Bum Rap

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

The genre thrives on the marketing of self-destructive behavior, on a conception of blackness as inherently wild, violent, ruled by physical passions. And it is protected from claims of racism by one simple fact: The artists themselves are of color.

There have been flickering moments in which individual rap artists seemed to recognize that they were pimping their lives. On the track "Everything's Gonna Be Alright," Naughty by Nature's Treach, for example, warns: "If you ain't never been to the ghetto, don't ever come to the ghetto, cuz you wouldn't understand the ghetto; stay the fuck out of the ghetto." The problem is that Treach has just invited his listeners intothe ghetto -- his version of the ghetto, anyway -- and set the entire business to a jaunty dance beat that samples Bob Marley's most infectious anthem.

Ironically the reemergence of gangsta rap coincides with a sustained prosperity, and what is perhaps the sharpest decline in violent crime in American history. The criminals are behind bars; police forces are beefed up. Hell, even New York City is safe again. This is no coincidence. Only in such insulated conditions could the specter of black violence take on such a cartoonish aspect.

That's what makes the mass consumption of gangsta rap so incredibly decadent: It's like black rage as a party favor, an accouterment of cool. Forty years ago suburban rebels were in the thrall of James Dean. Thirty years ago it was hippies. Today the ultimate rebellion for moneyed suburban youth resides in worshiping the nihilistic lifestyle of impoverished blacks.

But let's remember: 90 percent of rap fans have nothing to do with the inner city, except as indirect consumers. They ape the fashion and speech of the inner city. And they pump jams that come from (or pretend to come from) the inner city. This is what they know of the ghetto: It's a playground where their own hidden impulses -- of transgression masked in blackface, of sexual and physical omnipotence -- can run free. Racial voyeurism with a phat beat.

Thus, what began as a form of African-American self-expression has become a form of self-caricature, not to mention self-commodification. To borrow a line from Carl Hancock Rux, what the money people want is black ass, not black art.

When artists attempt more-thoughtful work, they are ignored. Take, for example, Nas' fine 1996 album It Was Written, which contains a song entitled "I Gave You Power." Told from the perspective of a pistol, the track is an inventive (and, by the standards of the genre, downright subversive) critique of the role of firearms in inner-city life. And yet the song that became a big hit from that album was the anthem "If I Ruled the World," another pimp-and-bong power fantasy.

As hip-hop has grown more radically violent, my relationship to the genre has become more and more ambivalent. On one hand I'm a loyal fan. I love the low-end thump, the catchy hooks, and the sly, inventive use of language. On the other I'm disgusted by the way rap whitewashes the tragedy of the inner city, and distorts -- rather than clarifies -- the realities of life for this country's underclass. Instead of promoting racial understanding, the genre turns a nifty profit by breeding misconceptions.

When friends hassle me for listening to hip-hop, my standard defense, of course, is that pop music is no big deal. It's not supposed to reflect real experiences or values. In fact it's what we turn to as an escape from real experience and values. That said, it's hard to argue that a person (or a culture) who turns to lyric murder and misogyny as a form of escapist entertainment is entirely healthy. Sick in the head is probably more like it.

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