[Hype Hype Hooray] Rappers, Drugs and Money: The Dark Underbelly of Hip-Hop

Every [two weeks?] Jamie Hale takes a long, hard look at the music industry and the blog scene that feeds it. Here, he releases those findings and makes snarky, sarcastic remarks. Admittedly, both Jamie and Knox Road are a part of this scene. So sue us.

On Tuesday, a jury found James Rosemond, better known as Jimmy Henchman, guilty of over a dozen federal charges for setting up a coast-to-coast drug ring. That name might not mean a lot to the hip-hop illiterate (I’ll raise my hand for that), but for the industry this is a pretty big deal.

Rosemond was the CEO of Czar Entertainment, a label that housed the likes of Akon, Brandy, Gucci Mane and more. As it turns out, he was also transporting hundreds of kilos of drugs cross-country every week. It might sound shocking, but for a large chunk of the hip-hop industry, this kind of behavior is simply the norm.

About a month ago I picked up a book called Black Will Shoot, by Jesse Washington. The story is a novelization of that very same industry through the eyes of a young journalist. Washington, as it just so happens, used to write for a couple prominent hip-hop magazines himself. In other words, he knows what he’s talking about.

What results is a story that weaves through the world of hip-hop, from the drugs to the guns to the strippers to the sex. The names and specifics are all invented, of course, since it is a fictional story. (Just like The Sopranos is only make-believe, capisce?) Although you’re reading a novel, there’s a general understanding that this is a small window into the real world of the hip-hop industry. To get a clearer picture of that window, I talked to Washington, who currently works for the Associated Press, about how close Black Will Shoot is to reality.

“Less than half of it actually happened in real life but all of it happened all of the time,” Washington said. “Just with different people.” He was a little cagey about divulging any details, even now, four years after the book was published. He assured me the story wasn’t true but said the events were “100 percent plausible.”

The shooting of a fictional rapper named “Large” is clearly an allusion to the murders of Biggie and Tupac, and a shocking sex tape scandal might just remind you a little too much of a Mr. R. Kelly. The drug deals, robberies and guns are something our main character just has to accept as part of his new world, and the same is true for those entering the real world of hip-hop.

It sounds bad, but Washington said the criminal aspect isn’t something you can just remove–it’s an integral part of the scene. “Rap is about young people with nothing, trying to get something,” he said. “Trying to get noticed, trying to get respect, trying to get money, trying to get fulfillment and self worth.”

It takes a lot of money to change that nothing into something and the path to the money often runs through crime. As a result, the hip-hop scene becomes a criminal scene, and that drastically affects the music. Rappers will talk about what they see, Washington explained, and when they’re experiencing something as hypnotizing as the lucrative criminal world, it’s hard to see anything else.

“You can’t be in that environment and not be changed by it,” he said. And he should know. As a top editor at Blaze and Vibe, Washington said he spent about three years neck-deep in the hip-hop industry. “I think the temptation of the money is enormous,” he said. In the book, his characters fund artists through drug sales and robberies. They meet in the VIP sections of clubs, surrounded by strippers, cash and a thick haze of blunt smoke. As he tells it, that’s not far from the truth.

But what does this mean? Does it mean Tipper Gore was right after all? Is hip-hop (gasp) dangerous? Washington was quick to clarify that he isn’t out to demonize the genre. There are a ton of artists out there who don’t associate with crime and who rose to fame without drug money. That said, he isn’t about to invite certain elements of that world back into his life. Now 42 with small children, he said a lot of hip-hop just isn’t fit for young minds.

“The rap industry does not reward honesty, humility, integrity,” Washington said. “What it does reward is ruthlessness, aggression [and] hubris.” Instead of playing Biggie Smalls for his kids, he said he puts on instrumental tracks the whole family can freestyle over. That might make him the coolest dad ever, but it won’t stop the big labels from doing everything they can to get their music on the airwaves.

As long as there is an audience, there is a group of people willing to spend money to produce hits. As long as labels pump out hits, people will listen. As long as people listen, there will be an audience. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s just the way the industry (by which I mean the entire music industry) operates.

The concerned parents and Tipper Gores of the world can’t do much to take crime out of hip-hop. While the internet is making a big dent in the pockets of these music moguls, you can expect to see more of the same as the genre continues to dominate.

But there is a bright spot. After years of work, the federal government has finally put away Jimmy Henchman, who now faces life in prison. The ruling is the first of its kind in the industry, and it could have a big impact on the way the business continues to run. But if hip-hop wants to hold on to street cred it has to hold on to a seedy criminal element as well–as long as that seedy criminal element remains on the streets.

In Washington’s alternate universe a character named Tommy Daminion actually goes free on similar federal charges. I asked Washington if there was any similarity between Henchman and Daminion, other than the name. He paused before giving an evasive answer that shows just how deep this rabbit hole goes. “No comment,” he said.

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