Saturday, October 31, 2015

Rap is capitalist

The economics of rap lyrics would be an interesting subject for a pop econ book.

When I was a kid, I barely listened to rap, and most of what I knew was West Coast "gangsta rap." To me, gangsta rap was basically a form of chivalric fiction -  a glorification of the honorable, violent lifestyle of warriors in an anarchic society. It was all just "Mine enemies besmirched my honor, so I smote them down with the strength of my good right arm." Medieval knights were basically just gangsters, after all, so it makes sense that they'd have similar romantic myths.

I also was dimly aware of protest rap ("Fuck tha Police", Public Enemy, KRS-One, etc.) and 80s dance rap (a variant of goofy 80s dance music).

But as I got older and started to listen to more rap, I noticed one theme that was overwhelmingly common, and seemed to be getting more dominant: the rags-to-riches story. A huge amount of rap these days, and for at least the last ten years, has lyrics that are a variation on: "I was poor, then I made high-quality entertainment products, and now I am rich!"

For example, here's an excerpt from "Started From the Bottom," by Drake:
I done kept it real from the jump
Living at my mama's house we'd argue every mornin' nigga,
I was trying to get it on my own
Working all night, traffic on the way home
And my uncle calling me like "Where ya at?
I gave you the keys told ya bring it right back"
Nigga, I just think it's funny how it goes
Now I'm on the road, half a million for a show
This theme is absolutely ubiquitous. In the late 90s and early 2000s, around the time I started listening to more rap, it seemed to be totally replacing gangsta rap as the dominant lyrical message.

One interesting thing is how overwhelmingly capitalist this theme is. A number of (white) lefty humanities students I meet are quite enamored of rap, viewing it as a form of protest against the structural injustice of the capitalist system. But barely any of that has been popular for many years now. The overwhelming majority of the mainstream popular rap music from the last decade and a half has been about working hard, taking risks, reaping financial rewards, and enjoying a money-driven status-conscious consumerist lifestyle. In other words, a total and utter embrace of the capitalist dream. Of course, the successful business exploits of rappers themselves are now well-known; the capitalist dream goes way beyond music-making.

Modern rap also puts the lie to the idea, popular in right-wing media, that rap encourages a culture of poverty. That was true of gangsta rap - even if he amasses money and power, a gangster is expected to stay in his community and remain true to the lifestyle of the streets (much like the ideal of noble poverty in chivalric fiction). But modern capitalist rap is about hard work and risk-taking in the pursuit of prosperity - exactly the kind of values conservatives ostensibly want people to have. Ludacris, whose music O'Reilly has repeatedly failed to recognize for the satire that it is, even has a song advocating Randian selfishness.

So I think both lefties and conservatives get modern rap fundamentally wrong. It's just Horatio Alger, updated for a wealthier, more liberal, mass-media-driven age.

But rap is about the culture of Black America, and therefore it is about scarcity. You can't have rags-to-riches without the rags. Black America is much poorer than the rest of the country, and is therefore a world defined by the daily experience of scarcity; it's a world where every constraint always binds. That makes for some interesting economics.

For example, the drug trade figures prominently in rappers' stories of how they survived before getting rich. The standard rapper autobiographical tale has the rapper selling drugs until his music career takes off. Usually, this involves taking large risks, since it involves operating outside of the protection of the law. This, of course, demonstrates many of the unintended negative consequences of government prohibition of commodities.

Also, a world of scarcity is a world where transaction costs are too high for many kinds of market institutions to function. For example, equity markets. Here is an excerpt from Future's "Where Ya At":
Where your ass was at, dog, when I was in the Pyrex?
Where your ass was at, dog, when I was drinking Hi-Tech?
Where your ass was at, dog, came through the projects?
Where your ass at we keep that fully loaded contracts?
and also:
Where your ass was at when I was trapping in the stove?
Had to struggle to get where I'm at and sell dope
The song is addressed to someone who wants some kind of unspecified favors from Future now that he's a rich, successful musician, but who refused to help Future when he was a poor, struggling chemical manufacturer. Unfortunately, given the lack of formal equity markets, the dispute over just how much the person helped Future must be resolved by extra-legal means. Informal purchasing contracts, barter, and other economic workarounds also make frequent appearances in rap lyrics.

I don't think I'm reading too much into these songs, either; rappers themselves are obviously acutely aware of the importance of good formal economic institutions.

Rap lyrics paint a picture of how government has influenced the economy of African-American society, especially via the War on Drugs. An economic niche has been carved out and reserved for poor Americans. That niche offers the promise of a middle-class income, but at the price of horrible risk to life and limb. It has encouraged informal marketplaces with weak institutions, leading to high transaction costs and numerous market failures.

No wonder rappers are so proud at having escaped that situation and made it into the regular economy! I know I would be. Perhaps our politicians should listen to more rap music.


  1. How about consumption taxes and hip-hop?

    There is luxury in rap. I thing this is the theme that ticks off conservatives the most. It is meant to provoke some hate and it achieving this.

    Why conservatives don't like the luxury rap I think it is kind of obvious, especially since it usually implies sex as well. But why liberal America is OK with it is interesting to me. Aren't liberals supposed to tax such people? They are inequality personified, they know that they got there by largely by chance and yet still think they deserve to spend it all.

