Hip hop is not only flourishing on the music charts — it is also moving up the weekly Nielsen TV-ratings charts with a bullet, as successful scripted and reality shows groove to the beat of the popular music genre’s influence.
From reality shows like Oxygen’s Sisterhood of Hip Hop and VH1’s Love & Hip Hop franchise, to scripted fare like Fox’s Empire, VH1’s upcoming original movie The Breaks and Netflix’s new series The Get Down, hip hop music and culture — once considered to be an underground niche for young urban audiences — has established itself as a crossover genre with huge racial, age and gender crossover appeal.
“Hip hop is really hip-popular,” Rod Aissa, executive vice president of original programming and development at Oxygen Media, said. “It’s such a hybrid of pop and rap music, featuring the most original lyrics in music that are based on the real-life perspectives and journeys, that it allows it to be so relatable to everyone.”
STEADY HITS, BREAKOUT SHOWS
The genre is drumming up big ratings for several networks. VH1’s reality series Love & Hip Hop Atlanta was the second-most-watched genre show in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demo over the past 12 months, behind only AMC’s Talking Dead according to Ratings Intelligence.
On the scripted side, no freshman broadcast show drew a bigger audience during the 2014-15 TV season than Fox’s Empire. In fact the series, which followed a family-run hip hop music and entertainment company, was the second highest-rated series among adults 18-49, trailing only AMC’s The Walking Dead.
Hip hop culture also pervades Starz’s original drama series Power, which launches its sophomore season on June 6. While music isn’t the focus of the series — about a high-powered drug dealer who wants to leave the criminal life to become a nightclub owner — Power creator Courtney Kemp Agboh said it’s almost impossible to capture the pulse of today’s culture without including elements of hip hop.
The series also features as its executive producer hip hop performer and entrepreneur Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.
“Hip hop culture is mainstream culture," Agboh said. “There’s little difference between the two of them at this point.”
VH1 president Tom Calderone attributes the success of hip hop-themed programming to the popularity of the genre’s music and culture, as well as to the unique stories and images that come from the stars and characters steeped in the genre.
“As big and influential as hip hop is from fashion to politics, there’s still a little mystique to it,” Calderone said. The network offers a number of hip hop-influenced series including TI and Tiny: The Family Hustle, which follows the family of the Atlanta-based rapper TI, and Basketball Wives.
“People still want to peel back and learn about these characters, whether it’s Jay Z or K. Michelle,” Calderone said. “There’s a great element of storytelling that is unparalleled in any other genre. It’s all authentic and real.”
Executives said the combination of relevant and gritty music and unique, appealing characters has propelled hip hop well into the entertainment zeitgeist.
“Hip hop is one of the few music genres that’s been able to bleed across social, economic and racial lines, so you can’t go wrong with that as your backdrop,” Cherie Saunders, TV editor for black entertainment-news website EurWeb.com, said.
It’s not only music-themed networks getting on the hip hop bandwagon. Rap and hip hop artists are appearing in non-music shows that are attracting their fans, as well as mainstream viewers.
Rev. Run of the iconic 1980’s group Run DMC hosts a cooking show on Cooking Channel (Rev. Run’s Sunday Suppers) and Robert Van Winkle — better known by his 1990s rap name Vanilla Ice — stars in DIY’s most-watched show, home-restoration series The Vanilla Ice Project.
Female-skewing, entertainment-based network Oxygen will launch next week (June 9) the second season of reality series Sisterhood of Hip Hop, about five aspiring female rappers looking to make it big on the music scene. The show finished its first season among the top-rated Oxygen shows in the target adult 18-34 audience, according to Aissa.
While Sisterhood drew a significant African-American audience, Aissa said it also attracted just as many white viewers, demonstrating that hip hop resonates with a large swath of viewers.
“For us, it seemed like the time was right for a show about young women trying to make it in hip hop,” the former MTV executive said. “The timing is coming back where music is a centerpiece of a show, and the journey of the artists making music is more relatable to viewers than someone who wants to be a supermodel or an actor. I think that music is a touch point for everybody.”
