Our readings and film for this week introduce some of the key debates (in the public sphere and in academic hip hop studies) related to the popularization of hip hop culture, especially the commercialization of rap.
Please keep these questions in mind as you work through the texts.
- What historical facts do the authors (or participants in the Google debate) rely upon to construct hip hop’s history?
- What are the political stakes of hip hop? Why does a critical discussion of hip hop matter?
- What do the two assigned readings share in common?
Readings & Film
▢ Complete readings and answer discussion questions by Wed @ noon.
(Write down how you feel in this debate) Here is the link for Film.
Here is the questions:
To begin our discussion this week, I’d like you to think critically about how the authors (Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Tricia Rose) approach writing the history of hip hop and answer the following questions.
- What historical facts do they rely upon to write this history?
- What are the political stakes of hip hop, according to each author?
- What do the two pieces share in common?
Both of our authors are professors, so after you’ve named them initially, you can either call them Dr. Gates, Jr. or Dr. Rose (or Professor instead of Dr.) Also, I am not asking you to pit these two writers against one another or to declare one easier to read than the other, etc. It’s not necessarily a compare and contrast (though a little bit of that is fine). I’m asking you to be observant of their writing styles and each writer’s overall approach to chronicling the history of hip hop.
For this hw, you have two things to do. One is read what I upload and answer those questions.
Second watch the debate, and write down you thought.
ADAM BRADLEY ANDREW DUBOIS
Foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Afterwords by Chuck D and Common
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS New Haven and London
Copyright © 2010 by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois.
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Set in Minion, Nobel, American Typewriter, and Franklin Gothic type by Technologies ‘N
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Printed in the United States of America.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The anthology of rap / edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois; foreword by Henry Louis
Gates, Jr.; afterwords by Chuck D and Common.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-300-14190-0 (hardcover: alk. paper) 1. Rap (Music)-History and criticism.
2. Rap (Music)-Texts. I. Bradley, Adam. II. DuBois, Andrew (Andrew Lee)
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. The first person I ever heard “rap” was a man born in 1913, my
father, Henry Louis Gates, Sr. Daddy’s generation didn’t call the
rhetorical games they played “rapping”; they signified, they
layed the Dozens. But this was rapping just the same, rapping
y another name. Signifying is the grandparent of Rap; and Rap
s signifying in a postmodern way. The narratives that my fa-
her recited in rhyme told the tale of defiant heroes named
hine or Stagolee or, my absolute favorite, the Signifyin:g Mon-
ey. They were linguistically intricate, they were funny and
pirited, and they were astonishingly profane. Soon the stories became familiar to me and I started
memorizing parts of them, especially striking couplets and
ometimes an entire resonant stanza. But every time my dad re-
a version of one of these tales, he somehow made it new
reminding me of all that a virtuosic performer possessed:
an excellent memory, a mastery of pace and timing, the capac-
‘ty to inflect and gesture, the ability to summon the identities of
ifferent characters simply through the nuances of their voices.
My father and his friends called their raps “signifying” or
‘playing the Dozens;’ a younger generation named them
Toasts, and an even younger generation called it “rapping:’ But
regardless of the name, much about the genre remained the
ame. Since anthropologists tend to call them “Toasts;’ we will
mploy that term here. Toasts are long oral poems that had
emerged by World War I, shortly after the sinking of the Ti- tanic, judging by the fact that one of the earliest surviving ex- amples of the genre was called “Shine and the Titanic.” And the act that the French words for “monkey” and “sign” are a bit of
a visual pun (singe and signe, respectively) also points to a World War I ori- gin of the genre as it would have been revised by returning black veterans
from the European theater of war. (My father recalls meeting southern
black soldiers at the beginning of World War II at Camp Lee, Virginia,
who were barely literate but who could recite “acres of verses” of “The Sig-
nifying MonkeY;’ underscoring the role of the military and war as a cross-
pollinating mechanism for black cultural practices. And of these various
forms, none would be more compelling, more popular, more shared than
All of these sub genres emerged out of the African American rhetorical
practice of signifying. Signifying is the defining rhetorical principle of all
African American discourse, the language game of black language games,
both sacred and secular, from the preacher’s call-and-response to the irony
and indirection of playing the Dozens. These oral poets practiced their arts
in ritual settings such as the street corner or the barbershop, sometimes en-
gaging in verbal duels with contenders like a lingUistic boxing match. These
recitations were a form of artistic practice and honing, but they were also
the source of great entertainment displayed before an audience with a most
sophisticated ear. And though certain poems, such as “Shine and the Ti- tanic” and “The Signifying MonkeY;’ had a familiar, repeated narrative con- tent, poets improvised through and around this received content, with im-
provised stanzas and lyrics that might address a range of concerns from
social and political issues to love, loneliness, heartbreak, and even death.
