Hip-hop’s television takeover
By LORRAINE ALI | Los Angeles Times | Published: January 18, 2018
The ceremony for the 60th Grammy Awards is still two weeks away, but already music’s biggest TV night has made history.
For the first time, hip-hop artists dominate in the academy’s top categories, including record, album and song of the year.
But that sound you’re hearing isn’t champagne corks popping in celebration. It’s exasperated sighs that the Recording Academy only just discovered what the rest of the entertainment industry noticed back in the flip-phone era: Hip-hop, once an outlier, is now the status quo.
From Broadway’s "Hamilton" to Hollywood’s "Straight Outta Compton" to television’s "Atlanta," hip-hop’s broad influence of American pop culture has defied countless predictions that a nervous white mainstream would never fully embrace a trend born out of the urban, black experience.
Consider hip-hop’s television takeover. Today, rappers are not only backing films about the black experience, but they are creating, producing and starring in top-rated cable and network series and breaking out of music categories at film and television award shows.
"Atlanta" creator and star Donald Glover - who under his stage name, Childish Gambino, is up for five Grammys - made history when he won a directing Emmy in September for his breakthrough FX comedy, a cable ratings success, about the everyday trials and tribulations of an aspiring hip-hop entrepreneur. No other black director had ever won an Emmy in the comedy category, and Glover was the first director since Alan Alda in 1977 to win for a comedy in which he also starred.
"I wanted to show white people you don’t know everything about black culture," he told the awards ceremony audience, some of whom had already watched him win two top Golden Globes for the show earlier in 2017.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, who shattered records and expectations when his hip-hop musical "Hamilton" swept the 2016 Tonys, is now executive producing a forthcoming Showtime series, "The Kingkiller Chronicle," based on characters from the fantasy books by Patrick Rothfuss.
And hitting Showtime this month was the already critically acclaimed "The Chi" from "Master of None’s" Lena Waithe, the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing, and hip-hop star Common, the first rapper to win an Emmy, Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe. (Before Oprah and Meryl Streep, he gave what had been the Golden Globes’ most inspirational speech -- "I am" -- delivered with the poetic rhythm of a rap when he and John Legend accepted the 2015 original song award for "Glory" in Ava DuVernay’s civil rights drama "Selma.")
"I was surprised by it all," Common said about the accolades.
It was one of many in a string of "crossover surprises": Fox’s hip-hop themed drama "Empire" became a surprise success with white audiences; soccer moms across America were surprised they couldn’t stop humming Pharrell Williams’ "Happy" in favor of something -- anything -- else; and a biopic about once-feared gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A, "Straight Outta Compton," became a surprise hit at the box office.
The surprise, however, is that anyone was surprised.
"Hip-hop is the soundtrack of at least one, probably two generations now," says Common (aka Lonny Rashid Lynn Jr.), who is an executive producer on the Waithe-run series about everyday life on the South Side of Chicago. "People used to be afraid of it or consider it the music of gangsters or thugs, or whatever. But now, it’s part of everything ... and everyone under the age of 40."
From the jaunty 1980s McDonald’s jingles that still haunt Gen Xers today to raunchy rapper Method Man’s current role as a congenial TV game show host for the millennial-skewing "Drop the Mic," hip-hop is now part of our cultural DNA. Tupac Shakur, Lauryn Hill and Eminem are to a generation what the Beatles and Stones were to boomers -- the artists of their youth.
And in some cases, the actors of today were the rappers of their parents’ generation.
Ice-T, the once-controversial "Cop Killer" rapper whose breakthrough film role was in 1991’s "New Jack City," has played a sex crimes detective on NBC’s "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" since 2000. "If you’re 17 now, that means I started when you were two," he said in the past. "So you don’t have a reference point for me as a rapper. Your mother does, your father does ..."
Rap, after all, was the genre that gave us TV and film personalities like Queen Latifah, Will Smith, LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Redman, Method Man and Tupac - and we’re not even into the 2000s yet. Their popularity would eventually give rise to more and more shows about or starring hip-hop figures. When ABC recently canceled "The Mayor," about an aspiring rapper who becomes mayor of his hometown, there were no outcries over the dearth of black leads on TV -- people were too busy looking forward to "The Chi" and the upcoming March premiere of "Atlanta’s" second season.
