Interview: Steve Stoute (Executive Producer, Author – ‘The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip Hop’)

Based on the book “The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy by former Interscope Records president and internationally acclaimed marketing maven Steve Stoute, this four part documentary series is a thorough examination of hip-hop as a pop cultural movement, whose profound influence eventually paved the way for the election of Barack Obama. It’s the history of hip-hop remixed. We present the micro — touchstone events and legendary artists — while focusing on the revolutionary macro forces at work.

Over the last three decades, hip-hop culture and its seminal figures have gone from being a urban counterculture movement to permeating virtually every aspect of American life: The music we listen to, the fashion we wear, the food we eat, the cars we drive, etc. Hip-hop has done more to erase perceptions about racial distinctions for the generations that grew up exposed to it than any other force since the Civil Rights Movement. There’s now a whole generation of Americans who grew up immersed in this culture who are, for all intents and purposes, colorblind. This is the true story of that evolution: The Tanning of America.

While many of these events will be familiar to hip-hop fans, they have never been presented or coalesced in this fashion. This is an epic pop culture journey from the birthplace of hip hop, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

David Teich sat down with Steve Stoute and discussed all things modern hop hop culture, from the importance of the election of Barack Obama to the differences between rock & roll and hip hop to Kanye West, Will Smith, Dr Dre and more.  ‘The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip Hop‘ premiered on VH1 as part of Black History Month in February and can be seen in its entirety online.

What led you to write your book, and then to do this documentary?
Steve Stoute:I was a record executive for ten or eleven years. And during that time, I noticed certain shifts [when it came to] what kinds of musicians were out there, and what radio stations were playing. MTV started to allow hip-hop culture to enter their network. I started realizing that there was a generation of kids who were getting exposure to hip-hop music, and, more importantly, to hip-hop culture. And I’ve seen how this started to affect general market consumption of products. My curiosity about all this, as well as actually being a part of the messaging itself [as a record executive], led me to write a book on it, and then ultimately to do the documentary.

Do you think that today’s youth, or people in general, have a complete understanding of just how much hip-hop culture broke down other social and cultural barriers?
No, I think young people grew up in it, and when you’re part of a phenomenon, sometimes you don’t even realize it until you look back on it or somebody else tells you. And I think older people realize that hip-hop has been allowed into the culture, but very few have the in-depth understanding to really measure and qualify its total impact.

In the documentary, there’s an old interview clip of Will Smith during his ‘Fresh Prince’ days. In the interview, Smith says that when he’s acting, he thinks of himself only as an actor—not as a hip-hop personality who happens to be on a TV show. But of course, his background as a hip-hop star was what allowed him to break into mainstream acting. Do you think that it’s a common throughout history for one art form to break down barriers for others, or do you think hip-hop is unique in this way?
No, I think that every couple decades, there’s always an art form that comes out and is reflective of a generation. I think rock and roll, for example, had that impact in the ’60s. But it’s different now because of the amount of media, and the fact that hip-hop really went into language, and the art form itself lent itself to global culture. Rock had great musicians that were global icons, but the culture didn’t permeate on a global basis the way hip-hop did.  And again, that’s partly because of media consumption and the digital opportunities that exist. But yes, every couple decades, another art form comes along that a generation grows up on. We will see another one in our lifetime.

You talk about rock and roll, which was rooted in rooted in the African American blues tradition. Yet enough white rock musicians came along early enough that the white public didn’t really know about rock’s African American origins—and partly as a result, rock didn’t break black culture into the mainstream the way that hip-hop did.
That’s a very good point. You said it, I didn’t. Back then, race relations in America were so bad that of course African Americans weren’t going to get the credit. And when the white musicians started borrowing, and in some cases blatantly copying what African American musicians were doing, they were getting rewarded. That’s unfortunately the way the country was at that time. I have a good story that encapsulates this. Paul McCartney once told me a story when I was interviewing people for my book. He said that him and John used to sit on the docks of Liverpool with cartons of cigarettes. When the sailors would come in, they would give them the cartons of cigarettes in exchange for Motown vinyl. And they would take the Motown vinyl, and they would go and practice playing, because they loved that music so much. In the early days of The Beatles, they’d play anywhere, and to anybody—and they’d be playing what [McCartney] considered bad Motown music. And when they got to America during the [British rock] explosion, he thought that they were going to be found out—people would realize they were basically copying Motown music. And he said when The Beatles got accepted, that’s when he knew how racist America was.

