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Black Guys Imitating White Guys Imitating Black Guys: The strange end of the hip-hop revolution

"Hip-hop comes in and says, 'Look, we've been poor; there's nothing glorious about that,'" said Toback. "'It's not that money is bad; it's bad that we don't have the money. And we would like it. And if you are so ready to part with it, we'll help you.'"

In this regard, Toback feels that hip-hop's self-pimping modus operandi is fully in sync with mainstream white American culture and history. "Part of the game is to exploit yourself, you know —'We've been exploited; let me get in on the exploitation of my own history.' That's as old as Buffalo Bill, who ended his life as a plunderer of the myth of Buffalo Bill. It's the difference between boxing and pro wrestling, which is one of the reasons wrestling has caught on —it's emblematic of this parody of the self that's going on and the cashing in on it."

Still, it's a risky game, since self-parody tends to erode the authenticity that makes the entire hip-hop culture salable in the first place. You start off keeping it real. Next thing you know, you're in a "Please Don't Hurt 'Em Hammer" situation. "Keep it real" once meant "Be true to your roots" but is now as vestigial as "God bless you" or "Peace" or "How are you doing?" Nevertheless, any obvious violation of keeping-it-real can kill a career.

"All hip-hop artists make a choice about how much they're going to sell their soul to the devil," said Dr. Halifu Osumare, a visiting professor of African-American studies at UC Berkeley who wrote a dissertation titled "African Aesthetics, American Culture: Hip-hop in the Global Era." "There's a fine line in playing that."

The few artists who walk this tightrope successfully can be considered "players with a conscience." It's a club with very few members, in which commercialism doesn't imperil integrity, and rappers can "get paid" and "keep it real" at the same time.

But it seems that nowadays, for every conscience player like Mos Def, you get 10 synthetic concoctions like Juvenile, a rapper who's all posturing and zero street cred, a kind of gangsta commodity that's as believable as a blazed-out Barney or strapped Tinky Winky. It's easy to keep it real when you're living in Disneyland.

Black and White's performances by three Wu-Tang associates—in addition to Power, there's Raekwon and Method Man—may best represent the all-American commodification of the hip-hop revolution. Currently defunct, Wu-Tang is one of those rare rap groups that has managed to retain street credibility among devoted followers while fervently marketing their collective like so much Austin Powers memorabilia. Their second album, Wu-Tang Forever, was a $33, CD-ROM-enhanced unit featuring catalog numbers and even a free connection to America Online—a move Vibe magazine, ever cheerleaders for corporate-sponsored radicalism, interpreted as "hip-hop's first truly successful colonization of the boardroom."

In addition to producing records for the Wu and individual artists like Ol' Dirty Bastard, Power currently serves as chairman and CEO of Wu Wear, the ever-popular hip-hop clothing line that now boasts five boutiques nationwide. Raekwon, on the other hand, is a kind of round rap legend who possesses one of the most distinctive "flows," or rapping styles, in the hip-hop world.

Wearing colorful, loose-fitting Wu Wear for the interview, Raekwon bore an uncanny resemblance to another cross-cultural hero, Pikachu, the yellow Pokémon front man. Power did most of the talking, but when asked for a status report on the current politics in the hip-hop world, he tapped familiar territory—describing hip-hop's 20-year journey from the underground in the terms of Martin Scorsese's film Casino.

"It's like when Bugsy Seigel and them did Vegas back in the days," Power mused. "They did it out one degree, and then came in the corporations and blew it up but took away the fun and the immediacy of what it was all about. It's like Disneyland right now—anyone can be a hip-hopper right now, anyone can be a star."

And in one form or another, isn't that what the oldest, most conservative American Dream is all about—from George Washington to Horatio Alger to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Indeed, the seeming ease and arbitrary nature of wealth and celebrity may make it difficult to staff entry-level jobs at, say, Blimpie because everyone just wants to get to the part of the game where they're Jennifer Lopez. In this society, you're either Jennifer Lopez or you're ashamed of yourself.

Power responded to that suggestion with a sort of Level I player ideology, à la Ronald Reagan, that affirms that everyone can be Jennifer Lopez if they just try hard enough. "If you think it, you can be it," he exulted. "Reach for the stars; it's all in your head."

And then Power went where many hip-hop stars eventually go.

"Take Tony Montana and his boy," he said, referring to the central figure played by Al Pacino in Scarface. "They wanted to be coke dealers, but the same way we got from the street—from being niggas who was hustling and doing nickel-and-dime shit—we took that same energy to become the Scarfaces of this business right here. I'm Scarface in this business."

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