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In the decade since Grandmaster Flash's heyday, hip hop has been a major force in the music business. But a Nielsen sound scan report revealed that hip hop album sales in 2006 were down 20 percent from the year before a big drop even by the standards of the ailing music industry. What's causing it? NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.
(Soundbite of music)
ELIZABETH BLAIR: Consider this. In 2000, three of the top ten best-selling albums of the year were by hip hop artists - Eminem, Nelly and Dr. Dre. In 2006, there were none. Of course all album sales have been steadily declining since 2000, but hip hop has taken the biggest blow. Jeff Mayfield is a senior analyst and director of charts at Billboard magazine.
Mr. JEFF MAYFIELD (Billboard): If you look at rap albums alone, in 2000 they accounted for 107 million copies. This year we just closed out, 2006, it was more along the lines of 59.5 million copies, so that's a decline of 44.4 percent. Whereas the overall album market has only dropped by about 25 percent in that period of time.
BLAIR: And yet hip hop is still a big draw on radio and music television. So what's causing the big drop-off in album sales? Part of the story, of course, is file sharing. Eric Garland is CEO of the online market research company Big Champagne. He says hip hop song swapping is hugely popular.
Mr. ERIC GARLAND (CEO, Big Champagne): Typically when you look at the top songs on popular file sharing networks, you'll see that because the core demographic is so stubbornly young and male, many, if not most, of the titles at the top of that chart are hip hop.
BLAIR: Fans are also buying individual songs online, and as the industry's new cash cow, ring tones. Jeff Mayfield.
Mr. MAYFIELD: If you look at our ring tones chart, hip hop is dominant. The first two weeks that we launched that chart, the top 20 was dominated by R&B, hip hop, and I think there was only one song that either rock or pop in the top 10 the first few weeks.
BLAIR: This week, the number one spot on Billboard's hot digital song chart is the MIMS, "This is Why I'm Hot."
(Soundbite of song "This is Why I'm Hot")
The MIMS (Group): (Singing) This is why I'm hot, hot. This is why I'm hot, hot. This is why, this is why, this is why I'm hot.
BLAIR: Downloading individual songs is growing in popularity in the rock and pop world and hurting album sales there too. But hip hop seems to be evolving differently. Eric Garland.
Mr. GARLAND: The recording industry right now looks at the hip hop world as one that is capable of producing enormously popular songs, but has a very difficult time, more so than in pop or rock or other genres, really connecting and engendering loyalty. You know, these acts don't do as well on the road. They don't tend to do as well with their second or third or fourth album as they do with the first. And so it's tough to build a business there.
BLAIR: That's the industry angle. There could also be some social causes for the decline in sales. For years, parents groups and educators have derided the violence and misogyny in gangster rap to no avail. But some believe the outcry is now reaching a critical mass. A recent PBS documentary, "Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes," explored why so much of the music is about sex and violence. The respected rapper Nas called his last CD "Hip Hop is Dead," intending to provoke a discussion about the music's preoccupation with crime, among other things. And a recent study found that a majority of young people find the images and lyrics in gangster rap degrading.
Professor CATHY COHEN (University of Chicago): There's a glorification of violence. There's a glorification of kind of shooting and killing and slaying or selling drugs.
BLAIR: Cathy Cohen, a professor at the University of Chicago, led the Black Youth Project, which included a national survey of about 1,600 young people, ages 15 to 25. She says a majority of the African Americans surveyed said they listened to hip hop every day. And 25 percent said they watch videos every day. But while they're watching and listening, they're also very discerning.
Prof. COHEN: Overwhelmingly, almost all young people told us that they believe that rap music videos contain too many references to sex. A near majority of young black people said that they believe that rap music videos should be more political. Overwhelmingly again, young black Americans believe that rap music videos are demeaning both to black women in particular, but also to black men.
BLAIR: Cathy Cohen doesn't draw a line between the results of the Black Youth Project survey and the decline in hip hop album sales. For her, the study says this: young people are questioning the value of what they're watching and listening to more than most people give them credit for.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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