The music business is tough. To quote the late, great Hunter S. Thompson, it is, “…a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.”
There are few personalities that can handle the rigorous ins and outs of the industry, moreover, find success within the music business. However, Cedric Muhammad, is one of those rare individuals who has endured many trials and hardships within the music industry and he has gained an even sharper business acumen and intellect as a result of his keen observation and hard work.
Cedric was a former manager for the notorious and esteemed Wu-Tang Clan. Since his tenure, he has gone on to start several successful businesses and developed and managed many lucrative partnerships.
I’ve been a fan of your blog and Allhiphop.com editorials for months now. But for the readers who are unaware of you, can you please state what your background in the music business is?
Cedric Muhammad: Thank you so much. Well, I went from being a fan to a consumer and from a consumer to a promoter and from a promoter to a manager. It’s a natural path and I say it like that because I think it is the way any young person can learn business – by looking behind the curtain a bit of your favorite hobby. But I would say concert and party promotion was where I really became rooted in the business side of things. I also credit internships at Uptown Records and especially Flavor Unit for giving me a clear business perspective when I was very young.
What initially sparked your interest in the music business?
C.M: As I mention in my bio video, my big brother got me involved in a concert at his college featuring the legendary Stetsasonic, Raze, and Phase II (house music groups). I worked the spotlight and got to meet the managers and see the business side of entertainment. I was seventeen – from that moment on I realized my place was behind the scenes. I was fortunate enough to give up on a career in rapping earlier than most of my friends.
How did you become involved with the Wu-Tang Clan?
C.M: I actually booked them while I was in college three years before I became part of Wu-Tang management. That’s how I met Mook, who was president of the management company. Years later we had a good laugh when he actually found my old college dorm phone number in his rolodex (laughs). But it was Divine – RZA’s brother who brought me into the management company because he respected the consulting work I was doing and just liked how I rolled professionally and spiritually.
He asked me to give my opinion of the structure and culture of the way things were running and on that trial basis we took it from there. RZA and Divine then paired me with Mook with me becoming the general manager. To this day I am very grateful to all of the clan members and individuals and guiding influences like Poppa Wu who I learned much from as well as other executives like Power. It was a special time and great group of people to be around.
As I stated earlier, I’ve been a fan of your blog for months now and you have addressed some very interesting issues in regards to hip hop. I want to highlight some of the topics that you’ve spoken about in the past couple months.
C.M: Thanks, I’m honored to have your respect. Sure, let’s go.
I have noticed a trend in your writing in which you speak about the decline of the conscious emcee, how the music business is dying and you are in search of a new sound. It appears as if you view hip hop as an ailing genre.
Who is to blame for this? Do you feel the current generation of hip hop and rap fans has different priorities and expectations from the previous generations?
C.M: You are clearly a careful reader! I wish more people would pay attention to these dynamics…great questions.
Generally speaking I think hip-hop and rap music is experiencing what I call ‘demographic death.’ For every older fan in the generation (in their 30s, 40s, and 50s) we are not producing a new one in their teens to replace them. In my article, ‘The New Synth Pop: Ke$ha, Young Money, and Justin Bieber’ (http://allhiphop.com/stories/editorial/archive/2010/04/14/22169549.aspx) and my article ‘The 17 Year Old: The God Of Rap’ (http://allhiphop.com/stories/editorial/archive/2010/03/24/22153820.aspx) I explain the good and bad of this.
I think there is always something authentic about the tastes and preferences of the new generation and we always have to remember how culture, current events, and technology shape them. Obviously if we had the Internet, social media, mp3s, mobile phones, digital Cable, and a black president in 1986 our tastes would have been different. I do not believe that Public Enemy and N.W.A. would have necessarily been as big to us under those circumstances.
However, there is something unhealthy about corporations and artists refusing to target anyone other than a mythical 17-year old male. This is a demographic construct that advertisers and high-level marketers persuade rap radio stations, magazines, and video channels to target. This breeds immaturity into the culture and art, and it disconnects the oldest and youngest members of the generation.
While I do think every artist has a leadership profile, I don’t necessarily think it is their creative responsibility to satisfy both a younger and older audience. Their ‘story,’ talent, and consciousness or their brand, reputation, or image may not suit them for that.
At one particular era in time, more “conscious” emcees like Nas or Common could get signed to a major label on the strength of a good demo tape and a few hot guest appearances.
Now we see less conscious emcees and more rappers are willing to compromise their image and brand for fear of being labeled too left-field and abstract for the mainstream media.
How do you feel this affects the quality and the overall balance of the music that listeners are exposed to?
