So You Want to be a Hip Hop Star?
by Sue Basko
I work with a lot of hip hop artists, ghetto rappers, white boy rappers, humor rappers, and a good dose of record labels specializing in such music.
I love rap music. I like creative word play. I love innovative spitting and new beats. I am a strong supporter of freedom of speech, and good rap is all about that. I especially love funny rap.
I often get rappers or hip hop artists that come to me saying they want to get their music out there. Some want a record deal. Others want to figure out how to retain their music and get airplay. Some want shows. Since I know people that do all of these things, I am a pretty good source. I am happy to say I have worked with some really good rappers.
However, most of the music that new people bring me is unusable for airplay, record deals, etc. Why? Because of the words. They are using words that cannot be played on radio.
If your music cannot be played on radio, you cannot usually get a record deal. If it cannot be played on radio, you cannot get people to buy your music.
And if it cannot be played on radio, it also cannot last for long on myspace or youtube - it will be flagged and removed once someone notices it and objects, because those venues do not allow indecent materials, either.
UPDATE August 2011:: Myspace now has a Top Hip Hop Songs music player, and MANY of the songs on it could not be played on the radio. I am not sure what the Myspace policy now is on individual artist pages. But this Top Hip Hop player is loaded with just about everything in the list below.
Still this does not change the common sense rule that if you want to get a record deal, you should have at least some songs that can be played on the radio!
Also, most internet radio, most contests, and most websites do not allow music with obscene or profane language.
Yes, big name artists sometimes do release popular songs that break this rule. Right now, I am thinking of Ice Cube’s song, “Drink the Kool-Aid.” Several versions of the song have been released on Itunes. The song is gathering steam by being featured on myspace and also by having a great music video. However, if this song were to be played on the radio, it would be little more than a series of bleeps. It is a truly great song in both music and meaning, and I am glad there are now alternate avenues to promote and sell such songs.
There is a set of federal laws called the Decency Act. One of the laws in that set is this:
TITLE 18 PART I CHAPTER 71 § 1464
§ 1464. Broadcasting obscene language
Whoever utters any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communication shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.
I have rappers/ hip hop artists all the time telling me their songs are clean. Often I will put on my headphones and in the first line of the song, I hear bitch, motherfucker, and nigger. Whatever it is art-wise or however great its importance socially, it cannot be played on the radio.
I could go on an on about the social implications of this. I will try not to. But I must, just for a little bit. We have radio giving lavish amounts of air time to dangerous right wing extremists like Rush Limbaugh. He and his pals are allowed to rant and incite idiocy on a mass scale. Yet, at the same time, we have rappers telling tales of the hood, or making funny rhymes about sex and love and life -- and they cannot get a minute of air time. It begs the question of where obscenity lies -- in a list of words, or in the ideas being promulgated.
Just as there is right wing radio and the only listeners are people that want to fill up on hate and irrationality, so, too, there might be rap radio, for people who want to hear songs that go beyond the boundaries of good taste. But, there is not, because that violates federal law.
If you want to have ANY CHANCE whatsoever of your music played on the radio, KEEP IT CLEAN.
Then, I have contact with lots of people that are clueless about what is and is not considered "clean." While no list can be totally comprehensive, it is fairly safe to say that the following cannot be said on the radio:
Anything referring to defecation or urination, especially on someone. You can't use the words and you can't use the ideas. This includes the words: pee, piss, shit, crap, and any other such words or nicknames or slang, as well as referring to the acts without using the words.
Words referring to sex, such as fuck. When talking about sex but not using such words, there is a fine line. And although "masturbate" and "fellate" rhyme really nicely, you can't use either one in a song on radio.
Anything referring to the anus or anal sex. This includes anus, butthole, anal, etc.
Any generally uncomfortable words for people, such as motherfucker, cocksucker, asshole.
Words that refer derogatorily to women, such as bitch, cunt, whore, ho, and to body parts, such as tits, snatch, cunt, pussy, etc. Also, just using the actual names for such parts, such as vagina (even though there are good rap rhymes for this word) is also a no-no.
Words that are derogatory to any group, including gays, lesbians, and any ethnic or national group. That means, you can't use the words faggot, queer, lezbo, or any of the many words for different ethnic groups.
There are also topics that are generally off-limits, such as overt references to cop killing, drug dealing, gangs, or abuse of anyone.
Then there is the n word. Can rap use the word nigger? Not on the radio. If you use nigger appropriately one or two times in a song, or something like once every chorus, and if you can create a radio edit where it is not in there, that is one thing. Then you have the radio edit and it sounds almost like the original, but without that word. On the other hand, if you create a song that needs more than a few bleeps, it is useless for radio play. And if you are white and you use the word nigger, you are just an idiot and deserve whatever happens to you.
I have actually heard songs that use almost every one of the words on the list. Some of these songs are pathetic and non-creative. Some are clever and even hilariously funny. Some just make me cringe. But the bottom line is that -- NONE of it is getting played on the radio.
So, folks -- if you want to be a hip hop star, start it off right by spitting clean.