Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“Hustler Musik” and Mixtapes: Lil Wayne and Dedication 2

Two years after George W. Bush was re-elected as President of the United States in 2006, an up-and-coming rapper from the Dirty South named Lil' Wayne emerged in the American mainstream as the self-proclaimed “Best Rapper Alive” and “President” of Cash Money Records. Wayne achieved national fame through a widespread network of media exposure, which not only took form in numerous guest collaborations with rappers such as Fat Joe, Rick Ross, and Young Jeezy, but also in the creation of two popular series of underground mixtapes, The Drought 1-3 and Dedication 1-3. These full length 'promotional' discs, distributed for free on the internet and for a nominal fee in hip hop mom and pop stores, created a market saturated with Lil Wayne's persona and the post-gangsta revitalization of hip hop’s “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” thematic, the “Best Rapper Alive” moniker a signifier that the masses would vote for and buy into with the success of the multi-platinum album The Carter 3 in 2006.

Beginning with the emergence of early hip hop culture in the 1980's, but especially since the advent of internet file sharing in the post-millennium, mixtapes have been an integral source of exposure, audience creation, and income for both underground MCs and corporate sponsored rappers alike. Mixtapes have come far from their pristine origins in the Bronx, where lo-fi cassette recordings of MCs and DJs at block parties were traded amongst hip hop’s early die-hards in the hopes of recapturing the magic of the moment.

In comparison, the making of the contemporary mixtape has become an underground commodity and an entrepreneurial endeavor, where professional DJs will “jack beats” from the most popular hip hop/pop songs at the time and remix them with exclusive verses from rappers like Lil Wayne. The practice of “jacking beats” carries the benefit of significantly cutting down on the DJ's production time and costs, and allowing MCs to come up with novel remixes of the same song, but it is also a practice that is illegal according to copyright law. Nevertheless, without an official code of conduct and with almost no respect towards intellectual property rights, the underground mixtape circuit functions as a no-holds-barred, anything goes aesthetic arena, in which the streets and the fans, not the corporate gatekeepers, are the judges of who or what is or isn't hot in hip hop.

Mixtapes occupy what Jonah Weiner has dubbed hip hop's 'minor leagues': a highly competitive freestyle forum where rappers show off their lyrical prowess and pay homage, call out, or one-up the original artist on their own beats/songs. They are distinct from official albums in that mixtapes are more street-driven, freestyled, and packaged on the fly, operating in a grey-area economy that sidesteps the mainstream distribution networks of the corporate record labels and their all-or-nothing blockbuster mentality. As a quasi-legal source of income, it is possible for DJs and rappers to make a better living off of the mixtape hustle then it is to go through the multimillion dollar advertising campaigns of the corporate hip hop world, which often take huge cuts for “advertising costs” from the artists’ profits:

“One day I really sat down and did the numbers. You get a dollar per record, and after the recording and promotion of the record, it might be $800,000 spent, which comes out of your cut. You sell 500,000 records, which means you wind up owing the record company $300,000. You’ve blown the record up, toured all around the world, how in the hell do you owe them $300,000? If they sold half a million records and got $9 per unit, they made nearly $5 million! And you still owe them!!! (DJ Jazzy Jeff, “Stealing Empire.”)

The corporate hip hop industry has turned a blind eye to the technical illegality of the bootlegged mixtape because it also functions as the primary “promotional” means through which rappers give a taste of their work to the audiences/constituencies that support them. The mixtape circuit is also one of the only way for up-and-comers to establish a credible presence in the hip hop world. A seminal example is how 50 Cent got discovered with the buzz from his mixtape “Power Of The Dollar,” which featured the controversial song “How To Rob,” a ballad in which 50 Cent fantasizes about mugging prominent Hip Hop and R&B figures for their cash This track was successful in creating enough of a buzz that established rappers Jay-Z, Kurupt, and Ghostface Killah all responded with their own rebuttals, confirming through negative prehension 50' cent's newfound established presence in the hip hop world:

Aiyyo the bottom line is I'ma crook with a deal

If my record don't sell I'ma rob and steal

You better recognize nigga I'm straight from the street

These industry niggaz startin to look like somethin to eat. (50 Cent, “How to Rob”)

There are two models to follow at either extreme of the mixtape hustle. The first approach involves mass production, or getting as many verses over as many hot beats out in the streets as quickly as possible. This practice began with ‘DJ Clue?' in the mid 1990's, who legitimized the mixtape as a hustle in its own right through selling 1 million units of his “The Professional” series, and who is credited with having produced over 200 mixtapes in his lifetime. This is the path that Lil Wayne has taken in terms of saturating the market with his omnivorous presence, who since 2003 has released around 3 full length mixtapes a year. In terms of mass production, almost no one can lay claim to having matched the amount of output Lil Wayne has delivered in the last decade. Around the time that his mixtapes Dedication 2 and The Drought 3 were released in 2006, Wayne had created so much buzz in hip hop's beehive that audiences were forced to prehend his presence, whether they loved to hate him or hated to love him.