Given that hip-hop music has a history of discussing things that are so foreign to white middle class experience—such as gang violence and drug culture—why do you think it has connected so much with young white people in that demographic?
Well, the music often fell short of those extremes.  And [young white] people would say, “You know what? I don’t know if Snoop Dog is really a gangster, but he’s certainly really funny. And I don’t know if Dr. Dre really got shot before, but man is that guy cool, and his music is excellent.” It was very important to race relations in America. It opened up the conversation so that you didn’t have to look at somebody in baggy pants and a hat pulled down, and think they’re going to mug you or kill you. It allowed for the conversation to be open-minded. Now, there were extreme crimes, such as thefts, killings, and muggings that got reported on through some of the music.

And at the beginning of hip-hop, how did white people people react to the more extreme subject matter?
Well, the pundits’ reaction to was basically, “You see? That’s why you shouldn’t pay these guys so much money, that’s why you should censor this music, that’s why you shouldn’t play these guys during the daytime.” But I think that there were a lot of white kids that heard this music and said, “You know what? This is really, really bad. I can’t believe that these killings and robberies are really taking place.” They saw this violence, and they saw an unfair justice system—especially around the time of the Rodeny King beating. They also saw that there was blatant favoritism and media racism, because their local radio stations weren’t playing certain music that they liked, and their local record stores weren’t selling it, and they had to go elsewhere to find it. It made no sense. Hip-hop had to go through a dramatic and polarizing cultural penetration in order to get to where it is today.

Do you think that mainstream media is still quick to harp on negative stories when it comes to hip artists? I’m reminded of Kanye West: He’s put out a number of masterpiece hip-hop albums, yet for a number of years there, media personalities only discussed him when they wanted to criticize his behavior—especially after the 2009 Taylor Swift incident.
Of course [they’re quick to harp on the negative]. First of all, Kanye would love to hear you say what you just said. ‘808’s and Heartbreak, for example, was a classic, and is part of the reason that hip-hop artists like Drake can even exist musically. Kanye spoke about feelings and sensitivity, and brought a new perspective for a rapper. He took that bold risk, and delivered a masterpiece, as you called it. But media is incentivized to do anything that’s going to be the most popular, attention-getting piece. So if the media decided it was more popular to talk about Kanye’s audacity in speaking about love, concern and sensitivity, then they would have talked about that. They’re going to voice whatever perspective they feel is going to get them the most page views.

Do you think there’s a disconnect between younger generations and the mainstream media when it comes to hip-hop artists?
I think that the media’s frequent disdain for hip-hop has been the greatest asset for hip-hop’s growth. Young people in general gravitate toward things that the mainstream media doesn’t like.

What are some of the weaknesses and strengths of the current state of hip-hop?
The negative is, every subculture that becomes mainstream culture goes through a metamorphosis and becomes, in places, homogenized—because the required skill to take part in it drops down, and the bar gets lower. Mainstream radio and video don’t know the difference between good and great. Averageness gets rewarded more and more. The positive side is, when you hear albums like ‘The Carter ‘ by Lil Wayne, ‘Watch the Throne’ by Jay Z and Kanye West, or Nas’s last album [‘Life is Good’], you’re reminded of the art form at its purist. And also, those albums were rewarded by sales. Because hip-hop has gotten so widespread, a good album can be heard by everyone around the world. People who wouldn’t have taken part 15 years ago are now fans today.

Right at the end of the documentary, it’s said that while fads go away, lifestyles don’t. What’s the difference between a fad and a lifestyle, and why did hip-hop never fall into the trap of becoming a fad?
Well there were certain parts of the music that became fads—certain sounds and sing-songy hooks. But hip-hop penetrated the culture. When you start bleeding beyond the music; when you start affecting language in a real, consistent way; when you start affecting clothing and fashion in a real, consistent way; and when you start truly driving consumer behavior, that’s a lifestyle, and those things last a very long time.

– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed by David Teich

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