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The state of the rap union at the 2023 BET Hip-Hop Awards

(L-R) Marley Marl, Technician the DJ, Kid Capri, Swizz Beatz, DJ Spinderella, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Fat Joe, DJ Holiday, DJ Drama, Timbaland and Kool DJ Red Alert accept award onstage during the BET Hip-Hop Awards 2023.
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(L-R) Marley Marl, Technician the DJ, Kid Capri, Swizz Beatz, DJ Spinderella, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Fat Joe, DJ Holiday, DJ Drama, Timbaland and Kool DJ Red Alert accept award onstage during the BET Hip-Hop Awards 2023.

The red carpet at the annual BET Hip-Hop Awards was a curious shade of green this year: money green. It was fitting for the occasion, because nothing comes close to distilling hip-hop's evolution over the last 50 years more than the color of cash.

I made it a point to attend the taping of this year's show, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Atlanta, because I wanted to see something you can't always discern by watching the show on TV.

I wanted to see how hip-hop is living.

"How you livin'?" is a question you don't hear resonating within the culture as much as it once did. We never posed the question to peers literally back in the golden era, either. But now, 50 years in, it seems we've reached a point where the question is less rhetorical and more to the point: Like, Yo, how are you still alive and kickin', my triple OG? Straight up.

According to Billboard, the music industry magazine that celebrated its own 125th anniversary in 2019, hip-hop's popularity is on the decline in 2023. It's far from kicking the bucket, but genre forecasters have been hand-wringing like a mug. By mid-year, the magazine noted that no rap albums or singles had topped the Billboard Hot 100 or 200 charts, respectively — something that hasn't happened since 1993.

"Yikes, we gotta do better, hip-hop," DJ Drama told me while walking the carpet before the show. "Country music is on our ass; shout-out to my guy Morgan Wallen." His wink to Wallen is a reference to the song "Last Night," which locked down the No. 1 spot for 16 weeks, and the album One More Thing, which spent 11 straight weeks on the Billboard 200.

But the overall numbers still aren't close, according to the chart beat company Luminate's 2023 Midyear Music Report, released in July. In the first half of the year, Hip-hop/R&B — the hybrid genre category created for such measurements — took less than a 2% dip in total album consumption and just over a 2% dip in song consumption, and it has maintained a majority market share.

But the second half of the year is already forecasting a return to the mean. Since Billboard's mid-year analysis, Lil Uzi Vert, Doja Cat, Travis Scott and Rod Wave (and Drake soon, more than likely) have all reached the apex of the tentpole Billboard charts. So maybe it was premature panic. Or industry-induced panic.

"Hip-hop is not on the decline," Chuck "Jigsaw" Creekmur, co-founder of the site AllHipHop, told me. "That's just a narrative that they're pushing so that it might in fact decline."

If you're looking for an alternate read, here's one: Hip-hop's supposed demise came into view the moment it started relying on Billboard charts to reaffirm its future. Metrics have become rap's bread and butter. It's the stuff major-label budgets are made of, and shifts in consumption — even by mere percentage points — can signal a sea change to an industry that never wanted to give hip-hop its props in the first place.

The inventors get their moment

It took Marley Marl a lifetime to get here.

The pioneering producer, who accidentally stumbled upon his sampling technique as a recording studio intern, went on to make breakout records for Eric B. & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie and the rest of the Juice Crew back in the '80s. He attended the BET HHAs for the first time this year to collect his I Am Hip-Hop trophy.

But it took some characteristic adlibs from Swizz Beats, who presented the award along with Timbaland, to punctuate Marley Marl's lasting impact during his slept-on acceptance speech. "I don't think y'all heard," Swizz told the crowd. "This is the man who invented sampling on a record ... stand up! Stand up!"

This year's show paid homage to the sound providers — the DJs and producers whose unheralded technical prowess made them an ill hybrid of musicians and mad scientists from jump. Think innovative geeks with beats, long before techies became masters of the universe.

A dual DJ set from Kid Capri and D-Nice got the show started, while performances from icons like Red Alert, Jazzy Jeff and Scott Storch were sprinkled throughout. Swizz and Timbaland accepted the Cultural Influencer award for masterminding their virtual hip-hop/R&B battle series Verzuz while the pandemic had the whole world captive.

