Hip-Hop & Technology

June 11th, 2003

From the beginning of hip-hop to the present, technology has played a huge part. When the likes of Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five started making records, such equipment as the turntable and the mixer were invented, specifically for the genre of music. Now, some fifty or so years later, new equipment and software continues to be invented and/or created to aid the every day hip-hopper. Technology has come a long way since the ‘Flash former’ invented by Flash in the 1980’s to enable a simpler way of mixing. Now anyone with internet access can load up their computer and within three minutes, download the most recent release of their favourite artist. Whilst artists such as Chuck D of the group Public Enemy and more contemporary artists such as Canibus and Pharoahe Monch have been quick to embrace the new developments, artists such as Eminem and Lauryn Hill, or rather their management and record label’s have gone to great efforts to deter the free availability of music.

The extremity of technologies impacts on hip-hop has catalyzed many debates. Most of which centre round a similar few questions. Firstly, the ethics of downloading music for free and sharing music for free is considered. Is it right that two people on opposite sides of the globe are sending the work of an artist, someone who is doing what they do to earn a living, to each other without that artist receiving a penny for the hours on end they spent in a studio to create the song or album? Next is the issue of control. Once it’s determined whether the technology should be embraced and endorsed or rejected, it’s important to consider how the endorsement or rejection should be enforced. If the conclusion’s that file sharing and other technological activities be endorsed, to what extent should they be endorsed and what guide lines and regulations need to be put in place? If the activities are to be rejected, how are they to be without vigorously restricting one’s desires and oppressing their freedom? A final question, or rather discussion needs to look at the future; the growth of already established activities and the birth of new ones.

Throughout the 1990’s, technology in general, not just the internet and file sharing, grew at an enormous rate. In the short period of time, masses of people purchased computer equipment and by the end of the decade, it was common practice for every house hold to own a computer, and for every member of most societies, to have access to the internet, whether it be through internet café’s or public libraries.

It was when the file sharing ‘blew up’ so to speak, when a program called Napster, a controversial piece of software which the majority of internet users used to share music for free, was launched and the term ‘MP3’ the file format of audio files on a computer integrated at a high speed into every day conversation and the English language. It wasn’t before long that the likes of rock band Metallica and hip-hop producer and some times rapper Dr. Dre were filing law suits against those who illegally downloaded their music.

The well established and respected musicians cases claimed that it wasn’t right for the work that they sacrificed three years of their life to make, be available for someone to come along and take without giving any money for the product. Not receiving any profit from the music, means no chart positions, damaged reputation and quantity of fans, and a much less elusive career. The downloader’s claims were that they should be able to hear what the product is like before they buy it, and that the internet enabled a greater number of people to be exposed to artists which would increase the fan base and profit for them.

Both cases could use several examples to back up their claims. Before the release of the album ‘Kid A’ by Radiohead, a great deal of people had downloaded and heard the album. A week after release, and the album was the biggest selling of the seven days, on both sides of the Atlantic. Without its presence on file sharing networks, a lot of the people who made the record the best seller that it was for some time, wouldn’t have heard of the band enough to want to go and own the product in hard copy. Not only did it increase the profit made by the album for the artist, it meant that the audiences at promotional shows already knew the words to the new material, providing a much nicer atmosphere.

Few ‘conscious rappers’ gain credible chart positions and large fan bases. It’s fairly plausible that this is because of the subject matter they approach and the absence of an audience hungry for intelligent and focused hip-hop, but more plausible is that internet surfers, rather than go out and buy the ‘conscious rapper’ (which is usually harder to find in a store on the high street anyway) will download that persons music. The artist gets few sales (Such as Talib Kweli’s album with DJ Hi Tek ‘Train Of Thought’, considered a classic yet not going platinum for some time), will be on a record label that isn’t very confident and motivated to support the artist, and eventually the career will come to a drastic stop.

The stronger argument seems to lie with those supporting the technology. It cant be denied that the MP3 phenomenon is a very influential form of advertising for the musician. Many people who previously haven’t even considered buying a hip-hop album have come across the odd file on their computer, actually discovered that they enjoyed it, and then gone on to learn more about the music, establish musicians they like and buy their music. Likewise, people who previously have been subjected only to mainstream hip-hop via MTV and commercial radio are now learning more about the true gems of the genre because there’s method’s to easily and quickly explore.

When speaking specifically of the file sharing of hiphop tracks and albums, it’s important to note the very long running trends of the mixtape and bootlegging. Since very early on in hiphop, albums have appeared in pirated form on the streets a substantial period before its official retail release. Huge organizations don’t seem to make great efforts at shutting the bootleggers down, or hiphop radio stations for that matter, so why bully the mp3 user?

In 2002 an increasingly popular file sharing piece of software called ‘Audiogalaxy’ was forced to completely change its operations because of law suits took against it. Whilst authorities did disable people from continuing to use the software, they didn’t stop file sharing by a long stretch. The users simply started using other software such as Kazaa, WinMX and Soulseek. The point being that however many programs are restricted by law, more will continue to be made and used. The technology is out of control and the hands of lawyers and judges, and will continue to grow and spread.

Where does that leave hesitant artists and musicians? Surely they need to insure that their music is of such quality that a listener will want to own the CD rather than some poorer quality computer files. If they continue to make good music, they will continue to be popular and sell concert tickets, get video’s played and music sold. So they might not be breaking any records Michael Jackson style and selling the most amount of records ever, but really, is it necessary for anyone to be that big? Music is meant to be an art, not a business.