“Hard Times” (Originally Published December 2012)

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There’s a fantastic verse on Killer Mike’s “That’s Life II,” from this year’s Pl3dge album, that speaks to the chimerical nature of hip-hop wealth. Mike’s track spits fire in almost all directions, from Warren Buffett to more mainstream political voices, but it also off ers this warning: “But don’t forget your color, brother, we still muthafuckin’ slaves/And that even go for Puffy, who so muthafuckin’ paid/That he’s richer than these White folks, or at least that’s what he say.”

Put another way: The stacks on stacks on stacks don’t always rise as high as they seem in the videos. Clearly, Mike’s not afraid to speak on it. “It’s not in record companies’ interest to make you financially independent,” he says, laughing at the gallows humor. “They don’t have a vested interest in doing it. The NBA and NFL do have a vested interest in it, because they need your Black ass to stay out of jail, so you could run the ball. But traditionally, in music, it’s made more sense for record companies to keep artists in debt, therefore keeping them putting out art when needing a record, publishing deal, things of that nature. The most financially literate [thing] I can advise any young artist to do is look at your immediate surroundings, while you’re still poor, and figure out what business doesn’t cost much for start-up that you use on a daily basis.”

Financial literacy doesn’t just mean avoiding tax problems, either. And on this score, Mike doesn’t offer his advice from the vantage of a high horse. He says he learned a few hard lessons about keeping track of his money as recently as last year, when he ate it during the recording process. “I’m independent, so if I have to buy $2,500 of studio time, I have to do it out of pocket. I’m going to do it, but what I should have done is taken all of the equipment that I sold off after closing the old studio and should have bought a $10,000 house. Then I should have gutted the house and made a recording studio. It was unwise to be spending the money on recording. I stopped doing the stuff that I was doing. You’re not going to be in business and not have failures. The thing is what you learn from your failures and how you incorporate them in your plans for the future.”

But Mike also puts it back on the culture at large. “I think hip-hop gives the people what they want, and not what’s the best for them.” Even if artists speak about money matters, Mike says it’s not what the audience wants to hear. “This is only a criticism,” he adds. “Do people want to hear Jay-Z talk about how to really be rich or Maybachs and Watch the Throne? Jay’s rapped about it, but they don’t go back and listen to ‘Minority Report’ and say that’s what they want to hear. They don’t hear Too $hort and Jay-Z early in their career talk about the importance of financial independence. They hear about Maybachs, cars. That’s what they want to hear. As an artist, they give them what they want to hear. But I don’t put it on just hip-hop artists. I put it on Black people. Why do Black women get their feet done at Asian shops, and not Black ones? That ain’t racist, that’s just saying, Why not put your money back in your community, where your dollar turns around a couple more times?”

Community solidarity and business associations to the side, rappers could just make sure they spend less in general. That’s the advice offered by Houston’s Bun B (who declares himself grateful for that city’s low cost of living, all things being equal). Not that he’s always followed that route, either. “A lot of times, you getting to counting chickens before they hatch,” he says. “You assume this is gonna happen, this verse is gonna happen, this show is gonna happen. I spent a lot of my younger years dealing with that. You know, living show to show, whatever, because we was so in the red with the record company. We never really got any back end on the record company. Because the way our deal was structured, there was almost no way that we could recoup to a point where we could get any money off the projects… You know, when ‘Front, Back & Side to Side’ was out, on Super Tight, you know, we had the No. 1 song on the radio in Houston…but the shows were few and far between. Shit, I was workin’ at a soul-food restaurant during the day, doing other shit at night. You know? It was real.”

And once they do get some money, Bun points out, young artists often fall victim to trying to keep up with the Joneses. “You can’t pop the same bottles that LeBron wants to pop,” he says. “Enjoy yourself on your level. Everybody can’t go a hundred bottles, 200 bottles. That’s okay.” Choose your cliché: Stay in your lane, play within yourself, etc. Basically, Bun says, be realistic. “Well, you not gonna win the car game, ’cause it’s already millionaires out here winning the car game. So don’t try to compete. You’re not gonna win the jewelry game, so don’t go trying to buy a bunch of jewelry, ’cause niggas already winnin’ the jewelry game. So don’t try to compete. You not gonna win the bottle-poppin’ game; niggas out here that’s already won the bottle-poppin’ game. So don’t go out there tryin’ to compete, know what I’m sayin’? What you can be doing is winning the get-out-of-rap-with-the-most-money award. That’s what you can do. ’Cause there ain’t too many people won that.”

Both Mike and Bun agree that hip-hop could use something akin to a governing board or a rules committee—something to mandate a greater and broader education, especially among the newer players on the scene. But of course, part of what makes hip-hop so vibrant is its decentralized nature. “The uniform of the athlete and the uniform of the rapper is different,” says Bun B. “When we go to work, they don’t provide our uniforms. And the way we present ourselves is the way we’re received… If you’re a football player, you paid every two weeks… Rappers…you get the advance check, but other than that, you really waiting.”

“Rappers need a union, just so they could get basic health care and that kind of thing,” Mike says. “But that’s a whole other thing… We just have to be wiser about our shit. We don’t have the luxury of having the type of money that brings A-1 accountants and business advisors and lawyers, so let’s be smarter on a commonsense, practical level. I encourage brothers to attack small businesses: nail shops, bodegas, haircutters. Anything poor people use, we got to own.”

Instituting a system to teach young artists prudent fi nancial practice might run counter to the outlaw image we like to hold for our rap stars. But the issue is something hip-hop ought to start talking about. It’s preferable to the alternative: more desperate phone calls, more repossessed vehicles. Bankruptcy lacks a certain swagger, too.