Artist-designer Tahir Hemphill is gathering quirky facts about popular culture via Hip-Hop Word Count, his searchable directory of over 40,000 hip-hop songs. If you’ve ever wanted to know the education level needed to comprehend Lupe Fiasco’s track “Superstar” or the number of polysyllabic words used by 50 Cent in “I Get Money,” Hemphill has the answers. And those burning questions you’ve had about rappers and bubbly? He can give certain insight into that too. At the recent Talk to Me symposium organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Hemphill presented his latest data set on the subject of champagne.
Created in collaboration with Steve Varga, Champagne Always Stains My Silk consists of three infographics that give us “a visual history” of champagne brand-mentions spanning thirty years of hip-hop music. What do we learn from this survey? For one thing, in the years following Jay-Z’s boycott of Cristal, the brand’s mention by other rappers declined. (One wonders how this tastemaker’s newfound interest in contemporary art will impact others in the industry.) Hemphill has also found that brand names are most commonly heard in East Coast lyrics; Cristal ranks highest followed by Dom Perignon, Moet, Asti, Chandon, and Ace of Spades. At first listen, this data is about as stimulating as rappers’ fascination with bottle poppin. How is any of this meaningful? Hemphill gives us some food for thought: “When you consider champagne as an aspirational product, this infographic tells a nuanced story of rappers’ relationship to the American Dream.”
Studying the food and drinks that cultures consume will often bring us back to a national ethos, in this case, the supposed ability to achieve prosperity through social and economic participation. When we talk about reaching the American Dream, we often think of — or want to hear about — hard work, sacrifice, and one’s steadfast resolve to rise above whatever circumstances. It seems many rappers have such a story, though it can be hard to hear through all the intemperance and foolery portrayed in hip-hop. The genre’s emphasis on material wealth, extreme celebration, and what artist Kehinde Wiley has called the “heroic desire for cash and domination that hip-hop is so defined by,” has garnered criticisms familiar in contemporary art. Take for example “pop-star” artist Jeff Koons, whose work critics have dismissed, calling it garish, empty, and all about “self-merchandising.” If these ideas have not been Koons’ very point, they have helped propel him to mainstream success. You might say the same for artists of hip-hop for whom gross consumption is part of the game.
Champagne has become something of a standard in the packaging of commercial rap music, another luxury good to go with the cash, cars, and jewelry. Early graffitier Branson B. is credited with “popularizing champagne in the hip-hop world” around the late ’70s/early ’80s. According to Hemphill, it was hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash who first mentioned champagne in lyrics, referring to it as a drink of the bourgeois. The late Notorious B.I.G. spoke of it in his debut track, “Juicy” (“We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us/No heat, wonder why Christmas missed us/Birthdays was the worst days/Now we sip champagne when we thirstay”). The ever-incarcerated T.I. released a whole (asinine) song about it last year called “Poppin Bottles” (“Pop a bottle, make that thing go bow/Let her drink it till she drown/Let a girl go wild, pop a bottle/Bow, bow, bow”). The list goes on, including LL Cool J, Lil’ Kim, Lil’ Wayne, Birdman, Kanye West, Ron Browz, Drake, and Wiz Khalifa, to name just a few. “Images of rappers and champagne have a pretty specific place in pop culture,” says Hemphill. He names not only music videos but also, for instance, Busy Bee’s rap battle prize in the cult film Wild Style (1983), and MTV Cribs episodes from the early aughts, “when it seemed that every rapper opened their refrigerators to show a month supply of Cristal.”
While watching clips from Cribs in Hemphill’s presentation, I was reminded of artists Rashaad Newsome and later Myla Dalbesio. By extracting champagne from the language of hip-hop, they too help us make sense of the drink as a trope of popular culture, be it one of determination or excess. Newsome hones in on heraldry and pomp in his YouTube mash-up The Conductor (2005-2009), wherein a classic shot of P. Diddy as a sort of Bacchus figure, holding a big green bottle of bubbly whilst encircled by women in a bubbling jacuzzi, is over the top yet oh so perfect. In Dalbesio’s video-chick-gone-performance-artist routine Young Money (2011) champagne is her prop, a thing she associates with religion, ritual ecstasy, and sexualization of her own body. (Art historians studying wine, albeit the non-sparkling variety, have also tapped into ideas raised here: in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper wine evokes the Eucharist and notions of divinity, and in Jan Vermeer’s 17th century painting Girl With a Glass of Wine it is equated to a sexual proposition.) All of these things echo Hemphill’s sentiment about his own work: “The beautiful thing about champagne research is that in one motion it’s both profane and profound.”
Reactions to Hemphill’s project are “always mixed,” he says. “Some people call me a genius and some people call me an idiot.” I for one am glad he’s not letting this discourage him. “There’s so much more to be rolled out.” Hemphill is preparing for the public launch of Hip-Hop Word Count (meaning you’ll be able to do your own keyword searches), a more in-depth presentation of his champagne findings is in the works, and his Research Rap Group, a gathering of “serious academics,” is studying the geographic spread of slang terms, recidivism and rap, and references to women in hip-hop. Champagne was a fine place to start but I bet we are going to learn much more about consumption as this research continues.
Hemphill’s graphs charting the careers of 50 Cent and Jay-Z are on view at MoMA through Nov. 7. Visit his blog and Kickstarter page to learn more about Hip-Hop Word Count. Follow him on Twitter @Tahero. Newsome will debut his performance Tournament, a freestyle rap battle amongst ten emerging New York-based emcees, at Marlborough Gallery in New York City on Nov. 2, 6-8pm.