And the beat will go on, with new hip hop-themed projects already in development across several networks. Despite hip hop’s large entertainment footprint that cuts across social media, music and television, the genre’s history is still relatively unknown to many — in particular young viewers, according to VH1’s Calderone. The network will tell the story of the explosion of hip hop into the music mainstream during the 1990s with The Breaks, a scripted movie slated to debut later this fall.
DELVING INTO HISTORY
“Hip hop has been around since 1979, but there wasn’t social media available at that time. There are still a lot of stories that have never been told or maybe have been rumored or whispered about,” he said. “For us, The Breaks provides an opportunity to really dig deep into a storyline that people read in a book or heard about it through friends but has a lot of mystique.”
Netflix will also explore the origins of rap music and the South Bronx with a 13-episode, music-driven scripted series The Get Down, set to debut in 2016. The series will follow a group of South Bronx teenagers in the 1970s that help change a struggling New York City through music.
BET will follow the history of iconic hip-hop music labels as part of its upcoming documentary series Labels, network president of programming Stephen Hill said.
“We want to make sure it shows a true representation of hip hop,” he said. “There’s been heightened caricatures of people in hip hop — we want to make sure we show multiple parts of the story, if not the whole story, when we’re creating content around hip hop.”
Other networks, including hip-hop impresario Sean “Diddy” Combs’s Revolt, will launch new reality series around hip-hop performers. The nearly two-year-old network will follow the life of rapper Wiz Khalifa in a new documentary Day Today, while tapping rap veteran Snoop Dogg to develop a series based on his You- Tube series GGN.
Given the still growing popularity of hip hop, BET’s Hill said you can count on seeing more programming built around the genre.
“Music is never going to go out of style as being an important part of the culture,” he said. “It’s now part of the language — with it there’s no longer a split between young and old, male and female.”
What Is Hip Hop?
Hip hop culture began to take shape in the late 1970s among inner-city youths in New York’s South Bronx neighborhood, with a style of unique rap music, dance, emceeing and overall culture that reflected the urban lifestyles and communities of the artists who developed it.
Fast-forward to today, and hip hop is a $10 billion industry, according to Forbes.com, and its biggest performers — from Jay Z to Kanye West to Sean “Diddy” Combs — are known globally.
Merriam-Webster gives its full definition of hip-hop (including hyphen) as:
1.) A subculture especially of inner-city youths who are typically devotees of rap music.
2.) The stylized rhythmic music that commonly accompanies rap; also: rap together with this music.
As for music sales, the Music & Copyright news service ranks rap/hip hop sixth, after pop, rock ‘n’ roll, country, dance and R&B, judged by 2012 and 2013 global recorded music retail sales.
Of all music genres, the only ones that grew in the period were dance music (up 4%, to $1.3 billion) and rap/hip hop (up 1.4%, to $1.2 billion).
Summer Music Fests on Cable
A look at what some programmers have on their live-music menu as festival season continues:
AXS TV: Next up is the Firefly Music Festival June 19-21 from Dover, Del. Headliners include Paul McCartney, Kings of Leon and The Killers. On July 22, Alternative Press Magazine’s 2015 Journeys Alternative Press Music Awards, from the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, hosted by Alex Gaskarth and Jack Barakat of All Time Low, includes performances from Weezer, Sum 41, Simple Plan and Panic! at the Disco.
MT V: “Summer Pass” will take fans to Bonnaroo (June 11-14, Manchester, Tenn.) and Lollapalooza (July 31- Aug. 2, Grant Park, Chicago), following Memorial Day weekend coverage of the Mysteryland USA electronic dance music event. Hosts Awkwafina and Matteo Lane interview the likes of A-Trak, Porter Robinson, Kygo, Empire of the Sun and Bro Safari.
VH1: “Best of the Fest” sets up camp at Governors Ball (June 5-7) on Randall’s Island in New York City, Lollapalooza and Outside Lands (Aug. 7-9) in San Francisco, with VH1 personality Ellie Lee bringing highlights in live on-air segments each weekend.
CMT : “Hot Summer of Country,” hosted by Cody Alan, features live break-ins from the CMA Music Festival, starting June 12 in Nashville, Tenn. CMT also covers the Oregon Jamboree, July 31-Aug. 2, in Sweet Home, Ore., with headliners Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban, Lee Brice and Thomas Rhett.
— Kent Gibbons