4 October 2003
Boston Globe

For the first time in the 50-year history of the Billboard charts, all Top 10 songs in the country this week are by black artists – signaling the culmination of hip-hop’s ascent as the dominant force in popular music and culture.

Once an underground, controversial style characterized by gangsta mythology and all-too-real turf wars, rap music is now embraced across the radio dial and across the nation by a diverse, multi racial fan base. Heavy beats serenade shoppers at the malls. Street rhymes are the soundtrack to suburban sleepovers. Rappers are pop stars, pop stars rap, and the sound is as integral to the cultural landscape as country music or rock.

“There have been moments in history when black music has exploded in the consciousness of the country, like Motown in the mid-’60s. What’s so interesting in this case is that hip-hop has become the new mainstream,” said cultural critic Nelson George, author of “Hip- Hop America.” “Mom and Pop at home don’t get it, but truth is it’s as important to the generation coming of age as the Beatles and disco was.”

Hip-hop’s popularity is hardly new. The audience for rap music – as well as the genre’s influence on white culture and music – has been growing steadily for more than 20 years. In the last half decade, however, the sound has crossed from largely urban-format radio stations to Top 40 stations – a shift that reflects the listening tastes of the broadest swath of young, active music consumers, according to Geoff Mayfield, director of charts and senior analyst at Billboard magazine.

“Top 40 stations are obligated to go where the audience is. Four years ago it was teen pop,” said Mayfield. “Now that target audience listens to R & B and hip-hop. It is the flavor at Top 40.”

Billboard, the trade magazine for the music industry, compiles charts of sales and airplay in many genres of music. The Billboard Hot 100, which measures the popularity of songs from every pop music format, is compiled from a national sample of sales reports provided by SoundScan, as well as from radio playlists and radio monitored by Broadcast Data Systems. In the Oct. 11 issue, which hits newsstands today, the top 10 songs range from the R & B stylings of Beyonce’s “Baby Boy” (at number one) to the now ubiquitous rap collaborations such as “Shake Ya Tailfeather” by Nelly, P. Diddy, and Murphy Lee, and “Into You” by Fabolous featuring Ashanti. Also on the list is “P.I.M.P.,” by rapper 50 Cent, who has the year’s top-selling CD to date.

Where are the power ballads and middle-of-the-road rockers that filled the Top 10 five years ago?

“There’s a vacuum in music made by white kids for white kids,” said musicologist Arthur Kempton, author of “Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music.” “White pop and rock is fragmented into so many different strains and when that happens black music fills the vacuum. It happened in the early ’60s, before the British Invasion, when Motown was established. Today 70 percent of hip-hop is bought by white kids.”

But the difference between the two is hardly, pardon the pun, black and white. In the last five years pop and rap artists have merged their sounds in chart-topping, genre-busting, and race- erasing collaborations. Justin Timberlake – one-fifth of the fresh- scrubbed boy band ‘N Sync – is the featured vocalist on Black Eyed Peas’s “Where is the Love?” Former teen-pop idols Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera have reinvented their sound by working with such cutting-edge beatmasters as the Neptunes, Rockwilder, and Rodney Jerkins – blurring the color line and helping pave the way for the mainstreaming of hip-hop.

At this point, “you don’t necessarily need the white face to cross over to the non urban audiences,” said Erik Parker, music editor at Vibe magazine. “Before you had Eminem as a huge success because he’s a great rapper and he’s white. Justin is a great singer and he’s white. Now you have Nelly and Lil Jon crossing over – black artists doing black music. I do think that rappers are more conscious of a growing market and they’re creating records to accommodate that market.”

While it’s unprecedented to see black artists in all Top 10 spots, the charts have been heavily represented by such performers for many months. The last time black artists so dominated the charts was in May 1972, when the eight top songs were by Roberta Flack, Joe Tex, the Chi-lites, the Staple Singers, Michael Jackson, the Stylistics, Al Green, and Aretha Franklin – some of the biggest- selling artists of the day.

Since 1998, however, Billboard’s Hot 100 chart has been weighted heavily toward data from radio rather than retail, indicating a song’s popularity in terms of airplay rather than sales. While industry observers were struck by the news of the latest Top 10, several said it would be more significant if hip-hop and R & B artists dominated Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart – where a broad range of styles, from Dave Matthews and Limp Bizkit to Hilary Duff and Evanescence, fill the top spots – because that would indicate a dramatic increase in hip-hop’s economic power.

“If it was the entire Top 10 on the album charts that would mean hip-hop had really taken over the music business,” said pop music historian and industry analyst Paul Grein. “That’s where the money is made. The singles chart reflects what’s being played on hit- oriented stations which are predominantly listened to by young people.” In other words, people who are more inclined to download singles from the Internet than pull out their wallets at a record store. While album sales have historically been the gauge of an artist’s popularity, in the era of online file-sharing it’s not nearly as reliable an indicator as the powerful appetite of the youth culture that’s tuning in.

The reason radio stations are playing it is simple: it keeps listeners on their station listening to the McDonald’s ads,” said George. “It’s the best way to reach Generation Y. The commercial prospects are wide open, and that’s what really strikes me. The battle’s been won. Hip-hop is the new American music.”

SIDEBAR: 1. “Baby Boy,” by Beyonce 2. “Shake Ya Tailfeather,” by Nellym P. Diddy, and Murphy Lee 3. “Get Low,” by Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz featuring Ying Yang Twins 4. “Right Thurr,” by Chingy 5. “Frontin,” by Pharrell featuring Jay-Z 6. “Damn!,” by YoungBloodZ featuring Lil Jon 7. “P.I.M.P.,” by 50 Cent 8. “Into You,” by Fabolous featuring Ashanti 9. “Stand Up,” by Ludacris featuring Shawnna 10. “Where is the Love?,” by the Black Eyed Peas Joan Anderman can be reached at [email protected]