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 rap is: 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.

Like many modern rappers, Snoop knows more about the Dogghouse than the White House
Lumumba
Like many modern rappers, Snoop knows more about the Dogghouse than the White House

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 X features 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.

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 into the 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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