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To some, 2007 is the year hip-hop kicked the bucket. Nas famously declared the music dead last December, and last month Time published some numbers that bolstered his point.
Hip-hop album sales have shrunk 44 percent since 2000, spiraling a full 30 percent in the last year. Seventeen of this year's top 20 urban releases have come from R&B; last year, hip-hop claimed half. (Yes, sales are down for every genre, but hip-hop's have fallen even farther than most.)
Only so much of this slump can be explained by downloading and old-fashioned hard-copy 'hood piracy. Supply and demand takes care of the rest.
Namely, there's not much demand for this seemingly endless supply of ringtone rap: moronic chants over crude beats, a litany of lyrics about monotonous materialism, mindless misogyny and cartoonish hedonism, and cheesy keyboard riffs that sound like Andre the Giant jabbing his carrot-like digits at a Little Tykes Casio.
What's more, stars like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Kanye West are ridiculously overexposed, while what little fresh blood is pumped into the system increasingly comes from the aforementioned one-hit-wonder ringtone rappers. (In this case, you wonder how they ever had even one hit.)
As hip-hop scholar Jeff Chang put it in a recent interview with the British daily The Guardian, "the industry is milking older cows 'til they're dry, and killing the calves before they've grown."
"Without question, I agree with that 1,000 percent," says K-Rino, the conscience of Houston rap, king of the Houston battle rappers, true pioneer of Southern hip-hop and founder of the South Park Coalition, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend.
"Once something catches fire, they drain it beyond the existence of fluid," he continues. "They just drain it until it's a dust storm."
K-Rino believes the industry gets so caught up in squeezing the fruits of its most prominent artists for that last teaspoon of juice that they neglect to plant new trees.
"The hip-hop game burns people out," he says. "You're seeing the same five or ten people year in, year out for a four- or five-year period, till people finally cut 'em loose and a new crop comes in. But there's no more diversity in the game. If one artist jumps out, then every other label gonna jump out with another that fits that mold."
K-Rino believes today's labels should look to Motown for a better example. "The Temptations and the Miracles didn't sound alike, Diana Ross and them didn't sound like these cats here, but they were all under the same umbrella," he says. "That's what builds a relationship between a fan and a label. The fan is able to identify and know what they're gettin' when they see this label."
What's not working nationally isn't working locally either. "That's why Houston ain't hot no more," K-Rino says. "Houston ain't hot because there was no filterin' in of different styles to represent the city. And now we're at the point where we've pretty much gotta start over."
While no city has put out more crap than Atlanta, it has also dominated the South and beaten Houston hands down. K-Rino credits that city's diversity of rap sounds, citing the varied grooves of people like Ludacris, T.I., Young Jeezy and Young Joc.
"With us?" he contrasts. "Everybody got the same thing: diamonds, cars, whatever else, diamonds, cars, whatever else," he says. "It's a circle and it's played out and there's nobody there to get the rebound."
In a perfect world, K-Rino would be just the guy to nab that carom off the glass and slam it home. Few rappers nationwide can touch his lyrical skills — his words practically require headphones just to keep up, and even then you find yourself lingering a little too long over memorable phrases to keep up.
"It takes years for my words to kick in, it's true," he raps on the title track of The Hitt List, one of his 17 albums. "Lines I kicked in '92, just now got fools goin' hooo!'"
K-Rino regularly takes on a wide variety of material few rappers even attempt. His clear-eyed reading of street reality, religion — K-Rino is a devout member of the Nation of Islam — and politics is on a par with people like KRS-One and Gil Scott-Heron.
What's more, he frequently flashes a wicked sense of humor. "People misunderstand — they think you got to preach on every song," he says. "Naw! Just speak about somethin' that's real, somethin' that's gonna get people in their mind or heart."
He's never smoked, boozed or drugged, not even weed. How out of sync is that with Houston rappers? He also hasn't owned a car for years, and he's proud of it. That doesn't exactly mesh with the industry's current mood.
"I don't really hold my tongue when it comes to political, religious or social views," he says. "And I'm not gonna do the watered-down materialism garbage."
Now in his late thirties, K-Rino came of age with hip-hop as it billowed out of New York in the mid-'80s. Back then, the music was rarely played in Houston clubs or on the radio save KTSU's Saturday-afternoon Kidz Jamm. Devotees had to get their fixes from records or hit up rare touring shows.
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