Bum Rap

Gangsta rap isn't just back. It's back on top.

Four years ago, in the thick of the last presidential campaign, MTV broadcast one of its "Rock the Vote" specials, during which one of the station's vee-jays stuck a mic in Snoop Doggy Dogg's face and asked for his views on the impending election. I don't remember the exact wording of Snoop's response. But I do remember that it was one of those excruciating television moments. Snoop knew almost nothing about the election, and it was embarrassing watching him mumble and hem and pretend to care.

The reason this snippet stays with me, I think, is that it reflects an expectation on the part of the dominant white culture (of which MTV is most assuredly a part, its hip posturing notwithstanding): namely that rappers will have something incisive to say about politics, social issues, race relations. The logic here isn't hard to follow. Rap was born as a medium for black Americans to comment on their circumstances. The genre's first breakout hit -- Grandmaster Funk and the Furious Five's "The Message" -- was a moving chronicle of ghetto discontent. The formative work of pioneer bands such as Run-D.M.C., N.W.A, and Public Enemy reflected social and political concerns.

But the genre has undergone a radical shift. Today's biggest stars pay lip service to the notion of social responsibility. But primarily they're in the business of sensationalizing ghetto life for mass consumption. That's what so-called gangsta rapis: a romantic vision of the 'hood, in which all the men bubble herb and carry gats and women drop to their knees reflexively to deliver blowjobs.

To anyone who's actually spent time in America's inner cities, these visions are wildly myopic. They compose a kind of wish fantasy about all those neighborhoods Where the White Man Fears to Tread, assuring us that the black underclass, though poor and disenfranchised, wouldn't have it any other way. Guns and drugs and sex are about as much as they need.

In the beginning the blunt sexual and violent imagery of gangsta rap provoked an outcry from various watchdog groups -- Tipper Gore and her posse -- which resulted in the placement of warning labels on virtually all rap albums. (The chief effect of this innovation has been to help young, impressionable consumers target desirable albums.) As for the lyrics themselves, they continue to become progressively more misogynistic, violent, and lucrative.

Braggadocio has always been the emotional signifier of hip-hop. It's the form of that braggadocio that's shifted. Run-D.M.C. used to attack foes on the basis of their verbal incompetence. Today's artists would never bow to such a sissy mentality. They portray themselves not as street poets but as criminals with a fortuitous gift of gab. Today when they strike out at rivals, they use guns.

The shooting deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., which initially provoked a swirl of sanctimonious rhetoric, ultimately helped legitimize the genre's claims to authenticity. The message was simple: Real rappers don't just talk about criminal behavior. They take part. The notion of violent retribution is de rigueur now, as inextricably linked to rap as angst is to grunge.

The revenge, however, is limited in its scope. Whereas N.W.A once urged fans to "Fuck da Police" -- that is, to strike out at white authority -- the idea today is to kill one's rivals. These delightful endorsements of black-on-black crime have become ubiquitous. It's a white supremacist's dream! All the niggers mowing each other down! Fantastic.

And the killing is not limited to menfolk. Artists like JT Money advocate killing women (read: bitches, 'hos) as well, usually after having unprotected sex with them, or at the very least, forcing them to swallow your load.

And gangsta rap isn't just back. It's back on top. Just check out the Billboard charts. DMX's ... And Then There Was Xfeatures a wide variety of killings, as does Jay-Z's new platter, which joined DMX at the top of the heap. Gangsta innovator Dr. Dre is back, of course, with a hit record in which he assures us his armory is as sizable as ever.

The more interesting question, of course, is why the extremes of violence and misogyny sell so damn well. After all, there are all sorts of intelligent hip-hoppers out there, attempting to comment on the black experience with some measure of critical thought and nuance. (These include Carl Hancock Rux, the Roots, Mos Def, and a host of others.)

The short answer, of course, is that crap sells in a crap-headed culture. But the monstrous success of hoodlum hip-hop is a bit more complicated. It suggests that what the masses seem to want -- both urbanites and suburbanites, of all colors -- is an image of black masculinity right out of the Mandingo/ Nat Turner school of typecasting. Downtrodden heroes with big guns and big dicks. The portrayal of black women follows traditional John Birch lines: They are promiscuous, sexually insatiable Amazons. For all the strides made by people of color in this country, gangsta rap is predicated on stereotypes older than Uncle Tom's cabin.

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