A rap icon who hasn’t dropped an album in nearly 15 years is now calling himself “the first billionaire in hip-hop” — and he might be exaggerating by only $200 million.
Beats Electronics, a company co-founded by Dr. Dre that specializes in high-end headphones and a recently launched music streaming service, is in talks with Apple and on the verge of being sold for a cool $3.2 billion, according to media reports.
The transaction would make the 49-year-old, born Andre Young, the highest-paid figure in rap. It also proves that a once-marginalized form of black pop music that has always valued artistry and entrepreneurship in equal measure is now influential enough to move oceans of cash.
And while the pursuit of wealth has always been a central theme in hip-hop — see also: “the American Dream” — Dre’s big payday shouldn’t be mistaken as a triumph for the genre. It’s merely an example of an artist getting much richer by abandoning art.
First, the Beats creation myth. It’s 2006, and a famous rapper-producer has been toiling over his comeback album for seven long years. He’s thinking of launching an athletic-shoe line when a pal, Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine, cooks up an idea to sell headphones to replace the lousy earbuds that come with everyone’s iPod. They give them a memorable design and speakers that ooze bass. They christen them “Beats By Dr. Dre.”
Today, Beats dominates the market, having sold roughly a billion dollars’ worth of headphones last year. With Apple stepping in, Forbes estimates that Dr. Dre’s net worth is about to spike to roughly $800 million, besting that of Sean “Diddy” Combs and Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, two artists who redefined the trajectory of rap music with zeroes and commas and mergers and acquisitions.
Jay Z is still hip-hop’s leading man, but it was Diddy who most drastically changed hip-hop’s priorities after the shooting deaths of Tupac Shakur in 1996 and the Notorious B.I.G. in 1997. With Diddy’s rise, the value of street credibility ceded ground to the value of “colossal-size Picassos.” It was no longer about just owning your own record label, it was about owning your own clothing line. It was no longer about just getting paid, it was about getting rich beyond imagination.
Being the vastly superior rapper, Jay Z managed to sell this most effectively, narrating his journey from the block to the boardroom with unequaled craftsmanship and charisma. Last year, when he released his 12th solo album in conjunction with Samsung, that journey felt complete.
Dr. Dre, meanwhile, hasn’t done much to bend the arc with his story, because he hasn’t been releasing music. And while the faithful continue to wait on his now-mythical “Detox” album, his résumé remains impeccable.
As a founding member of the Compton-born group N.W.A., Dre helped deliver gangsta rap to Middle America’s doorstep. His 1992 solo debut, “The Chronic,” stands as one of the greatest rap albums of all time and played a leading role in turning hip-hop into a dominant global style. He repeatedly transformed his acolytes – Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent — into superstars. Because of all this, and Dre’s reputation as a producer with golden ears, Beats has a priceless gravitas.
So when Apple decides to give it a price tag of $3.2 billion (a number first reported by the Financial Times), rap fans are going to celebrate. They don’t see the sale as a one-percenter heaping onto his fortune. They might not even see it as the crowning of “the first billionaire in hip-hop, right here from the [expletive] West Coast,” as Dre triumphantly described himself in a piece of home video that appeared online Friday. Instead, they see their culture gaining leverage in a capitalist system that’s been historically inhospitable to young black entrepreneurs. As hip-hop enters its middle age, it’s finally being recognized for what it is: highly valuable.
But dollars shouldn’t be the only way for us to measure hip-hop’s worth. When a counterculture assimilates completely into a consumer culture, it trades one kind of power for another.
Although Dr. Dre is obviously entitled to every penny he’s earned, celebrating his windfall only perpetuates our unfortunate fetishization of unattainable wealth — and that’s not just within the hip-hop landscape. That’s American culture writ large.
And have the two ever felt more in sync? If today’s rap music articulates our dreams for the things we’ll never have, today’s rap music might be more American than ever.