By: Daniel Hodgman
“We may be 5 percent of the world’s pop but, we 25 percent of the world’s locked up.” -MC Invincible
It’s common belief that the music industry has fully manipulated mainstream hip-hop to glorify violence, drug use, misogyny and materialism. Save for a few select artists in this realm, the music industry’s initiative is quite clear: suppress the music with merit, ethics and substance; support the music that brings in money. This so-called rule of thumb regarding the music industry is nothing new. The book Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business, which was published in 1990, discusses how businesses place profit over ethics, with a stern example focusing on most of the country’s radio station rotations, and how records are bought and paid for by promoters, not the fans. Another saddening example Hit Men points out is that songs become hits primarily because an individual or corporation paid for it to happen, not because of consumer preference. That aside, unless you were unaware before, now you can see that the gangly fingers of the music business have more influence in music than we can ever imagine. But that’s what I would like you to do real quickly: imagine. Imagine something horrifying. Imagine something bleak. Imagine something where the music industry, major label stockholders and private prison owners all profit, while suppressing and incarcerating a population of people in the process. Imagine for me, not the school-to-prison-pipeline (although this devastating catastrophe is another thing we as a nation need to terminate), but rather some sort of commercial rap-to-prison pipeline. Imagination it seems, may not be needed, because the connection between mainstream rap labels and the private prison industrial complex seems to be coming full-circle.
There was, a few years back, an anonymous letter sent out by a former employee in the music industry that detailed haunting connections between the industry and the private prison complex. In the letter, the author details a meeting he was invited to by record executives and how they explained these ties. Because these executives had stocks in private prisons, and needed them to stay occupied to see a profit, they enlisted their employees (among them, the letter’s author) to use the music label as a way to generate heads for jail cells. To make this happen, the author points out that the executives told their staff to sign and promote popular gangsta rap that reinforced violence and drugs, which would not only push some of their own artists into incarceration, but also a massive population of individuals who were pushed to a life of crime due to the popularity of this music.
An excerpt from the letter:
“At this point, my industry colleague who had first opened the meeting took the floor again and answered our questions. He told us that since our employers had become silent investors in this prison business, it was now in their interest to make sure that these prisons remained filled.”
Since the letter itself is anonymous, and no names or places are detailed, there is no definitive proof that this piece is a legitimate source. But what out there makes us think otherwise?
Speaking broadly, there is no denying the private prison industrial complex and its influence in America. There’s also no denying the individuals behind this operation, and the tactics they use to keep these prisons filled for profit. Beyond all of this, there surely is no denying the government-backed programs tied to the private prison industrial complex as a whole: the school-to-prison-pipeline in America; the crack epidemic and War on Drugs, and more specifically, the story of “Freeway” Rick Ross, the C.I.A., and cocaine in South-Central L.A. Just recently, Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder cut Detroit college funding and put that towards prisons, and Michigan as a state throws more funding towards prisons than it does towards schools.
So even if this anonymous letter about the music industry’s involvement in the private prison business is a hoax, there are still definite ties between the two businesses.
For one, let’s look no further than General Electric, one of the most profitable corporations in this country. As one of the biggest weapons manufacturers in the world, GE also owns stock in major private prisons. Furthermore, they’re also owners of Interscope Records, which is the parent-label of Death Row Records, the head label for the gangsta rap boom. The relation here isn’t shocking as much as it is disturbing: here we have a company that owns record labels that glorify crime and violence, while at the same time manufacturing weapons and investing heavily in private prisons for profit.
A recent example of this connection deals with Interscope’s signing of Southside Chicago rapper Chief Keef. As one of the forerunners in Chicago hip-hop’s drill and trap scene, Keef is one of the leaders in a genre of music that plays as anthems to gunfights. In these Southside and Westside neighborhoods–neighborhoods that are purposely being underfunded and ignored by politicians–drill and trap are the popular wave. The music is tough, gritty and harsh, with nihilistic lyrics that tote violence, murder and gang activity. This is music, that in itself, is a look into communities and neighborhoods that have been shut off and exiled from the rest of Chicago, having to deal with constant misfortune (a recent example being the closing of 49 Chicago public schools mostly on the south and west sides). Dozens of individuals die under the excruciating pulses of this music every week, and city crime has been influenced by its lyrical threads. Chief Keef himself has been arrested for heroin manufacturing, aggravated assault with a firearm and aggravated unlawful use of a firearm. To add, Keef at one time also mocked the shooting death of fellow Englewood rapper Joseph “Lil’ Jo Jo” Coleman, which led to him being a suspect in the case. Even with all of this, despite all of the social irresponsibility, ties to crime and gang activity, Interscope signed Chief Keef to a three album, six million dollar deal.