C.M: People forget artists like Nas, Common, Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy and Wu-Tang were being signed by young independent-minded entrepreneurs working with or for bigger companies, but usually they were not well-heeled multi-national corporations themselves. The industry had not matured during that time period and hip-hop was still seen as something to be dealt with at arm’s length. So young, hip, and often very Jewish entrepreneurs filled that void until the parent corporations took notice and wanted to get their hands directly on the process from the ground up.
That business space between artists and major corporation, that ear to the street, and lack of politics resulted in a wider variety of artists being given deals. And we can’t forget things like the fact that much of the slang and knowledge being dropped was in code. Many program directors, A&Rs, CEOs and corporate boards could not decipher it early on (laughs).
But I think ‘conscious MCs’ can be their own worst enemy by not being ‘conscious’ in how they do business, market themselves, and build their team infrastructure. We give well-read intellectuals who can rhyme too much credit simply because they can weave political slogans and quote great leaders over a beat.
Are conscious rappers extinct and if so, why do you believe their appeal may be limited?
I’ve sat and watched numerous conscious artists criticize mainstream and corporate-approved rappers in public and then in private try to hire their lawyers, publicists, accountants, and be signed to the same labels. That’s what usually causes them to be frustrated and limited in their appeal. There are all kind of independent oriented moves and out-of-the-box marketing tactics that they can utilize that better suit their brand-image-reputation and would keep it in better alignment.
With the fall of the major record label, these kind of artists look pitiful to me. They’re still trying to ‘get signed,’ ‘get their record or video played,’ and by a system they are supposedly banging against.
There is a way for a conscious artist to be mainstreamed and to become so big that the radio stations, video outlets, and record labels are forced to form a relationship with them. That could revolve around serious business – Public Enemy’s early success in New York is one of the greatest examples of this.
However, because these artists have no economic vision, blueprint or progressive business team they can’t resist an endorsement deal, movie role, or membership in a certain social circle. That eventually waters down their revolutionary appeal to the masses of the people.
They accept crumbs because they want to be artists more than leaders or businesspersons. And they are more reactive than proactive so they sell what they create rather than build institutions around or upon what they create.
Cedric, you’ve written extensively about Jay-Z, even going so far as to call him “the rich, righteous teacher.”
What is it about Jay that appeals to you so much?
C.M: I actually think Nas is my favorite rapper – but it fluctuates, I’m feeling that new Bun B album right now (laughs)! But seriously, see, you pay attention to what I wrote.
I called Jay-Z a ‘rich, righteous teacher,’ and people went into a frenzy without looking at the paradox or irony of the title. Can there really be such a thing when you look at it from the 55, 10% or 85% concept authored by Master Fard Muhammad?
I think Wise Intelligent framed the question best on a track released in 1993. He asked on the track ‘Black Business’ by Poor Righteous Teachers, ‘Where do Blacks with crazy cash and knowledge of themselves live at? Teacher haven’t seen them/ Many sold their souls for cash.’
In calling him a ‘Rich Righteous Teacher,’ I was saying something about the line he walks that is both to his credit and I believe potentially to his detriment. Jay-Z teaches by his example in many ways – lyrically and in how he conducts his business affairs. Look at his team, creatively and business-wise, and the respective roles they play. No conscious artist has anything like the kind of discipline he executes in keeping his brand-image-reputation in alignment.
He’s selective in interviews. You don’t see him acting in movies. He’s not a whore to endorsements. He communicates what he wants by his mere presence or absence at public events and from his desire or refusal to comment on certain subjects. That is not an accident or purely the result of a conspiracy he is part of. He is practicing some very heavy business principles.
And this is hard for his ‘conscious’ critics to accept about him because quite honestly many of them are ‘bad Marxists’ (as you know I actually admire Karl Marx) who confuse business acumen and economic cooperation with ‘capitalism,’ which they hate.
He has a form of etiquette that we all can learn from. And by the same token, I believe there are forces around him that may be keeping him from associating with certain people, taking certain stances and making certain moves. And I believe he has friendships and a sense of debt that he feels he owes to very powerful people outside of the black community that he does not want to threaten or disturb.
If the masses and his critics were more organized they could force Jay-Z to say or do whatever they wanted. But they make themselves powerless by whining about his success, rather than studying it, speaking his language of power and mobilizing effectively to correct or challenge him to do more or better.
