The teenagers who grew up on hip-hop are struggling to sustain their careers
Former hip-hop manager Foxx M.O.P. was scowling at the entrance to a second-story Bronx boxing gym, her red-painted fingernails draped over the cashbox. In a room wallpapered with yellowing news clippings and faded fliers, other current and former hip-hop managers, producers and DJs were drinking wine and snapping photos.
The middle-aged hip-hop crowd had turned out at the gym on East 149th Street to raise money for families with autistic children. Foxx’s task was to guard the door, making sure everyone paid the $10 cover fee.
A DJ shuffled his fists over a MacBook and the honeyed voice of an R&B singer pumped from the speakers, cooing, “Hey girl, how you doin…doo-doo-doo.” Foxx glared at the man who had just tried to argue his way in without paying. “I’m just trying to stay cool,” she said.
Ten years ago, nobody in the Bronx would have dared push past Foxx. She was part of M.O.P., a hard-core hip-hop group whose best-known song exhorts listeners to “Ante up! Kidnap that fool!” She had built her reputation on toughness. When radio stations balked at the cusswords in M.O.P.’s music, Foxx bullied them into playing the songs. When bouncers turned away M.O.P.’s entourage, Foxx beat them up. And when a soundman couldn’t get the volume right, Foxx set him straight.
“Record labels were scared of her,” remembered former hip-hop manager Jamil Flores, one of the event organizers. “If you didn’t pay the group, Foxx was knocking down your door.”
Now, at 47, Foxx has had to reinvent herself. Her career came to a grinding halt in 2009 when she was diagnosed with scleroderma, an autoimmune disease. No longer able to keep up with the grueling pace of M.O.P.’s tours, Foxx has gone from managing tens of thousands of dollars to guarding a fundraiser cashbox.
Some of the guests packed into the boxing gym still work full-time as managers and DJs, but others have found a second job. Flores is now a bus driver. Another event organizer, Shawn Thomas, works as a chef to supplement the income he makes DJing and producing music. The teenagers who grew up on hip-hop are confronting the middle-age challenges of raising families and building stable careers in an industry pockmarked by dizzying successes and steep falls. Some, like Foxx, face an unexpected retirement without a retirement fund.
“It’s difficult to make an economically viable career out of hip-hop,” explained James Braxton Peterson, the Director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University and an expert on hip-hop culture. “There are a lot of people who gave their lives to the art and culture without much financial remuneration.”
This is especially true in the Bronx, where hip-hop sprouted out of the ashes of burnt buildings and abandoned neighborhoods in the 1970s. While rappers like P. Diddy and Jay Z have amassed fortunes estimated at over $500 million, here in the birthplace of hip-hop, those who helped build the industry are struggling to sustain their careers over the long term.
In 1978, when 10-year-old Foxx moved to the Bronx’s Kingsbridge neighborhood, hip-hop was just getting started. Foxx’s family was one of the only African-American families on their block, but the Bronx as a whole was undergoing a period of profound demographic change.
The Cross-Bronx Expressway — a superhighway designed to shorten the commute into the rest of the city — had sliced residential neighborhoods and property values in half. Jobs were scarce and the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s forced schools and police stations to close. Desperate building owners hired arsonists so they could cash out their insurance policies, and watched their apartment buildings collapse in flames.
A sports commentator famously summed up the turmoil during a 1977 World Series game at the South Bronx’s Yankee Stadium. “There it is, ladies and gentlemen,” Howard Cosell reportedly said as news cameras panned the neighborhood, catching sight of a fire. “The Bronx is burning.”
As the Bronx became synonymous with urban decay, thousands of immigrants, many from the Caribbean, were pouring into the borough, bringing their musical traditions along with them. Young DJs performing at neighborhood block parties began mixing the Jamaican custom of “toasting” — speaking during the instrumental breaks in songs — with music that was popular among the borough’s African-American and Latino teenagers.
“Hip-hop emerged because young people of color said, ‘If we’re not going to be able to play instruments in school and there aren’t going to be art classes in school, we’re still going to find a way to create,’” explained Peterson. “Hip-hop culture is one of the most democratic forms of American culture ever created.”