In relation, Keef’s cousin Mario Hess (aka Big Glo) had signed to Interscope Records earlier this year. Two weeks after signing however, Hess was shot and killed in Englewood on April 9th.
Fellow Chicago rapper Rhymefest said it perfectly in an interview with SOHH where he explains Interscope’s profit over ethics stance:
“Right or wrong has to be qualified by right or wrong. If you’re right, in a city where 506 people died in one year which is really double the amount of Afghanistan and Iraq put together, for murder, is it right to put out music that encourages that behavior? A major label is going to give a million dollars to an artist to encourage that behavior with no sense of social responsibility… It’s like, these guys weren’t even designed to sell records. When people give these guys money, they know they’re not gonna sell no records. What they’re selling, and we all seem to get it lost, in the media and the fans, they’re selling ideas. They’re selling ideas to be replicated to send your ass to prison. Prison is a $55 billion a year industry. Prison makes more money than rap music makes, every year. Private prisons are being traded on the stock market. If they’re going to advertise, how are they going to do it? How are they going to put more people in prison and advertise? It’s through the record labels that they own. Look at Interscope Records. Interscope Records is owned by General Electric. General Electric has a huge stock and share in private prisons. It’s so basic for people to say I’m dissing Chief Keef. I ain’t dissing Chief Keef, I’m dissing [Interscope CEO] Jimmy Iovine. Think about it. The East Coast, West Coast beef, who was behind it all? Interscope Records. Death Row. Now, violence in Chicago is the new hot shit. Who gave the biggest deal? Interscope Records. At what point are we going to say, “Damn. We’re letting this motherfucker mess up my hood.”
Outside of actual artists being signed to labels like Interscope, this system has affected the lives of all those influenced by the music being promoted. I mentioned before that drill and trap music has been a heavy influence on Southside and Westside activity in Chicago, and how a lot of individuals are being led to a life of crime and violence not only due to the system and the circumstances surrounding them (although this is the major reason), but also because of the mainstream rap being promoted through radio and commercial outlets. If you have Chief Keef toting guns and violence as an Interscope artist with a six-figure contract, don’t you think young kids and teenagers listening to Keef’s music will try to do the same for that payout? In a community with very little opportunity, what makes you think these kids will do any different? The notion remains that the majority of the time, when crime and violence occurs in the inner-city, it’s not the people, but their environment, their circumstances and the system itself that predisposes them to hopelessness and failure. Part of that system is mainstream rap and the music industry, its influence and the message it’s sending to our youth, its ties with the private prison industrial complex and its money-making trap.
It’s scary to think that certain individuals and executives have gone to such extreme and inhumane tactics to build upon their wealth and greed, but is it even surprising anymore? With everything that we as citizens have discovered about our nation, can we really be all that shocked? The facts and statistics are all out there, and the only thing that people need to do is put the pieces together in order to think of solutions to end this madness.
I would like to clarify that the subject of this article isn’t an attack on hip-hop as a whole. If anything, this is my reiteration that there is true hip-hop out there, but it won’t be found on the airwaves or mainstream level. There are MCs with depth, meaning, political and social messages and creativity; dancers with breaking skills that set a crowd in a frenzy; visual artists with murals that not only paint vivid displays of beauty, but also inherent messages of resistance, fight, collaboration, community and love; DJs that spin endless vinyl to get a party going; and hip-hop programs that teach youth that dreams can be achieved through art, music, film, dance, critical thinking, continual education and working together.
What I am trying to get across however is that the prison-for-profit epidemic in America has continually risen and will keep on doing so until we as a community are fully aware of the situation and have a plan to exile the people pulling these strings. Like the War on Drugs, or the government sliding Rick Ross crack, or the aforementioned horror of the school-to-prison-pipeline, it should be apparent in your mind that the mainstream rap connection to private prisons is fully functioning. In this mess, we as a nation are seeing mainstream rap music’s popularity influence a population of people into a life of crime, which eventually leads to incarceration, while the operators behind this cyclical system profit on all ends. As an audience, it would be one thing to blame the artists themselves, and how they produce music that glorifies violence, crime, drugs and misogyny. It’s another thing altogether however, to consider the fact that industry executives are profiting from the promotion of this music and the mass incarceration that this perpetuates.