"We own Verzuz again," Swizz announced while accepting the award, in acknowledgment of their undisclosed settlement with Triller after suing the service for $28 million last year. The suit alleged Triller had failed to make payments owed after the two superproducers sold Verzuz to Triller in 2021. While the inner workings of the deal were kept private, it felt like a devaluation of Black cultural production all too familiar to hip-hop.

A matter of metrics

After decades of disproportionate bootlegging and illegal downloading kept rap's true market value from being accurately measured, streaming stats have made hip-hop/R&B the most consumed genre for the last seven years running. But once you start using industry metrics to justify your worth, it's hard to stop. Even when the streams take a small dip.

"I got a call saying, 'It should be noted many major record labels have deprioritized signing rappers,' " Ebro Darden of Hot 97 fame tweeted this summer. "The focus is now african music & latin music. rappers better stop being boring and talking about the same shit over and over, chasing tiktok success and comment sections."

Overblown response or not, it's an unsettling backdrop for a golden anniversary, especially for a subculture whose founding was so precarious to begin with. "It never was supposed to happen," Creekmur told me. "It was a fad to most people."

The existential questions are nothing new. In fact, hip-hop's always been pretty proficient at posing them. Practitioners are quick to hold up a mirror and get self-critical. And while the culture's been forced to grapple with questions befitting a midlife crisis, it felt like attendees at this year's BET HHA either didn't get the memo or didn't give two red cents.

"I don't believe any of these metrics, personally," Power 105 DJ and podcast host Nyla Symone told me on the carpet. "When I'm in the club and I play these records that are No. 1, I'm not getting No. 1 reactions. So Billboard numbers and things of that nature ... that doesn't dictate what I play."

If the Billboard charts are the wrong metric, how do we accurately measure the value of hip-hop? And how do we do so on terms that deprioritize the fickle taste of mainstream fans and Spotify algorithms?

"Anytime you go into an art form and you try to jig an algorithm or try to go viral, it's gonna compromise the art," said Creekmur. "Right now we have artists doing songs that are less than two minutes long so that the[ir] streams get higher."

Maybe we need a new value system. The market turned a culture of enthusiasts into hustlers and aspiring industrialists, while the broader ecosystem of artists, consumers and pseudo-critics serves a bottom-line economy driven by clicks, streams and rankings.

"Maybe it's an inflection [point] that we need to stop being so concerned about the algorithm and the streams, and get back to making the music," Drama adds.

Putting rap front and center

I tried to keep all that in the back of my mind as I posted up in the rear of the theater, because, believe it or not, I still get excited by this thing we call hip-hop. And while the BET HHAs haven't always been the best barometer of the culture, it's remained the biggest dedicated stage for rap since its inception in 2006. Not the Grammys. Not the VMAs. Definitely not the Rock Hall. No other prominent, televised award show puts rap front and center.

And from the looks of it, inside that suburban performance hall on the outskirts of rap's adopted home, hip-hop still has a vital pulse. You could see it onstage, with breakout artists like GloRilla commanding the moment while her dad stood to his feet with pride. You could see it during commercial breaks, when the energy shifted to an audience that refused to stay seated as young artists hobnobbed with vets and everybody politicked and posed for impromptu selfies and photo opps.

Any festering notion of rap's entrenched generation gap also got obliterated by two performances that embodied the genre's range:

  • Sexyy Red, who hit the stage three times in close-cropped booty shorts with choreographed twerkers in tow.
  • LL Cool J, who fronted a live band with bell-bottom pants and a microphone in his hand for the set with the highest energy all night.

The truth is things happen at the BET Hip-Hop awards that don't — and won't — happen at any other award show.

From Marley Marl getting his flowers to a 30th anniversary So So Def tribute featuring Jermaine Dupri, Ludacris, Lil Jon, Franchize Boyz, Da Brat, Bow Wow and stripper poles a la Magic City that paid tribute to Atlanta as rap's reigning mecca by proxy

From a DJ Drama Gangsta Grillz set that strung together thunderous medleys from trap legends T.I. and Jeezy to an off-camera medley of down-south hits spun by DJ Holiday that left the hometown crowd in a swag-surfing frenzy.

It felt like one big HBCU homecoming. In a sense, that's what it's always been: a homecoming for hip-hop. And maybe that's enough. 'Cause if ever the day does come that hip-hop no longer lives at the top of the charts, monopolizing the algorithms and streaming playlists, it'll still need a place it can call home.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rodney Carmichael
Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.