‘Give us a million dollars!’ Hip hop’s integration of commercialism and counterculturalism as a break in the structures of cultural consumption
Gaalen, T. van
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This thesis addresses a central question posed by the popularity of hip hop. Hip hop, which integrates both explicit counterculturalism and commercialism, does not fit the dominant ‘countercultural idea’ as described by cultural historian Thomas Frank. According to Frank, the ‘countercultural idea’ is the im-plication of a dichotomous distinction between authentic, free countercultures and the grey, commercial mainstream. This assumption, argues Frank, has formed the foundation of cultural consumption in the second half of the 20th century. As such, a culturally dominant genre such as hip hop’s rejection of the ‘countercultural idea’ implies a break with the dominant structure of cultural consumption. To understand hip hop’s integration of commercialism and counterculturalism, this thesis explores an alternative theoretical framework based on a suggested new structure of cultural consumption, the structure of ‘omnivorous’ consumption. This structure is defined by an increasingly individual approach to culture, resulting in the demise of traditional countercultures, as well as a more open, ‘cherry-picking’ approach to cultural consumption. This theoretical framework is applied to source material from the New York hip hop scene around 1980-1990, the period hip hop rose to mainstream popularity in the USA. This leads to several conclusions. Firstly, hip hop combined counterculturalism with commercialism early on. Whereas earlier African American genres such as jazz and rock ‘n’ roll also showcased a similar integration, and as such, a break with the ‘countercultural idea’, hip hop’s business-focused approach functioned well within the increasingly neoliberal cultural market of New York in the early 1980s, thus resulting in a large, black-owned hip hop business. Jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, on the other hand, initially showcased a similar approach but were filtered through the ‘countercultural idea’ when white record labels and artists popularized the genre. Secondly, hip hop’s success can be explained by a substantial white middle class that consumed hip hop early on without strictly adhering to hip hop culture. This suggests the rise of the ‘omnivorous’ consumer. As such, this thesis concludes that hip hop’s rise in popularity coincides with the rise of a new structure of cultural consumption that allows for its integration of counterculturalism and commercialism.