflict ridden ghetto. In 1979, The Sugarhill Gang's 'Rapper's Delight', was the first commercially issued hip hop record to be released. It enjoyed mainstream success, and opened the door for other hip hop artists to enter the charts.
What followed was a culmination of the East Coast and West Coast sound from the US, also marking the start of gangsta rap. Lethal rivalry between the East Coast and West Coast led to the deaths of two of the most influential rappers of our time — The Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur. Gangsta rap, with its swagger and attitude, changed the focus of lyrics to women, guns and status.
Hip hop videos simulate a commercialised world, which record bosses hope most of us want to aspire to. Vybe, however thinks they oversell and cause rappers to be the big joke. "Videos that are out now are for the most part the same thing over and over.
The problem is while they (hip hop rappers) try to make listeners envious of all these big material things they've got, they've now just become parodies of themselves and take it way too seriously."