5.6 Attitudes and Latitudes
The big opinion-makers within a tribe gain a lot of leverage for influencing tribal behavior if their use of a given innovation turns out to be successful. Innovators don’t care what the rest of their tribe thinks about them and their innovations, but the reverse isn’t true. Laggards, in other words, don’t have any clout because they’re pulling up the rear in the adoption cycle-that is, there’s no one left for them to influence. Cultural currency is always at risk when adoption takes place. Laggards put little cultural currency at risk-so there is little to be gained.
There are adoptive innovators and then there are the real innovators, the ones who create something new, something so influential it diffuses even to the most selective or remote tribes. Like iPods, cell phones, NASCAR, or Google, they scale to the point that they’re everywhere without developing the kind of familiarity that breeds contempt. Even when the innovation morphs into something else, their innovators retain the stature-and the cultural currency-available only to those who were present at the creation of something truly innovative.
For many, hip-hop may appear to have degenerated into a bling-bling, Hennessy-and-hoochie-mama obsession. Through their actions, however, hip-hop’s pioneers made statements the larger culture couldn’t ignore. They made the worst of acid rock, grunge, and punk’s bad boys seem like conformist lounge acts.
Musical hip-hop groups Public Enemy, Run D.M.C., and N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) carved out a place in the larger culture for themselves. Bloggers weighed in on the subject in 2005, arguing about who were the three best rap acts of all time. Some contrarians credited the Beastie Boys and Wu-Tang Clan with more impressive overall musical contributions, but fans of Public Enemy, Run D.M.C., and N.W.A. would have none of that. “The blueprints…the kings. The untouchable triumvirate. Everything else was built off these three,” one blogger wrote. Indeed, as innovative as the Beastie Boys’ and the Wu-Tang Clan’s work is, they admit to standing on the shoulders of giants. Hip-hop’s earliest pioneers were more influenced by the need for an inexpensive street party than they were by an established musical style. Indeed, Mike D of the Beastie Boys told Pitchfork, the Web site dedicated to music discussion, “Any record we make is always about combining different ideas or different influences we have.”
With much of commercial rap watered down to status-consciousness and urban street parties a distant memory, innovation has a very tough time reasserting itself. Musical innovators have traditionally drawn upon sources outside their genre or tribe for their inspiration, but artists caught up in appealing to mainstream populations can lose appreciation for what is truly original, and focus simply on what is novel. Predictability reduces social as well as business risk, while innovation increases it. The difficulty of musical innovation and the costs associated with artistic risk aren’t limited to recent stagnations in hip-hop or heavy metal. As attorney and classical music journalist Peter Gutmann recounted in his “Classical Notes” column (2001-2002) for Goldmine magazine, even Igor Stravinsky, one of the most heralded twentieth century composers, was widely scorned around the premier of his groundbreaking masterwork, “Rite of Spring.” The riot that followed the work’s public debut is one of the more notorious events in the history of music.
What helps separate dead-on pop culture forecasters from those who are just guessing is the speed and clarity with which they observe the enthusiasm of innovators, gauge the artisanal character of the innovation, and assess its ability to scale.