Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Forbes implores those who’ve made millions off of hip hop to invest back in the borough it was born in.
The first voice heard in Forbes’ 15-minute video ode to hip hop, “Bronx to Billions,” is that of Zack O’Malley Greenburg, a senior editor at the business and financial news outlet. He explains to viewers that there are debates about “the precise origins” of hip hop.
Quickly, though, we meet Mr. Biggs, a rapper from the pioneering hip hop group Soulsonic Force, who wastes little time setting the record straight: “This shit was made in the Bronx.”
That’s an important distinction to make, especially given what the Bronx often represents for the U.S.: the rotting of the American dream, and the logical conclusion of what happens when people of color are afterthoughts in the dreams of urban planners.
Later in the doc, Grandwizzard Theodore, the Bronx DJ credited with inventing scratching, explains what the Bronx meant in the early 1970s:
Walking around and seeing the abandoned buildings and wondering why the government is not putting money back into the community, and you got these politicians coming to the Bronx looking around and deciding they not wanting to getting parks and getting recreation rooms for us. We had to live through all of that. That’s what hip hop came out of.
These kinds of ruinous settings are often used as backdrops when political candidates are pointing to the decline of American cities. In the 1970s, Ed Koch did just that when he ran for mayor in New York City, as did Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan when they ran for president soon after. (Today, it’s Donald Trump in Detroit.) These candidates conveniently left out parts of the Bronx’s narrative, namely how government forces cut needed resources and services while paving the way for urban sprawl and suburban development. They all vowed to turn the Bronx into an oasis of urban glory if elected.
It’s no coincidence that the revival of “the doomed American city” brings with it a renewed interest in the Bronx—as a place not only of civic distress, but with a potential for transformation. The shattered Bronx landscape is arguably one of the main characters in the Netflix TV series The Get Down, about hip hop’s birth. The 2015 documentary Rubble Kings chronicles how gang life overtook the neglected Bronx. The Museum of the City of New York is running an exhibit later this month on how the Bronx has been captured in film. There’s even a remake planned of the 1979 cult film The Warriors, a story about a fantastical gang fighting its way out of the Bronx.
Forbes is just the latest to mark territory in the Bronx renaissance, and it does it in the most Forbes-y way possible. The documentary starts off with early hip hop pioneers waxing poetic about the borough, then pivots somewhat abruptly into a story of how Coca-Cola began turning rappers into millionaires. It then segues into a glory ride through the Forbes “Hip Hop Cash Kings” lists, an annual Forbes feature that ranks rappers by net earnings. Greenburg gloats in the documentary about how hip hop stars have pulled in $4.5 billion in revenue since 2007.
This section of the documentary, about how hip hop became a cash cow, may come across to many as an unfortunate detour into how capitalism consumed the culture. There has always been a vocal contingent of fans who feel that hip hop is and was at its purest without the involvement of corporate money.
However, there’s also a strong contingent of hip hop fans who feel that corporate sponsorship helped enrich many black and Latino artists who would’ve otherwise struggled in poverty. And who also feel that corporate largesse helped elevate hip hop into the global phenomenon it is today.
It’s the kind of C.R.E.A.M.-ified tension that Joey Bada$$, a decidedly noncommercial rapper (who guest stars in the anti-corporate TV show Mr. Robot) tries to reconcile in his song “Paper Trail$,” when he spits:
They say money is the root of all evil, I see money as the route of all people … Before the money, there was love, but before the money, it was tough.
There’s no mystery about which side Forbes falls on in this debate, and the publication doesn’t hide this position in its documentary. Neither does it shy away from the fact that, while hip hop has produced a healthy number of wealthy stars, the culture’s cradle in the Bronx has not enjoyed the same windfall. The borough remains home to some of the poorest zip codes in the U.S.
Forbes illuminates this point in the final third of the film, when it pivots away from the money-team narrative and brings the hip hop story back to the Bronx. It does this primarily by highlighting the current efforts to build a world-class museum in the Bronx dedicated to educating visitors about hip hop’s true origins
“The museum will lead the economic transformation of the borough where hip hop was born,” says Rocky Bucano, the board chairman of the Universal Hip Hop Museum and who is also featured in the doc. “The documentary emphasizes the importance and reasons for the establishment of a cultural institution and repository that is dedicated to documenting, preserving and celebrating the history of hip hop,” he tells CityLab.
Forbes could have told a story that arced from the Bronx’s humble beginnings to hip hop’s present-day billionaire status and left it that, and we would have expected as much from the unofficial bible of Wall Street. Instead, the doc makes the subtle case that place matters—and in this case, the place where hip hop was born matters. That connection doesn’t always exist in the design of similar enterprises. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is in Cleveland, which is arguably not the birthplace of Rock and Roll.
As Grandwizzard Theodore says in the film: “Just like they got a museum of Natural History and then the MOMA museum, we want a hip hop museum, because hip hop changed the world.”
The ultimate message: Corporations helped make hip hop rich; now they need to invest in the place that made hip hop a reality.