Hip Hop’s Journey From Subversive to Reinforcing; America’s Misdirected Criticism

January 15, 2009


Art is always a reflection of the culture from which it emerges, as either a reinforcement of the values and perceptions of the culture that birthed it or as a refutation and rejection of those values, traditions and perceptions.

Hip Hop is a fully American born art form. America in the past few hundred years produced the Constitution, Baseball, Jazz, Rock and Roll and Hip Hop. Very few other countries have effectively appropriated Hip Hop, and those that have only very recently. Hip Hop began as a subversive rejection of the way things are, but not in an abrasive or confrontational way. In its very early days, emerging in Harlem, it was a mixture of (1)rap music, rhymes recited over beats, and (2)the beats themselves constructed by “scratching,” DJs breaking down the beats of popular songs to their danciest and most potent parts, (3)graffiti, which was art by any means necessary-murals and designs, sprayed meticulously on subway cars and building walls, and (4) break-dancing,-joyful competitive dance that accompanied the rapping and scratching. Thematically, early on lyrics weren’t too far from disco. It was positive, party music to physically and mentally elevate the community that was closed off into poverty and surrounded by decay, violence and ignored by politicians and the world. The music, art and dance spoke loudly that “we are here,” for the people making it. The music was their escape from their harsh reality. It wasn’t long until the music made the jump to socially conscious. Kurtis Blow and other early rappers spoke through songs like “White Lines” to their community and to the world at large about the problems in their community. In this form hip hop was poised to be its most relevant and important. It shared with punk the concept of nonconformity and outsider status as well as its rejection of a political, economic and social system that neglected and abused its core audience. It shared in dance, disco and reggae a vibrant and tuneful sound. It opened the door for competition and lyrical evolution, as rhyme schemes began to become more and more complex, vocabulary became a positive focus and showmanship made it like a sport.

The socially consciousness of the music and culture influenced later hip hop acts: Public Enemy the notable example in the ‘80s. Into the ‘90s with acts like Dead Prez and merging with rock with acts like Rage Against the Machine, and into the millennium those like Lupe Fiasco. This type of rap became more of a subgenre though. Political Rap, and/or indie/underground rap. Another subgenre of hip hop emerged in the ‘80s: gangsta rap, and this quickly went from subgenre to the primary focus of the entire genre. This is what propelled rap music into the negative limelight and criticism that has plagued it ever since. Initially, with a group like NWA, the idea that this type of music was merely reporting to the world what was going on in the ghetto was fairly acceptable. NWA shocked listeners with graphic (especially for that time) tales of violence, gangs, sex, drugs, police brutality and poverty in rhymes peppered with a fair amount of profanity and the group carried themselves like gun-toting, dope dealing caricatures of gangsta’s.
Chuck D, though against much of the content and wording groups like NWA employed, spoke of rap as “The Black CNN” at this time. Gangsta rap music spread quickly and settled into the suburbs, blasted by white teenagers who wanted to piss their parents off and pretend they were gangstas themselves (see my article “The Wanksta Subculture on this same site, back a few pages for more on this). So those that viewed gangsta rap as a way of opening the eyes of the general public to the horrors of the inner city (displayed as a sort of American socio-economic apartheid) through exaggerated and tongue in cheek rap songs whether or not the suburban middle class teens were taking it that way or were simply celebrating the violence, sex and “toughness” of the personas in the songs. Stylized violence is not a new thing, and teens have loved the bad guy, the rebel, the outsider from James Dean to Scarface. But this element exacerbated in gangsta rap. As the next generation of rappers came around, the violence and language had to grow more shocking than the previous generation to remain as titillating. At which point did and with which rappers did the “ghetto reporting” morph into thug perpetuation and reinforcement of negative stereotypes by rappers competing in “keeping it real” to outdo each other? As the nineties came about, there were a few curious examples of this fine balance. Tupac (2pac) Shakur began very politically and socially conscientious through his early albums. After signing to Death Row Records, he followed his second stage of recording which had become more menacing and confrontational in the “ground level reporting” sense with a self fulfilling prophecy of thug music and persona in which rap battles became real battles, reporting of the crime around him became real arrests (“I never had a record (police record) till I made a record (rap album),” Shakur once said. Headline grabbing became a day to day part of being a rap star, as the notorious example of Shakur stopping to aid motorists in a car that he thought were being hassled by police. The cops turned out to be off duty, Shakur exchanged shots with them, wounding them and left the scene. Later he was acquitted of all charges that resulted from the incident. “He was like a super-hero Malcolm X,” one teenager commented at the time.
This all ended tragically with the east and west war, and by the time the 90s drew to a close, the “ice age” had descended and the focus of almost all hip hop was primarily concerned with raps about “what I got,” “my car, my jewels, my clothes, my watch, my record label, my brand of champagne.” Hip hop at this point became a very reflection of the nation that produced it. It mirrored the mindset that Washington and Wall Street wanted you to follow: mindless consumerism, zero personal financial accountability, nonstop spending. “Money is the fuel that runs the beast,” is a sentiment a band like Rage invokes, using great rhymes to do so. That type of outlook is buried under the avalanche of club hits and MTV jams that push purchasing power. The sole mainstream rapper to speak out against the ice fad was DMX who uttered threats like “don’t they know that around me talking about what you got will get you shot?” and “You’ve been
eatin’ long enough now, stop being greedy. Keep it real, partner, give to the needy.”

As the first decade of the new millennium draws to a close, hip hop is still tainted by a mixture of ice age and gansta. Novelty cornball rap also made a comeback with kids like Souljah Boy. Veterans produced compelling work that walked that fine line between socially conscientious/political and fun/provocative: Jay Z with “American Gangster,” Nas with “Hip Hop is Dead” and “untitled.” Indie bubbled to mainstream somewhat with Lupe Fiasco’s two terrific albums. The Roots hold down the fort with playing their own instruments and writing politically charged lyrics.

When I was a teen, rap was everywhere. As I’ve mentioned in my article “The Wanksta Subculture,” teens in the nineties and early ‘00s were surrounded and influenced by it whether they were fans or not. Conservative teachers and preachers, politicians like Delores Tucker and Tipper Gore and celebrities like Bill Cosby have railed against hip hop and the negative stereotypes and perceptions it reinforces for going on three decades now. Most worried about the language, the violence, the sex, the use of the “n” word and sexism. The language is a moot point. Words are words, they mean nothing but what we attach to them. They can build up or destroy, but based only on how they are used and how they are absorbed; very few words are “evil” in their very essence.” A rap song can drop the “F” bomb two dozen times in a 3 minute song and all it’s going to do is lose impact and cease to be shocking. Violence? Violence is everywhere. In the wars our country wages, in the cities where minorities of any kind are discriminated against, in many of the sports humans play. Violence in entertainment typically reflects violence in the real world rather than influencing it. The sexism and racism wouldn’t be expressed in song if they didn’t occur in the real world (which doesn’t excuse them). What remains as evidence here, is that what was subversive and had a chance to effectively criticize the norm has evolved into a system that affirms the norm. It affirms the violence that goes on in our nation without a sense of shock and disappointment. It has echoed the economic advice to define yourself by what you buy, drink and wear. The goal of most rappers seems to be to become a successful part of the system, thereby growing rich off of the very system that has oppressed you and will continue to oppress your former neighbors. Therefore they propagate the system rather than rail against it, reinforce it rather than educated others about alternative viewpoints and lifestyles. So criticize away, America. You’re only criticizing yourselves.


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