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Posted by Robert
Rap News Network
7/27/2004 12:44:37 PM

Tags and topics realted to this article include Various Artists.

In this spring's media swirl surrounding the "comeback" of Prince, there were effusive stories celebrating his unique approach to audio naughtiness, rhapsodic accounts of his skills as an entertainer, memory-lane trips through his groundbreaking funk-rock of the early '80s.

The loving glance backward was overdue. But at the same time, it was a little sad because it raised a thorny question: Where are Prince's progeny?

In contemporary popular music, who besides Outkast is galvanizing audiences from that slightly threatening outsider zone once known as the black fringe? Who's waving the freak flag, keeping P-Funk audacity alive, challenging the mainstream with Fishbone-esque stylistic smashups?

"You would think, in the age of Outkast, that there would be a lot of crazy types of innovation going on," says guitarist Vernon Reid, founder of the '80s black alternative-rock band Living Colour.

Instead, there's a huge vacancy in left field. Declining revenue, allegedly due to file-sharing, has record execs more risk-averse than ever, particularly where a cash cow like urban music is concerned.

The demand for hits is as old as the Victrola. But increasingly, that pressure has caused African-American artists aligned with any sort of fringe - musical, social, whatever - to be marginalized by the big labels.

"There's a vicious amount of anti-intellectualism in our recorded arts," Reid argues. "Black music was the music everybody came to for emotional truth. That's what soul was.

"Now, it's so constructed and artificial. We have singers who, to show their feelings, have to holler all the time. ... The track might be hot, but there's no emotional investment going on underneath it."

This isn't a small problem. As urban music has assumed a place of commercial preeminence, its artistic horizons have been steadily narrowed by a wicked cocktail of assembly-line production aesthetics, fearful executives and audiences that demand gratification within a song's first 30 seconds.

The black rock franchise is owned by Lenny Kravitz, virtually its only practitioner. Guitarist and songwriter Ben Harper, the nonclassifiable artist most successfully amassing a fringe crowd, sells records, but not in Missy Elliott numbers.

Musicians who may need years to refine their sound, or whose ideas are already ahead of prevailing trends, don't have much chance. Within the business, even Outkast is seen not as a shining triumph of creativity, but as a high-achieving fluke: The folks who make pop records can find you 10 Reuben Studdards, but they won't dare bring you the next Shuggie Otis.

Off-duty, some of the same suits desire music that's a touch more radical. But when it comes to selling, they recognize that it's folly to search for another Meshell Ndegeocello, the African American singer and bassist who has lambasted an industry she believes caters to the lowest common denominator.

"They make rap records about violence, which I don't consider to be among the most progressive ideas in America," Ndegeocello told Horizon magazine a few years ago. "It's all about making money, and then if you critique it, you're seen as a playa-hater. What about educating people of color and giving other alternatives?"

"You have to remember, this is a business," counters Big Jon Platt, a senior talent executive at Virgin Records and EMI Music Publishing. There's not an executive "who doesn't want to find something unique, but things aren't set up the way they were in 1980: These labels are owned by corporations, and they need results."

Platt, who was involved with introducing talented rapper-producer Kanye West, believes that hip-hop is alternative expression. But many in the genre say the industry maintains a double standard: White alternative rock bands aren't signed with the mandate that they become instant chart-toppers. In hip-hop, even the trippiest thinker is expected to connect wi

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