He’s sensitive to his credibility, popularity and business interests. That’s why you heard him respond on the Rick Ross track, “Free Mason” the way he did to the rumors that he is part of a secret society. Look how calculating he is…he definitively answers a controversy not by waiting for his own album to come out, or in a press release, but on the album of the hottest rapper out. But he sounds defensive to me. The man does not ever deliver a bad verse but this was not one of his best to me. Why? I think he was hurt by the rumors and it touched on an area where he is vulnerable – a growing sense that he has no connection to his people.
But if Jay-Z truly is the rich, righteous teacher, how is it possible for him to teach other artists and the community from an observer’s perspective?
Jay-Z is still actively involved with his music career and at this point no one can predict when he will step out the limelight.
I wish people would think in terms of the alignment of an artist’s brand-image-reputation and the strategies and tactics involved in maintaining that and less in terms of ideology. From that perspective you can see any public figure’s strengths and weaknesses, and how to ‘move’ them.
For instance, I think the secret society rumors – though unhealthy in some ways, even dangerous – may have been bad for his career, but good for him as a person and us as a culture because it caused him to speak to us as a real person again. He didn’t spit through the lens of an image and by doing this, he recognized that no individual can rise above the condition of his own people.
So, I love him and admire him…and I defend him more times than not. I think he offers a lot of teachable moments and I appreciate the fine line he walks, I understand that his rise to success and concern for his people create tense moments and that there may not be much of a playbook available to him on how to handle it.
What I find so funny about the conscious community’s ‘hate’ for Jay-Z is that it’s partly based upon the fact that they don’t have his dilemma – because they generally never reach that level of popularity, visibility or scrutiny.
But all of the great socialist-influenced leaders that the conscious community revere have the dilemma – people like Comandante Fidel Castro of Cuba , President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Muammar Gadhafi of Libya or Nelson Mandela for instance all have had to balance these dynamics – rising in influence on the back of the people’s support and finding yourself eventually in the room with people not from your community and having to do business, negotiate and make compromises.
Now watch some casual reader of this interview who hates Jay-Z question why I’m comparing him to these revolutionary leaders (laughs).
Ideologues have the luxury of being pure and perfect in their own minds, but not in reality. They criticize others as if they are saints because they never have to be judged on how well they apply their beliefs in the biggest public arenas.
Overall, I feel Jay-Z has ‘taught’ and inspired a lot of people with his entrepreneurial drive and success and he deserves credit for that. I even know someone who has even written a book about his lyrics – (http://bookofhov.com/).
Is the rap industry in a position to move past its icons of yesteryear and recognize new talent?
C.M: Maybe not the industry, but the youth certainly are! I love change and those who understand demographics, technology, and what circumstances cause people to think harder and more creatively are the ones who will always be relevant, useful, and add value.
Coming into the new decade, who do you feel is the future of hip hop?
C.M: In terms of location – Africa! In terms of artistic creativity…studio engineers with an ear to fuse existing synthetic and organic sounds and rappers with personalities that transcend creed, class, region and color (I call them diasporic personalities). These are people who care more about reading The Financial Times then Billboard magazine. In terms of business models – those who understand that technology has reduced music to the level of a commodity and that has to be bundled in order to add value to other goods and services.
Since exiting the music business, do you feel you had a bitter experience or are you now better equipped to handle new challenges in different economic arenas?
C.M: There are a couple of experiences that still hurt from that time period of my life, like relationships and poor decisions, but I’m not bitter. I’m grateful because the lessons I learned, skills I acquired and adversity I faced have made me a better creative and critical thinker, and developed qualities and attributes that have helped me enormously in other areas – as a journalist, strategist and in generally in life.
And hell, one thing about this business – the war stories it gives you make you quite an interesting person to others (laughs)!
Name your top five emcees, dead or alive.
C.M: I’m not going to give you the ‘best MC’ list because that would take too long to give you my criteria, but by “top” I’ll define it in terms of a certain matchless quality some artists have in my humble opinion:
KRS-One: Greatest rapper ever in terms of lyrical content, live shows and activist influence.
Raekwon: Most unique flow – never been duplicated (honorable mention: Kool Keith of the Ultramagnetic MCs)
Jay-Z: Greatest ‘flow’ ever, most imitated and ‘hated’ rapper ever
Scarface: Greatest story-teller and introspective rapper of all time
Tupac: The most marketable rapper ever – the epitome of having every major market segment in love with you simultaneously – women, streets, conscious, mainstream (honorable mention: Big Daddy Kane)
For more about Cedric Muhammad, check out his site here
Cedric is also a contributing writer on AllHipHop.com and the creator of the Black Electorate.
His latest book series is titled “The Entrepreneurial Secret” and can be purchased here. Copies are also available via Amazon and Barnes and Noble.