Unplugged: The Impact Of Hip Hop Based Reality Shows
The impact of shows like "Love & Hip Hop Atlanta" raise valid concerns about the representation of Hip Hop and the possible exploitation of the show's participating artists.
A shared ability to reward sensationalism while catering to the lowest common denominator often make mainstream Hip Hop and reality television a match made in TMZ heaven. The success of shows such as “Love & Hip Hop” (peaking at over 3 million viewers mid-season in its second season), “T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle” (originally premiering in 2011 to a total of 4.3 million viewers), “Nicki Minaj: My Truth” and “Marrying The Game,” show there is clearly a market to be exploited. But what effect do these and other shows have on Hip Hop as a whole? Do they expand its reach and translate into increased sales and success? Or do they have no influence at all?
Perhaps those aren’t the goals the show’s creators have in mind. “Love & Hip Hop” creator and executive producer Mona Scott-Young said in a July 2012 “RapFix Live” interview with Sway Calloway that she mainly strives to tell the stories of the women behind the Hip Hop industry, not necessarily the industry itself. Still, be it fans getting a glimpse into industry male/female relationships or an artist’s life and their daily struggles, the current crop of successful Hip Hop reality shows make for intriguing entertainment, gossip and drama. They’ve also made tons of money for people both deep inside and far outside of the Hip Hop community. But their overall impact on and representation of Hip Hop seems minimal at best. Shows such as Shawty Lo’s Oxygen vehicle, “All My Babies Mamas,” point to valid concerns about exploitation and negative racial and socio-economic stereotypes. And questions of and people having little to do with Hip Hop culture profiting from the success of such shows are continuously raised.
Ready for Primetime
Viacom, and to a greater extent its subsidiary, VH1, has clearly found the formula for consistently profiting from Hip Hop-based reality shows. The last few years alone have seen the network find ratings success with shows including “I Want To Work For Diddy” and “Flavor Of Love.” While on sister station MTV, successful series like Diddy’s “Making the Band” and “Run’s House,” also executive produced by Combs, held viewers attention for multiple seasons. In the age of a music industry that continues to cope with a stagnant economy, Hip Hop has had to diversify itself in more ways than one. The most obvious way would appear to be through reality TV in the age of the social networking connectedness and celebrity transparency. And both shows have had pretty substantial ratings success up to now.
The original “Love & Hip Hop” started slowly, with just over 1 million viewers by the end of season 1 in 2011. But in season two, the show hit its proverbial stride with the season finale securing over 2 million viewers. Consequently, the infamous spin-off, “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta,” drew a total of nearly 2 million viewers with its premiere on June 18, 2012. And the ratings for season one continued to climb throughout the 12-episode season, culminating in the two-part reunion special bringing in a combined 6.5 million viewers nationwide.
Another VH1 Hip Hop reality series hit, “T.I. And Tiny: The Family Hustle,” saw its 2011 premiere garner a total of 4.3 million viewers, while the season two premiere of the first two episodes scored high as well—averaging 4.1 million total viewers. Originally created to help re-energize and diversify Tip’s career following his release from prison on drug charges, VH1 pounced on the opportunity to present he and Tiny in the light of a loving couple living the family life in the ATL. And, at least in terms of TV ratings, it’s worked brilliantly for the “Rubber Band Man” thus far.
It’s Only Entertainment
Relevant artists like Nicki Minaj and T.I. generally enter the reality TV show fray to re-establish or solidify their place in the game. On the other hand, the likes of Somaya Reece, Olivia, Stevie J. and Benzino all seem keenly desperate to hold tight to the last few seconds of their 15 minutes of fame. That being said, different reality shows that center on Hip Hop do not necessarily have the same end goals.
At the core, though, most if not all of these artists use reality shows as a vehicle for promotion of themselves, their brands or their music. A winning formula for Hip Hop reality TV doesn’t automatically mean sustainable support from Hip Hop music consumers, and it has put many a reality star on the road to musical irrelevance. Honestly, there probably aren’t many fans clamoring for the next releases from Rasheeda or K. Michelle.
I doubt that these shows are truly concerned with expanding the reach of Hip Hop, but they’re definitely concerned with expanding the reach and the brand of the Hip Hop artists themselves. Thus far, they’ve seemed to have varying degrees of success. To be fair, Nicki Minaj, Game and Joe Budden may see a bump in the sales. But this comes because each of them already has a big name within the mainstream Hip Hop community that still pulls in substantial dollars. Case in point: the success of “T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle” may have translated into greater attention for Tip’s latest album, Trouble Man: Heavy Is The Head, with first week album sales actually beating projections at 178,000 copies sold and the #2 spot on the Billboard charts.
No disrespect, but is anyone really checking for new music from emcees like Lil Scrappy, whose latest album The Grustle didn’t even chart on Billboard, and Jim Jones, whose most recent effort, Capo, sold a measly 21,000 copies in its first week? These are anecdotal examples and an admittedly small sample size, but they support the argument that talent ultimately wins out. If fans don’t already have a vested interest in an artist or their brand, no amount of promotion from an associated reality show can drive them toward a poor product.
Sticking To The Script
There’s also the misnomer of how much “reality” fans should expect from these unscripted shows. Brooklyn emcee Fabolous was a constant subject of conversation on the original “Love & Hip Hop” due to his relationship with former show star Emily Bustamante. Fab offered his thoughts of the authenticity of the show in a recent interview on “The Combat Jack Show,” saying, “It’s entertainment at the end of the day. They cut and edit what you say, as well, so you could say a whole paragraph but if you say one little thing that’s juicy enough, yeah, let’s get that part.”
And it should come as no surprise that Sean Combs had complete control of the flow of his shows, “I Want To Work For Diddy.”
“[Combs is] a tough taskmaster,” offered VH1 programming chief Jeff Olde, in an interview with USA Today. “We had a whole other treatment for the show. Diddy threw it out the window. Much to our horror, he jiggered the casting. Every cut, every detail, every person cast, he set the pace and the tone. We trusted him. Not that there was a choice. He's Diddy. We're just very happy to have him."
Fans and detractors alike are painfully well aware that even with the label “reality TV,” at least some elements of these shows are scripted and edited to meet certain television standards and increase ratings. Much the same as the argument that certain emcees can’t possibly live the trap boy and drug don lifestyles they rhyme about, in the end, it’s all for the purposes of entertainment.
The Show Goes On
Maybe the most damning evidence against putting too much stock in Hip Hop reality shows comes from history. While Da Band was moderately successful with their gold-selling debut, Too Hot For TV, the assorted members have become, to quote Notorious B.I.G., “milk box material.” The same can be said of Danity Kane, who despite releasing a gold debut album and a platinum follow up, have been relegated back to reality television and Instagram fame. It would seem the only people that enjoy sustainable success from reality television, are the people behind the scenes pulling the strings.
We’re not likely to see Hip Hop reality TV shows go away any time soon, with rumors circulating of a new VH1 series titled “Gossip Girls” and confirmation of Mac Miller getting his own six-part series on MTV2. Nor should we expect current or future shows to have much of an effect on the overall Hip Hop industry and economy. Though they do the job in gluing millions of eyes to the tube with catfights, uncooked beef and unsubstantiated drama, Hip Hop seems like it could do ok with or without them.
Ron Grant is a freelance writer originally from Detroit and currently residing in Orlando. He has contributed writings to BrooklynBodega.com, PNCRadio.fm and runs two independent music blogs. Follow him on Twitter @RonGreezy.