  2. Perhaps those "(white) lefty humanities students who are quite enamored of rap, viewing it as a form of protest against the structural injustice of the capitalist system" listen to a different type of hiphop that you are talking about in this article. There is plenty of more abstract and intellectually challenging lyrical concepts to be found in the underground scene of hiphop. What comes closest in the mainstream would be Kendrick Lamar, but rappers like Run The Jewels, Vince Staples, The Roots, Lupe Fiasco and many more provide a deeper thought process in their music. These lastly mentioned artists share very few similarities with the ones that are mentioned in your article. There is a clear divide between what happens in the mainstream and what happens in the underground. I therefore think that portraying white, leftist humanities students as ignorant of the true essence of mainstream hiphop is a misguided argument. They don't listen to Drake and Future, they listen to more underground artists that do talk about the struggles of/in capitalism.

    1. Well, the lefty humanities students I met talked mostly about long-ago stuff, but it's certainly true that protest rap lives on in the underground.

      And I don't think the mainstream rappers necessarily have a less deep thought process. In fact, on the whole they seem very smart. Good businesspeople, too! Rap today isn't like rock in the 80s, where the mainstream popular people were a bunch of coked-out meatheads and the underground/indie people were smart and creative. In rap, there's lots of real talent at the top too. Partly, I suspect, it's because making mainstream rap is very technology-intensive, so mainstream rappers have to know a lot about sound engineering. That's just a guess, though.

    2. While I agree that producing a hiphopalbum is quite technology-intensive, I would find it difficult to argue that that is what makes bigger artists act like sensible businessmen. Many big artists have "producers" that make beats for them and who produce and engineer songs/albums. There's quite a distinction between rappers and producers of beats. There are few at the top that actually do both, and I would consider Kanye West being the prime example of that. However, I think most of the bigger artists "outsource" a great deal of what makes hiphop technologically intensive to others that actually know what they are doing. Perhaps that's actually a sign of them being true businessmen: they get others to do the work form them yet still retain most profits.

  3. Yes, this, times a million.

    Plus, if you have ever been in a foreign country and heard American rap on the radio, or seen people snapping up these songs, you realize that the inner city youth with no money are not the ones driving record and iTunes sales. This is the kind of income redistribution I can support.

  4. "Acutely aware" link broken.

  5. Thanks for listening to Rap so I don't have to.

  6. Modern rap culture is also strongly sexist, racist and homophobic....not really sure why conservative media is against it.

  7. This post is a defense of of the Mafia code of honor: modern capitalist theory as the defense of feudalism. The lasting value of gangsta rap, a subcategory of hip hop, is in its honesty. It's bragging suffused with tragic self-awareness.

    At night I can't sleep, I toss and turn
    Candle sticks in the dark, visions of bodies being burned
    Four walls just staring at a nigga
    I'm paranoid, sleeping with my finger on the trigger

    New York streets where killers'll walk like Pistol Pete
    And Pappy Mason, gave the young boys admiration
    Prince from Queens and Fritz from Harlem
    Street legends, the drugs kept the hood from starving
    Pushing cars, Nicky Barnes was the 70's
    But there's a long list of high-profile celebrities
    Worldwide on the thorough side of things
    Livest kings, some died, one guy, one time
    One day grabs me, as I'm about to blast heat
    40-side of Vernon, I turned well he asked me
    "What you up to, the cops gon' bust you"
    I was a teen drunk off brew, stumbled I wondered
    If God sent him, cause two squad cars entered the block
    And looked at us, I ain't flinch when they watched
    I took it upstairs, the bathroom mirror, brushed my hair
    Staring at a young disciple, I almost gave my life to what the dice do
    Yeah man, throwing them bones
    Hoping my ace get his case thrown
    His girl ain't wait for him, she in the world straight hoeing
    While he looking at centerfolds of pretty girls
    Showing they little cooch, gangstas don't die he's living proof
    The D.A. who tried him was lying
    A white dude, killed his mother during the case
    Hung jury, now the D.A. is being replaced
    Pre-trial hearing is over, it's real for the soldier
    Walks in the courtroom, the look in his eyes is wild
    Triple-homicide, I sit in the back aisle
    I want to crack a smile when I see him
    Throw up a fist for black power, cause all we want is his freedom
    He grabbed a court officer's gun and started squeezing
    Then he grabbed the judge, screams out, nobody leaving everybody
    Get Down
    Get Down

    The rap you're talking about is capitalism because it's political realism.
    You're a prep school idealist. You miss the point.

    I remember listening to a 21 year old Rockefeller defend the moral necessity of war, as a cleansing agent. This post isn't quite as stupid or offensive as that, but it's close enough.

  8. Replies
    1. Rap is to music what economics is to science (?!)

  9. Love this. Rap is 100% capitalist. Jay defined the paradigm (nytimes "house hova built") but today's theme is what it is because the mainstream is almost entirely southern now-vibes over rhymes, parties over politics and money over everythannnnnnng

  10. It seems to me that many USA blacks are very capitalist. pro military, anti-drug and pro gun rights too, but would never consider voting republican because of the civil rights issues. Therefore I think the country might be better of the republican party was reduced a tiny party and Democratic party split into two parties one social democrats and a more libertarian party.

    1. Let me add I think that because it seems not good to me to have political lines divide so much on race.