Lil Wayne lives up to the “lil” in his moniker in that he has been a signed rapper since he was 9 years old. Growing up in poverty in Hollygrove, New Orleans, he was taken under the wing of rapper Birdman and C.E.O of Cash Money Records, Bryan “Baby” Williams, who Wayne refers to in his lyrics as a father. As a result of these extenuating circumstances, where the record label becomes a kind of surrogate family, Lil Wayne has been raised as a workaholic who lives and breathes in the recording booth, whether its in one of his “mansions in Miami” or on one of his tour buses, which comes fully equipped with a portable studio. Wayne claims on a Dedication 2 interlude that “you never retire out of what you do, if what you do is your life; rapping is my life” and that “I'll retire out when I die out” (Lil Wayne, “Weezy on Retirement”).

The particular brand of mass produced rap that Lil' Wayne popularized in his mixtape series consists of punchlines and non-sequiturs delivered in a distinctly southern drawl, in which he puns on familiar gangsta tropes including selling cocaine (“Sit it in the pot and watch me rise to power / Getting off twenty American pies an hour”), smoking dro, “working them bitches”, semi-automatic “weaponries,” and last but not least, getting money “like Daman and Keenan (the Wayans brothers)” (Lil Wayne, “They Still Like Me”).

While Wayne’s fast food lyricism often bursts with an absurd sense of humor and unexpected turns of phrase (“I'm a G / And you ain't gotta know the alphabet to see,”) his surface-level wordplay comes off as more of a cartoon than authentically “thug life”, a testament to the post-gangsta era of the rapper as a stylish caricature (Lil Wayne, “Ride 4 My Niggaz”). There is much left to be desired after Wayne’s brand of juvenile swagger is digested, in terms of food for thought or more self -conscious subject matter; but in fairness, this formula is intentional, in that Wayne's bite sized tracks always leave you waiting for more of the same.

Released in 2006 as the last song on Wayne's mixtape Dedication 2, “Georgia...Bush” offers an unexpected turn towards the more “conscious” rap indicative of the underground groups I have analyzed prior. “Georgia...Bush” is a scathing protest track that speaks out against the government in general and President Bush in particular for their responsibility in the scale of the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where 1,836 people lost their lives either during the hurricane or in the aftermath of the floods. Lil Wayne critiques how the levees were allowed to break as a kind of conspiracy theory against poor southern blacks:

So what happened to the levies, why wasn't they steady?

Why wasn't they able to control this?

I know some folk that live by the levy

That keep on tellin me they heard explosions. (Lil Wayne, “Georgia...Bush”)

Wayne also cites another disaster in Louisiana’s history, Hurricane Betsy, drawing conspicuous parallels to the two events: “Same shit happened back in Hurricane Betsy / 1965, I ain't too young to know this / Young President Johnson but now it's 'Geeoorrggiiaa' Bush” (Lil Wayne, “Georgia...Bush”).. The sample “Georgia...” taken from “Georgia on my Mind” is a haunting remix of the legacy of racism in the South, a reference to Ray Charles in the 1960's and his refusal to play to a Jim Crow segregated audience in the state of Georgia. This reference works in Wayne's song as an implicit accusation of bigotry against George W. Bush in particular (“the one with the suit / thick white skin and his eyes bright blue”) and white supremacy in general (“We see them Confederate flags, you know what it is / A white cracker motherfucker that probably voted for him,”) channeling sentiments that Kanye West may have summed up best: “George Bush does not care about black people.”

“Georgia...Bush” runs at 8 minutes long, the track consisting of a second half that switches gears and collapses back into the juvenile gangsta trooping indicative of Wayne's obsession with capital when he raps:

Money money money get a dollar and a dick

Weezy Baby that crack, muthafucka get a fix

Got money out the ass, no homo but I'm rich

Bout to go get surgery and put some diamonds on my wrist (Lil Wayne, “Georgia...Bush”)

This uneasy tension between juvenile gangsta rap troping and serious 'conscious' rejoinders about Hurricane Katrina is found throughout all of Dedication 2, with positively charged messages directed at the disaster's victims scattered between Lil Wayne's swaggering. The most significant of these asides is an interlude directed at the “young money makers” out there on the streets of New Orleans, who Wayne claims he is proud to see “getting money in different ways” (Lil Wayne, “Dedication After Disaster”). The resulting collapse back into the economic grind is indicative not only of the state of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but of where rappers and young black males stand as a whole in relation to American late-capitalism's status quo. The ideology of the hustle that Wayne posits isn't far off from most other rappers advocating the hustle – of drugs, of mixtapes, of rap - as a viable/lucrative source of income, as a way to make the best of a bad situation in which black disenfranchisement and low unemployment are a daily reality. When DJ Drama says “Oh...you thought we was done?,” it functions as a kind of provocation to work harder and keep on hustling by whatever means necessary, where if you “See us in ya city man, give us a pound / Cuz if a nigga still movin then he holdin it down” (Lil Wayne, “Georgia...Bush”). Even in just this line, the term “pound” functions as intentionally ambiguous doublespeak, alluding to both a literal “pound” of narcotics, as well as a “pound” of the fists, signifying mutual respect and a sense of comradery amongst the poundees.

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