White Daddies, Pink Caddies and Black Bastards:
The Truth Behind Cadillac Records
There is a scene from the new movie, Cadillac Records where disc jockey and payola hustler, Alan Freed tells Rock and Roll pioneer, Chuck Berry , that he is going to make him famous but tells record label owner, Leonard Chess that he is going to make him rich.
Although the movie takes place in the 1950's, we see the same power relationships happening within black music today, especially Hip Hop.
Cadillac Records tells the story of the rise and fall of one of the early exploiters of black talent, Chess records. The company was owned by Leonard Chess, a Jewish immigrant with an ear for black music, which at that time was referred to as "race music."
The movie chronicles the careers of such blues artists such as Muddy Waters, Lil Walter, Howlin' Wolf and Etta James, the founders of what would become known as Rock and Roll. While the film deals with multiple topics such as rocky relationships and drug abuse issues that have plagued many artists, the moral of the story is the commercial root of the exploitation of black talent by whites. Unfortunately, since many young Hip Hop heads will only go to the movie to gaze at Sasha Fierce (I mean Beyonce), who plays Etta James, this theme will be missed , as well as its connection to the Hip Hop empire of today.
While the movie deals, primarily, with the period just before the rise of the Rock and Roll era , the origin of the exploitation of black music started with the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.
In his outstanding book , "White Labor, Black Wealth: The Search for Power and Economic Justice," Dr. Claud Anderson traces the roots of white fascination with black music back to the slave ships when the captains let the captives blow off some steam during rituals known as "dancing the slaves." This trend continued on to the plantations when the enslaved Africans' renditions of "Camp Town Lady" helped the plantation owners get their party on.
As pointed out in the movie, during the early years of Rock, white artists like Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones "borrowed" the styles of black artists like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, quickly diminishing their value in an industry that would much more readily accept white artists who could sing "black" instead of blacks, themselves.
Also, the black artists often signed weak contracts that paid them only a fraction of what white record owners, who didn't sing one note, were making from their talent.
According to Fredric Dannen's book, "Hit Men," which goes into detail about the rise of the major labels, while the early record executives, such as the owners of Chess, King and Savoy Records saw that race music had a bright future "many of them were crooks...their victims were usually poor blacks."
As in the movie, Dannen goes on to write that a black artist would get tricked into getting paid with a big shiny "Cadillac worth a fraction of what he was owed."
This leads us to the Hip Hop Era, where white corporations found a new source of black talent to exploit that came gift wrapped with a low overhead and an already established fan base.
So just like in the 50's, black Hip Hop artists are still selling their souls, both liberally and figuratively, for Cadillacs in the form of pimped out Escalades.
Although, some may point to the early success of small record labels such as Enjoy and Sugar Hill Records as examples of black economic empowerment with the popularity of their early Hip Hop releases, it was not until Hip Hop began to cross over to the white market that the mansions and limousines that many Bronx teens rapped about became a reality. The crossover appeal of Hip Hop was not so much because of the talent of the black artists but "culture bandits," as writer Del Jones once referred to them, such as the Beastie Boys and later Vanilla Ice.
As much as many Conservatives have decried the rise of "gangsta rap" in the late 80's/early 90's as some kind of moral deficiency on the behalf of black folks, they often overlooked the white financed origins of the genre by record moguls such as Jerry Heller (Ruthless Records) and Jimmy Iovine (distribution of Death Row Records.)
What should also be noted is that while the destructive lifestyles of the early black artists, though tolerated, were bad for the bottom line, as in Chuck Berry's imprisonment and Etta James' drug addiction, the self destructive lifestyles of the Hip Hop artists were seen as a boost for record sells. If we look at the tragic lives of some of the Death Row artists such as Tupac Shakur, we see that although "Self Destruction" was denounced in a unity record by early Hip Hop top artists in 1988, by 1992 it had become celebrated.
If Tyrone Jackson goes to his job at Mickey D's drunk, he gets the boot. But if TJ, the rapper comes to work high off Sizzurp (codeine and liquor), he gets a bonus.
Also, although there has always been a high level of competition between black groups (check out Funkadelic's 1975 diss to their rivals "Let's Take it to the Stage,), the record labels soon found out that it was more cost effective to add guns to the mix. And when the events climaxed to the predictable outcome, the industry realized that dead rappers actually sold more records than live rappers. Not to mention the movie deals such as Tupac Resurrection (Paramount) and the upcoming movie, Notorious (Foxlight Search).
So, while many black artists of the past were tricked into signing iron clad life long contracts, the contracts of today also cover the after life.
Although, the genesis of the white gangsta rap phenomenon was nearly 20 years ago, the impact can still be felt today as evidenced with the success of Iovine's Introscope/Universal Music Group's, Dr. Dre, 50 Cent the latest cultural exploiter, Eminem.
But the question is, with all the talent, as well as wealth that today's artists posses, why have they not come together and developed some process of Afrocentric "vertical integration, which Dr. Anderson defines as when " a single entity or group controls all aspects of the creation and sale of a service or product, including obtaining the raw materials, processing and manufacturing then distributing, marketing and selling the finished product."
Perhaps the answer lies in the most symbolically, powerful subplot of Cadillac Records. While the character "Lil Walter" refers to Leonard Cress as his "white daddy," Etta James is in a constant search for love from pool shark, Minnesota Fats whom she believed was her white, biological father.
Until black artists start believing that they can become self sufficient, they will forever be the music industry's little black bastards looking for a white daddy to take care of them.
Paul Scott, the Hip Hop TRUTH Minista's, blog is http://www.nowarningshotsfired.com/ He can be reached at (919) 451-8283 firstname.lastname@example.org