Inside the steaming walls of a nightclub in the heart of one of the world's most dynamic cities, you can hear the sounds of the future. Hundreds of people gyrate rhythmically as a DJ spins hot beats. On stage, a pair of rappers face off, microphones in hand, trading verses of improvised rhyme. They look like typical hip-hop artists, dressed in baggy pants and baseball caps. But listen closely and you notice something unusual: They're performing in Chinese. One rapper spits out words in a distinctive Beijing accent, scolding the other for not speaking proper Mandarin. His opponent from Hong Kong snaps back to the beat in a trilingual torrent of Cantonese, English, and Mandarin, dissing the Beijing rapper for not representing the people. The crowd goes wild, raucously voicing delight and dismay.
This annual rap battle, called the Iron Mic, isn't taking place in New York or Los Angeles, but in Shanghai, where its founder, 32-year-old Dana Burton, has unexpectedly found fame and fortune. The Detroit native arrived in China in 1999 to take a job teaching English. During his first week in town, he went to a nightclub that advertised hip-hop music. But the closest thing to hip-hop was a Michael Jackson impersonator. So, Burton embarked on a mission to bring the real thing to the Middle Kingdom. "I thought about what I could offer China," he says. "It was hip-hop." Burton began to moonlight as a rapper and developed a following. He not only performed himself but also helped others -- foreigners and Chinese -- get their own acts off the ground by hosting parties and hip-hop nights such as Iron Mic. Admirers called him "the godfather of Chinese hip-hop."
Burton soon began to promote tours for famous hip-hop artists visiting from the United States. Today, multinational corporations including Intel, Coca-Cola, and Adidas turn to him when they want help in marketing their consumer goods to China's booming youth market. Burton then taps into his pool of more than 300 Chinese rappers, DJs, dancers, and graffiti artists.
In a recent campaign for Wyborowa vodka, Burton took his crew on the road, presenting 150 shows in 40 Chinese cities. His artists performed a mini history of hip-hop, from its urban American beginnings to its Chinese apotheosis. It was the perfect brew -- an African-American entrepreneur promoting a Polish vodka owned by a French corporation using Chinese performers practicing an Afro-Latin-influenced art form that originated in the inner cities of the United States. Welcome to hip-hop's new world.
A SERIOUS BUSINESS
To the uninitiated, hip-hop hardly looks or sounds like a brave, new art form. It's more like a sonic jackhammer, a visual eyesore, and a conceptual nuisance. Critics often call hip-hop materialistic, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, vulgar, and violent. It's a hot mess, the roar of total chaos.
Some of that is true. But rap music is only a part of the movement, and if you look beyond stereotypes, it's clear that hip-hop culture has become one of the most far-reaching arts movements of the past three decades. The best artists share a desire to break down boundaries between "high" and "low" art -- to make urgent, truth-telling work that reflects the lives, loves, histories, hopes, and fears of their generation. Hip-hop is about rebellion, yes, but it's also about transformation.
At the core of hip-hop is the notion of something called the "cipher." Partly for competition and partly for community, the cipher is the circle of participants and onlookers that closes around battling rappers or dancers as they improvise for each other. If you have the guts to step into the cipher and tell your story and, above all, demonstrate your uniqueness, you might be accepted into the community. Here is where reputations are made and risked and stylistic change is fostered. That this communitarian honoring of merit -- whether it's called "style," "hotness," or whatever the latest slang for it is -- can transcend geography, culture, and even skin color remains hip-hop's central promise.
Today, the message of hip-hop is even transcending borders. From xi ha in China to "hip-life" in Ghana, hip-hop is a lingua franca that binds young people all around the world, all while giving them the chance to alter it with their own national flavor. It is the foundation for global dance competitions, the meeting ground for local progressive activism, even the subject of study at Harvard and the London School of Economics.
But one thing about hip-hop has remained consistent across cultures: a vital progressive agenda that challenges the status quo. Thousands of organizers from Cape Town to Paris use hip-hop in their communities to address environmental justice, policing and prisons, media justice, and education. In Gothenburg, Sweden, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) incorporate graffiti and dance to engage disaffected immigrant and working-class youths. And indigenous young people in places as disparate as Chile, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Norway use hip-hop to push their generation's views into the local conversation.
Hip-hop is also a serious business. More than 59 million rap albums were sold in the United States alone last year. But that number represents only a small part of hip-hop's influence. It sells an estimated $10 billion worth of trend-setting luxury and consumer goods every year -- not just in movies, shoes, and clothing but in everything from snack crackers and soda drinks to cars and computers. This "urban aspirational lifestyle" market is expected to continue to grow exponentially. According to a 2006 report by business research company Packaged Facts, the potential purchasing power available to this market in the United States alone is worth $780 billion. American rapper 50 Cent is one of the many savvy businessmen in hip-hop who's fully grasped this potential. In 2004, he agreed to endorse flavored beverage VitaminWater for a small stake in Glacéau, the company that produced it. In June, Coca-Cola purchased Glacéau for $4.1 billion. When the deal closed, 50 Cent walked away with a rumored $100 million overnight, just for lending his name to a drink.
Of all the rappers out there, mogul and renaissance man Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z, is the most successful example of the growing power of hip-hop. When he took over Universal Records' Def Jam unit in 2004, Jay-Z was put in charge of a billion-dollar business. Some industry insiders believe that today, Def Jam's overseas business outpaces its domestic business. Jay-Z's own albums have sold 33 million copies worldwide, and his latest album, released last November, sold 680,000 copies in the United States alone during the first week. He runs popular nightclubs in New York and Atlantic City -- with plans to open more next year in Las Vegas, Tokyo, and Macao. The former drug dealer who grew up in poverty in the housing projects of Brooklyn is now worth an estimated $500 million.