Foxx grew up attending parties hosted by local DJs at her neighborhood park. “We would carry crates, whatever we had to do to get in free,” Foxx said. In those days, hip-hop music, break dancing and graffiti art were everywhere. For teenagers in the Bronx, hip-hop was a way of life.
Foxx finished high school in 1987 and got a job with the security force of Zulu Nation, a group that promoted hip-hop events and culture. One night, outside a party Foxx was invited to by hip-hop artist Silver D, a rapper named Lil’ Fame saw Foxx beat up a stranger who had tried to grope her. “We had an all-out big-ass brawl,” Foxx recalled, “and when [Lil’ Fame and his manager] saw that I could fight and I was good to go, they asked me if I wanted to be a part of the group.”
Lil’ Fame formed M.O.P. with another rapper named Billy Danze in the early 1990s and Foxx became a part of their crew. She started out as a bodyguard for another hip-hop artist working with M.O.P.’s manager named Big Ken, and worked her way up to street promotions, which required her to spray-paint ads for M.O.P.’s shows on walls and sidewalks around the city in the middle of the night.
Foxx also went from radio station to radio station, trying to get M.O.P.’s music on the air. “They used to be like, ‘nope, they curse too much.’ Every other thing was curse,” Foxx recalled. “It got to the point where I nearly had to threaten people to get them on the radio.”
It wasn’t until M.O.P. released the hit song “How About Some Hardcore?” in 1993 that the hip-hop duo started to take off. By the late 1990s, they were performing with some of the biggest names in hardcore hip-hop, and Foxx had worked her way up to tour manager. She was often the only woman on a tour bus of 16 rappers, and she learned that in order to be taken seriously, she had to dress the part. “Whatever they had on, I had on,” Foxx recalled, describing the baggy sweatshirts she used to wear. “Being a girl in this industry was very, very hard.”
Foxx kept track of money and schedules, but she also got the mosh pits started at concerts. She would dive into the crowd and push until the audience devolved into a throng of fists and elbows.
“Foxx was definitely crazy,” said Thomas, whose stage name is Cutman L.G. “A lot of men respected Foxx, they knew they couldn’t come sideways with her. Foxx handled her business.”
These were the glory days of hardcore hip-hop, when artists like M.O.P. were making $12,000 a day on tour, and managers could pocket at least a thousand at the end of the night. Hip-hop had become a top-selling genre of popular music in the United States, and sparked a global phenomenon. Disenfranchised youth as far away as Cape Town and Tokyo were blasting rap records and making their own beats. By 2004, Forbes estimated that the hip-hop industry was worth over $10 billion.
For Foxx, these years were an endless stream of hotel rooms, recording studios, and tour buses. In addition to managing, Foxx began appearing in M.O.P.’s music videos and performing the intros to some of their songs. She kept up the pace even after her son Anthony was born in 2000, recording her own rap video just weeks after her baby was released from the hospital.
But then she got sick, and Foxx’s goal of becoming “A&R status” — industry lingo for a record label talent scout — was quashed.
Even without an unexpected blow like Foxx’s illness, sustaining a career in hip-hop over the long run can be difficult.
Flores, who goes by Sugar Ray, was also born and raised in the middle of hip-hop. He started out carrying crates and speakers for neighborhood DJs, and went on to work with several hip-hop artists. But now that he has kids, Flores has largely given up promoting music for a more stable career as a bus driver.
Managers and producers are not the only ones facing diminishing prospects in the hip-hop industry. “A lot of rappers who paved the way have to find a 9-to-5 job,” Flores said, citing the unfavorable deals some hip-hop artists made with record companies when they were young. “When they signed the contract, they signed their life away.” The godfathers of hip-hop, the ones who created a billion-dollar global movement spinning turntables and spitting rhymes, are now “struggling like everybody else.”
But shady record company practices aren’t the only factor. According to Jennifer Lena, a professor in Columbia University’s Arts Administration program, informal business relationships — like the practice of hip-hop artists hiring neighbors and friends to help promote their music — are part of the dynamic.
“It’s true that some people who nurture [music] scenes are excluded from profits once that community becomes a popular form of expression,” she said. “But it’s rare that that happens because of a predatory commercial entity trying to harm them specifically. There are people who nurture scenes but don’t have the capability, the know-how or the resources to grow with the music.”
