An early-morning flight from Houston puts me at downtown Miami's Hyatt Regency at 10 a.m. Saturday, August 11. Still bleary from the previous night's activities, no way am I ready for the onslaught of what the hip-hop community calls "promotions."
As unstable as the current music biz is in general, and especially in the oversaturated rap game, a fledgling artist has to give all he or she has just to get noticed. At the Ozone Awards and TJ's DJ's Music Conference, even though the overwhelming topic of discussion on and off the panels was "How Can We Sell Records Again?" simply making quality music was the one thing nobody thought to mention.
From the moment you exited 95 South onto SE 2nd Avenue, a cool corner of downtown rife with Cuban and Brazilian eateries and mom-and-pop stores, you were barraged with posters, stickers and flyers stuck to every available surface: walls, telephone poles, trees. Some labels even hired planes to drag their banners behind. By the end of the weekend, it looked like a hurricane had hit.
Inside the Hyatt, thousands of aspiring rappers, DJs, producers and label execs foisted flyers and CD-Rs on passers-by. One young Latino carried a boom box blasting all of one song, obviously entitled "Real Recognize Real" as those were the only lyrics.
"REAL RECOGNIZE REAL, REAL RECOGNIZE REAL": That's all I heard the first day, wherever I went. It stuck in my head all right, but like so many chant-centric tunes passed off as hip-hop these days, I fucking hated it.
A handful of people in the music industry, like Ozone founder and publisher Julia Beverly, continue to support hip-hop although many others have recently written it off as dead. It's not — check practically any street corner in the world — but the scene at the Hyatt had less to do with hip-hop music and culture than with marketing.
Or maybe marketing itself is hip-hop's newest genre. In corporate boardrooms and the wrapped vans of those who wish to one day enter those corporate boardrooms, hip-hop is merely a sales pitch. "These guys don't give a damn about the music anymore, or making great albums, they just want to sell ringtones," one guy passing outside the Media panel remarked. Add clothes, cars, liquor and sex to that list.
The conference itself was typical: Overzealous artists mingling with label underlings, sampling panels and milling around the lobby of the Hyatt by day, hitting the clubs at night. By Monday evening, the constant lip service and advertising had worn thin, and the actual awards show couldn't come soon enough.
Stars like Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy, Dipset and Fat Joe walked the red carpet, pressing the flesh with throngs of media and sponsors, on their way into the James L. Knight Center. Houston's Trae and Devin the Dude made their way into the fray, Devin tailed by Blowfly, the living legend lauded as the "Original Rapper" for his 1960s hit "Rapp Dirty."
Blowfly has called Miami home for the better part of his 70-odd years, but no one in the hip-hop media horde seemed to know who this elderly man in the superhero costume was. Red carpet "host" and WEDR-FM DJ Benji Brown continually berated Blowfly, as if he snuck onto the carpet as a joke. Devin, to his credit, just wanted to give props to someone he recognizes as an originator.
The show started strong, with Trick Daddy, Fat Joe, Rick Ross, DJ Khaled, Plies and T-Pain performing a medley of their hits, but as the night wore on, the show slowly sank into a disorganized frenzy. The first disruption came from underground Atlanta rapper D.G. Yola, who rushed the stage, grabbed a mike and requested a chance to perform because it was his birthday. Fabo from D4L, Young City and Serius Jones were likewise not scheduled to appear but made themselves heard nonetheless.
None of the Texas artists in the house rushed the stage. The only ones who went to the podium at all were Slim Thug, an early presenter, and Dallas's Tum Tum, who won the "Patiently Waiting Texas" award. Otherwise, artists from Florida and Georgia pretty much took everything, as expected, and no Texas artists were asked to perform. This didn't seem to bother Trae, Devin the Dude, Grit Boys or SparkDawg; they all just seemed to want it to end. When they finally did call Devin's name as winner of "Most Slept On Artist," he was already back in his room — sleeping. Oh, the irony.
The night's highlight wasn't from Texas, Florida or Georgia — it was several guests from the Bay Area demonstrating the popular, energetic West Coast style known as hyphy. Mistah F.A.B., Beeda Weeda, Keak the Sneak and some young unknowns came out and actually rapped, unlike the many Southeastern performers who seemed content to lip-synch several hooks strung together in medley form.
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Also actually rapping was Lil Wayne, who closed the show four long hours after it began. Wayne ran through his current hits and talked to the crowd — by then less than three-fourths its original size — and ended his set by announcing that he had changed his name to "hip-hop" and throwing his microphone to the floor.
But he's got a right to. In an industry where many artists and labels put more energy into making posters and wrapping their vans than making music that will last longer than a commercial break, Wayne is a breath of fresh air, a young man who's seen it all and isn't afraid to speak on it. As for many of the others on the awards bill, they need to take Pimp C's advice and "get they fangaz out they booty holes." (Google it: he wasn't lying.)
How can hip-hop artists sell records again? By taking a cue from their predecessors and actually rapping, not lip-synching, and representing some aspect of the streets besides selling cocaine and club-hopping. And, maybe, putting all that money earmarked for marketing into making great music instead.
Other than that, I don't know. There certainly weren't any answers in Miami.