I love music history and I love good conspiracy theories. That's not to say I believe conspiracy theories -- I just find them entertaining. This explains why I've watched a lot of History Channel since is morphed into the Ancient Nazi Alien Network.
So when the music blogosphere (along with Facebook, Twitter, etc.) lit up this week with an anonymous letter entitled "The Secret Meeting that Changed Rap Music and Destroyed a Generation," I simply had to say, "Thank you, Internet." I can't resist a story that combines the socio-political elements of music with far-fetched stories of corruption and immorality.
The unsigned letter, originally posted on the blog Hip Hop is Read, is written by a self-proclaimed "decision maker" working for an equally anonymous major record label. He contends that in 1991 he was invited to a secret meeting of 25-30 industry insiders and a group of armed, shady figures. In brief, the insiders were told the record labels had invested in the recently-conceived private prison industry. In order to ensure profits for their new business venture, the recording executives were directed to promote gangster rap music -- a genre that was just beginning to emerge. By popularizing criminality, they would fill the private prisons and ensure their profitability.
To the writer, this explained the rise of gangster rap -- with its themes of guns, drugs, bling, etc. -- throughout the '90s and the resulting decline of socially conscious rap.
Regrettably for my sense of the delicious, this conspiracy story doesn't stand up to the test of common sense. It opts instead for a complex explanation of social and political phenomena when simple explanation will do.
First, let's imagine the record labels really planned this sordid plot. It would have taken only one or two label heads to tell their A&R people, "Hey, start signing more of these gangster rappers the kids like so much. It'll be good for sales." After all, if you want keep something a secret, isn't the best plan to let as few people as possible in on the secret? So why invite up to 30 people to a meeting and reveal the entire shady scenario, almost ensuring that the whole dodgy plan will be leaked?
Second, private prisons didn't need rap music to make money. The American justice system's enthusiasm for incarceration throughout the '80s and '90s was doing a more than satisfactory job already. The number of inmates per 100,000 people in the U.S. rose from 139 in 1980 to 313 in 1991. Today you can hardly pass a day south of the border without hearing "or else you're going to jail" appended to some warning or another. Private prisons hardly needed Ice T's help to fill bunks.
Conspiracies thrive on the unexplained, but there are plenty of obvious explanations for the record labels' interest in gangster rap.
The introduction in March 1991 of the Neilsen SoundScan as the primary tool for measuring album sales revealed that rap music had a much larger share of the market than originally thought. For example, N.W.A's album Efil4zaggin (Niggaz4life spelled backwards -- how clever), a landmark album in gangster rap, debuted at number two on the Billboard charts in May 1991. The early 90's also saw the duel between gangster rap labels Death Row Records and Bad Boy Records -- with artist rosters that included 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G., and Snoop Dogg. The major labels had to get on the gangster bandwagon or lose out.
Most damning for the prison-filling conspiracy theory, the rising sales of gangster rap albums in this period were driven by the allowances of suburban white kids: not exactly the demographic that sinister plots steer into the prison system. The University of Iowa's Michael Hill explains that white suburban kids flocked to gangster rap out of a sense of rebellion, similar to the way they flocked to heavy metal in the '80s. While only the most delusional white suburban kid could pretend to relate to the poverty and discrimination described by socially conscious rappers like Public Enemy, even the Brady Bunch could pretend to understand the gangsta scene.
Like all the really fun conspiracy theories, this one is broad enough to be both feasible and unverifiable (ever try to prove that aliens DIDN'T have a hand in building the pyramids?). But a simple appeal to common sense is sufficient to undo the "rap for prison profit" story. It's almost a pity.
Then again, what fun would the Internet be without irrational theories to confirm what we already know in our hearts about the way the world really works?