When I first heard the title of Nas’ new album, “Hip-Hop is Dead,” I was pretty pissed off. Who was Nas to tell me and the rest of the world that the genre of music best known for its unequaled creativity and regeneration is over, done and on its way to the funeral house? In interviews with online hip-hop magazines, he points to the transformation of hip-hop into a commercial industry as the first sign of its impending expiration. Trying desperately to salvage the genre from Nas’ pronouncement, I found myself ticking off on my fingers artists who eschew profits in favor of independent creativity. At the top of that list was always Chicago emcee Common.
At least, he was at the top of that list until a few weeks ago.
This Thanksgiving break, the public got a full serving of Gap’s new set of holiday television commercials. The clothing company’s advertisements feature Common and a group of teens dancing on a kitschy giant gold peace sign, to the song “Holiday In Your Hood,” written and performed by Common. Produced by the Black Eyed Peas’ will.I.am, the song uses a sample from Madonna’s ’80s hit “Holiday,” and the commercials also feature Common’s daughter and DJ Samantha Ronson. Hackneyed lines like “Fell into the Gap/ They rockin’ the hood/ Seein’ peace in the streets when I stop in the hood/ We gonna keep it alive like hip-hop in the hood/ It’s good when love don’t stop in the hood” — who knew you could rhyme “hood” with “hood”? — aim to conjure a contrived connection in the viewer’s mind between hip-hop, holiday and Gap clothing. Common ends the song with a peace sign and the words “Peace, love and Gap.”
The commercialization of hip-hop is nothing new. Although hip-hop began as a voice of empowerment for the disenfranchised and marginalized, its unique, subversive and stylish subculture make it fresh fodder for mainstream companies seeking to associate themselves with anything outside the establishment. Hip-hop artists and the marks of the culture are constantly being pursued: Ludacris was a spokesman for Pepsi before Bill O’Reilly and his foot-soldiers had him fired; Urban Outfitters sells a portable turntable and DJ gig bag.
I probably should have seen it coming. But the major chunk of the cringe factor in the Common-Gap partnership comes from Common’s former identity as the one artist who would stay true to hip-hop’s roots.
Capturing Kanye’s catchiness without any of the cheese, with the confidence of a seasoned emcee and the earnestness of a rookie, Common stood as a positive voice in the thick of the late-’90s rise of gangsta rap. His focus on “uncool” subjects like love and spirituality and thoughtful observations about the realities of street life — reminiscent of hip-hop’s beginnings — has on the one hand prevented him from achieving the same success as his peers, but has also given Common appeal as a more serious alternative to mainstream caricaturized rap. Common achieved the rare position of enjoying enough commercial success to be recognized as a major player in the game but not enough to become a cliché. Partnering with Kanye West was a genius move: while gaining his friend’s fans, he avoided West’s overexposure.
Common’s careful balancing act may be rare, but it is no accident, if his lyrics give any indication. In “Dooinit” (“Like Water For Chocolate”, 2000) Common decried what he saw as the market takeover of ’90s rap, with emcees overly concerned with their bottom lines and profit margins, a trend that resulted only in stale, trite, masturbatory odes to one’s material possessions. Common was a hip-hop artist of a different stripe, delivering lines “for the hungry and underprivileged.” In the same song he threw several jabs at Jay-Z, criticizing his tendency to follow others’ styles rather than forge his own identity (“You wasn’t saying you was a thug before Pac came”). In the dichotomy of keepin’ it real versus turning an extra buck, Common won: In 2004’s “Moment of Clarity,” (“The Black Album”), Jay-Z lamented his choice to “dumb down for [his] audience to double [his] dollars”; he’d really much rather “rhyme like Common Sense.”
But as Jay-Z reflects on his career and recognizes his pivotal decision to sacrifice content for mass appeal, Common is carelessly squandering his hard-won reputation as a deep lyricist to broaden his audience.
It is hard to imagine “the hungry and underprivileged” as the demographic for which Common is aiming with this advertisement. With “Holiday In Your Hood,” Common is using his brand of authentic hip-hop to increase sales for an enfranchised, establishment, mainstream and well-endowed company that spends the vast majority of its energy catering to a bland WASP suburban culture, which in many ways contributes to the marginalization hip-hop seeks to overcome.
I’ll admit the most consistent patrons of hip-hop have always been middle-class suburban white kids intrigued by stories of street violence and poverty. But while hip-hop was always supported by members of the establishment, it was never made specifically for them, which is what makes the Gap ad so galling. Gap isn’t using this partnership to finally recognize “real” hip-hop, because real hip-hop is more than just a tight beat and a clever rhyme — it’s about giving voice to a population whose stories are otherwise invisible and ignored. True, Common will benefit substantially from the advertisement, gaining legions of fans. But that success is a mere side effect of the company’s real aim of outgrowing its mall-store stereotype and connecting itself superficially to the hip urban aesthetic Common embodies.
How much more refreshing — and badass — would it have been to hear a line on Common’s upcoming album, “I Have a Dream,” scheduled for release in March 2007, about turning down Gap’s offer for partnership? To be sure, “Holiday In Your Hood” isn’t a bad song, and I found myself enjoying the commercial despite my best instincts. The beat is catchy and uplifting, and Common does look real good in that hoodie. But the disgust comes from Common’s decision to turn his fans into targets, allowing Gap to hijack his talent by extending yet another commercial tentacle via the medium of hip-hop. The fact that Common has established his career by representing a pure, transcendent hip-hop culture underscores the hypocrisy. Artists like West, Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z have built their reputations on an ostentatious display of wealth. Replace Common’s role in the advertisement with any one of them, and there would be no problem. But Common is better than that, and peddling a $50 sweatshirt cheapens him. While the move represents his rise as a commercial hip-hop star, to those of us who have followed his career it is a disappointing fall from grace and into the Gap.
June Torbati is from Oklahoma. But she’s still pretty cool.