In the summer of 1998, The Black Eyed Peas, who at that time consisted of will.i.am, apl.de.ap and Taboo, released their debut album Behind the Front. A few years prior, will.i.am. and apl.de.ap were known as Atban Klann, a group signed to Ruthless Records before the passing of label head Eazy E (the album—called Grass Roots for God's sake—was shelved and the group dropped from the label in 1995). When the group disbanded, the two linked up with Taboo, formed the Peas and signed with Interscope. Behind The Front was a critical success, but the group would not become a household name until much later, despite the attention-grabbing video for “Joints & Jams," a triumph of creativity that even featured the group's notable breakdancing abilities. The more subdued video for “Fallin' Up” allowed for a little more focus on lyricism, but the creativity was still there, sparking A Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul comparisons.
Who could predict what was to come at that point?
The group's sophomore effort, Bridging The Gap was another solid, albeit under-appreciated album that boasted production by none other than DJ Premier on the single “BEP Empire," which contained lyrics and video concept that seemed to directly conflict with what would come next in the Black Eyed Peas' musical legacy: "Haters hate us if you wanna, we gon' speak on it /We gon' tell the world why hip-hop is haunted/ Money is a drug and MC's is on it/ We gon' take it back to the days of Soulsonic…"
The addition of Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson to the band and the abrupt shift in musical direction for the group at that time marks one of the most egregious examples of “selling out” in music history. It's hard not to point out the group's acquisition of a White pop singer and its direct influence on sales of Elephunk, which have reached multi-platinum status in the US and overseas. With reference to her solo record “Fly Away” on 2003's Elephunk, Fergie told Rolling Stone it was “basically our 'Killing Me Softly'…a chance for me to show a bit about who I am and what I do."
What Fergie “does” is give the band a safe image that is mass-marketable, which took BEP from a seemingly authentic rap trio to a marketing juggernaut making brainless, Superbowl-performance-friendly tunes. In reference to their approach to marketing themselves, will.i.am once told Wall Street Journal "I consider us a brand. A brand always has stylized decks, from colors to fonts. Here's our demographic. Here's the reach. Here's the potential. Here's how the consumer will benefit from the collaboration." Hard to believe that this is the same guy who made “Get Original” with Chali 2na. While people often can debate whether the term “selling out” applies to artists who simply achieve more success or visibility than their original fans wanted for them, the Black Eyed Peas are the benchmark for notably eschewing an entire image and direction in favor of adding new membership and reaping immediate commercial benefits from it.
I suppose one could say that the Black Eyed Peas paved the way for artists who are unapologetic for making what I like to call “rap lite," a subgenre that consists of those who unapologetically create rap music palatable for people who aren't really into rap. Robert California, a character played by James Spader on NBC's The Office, was the one who made the greatest evaluation of the Black Eyed Peas music that I have seen to date and his words went off like a bomb in my brain: “The corporate party was wretched. I am so tired of the Black Eyed Peas. It's rock and roll for people who don't like rock and roll, it's rap for people who don't like rap, it's pop for people who don't like pop.” The Black Eyed Peas' post-Fergie offerings live snugly in the center of the Venn diagram where all popular musical genres meet, making it safely palatable for those whose palate is so remarkably undistinguished that they have no real feel for any of the genres the group is often placed within.
At this year's MTV Video Music Awards, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis took home the award for "Best Hip Hop Video," beating out hip-hop community favorite Kendrick Lamar and even pop rap superstar Drake. The song is so vaguely hip-hop, you can easily let the song's club and TV-commercial-ready infectiousness allow you to forget someone's actually rapping between the larger-than-life choruses. On Twitter, comedian Josh Gondelman quipped “No one moment has ever gentrified Brooklyn as hard as Macklemore winning Best Hip Hop Video at the VMAs," a comment that poked fun at just how “safe” and decidedly (White) hipster-friendly mainstream representation of hip-hop has become, similar to the changing face of Brooklyn, where the VMAs was held this year at the Barclays Center, a major landmark of the borough's gentrification.
Rap-lite is the musical equivalent of “hey, now me and my hipster buddies can go to Brooklyn at night and not get robbed for my ironically-sported gold herringbone chain." It's party rap, minus the “throw your guns in the air” part, like “Ice Ice Baby” without Vanilla Ice's trademark sneer (Macklemore is decidedly more smiley in his videos). As a second-generation hip-hop fan who was exposed to secondhand rap as a young child, I'm well aware that my brand of genre-true music is available to me via a few blogs I have bookmarked and colleagues who e-mail me files on the regular with “YO YOU GOTTA LISTEN TO THIS” crammed into the subject line. The only thing worse to me than the cultural tourism that rap-lite encourages is people who know better acting like nothing is available aside from what the mainstream has to offer and complaining about it ad nauseum as if they have no internet access and freedom of choice, as if some of the greatest hip-hop to come out in the past few years isn't free of charge via mixtapes and EPs. I understand that at thirty-plus, I am no longer the demographic that record labels are feenin' for and therefore marketing to, but I do find it odd that the representation of hip-hop is almost unrecognizable in sound and feeling to what the genre was founded on. It's great that hip-hop has become accessible to more people, but hopefully some of those people get into where all of this came from so that ten years from now, rap-lite isn't all you can find above the radar.
Shaka Shaw is a writer living in Washington DC and runs the hip-hop-centric website Front-Free.com.