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Relationship Between Money And Hip-Hop: From Grassroots Movement To Sotheby's

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On Tuesday, Sotheby's hosted its first hip-hop memorabilia auction. A collection of love letters from Tupac written to his high school sweetheart sold for more than $75,000. A complete collection of the hip-hop magazine The Source netted nearly $33,000. And the plastic crown famously worn by rapper Notorious B.I.G. sold for almost $600,000, twice the estimated bid.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG POPPA")

THE NOTORIOUS B I G: (Rapping) I love it when you call me big poppa. Throw your hands in the air if you're a true player.

CHANG: Today, hip-hop is one of the most popular and profitable music genres in the world, but it wasn't always that way. Here to unpack the relationship between money and hip-hop is music and culture journalist William E. Ketchum III. Welcome.

WILLIAM KETCHUM III: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So let me ask you - would you have expected, say, like, 30 years ago that you would be finding hip-hop memorabilia selling at these huge prices at some fancy auction house like Sotheby's? Like, what changed?

KETCHUM: Well, hip-hop started as a very community-oriented culture and music MC Shan on the song "The Bridge," he said hip-hop - they did it out in the dark; hip-hop, they used to do it out in the park.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BRIDGE")

MC SHAN: (Rapping) Hip-hop was set out in the dark. They used to do it out in the park.

KETCHUM: And that's true. You know, hip-hop was built and founded in these block parties and in parks with brown and Black people gathering together to rap, to DJ, to dance and to do graffiti. For the longest time, it wasn't seen as real art at all, and now it's largely gotten that validation. It's one of the strongest cultural forces in the world, you know, whether you're looking at the way people dress, the way people draw, the way that they talk.

CHANG: Yeah.

KETCHUM: I mean, hip-hop is truly inescapable. In some ways, that validation is great because you have hip-hop enjoying new levels of respect. Artists can make a living. On the other side, you have more complicated results. The Wu-Tang Clan, they made an album called "Once Upon A Time In Shaolin," and instead of making it commercially available, they auctioned it off, and one person bought it for $2 million.

CHANG: Whoa.

KETCHUM: So the world will never hear that album. And I think this auction at, you know, Sotheby's sort of continues that.

CHANG: OK, well, as hip-hop has gotten more and more popular and it's become more commercial, how would you say that that's affected hip-hop culture?

KETCHUM: On a fundamental level, it's a good thing for artists to be able to make a living for themselves and for their families. You also have artists who are able to bring hip-hop into spaces that are generally known for their exclusivity. So you see, like, a Kanye West getting art from Takashi Murakami, or you have Jay-Z showcasing the album art for his album "Magna Carta Holy Grail" in the actual Salisbury Cathedral next to one of the four copies of the actual Magna Carta.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PICASSO BABY")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) It ain't hard to tell. I'm the new Jean Michel. Surrounded by Warhols, my whole team ball.

KETCHUM: But when you have things like this Sotheby's auction, you have the communal aspects and the accessibility aspect of hip-hop - which is really what it was founded on - that's, like, more or less gone.

CHANG: Yeah, let's talk about that because you're right; you have these iconic pieces going to now, like, very rich people when so many of these pieces were created by working-class artists in the Black and Latino communities. What do you make of that now?

KETCHUM: One thing that really got to me when I heard about this auction was that, you know, as we all know, wealth is primarily distributed among white people, and people with wealth have historically and currently dehumanized Black and brown people. So it makes me wonder if the people who purchased these hip-hop artifacts actually recognize the humanity that went behind these creations or if they just want something new and shiny for their living room. For the longest time, hip-hop has had this sort of battle between wanting to be validated and losing itself while going for that validation. I can personally find more value in, like, a Kendrick Lamar earning a Pulitzer because that's validation. But the art is still accessible to all of us.

CHANG: William E. Ketchum III is a music and culture journalist. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

KETCHUM: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOYALTY")

DJ DAHI: (Singing) I said I'm geeked, and I'm fired up. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.