The Dozens and the Toasts were, first and foremost, forms of art, and ev-
eryone on the street or sitting around the barbershop knew this. Rapping
was a performance, rappers were to be judged, and the judges were the peo-
ple on the corner or in the shop. Everyone, it seemed to me as I watched
these performances unfolding even as a child, was literate in the fine arts of
As I listened to my father delighting us in the late fifties with tales of
the Monkey and old Shine, I knew at once that there was something sub-
lime, something marvelous and forbidden and dangerous about them. And
it was easy to recognize variations on rapping that started emerging in
rhythm and blues and soul music in the sixties. I am thinking of James
Brown’s nine-minute rendition of “Lost Someone” on his Live at the Apollo album in 1963, or Isaac Hayes’s paradigm-shifting version of “By the Time I
Get to Phoenix” from his Hot Buttered Soul album of 1969. And H. Rap Brown’s emergence as one of the leaders of the younger black militants of
the Black Power movement brought the word “Rap” and the lyrics of the
xxiv Dozens to a generation of black students because he included his most
original raps, as a point of pride in his own artistry, in his autobiography,
Die, Nigger, Die. (Unfortunately, Mr. Brown did not write as well as he
rapped!) A few years later, I would hear echoes of all of these formal antecedents
in the early Rap songs hitting the airwaves in the late seventies and early
eighties. Melle Mel’s verse on “The Message”:
A child is born with no state of mind
Blind to the ways of mankind
God is smiling on you but he’s frowning too
Because only God knows what you’ll go through
echoes across the decades back to these lines from the toast called “Life’s a
Funny Old Proposition”:
A man comes to birth on this funny old earth
With not a chance in a million to win
To find that he’s through and his funeral is due
Before he can even begin
Despite all that is different about them, these two verses are bound to-
gether by both sound and sense. They each insist upon an unstinting and
unflinching confrontation with reality, while somehow staving off despair.
Great art so often does this, offering expiation and transcendence all at
once. As an art form, Rap is defined, like the Toasts before it, by a set of for-
mal qualities, an iconoclastic spirit, and a virtuosic sense of wordplay. It ex-
tends the long-standing practice in the African American oral tradition of
language games. Simply put, Rap is a contemporary form of signifying.
By the time I began my first job teaching at Yale while still a graduate
student in the mid-1970s, I began to hear about a new music coming out of
the Bronx. It was simply called Rap-an old word for those familiar with
black slang, but a new form that combined rhythm and rhyme in a style all
its own. Like all art-vernacular or high art-it took the familiar and made
it unfamiliar again. Rap’s signature characteristic is the parody and pastiche
of its lyrics, including “sampling;’ which is just another word for intertextu-
ality. Rap is the art form par excellence of synthesiS and recombination. No
one could say that Afrika Bambaataa or Grandmaster Flash was not creat-
, ing something new, but each would be quick to acknowledge his forIP.-al
debts to other artists, especially to old school musicians from the past.
xxv As we have seen, Rap is the postmodern version of an African Ameri-
can vernacular tradition that stretches back to chants, Toasts, and trickster
tales. It connects through its percussive sensibility, its riffs, and its penchant
for rhyme, with a range of forms including scat singing, radio DJ patter, and
Black Arts movement poets like Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and Jayne
Cortez. Its sense of musicality, both in voice and beat, owes a great deal to
performers like Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets, as well as to funk and
soul artists like James Brown, Isaac Hayes, George Clinton, and Sly Stone.
Rap is, in other words, a multifarious, multifaceted tradition imbedded
within an African American oral culture that itself shares in the rich history
of human expression across the ages.
At its best, Rap, though a most serious genre, doesn’t take itself too self-
consciously or try to overburden its lines with rehearsed wisdom, or the
cant of ideology. It complicates or even rejects literal interpretation. It de-
mands fluency in the recondite codes of African American speech. Just like
the Dozens before it, Rap draws strength by shattering taboos, sending up
stereotype, and relishing risque language and subject matter.
I learned this last lesson firsthand more than two decades ago. In the
spring of 1990, after I had published an editorial on the case in the New York Times, I was called to testify as an expert witness before a Florida court in the obscenity trial of the 2 Live Crew. The group’s 1989 album, As
Nasty as They Wanna Be, with its provocative single “Me So Horny;’ had in- spired such heated response from civic leaders that copies were burned in
the streets. At stake was not simply the songs of one group of young black
men, but the very freedom of expression at the core of all artistic creation.
