Saw something funny the other day. At Half Price Books, Records, Magazines out on Highway 6 in Sugar Land, a teenager was checking out the "rap" section. This is unusual because the kid was white and the music he was looking to purchase is made predominantly for and by black people. How crazy is that!
I know, I know. A million people will tell me the SounData numbers, that more white kids buy rap music than anybody else (70 percent of all rap sales, according to SounData, go to young whites). And these know-it-alls will also tell me that my seeing some white kid with a Puff Daddy CD in one hand and mom's credit card in the other is really no big deal. But what these omniscients don't know is that SounData tabulates only numbers from over-the-counter sales. Legit shit. What the strategically aloof upstate New York-based company doesn't know, or care to find out and report to us, is that urban kids (read: black) are more allegiant to the genre. Black kids are more willing to stay up all night just to dub their favorite rap radio program. Black kids are more willing to make and mix tapes of their favorite artists and songs and pass them along to friends. (This phenomenon, known as the "pass-along rate," boils down to about 11 "illegal" mix tapes for every one over-the-counter CD, according to Trisha Rose, author of the seminal book on hip-hop and rap culture, Black Noise. If those "illegal" sales are taken into account, more black kids purchase rap than whites. But simply listening to the music isn't important here. Show us the numbers!)
White kids, mostly suburban and from middle- to upper-middle-class households, buy entire CDs just for one song. Pop. Rock. Oldies. Whatever. They usually buy one CD based on a particular single's appeal. Same goes for the way they buy rap music. Which could explain why rap sales in suburban retail outfits are so consistently high: The white kids out there buy ten different CDs for ten different singles.
Houston has not been an exception to this trend.
"A lot of white kids are also buying alternative rock and pop and shit like that," says James Murray, 20, a white rap fan who grew up in various communities in the Northside and who remembers being one of only a handful of white kids around. "It's not like black kids, who all they got to look up to is rap and R&B. They don't have any black rock bands to buy. White kids, with them, it all evens out."
Okay. What James is trying to say is that metropolitan geography plays a large part in who buys what. In the urban area of Houston, black music stores are prominent. In the suburbs, all-inclusive stores are. Since more black kids live in urban parts of town, and since we'll assume it's easier to shop at the store around the block rather than the one out the parkway, their selection is limited to those genres James mentioned (and those he alluded to): rap, R&B, hip-hop, gospel and maybe jazz and world. Not rock. Not roll. But white kids, who run rampant in the suburbs and who, we'll assume, would not trek into the city for any reason other than an Astros game, can choose from every genre at their nearby strip-mall stores. Including rap.
This may shed some light on why black kids don't buy more white music, and why we don't see SounData stats pointing to the fact that more black teens purchase Led Zeppelin than anyone else. And that may have some validity, but it's not the big problem. What's troublesome is the common misconception that the rap industry is buoyed only by the buying power of young whites. And this skewed view is growing. Infecting our culture in various ways.
Later this year, TVT Records will release the soundtrack to the upcoming film Whiteboys, which is about young whites' attraction to the rap and hip-hop lifestyles. It stars Danny Hoch, who will reprise the role of Flip, the character he made famous in his off-Broadway hit Jails, Hospitals and Hip-hop. The film's composition is win-win: the perfect marriage of a white medium with a black attitude. It should do very well.
The only problem is content. Had Hoch or Whiteboys producers ever thought to get out in the streets themselves and ask record store owners across the nation, including those in Houston, who the common rap buyer is?
"I'd say it's mostly black young adults in their mid-twenties" who buy rap at Soundwaves on Montrose, says Julie Estrada, assistant manager. The store in the closest downtown has to a "center" houses mostly dance music, but it also has a large selection of both alternative rock and rap. "We sell a lot to whites, too, but I'd say for the most part it's mainly blacks and Hispanics."
On the contrary: Look at Half Price out in the 'burbs, where our young white guy from the beginning of this article was found shopping.
"We've been selling a lot of rap" over the past six or so months, says Cori Coats, Half Price assistant manager. "Typical rap buyer is a white teenage male."
So Northside James was right. Geography does matter. In Houston, the typical rap buyer is black. In the 'burbs, he's white. Game over. That white buyers outnumber black is a simple matter of logistics. Whiteboys will succeed in every other major city but Houston. Seriously
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Dispelling this myth that white buyers are the I-beams on which the black rap industry is built is important for two reasons: One, no more do black rappers have to be so leery of whites (e.g., white rappers, white consumers, white label owners, etc.). Sure, white kids (lots of 'em) buy rap, but that doesn't mean they're any more "into" it than black kids. And two, idiots who espouse and/or make movies about the notion that white kids "own" rap are disingenuous to the genre. Too often music is looked at as nothing more than product. Nothing more than something that can be recorded and sold to the most affluent bidder. And more often than not, that high bidder will be white. But that still doesn't make him the better (or best) rap fan.
Homecomings and Goings
Dallas-based jazz bassist and bandleader John Adams has released his new album, Fly by Night, which was recorded last March right here in one of Space City's best contemporary-jazz venues, Ovations. Adams will be giving a couple in-store performances around the area. He and his band, which features Houston locals Joe LoCasio on piano, Dennis Dotson on trumpet and Houston native Ed Soph on drums, with Wayne DeLano on sax and Adams on bass, will be at Cezanne's, Montrose at West Main (near Richmond), Friday and Saturday, August 20 and 21, and at Borders Books and Music, 9633 Westheimer, that same Saturday, from 1 to 3 p.m. The Cezanne performance will be from 9 p.m. till 12:30 a.m. both nights. A $10 cover charge will be taken at the door. The Borders show will be free.
E-mail Anthony Mariani at anthony_mariani@ houstonpress.com.