"When I used to get my Entertainment Weekly and I’d look at the fall TV previews," said Method Man (aka Clifford Smith), "there was so many years when there weren’t any black shows premiered. I remember one year, there was only like one new fall show premiering that featured people of color: ’The Cleveland Show’ -- and that was animated, and the lead voice was done by a white guy!"
Lee Daniels’ "Empire" was the clearest example of hip-hop as a crossover bridge to break color barriers when it premiered on Fox in 2015 and obliterated conventional wisdom that a "black" drama was for black audiences. After all, why would an entire generation raised on Dr. Dre’s "The Chronic" consider a show about a hip-hop family dynasty as anything but meant for them?
Instead of waiting for Hollywood and television studios to let them in, many hip-hop artists formed their own multimedia production companies or began crowdsourcing funds to create their own content.
Ice Cube (aka O’Shea Jackson) alone launched an entire genre of black comedies for the post-Run DMC generation in the "Friday" and "Barbershop" series. The stone-cold gangsta who had referred to himself as the "[N-word] you love to hate" reinvented himself as everyone’s dad in the "Are We There Yet?" films.
Taking cues from pioneers like Ice Cube, Pharrell co-executive produced a love letter to 1990s hip-hop, the coming-of-age film "Dope." Beyond his work with Common, crooner John Legend, who came up in the hip-hop world, co-produced a WGN America series about slavery, "Underground." Rapper 50 Cent was behind the Starz series "Power."
Ice Cube and Dr. Dre avoided the curse of the corny rap biopic (e.g., "Notorious") by co-producing their own story in "Straight Outta Compton." "NCIS: Los Angeles" star and five-time Grammy host LL Cool J now co-produces his own game show, "Lip Sync Battle." Clearly his 1990s self was onto something when he rapped about "Rockin’ [his] peers."
Queen Latifah (aka Dana Owens) and Will Smith also created their own production companies after experiencing success on their respective hit series, "Living Single" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Netflix recently teamed up with Smith for its biggest gamble to date, "Bright," a streaming version of a Hollywood blockbuster. Though critically panned, the production was streamed an astonishing 11 million times over three days when it was released last month and has been greenlit for a sequel.
Demand is high for the cachet, the perspective and, of course, the money that a rap celebrity and elder statesman like Jay-Z brings to a production. "Selma" and "Wrinkle in Time" director Ava DuVernay recently worked with Mr. Bey for his "Family Feud" music video, a short released on his streaming service, Tidal.
It’s not just recognizable star power from the music world that’s drawing viewers toward shows and films that take their cues from the rap world. HBO’s "Insecure" and the CW’s "Black Lightning" are heavily steeped in rap references -- such cultural shorthand would have been unthinkable 15 years ago beyond BET or MTV.
Reality TV on those Viacom-owned networks has served as a major stepping stone for hip-hop stars transitioning from music to TV -- and beyond.
Let’s face it, when "Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party" is renewed for a second season (which kicked off last year), a barrier has not only been broken, it’s been entirely erased. "I don’t know who’s going to be more fried by the end of this show," joked the perfect hostess with the "Gin & Juice" rapper in the first season.
VH1’s reality show "Love & Hip-Hop" gave us Cardi B. "Surreal Life" and "Strange Love" made Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav a household name 20 years after he was last a household name. "Run’s House" and, yes, even "The Vanilla Ice Project," a home improvement show, were canaries in a coal mine for the acceptance of the brash likes of Nicki Minaj on Middle America’s go-to show, "American Idol."
Rappers who are used to saying it all -- unedited, with abandon and on the fly -- make for the best and most unpredictable reality stars. As for scripted television and film, the tradition of storytelling at the base of rap as far back as Kurtis Blow and the Sugarhill Gang is what makes hip-hop so attractive to narrative-hungry mediums.
Says Common, "rappers are storytellers, and that is a timeless tradition no matter who is watching or listening." And clearly, this year, the Grammys finally are.