In the 1950s, more than a third of the American workforce was unionized. Today, that number has fallen to an historic low — roughly one in ten American workers is a union member today.
While the discussion surrounding unionization usually centers on workforces within large monoliths like Amazon, there's been renewed enthusiasm for something similar to occur in Hip-Hop after the untimely deaths of Hip-Hop icons DMX, Black Rob, and MF DOOM.
Strikes and other work stoppages have been successful in other industries like mining, steel, auto, and print. Since there's established precedent embedded in the fabric of this country, the mere threat of a work stoppage has also paid dividends.
The call for a Hip-Hop Union isn't new — it's simply constantly renewed —because icons age, subsequently lose relevancy, and then fall into a precarious state of limbo in between superstardom and normalcy.
People tend to be less sympathetic for those deemed to have had, and lost, then those that have always been plagued my misfortune. The byproduct then becomes a culture that not only snatches the crown because of the passage of time, but also refuses to lend a helping hand.
Master P spoke about DMX’s hospitalization with TMZ and said that Hip-Hop artists needed to form a union to receive better support.
“The NBA have it," he said. "What happens when a guy fall off? After he done sold millions of records—even a female—what happens? We need that.”
Before the inception of the NBA Player's Association, NBA players did not receive the wide-ranging privileges and protections that exist today. There was no pension plan, no per diem, no minimum wage, no health benefits and the average player salary was $8,000. It was not until 1964 — when the NBA All-Star team threatened not to play in the first televised All-Star Game — that the players gained their first victory.
These eventual victories included a $600 a month pension plan for all players with ten years of service and over age 65, and new medical and insurance benefits. Essentially, the NBA was recognizing that a decade of service in the league, they formally acknowledged that there was life after basketball.
There have been lockouts from the executive side which actually showcased just how well-organized and financially forward-thinking the NBAPA was. Before the lockout loomed in the 1998-1999 season, the union reported cash of $973,519. On June 30, 1998, the NBA union had $20.9 million in cash. It was a war chest which proudly proclaimed, "We're not going to blink first."
Over the past 60 years, the NBPA collectively bargained professional basketball players into an average salary of $7 million, making them the highest-paid union employees in the world.
Aaron Ross Coleman wrote in GQ, "Over the past half century, the fortunes of NBA players and American workers split. Today one group thrives, organized and powerful. The other languishes, ransacked and looted."
One could make the argument that Hip-Hop legends who haven't produced three-decades-worth of relevancy also languish, and are ransacked and looted. Although thousands built the bridge everyone drives on, no one quite understands how to turn that into a toll road.
In May 2020, Swizz Beatz stated that he wanted to financially help the pioneers of Hip-Hop.
“I want to raise a million dollars for each icon that started Hip Hop — [from] Kool Herc on down,” he told Joe Budden during an Instagram Live session for Beatz’s Zone Radio. "The fact that we’re not paying taxes on who started Hip-Hop, shows we don’t fucking really love Hip-Hop. We need to be paying — fuck the government — we need to be paying taxes to the creatives of Hip-Hop [who] gave us freedom of speech to move forward.”
There's a fine line between charity and self-promotion. There are those who donate privately, and those that want their names on the outside of a building. Should Black Rob, Bo$$, Doctor Dre, and Ecstasy from Whodini really need to turn to Go Fund Me to pay for funerals and medical procedures? Not only does it feel like a failure of the health care system, but also of the culture itself. For as much as we like to publicize the gun deaths of Biggie and 2Pac, we have to realize that disease is part of the classic Hip-Hop universe.
There are two organizations that are supposed to provide musicians with collective power: SAG-AFTRA, which covers around 5,000 vocalists, and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), which covers around 70,000 instrumentalists. But this really only benefits artists currently signed through major labels like Universal, Sony, and Warner Music Group.
The analogy drawn between the NBAPA and Hip-Hop is an interesting one — especially in how aging players are treated. When a former player dies — even one who never became an All Star or Hall of Famer — there is still reverence for what he accomplished. No one asks, "What the fuck happened to Jason Terry?" or "Jason Terry fell off," even though he never made an All-Star team. Why? Because the sporting record books are much kinder than the cold, harsh reality of the Billboard charts.
I'm reminded of the "give a man a fish, teach a man to fish" idiom. DJ Kool Herc doesn't want a million dollars given to him, he wants an opportunity to make a million dollars. And therein lies the difference. Hip-Hop artists shouldn't feel like they need to be paying back taxes to OG's, they should be partnering with them which seems to be a mixture of a Hip-Hop Union, and an audit of back taxes owed.
The fate of Hip-Hop artists boils down to the idea of "me vs. we." The former attributes misfortunes as being brought on by the individual, while the latter sees it as involving external factors. Hip-Hop artists may never form an official union, but as a unique fraternity — not unlike those who make it to the NBA — there remains a duty to ensure that no one is left behind.