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Earlier this month, Reservoir SVP of A&R and Catalog Development Faith Newman participated in the Newark International Film Festival’s panel, The Women In The Room: How Hip-Hop Became Mainstream, where she discussed the evolution of the genre from niche and obscure to a tentpole of popular music with six other music, TV, and media industry veterans. We sat down with Faith to expand on her point of view about the commercialization of hip-hop. Read her thoughts below:

What challenges did you face working in the industry years ago, when hip-hop music wasn’t yet considered mainstream?

The biggest challenge in the ‘80s was getting radio play. Radio was incredibly segregated back then—anything in the soul, R&B, and eventually hip-hop veins was actually called “Black music”, and was typically worked by a separate department of the record label. Ironically, black radio wouldn’t play hip-hop in the beginning, except for a few weekend mixshows hosted by DJs like Red Alert, Chuck Chillout, and Mr. Magic on Friday and Saturday nights. Video play was equally hard to come by. Fortunately, there was a local NYC show called “Video Music Box” that showed all the videos MTV and BET wouldn’t play until the advent of “Yo! MTV Raps” in the late '80s.

The main hurdle was the fact that radio outlets and TV outlets generally only have one objective, which is to make money off of advertisers or cable subscribers. In order to do that, they played what they thought the majority of their audiences wanted, and at that time rap was still considered a fringe genre and not commercially significant for advertisers.

What do you think has been the greatest factor in commercial hip-hop’s success?

Obviously, the youth market. When hip-hop first started, young people were the ones to embrace it, and now, when indie hip-hop artists and songs pop up, it’s young people who discover them and introduce them to older generations of hip-hop fans and eventually carry them over into the mainstream. There’s a very conspicuous consumption of hip-hop music and culture among young people across the board—black, white, Latino. Young people in every market embrace it.

Do you think every hip-hop artist has the potential for commercial success?

Yeah! You never really know what’s going to cross over into commercial consciousness. More and more, fans are the ones who make that call; it's not necessarily a major record label deciding that something is ‘fit’ to go mainstream. Look at Joey Bada$$. He was making and releasing is own music, and never had a studio album before B4.Da.$$ came out. But he’d built a fanbase that drummed up so much anticipation for the release that they pushed it to #1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and #3 on the Top 200 Albums chart. 2 Chainz had a similar story with his music going viral online before Def Jam took notice. So, it really is possible, in this age more than ever.

And it should be noted that not every hip-hop artist necessarily wants to break into mainstream commercial success. There are some rappers who have built their core fanbase and make money from touring and are perfectly content to stay in their lane without needing a top ten hit on Billboard to feel like they’re living their dream.

Who are the contemporary commercial hip-hop artists you feel are doing the most to further hip-hop today?

I think Young Thug is doing big things for the concept of hip-hop. He completely pushes the envelope in art and fashion and music, which was what the original hip-hop movement did to the previous idea of popular music. I also think Chance The Rapper is great, especially because he’s staying independent, which is very much in the spirit of the trailblazers of hip-hop. Being independent really shows what you can do in terms of building a movement and driving people to new embrace new music. And, obviously, Kendrick Lamar—he’s an MC’s MC. You need him around to hold down the lyrical end of things. He keeps the bar high.

Final Thoughts?

Hip-hop has come such a long way in the commercial space that it’s hard to even fathom. When I started in the business in ‘86, you could walk into the Music Factory record store in Times Square and look at every new hip-hop release on the wall—every new rap record from anywhere in the world could fit on that wall. Compare that to how prevalent hip-hop is now across every corner of the globe and it is astounding. I don't think people thought that it would last, but it has. It’s not going to go anywhere; it’s just going to evolve to include other influences, other regions, other styles, and it will continue. It is popular music.

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