These informal business relationships have left some in the Bronx hip-hop community without a financial safety net. In the whirlwind of tours and shows, few were planning for a future with kids and mortgages. “We were young when we were doing it, no one was thinking about saving money,” said Thomas. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of people in the hip-hop business don’t have a retirement fund.”
Flores and Thomas created an organization called Aquarius Boyz in 2009 to help support the hip-hop community. They have teamed up with others in the music industry to organize fundraisers, like the one in the boxing gym, for families impacted by autism, cancer, and domestic violence.
Thomas is also involved in the creation of a hip-hop museum, which is slated to open next year in the Bronx. He sees the museum as a way to celebrate hip-hop’s legacy and support artists “who were there at the beginning” by hiring them to give tours.
“We have to support our community,” Flores explained. “We’re going to raise our own money and put it back into the community because hip-hop affected it.”
On a Thursday afternoon two days before the fundraiser for autistic children, Foxx was on her way to Queens. She was going to pick up a donation for the event from DJ Premier, a rapper-turned-producer M.O.P. used to tour with. As she sped through Harlem in her silver Chrysler, Foxx pulled up a YouTube video of one of her rap songs, “The Game Been Fixed.”
The woman on the phone screen — arms thrown wide in a baggy sweatsuit, rapping “This bitch lynch got nerves / This bitch lynch will stomp your ass on the curb” —looked nothing like the one driving. Foxx’s youthful face had been hollowed by scleroderma, and patches of discolored skin now framed her mouth. A chin-length burgundy wig covered a scalp left bare by chemotherapy, and her tall frame looked shrunken under a sweatshirt and what she called “girl jeans.”
But Foxx’s unshakeable resolve, and the tough brand of straight-talk she spits in her rap video, remained unchanged. As the Foxx of 15 years ago rapped “I’m a BX defender / And I’ll never surrender,” the woman driving started to argue with the Google Maps voice telling her to turn left. “Why is she bugging?” Foxx asked as she exited the Triborough Bridge into Queens. “What the hell did they tell me to turn left for?”
Foxx parked in front of DJ Premier’s recording studio and settled into her seat to wait. When DJ Premier pulled up in a black Tahoe SUV over an hour later, Foxx jumped out of the car and wrapped her arms around him in the middle of the street. It had been over a year since they had last seen each other.
DJ Premier pulled several autographed t-shirts and hats out of his car and handed them to Foxx. “I asked you for one shirt and you gave me all this. I love you!” Foxx gushed.
The rapper took off a few minutes later and Foxx rested in the driver’s seat before starting her car, suddenly dizzy from standing up.
The transition from rap tours to regular life has been difficult. “It’s a fucking big wake-up call, you really bug out,” Foxx said on her way back to the Bronx. “Before, when you needed something, you just made a phone call.”
Money also isn’t as easy to come by as it used to be. “M.O.P. takes care of me the best way they know how, but they’re 25 years in,” Foxx explained. “People are not paying like they used to.” Foxx said she never asks the rappers she used to work with for money, but she feels that whatever they give her is well deserved. “I was a kid when I started,” Foxx said. “Twenty-five years, I gave them my life, my total life.”
It started to rain and as the mid-afternoon traffic slowed to a crawl, Foxx reflected on the illness that derailed her career and that will ultimately stop her heart. “It’s part of life,” she said “I never get mad about it.” She paused. “I don’t think I get mad about it. I just wanna do as much as I possibly can and give back and do good things, you know, help as many people as I can now while I’m here.”
Foxx turned onto a busy thoroughfare, and laid on her horn when another driver refused to let her into traffic. Then she cut in front of the car. “New York is get it, grab it, take it,” she said. “If you don’t take it, they’ll pass right by you. That’s what I learned in this business as a female.”
Foxx got stuck in the intersection a few blocks up, and as the light turned red a double-decker tour bus ploughed through, narrowly missing her car. Foxx rolled down her window. “Get that M.O.P. album!” she shouted at the tourists huddled inside the bus, cameras hanging limply around their necks. Over the sounds of New York City traffic and the gentle thumping of windshield wipers, it was hard to tell if anyone had heard her. But Foxx laughed as the light turned green and she rolled on through. “That’s how promotions used to be,” she said, delving into a new story.