In my testimony, I stated that in the very lyrics that some found simply
crass and pornographic, “what you hear is great humor, great joy, and great
boisterousness. It’s a joke. It’s a parody and parody is one of the most vener-
ated forms of art:’
Rap has always been animated by this complexity of meaning and in-
tention. This is by no means to absolve artists of the ethics of form, particu-
larly in the artist’s capacity as a role model for young people, but rather to
point out that there’s an underlying value worth fighting for in defending
Rap-or any other form of art for that matter-against those who would si-
lence its voice. One of the hallmarks of a democratic society should be en-
suring the space for all citizens to express themselves in art, whether we like
what they have to say or not. After all, censorship is to art as lynching is to
As we have seen, it is not difficult to trace a straight line between the
xxvi marvelously formulaic oral tales like “Shine and the Titanic” and “The Sig- nifying Monkey” and Rap, and, in terms ofliterary history, it is a short line,
too. Rappers often make direct allusions to vernacular culture, as we see on
songs like Schoolly D’s “Signifying Rapper” and Devin the Dude’s “Briar-
patch:’ Even when the connection is less explicit, it is no less apparent. It’s
impossible not to hear echoes of H. Rap Brown’s signifYing virtuosity when reading the lyrics to Smoothe da Hustler and Trigga da Gambler’s “Broken
Language:’ And there is undoubtedly something of that swaggering folk
hero Stagolee in someone like 2Pac, or of that trickster the Signifying Mon-
key in someone like 01′ Dirty Bastard.
Given Rap’s close connection to the African American oral tradition, it
should come as no surprise that it also carries with it much of the same
baggage. Misogyny and homophobia, which we must critique, often mar
the effectiveness of the music. But as with practices like the Toasts and the
Dozens, these influences are by no means absolute. Perhaps one of the most
bracing things about reading this anthology is the way that it complicates
our assumptions about what Rap is and what Rap does, who makes it and
who consumes it. In this anthology, we see Yo-yo going head to head
against Ice Cube in a battle of the sexes, or female MCs like Eve and Jean
Grae calling attention to issues like domestic violence and abortion that of-
ten get left out of Hip-Hop discourse, and artists often associated with
gangsta personas or “conscious” perspecti~es revealing the full range and complexity of their subjectivity.
The Anthology of Rap is an essential contribution to our living literary tradition. It calls attention to the artistry, sense of craft, and striking origi-
nality of an art form born of young black and brown men and women who
found their voices in rhyme, and chanted a poetic discourse to the rhythm
of the beat. This groundbreaking anthology masterfully assembles part of a
new vanguard of American poetry. One of its greatest virtues is that it fo-
cuses attention, often for the first time, upon Rap’s lyrics alone. This is not a
rejection of the music, but rather a reminder that the words are finally the
best reason for the beat.
One finds in this anthology many lyrics that complicate common as-
sumptions about Rap music. And as we might expect, the reader encoun-
ters the brutal diction of Gangsta Rap, but also its leavening humor and
parody. One finds instances of sexism and homophobia, but also resistance
to them. One finds words seemingly intended to offend, but also, some-
times, the deeper meanings of and motives for this sort of conscious provo-
cation. Rap’s tradition is as broad and as deep as any other form of poetry,
but like any other literary tradition, it contains its shallows, its whirlpools,
and its muddy waters. Our task as active, informed readers is to navigate
through the tributaries of Rap’s canon, both for the pleasure that comes
from the journey as readers, but also for the wisdom born of traveling to
any uncharted destinations of the mind. Adam Bradley and Andrew
DuBois’s superbly edited, pioneering anthology makes such a journey possible.
Copyright © 2008 by Tricia Rose Published by Basic Books, A Member of the Perseus Books Group
All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, address BasicCivitas Books, 387 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016-8810.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Rose, Tricia.
The hip hop wars: what we talk about when we talk about hip hop / Tricia Rose. p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-465-00897-1 (alk. paper) 1. Hip-hop-Social aspects- United States. 2. Rap (Music) – Social aspects- United
States. 3. Social change-United States. 4. Subculture-United States. 5. African Americans-Social conditions. 6. United States-Social conditions. 1. Title.
HIP HOP WARS
What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop
– and Why It Matters
8 CIVITAS ilCX)KS
A Member of the Perseus Books Group
I’d like to say to all the industry people out there that control what we call hip hop, I’d like for people to put more of an effort to make hip hop the culture of music that it was, instead of the culture of violence that it is right now. There’s a lot of people that put in a lot of time, you know the break-dancers, the graf- fiti artists, there’s people rapping all over the world . … All my life I’ve been into hip hop, and it should mean more than just somebody standing on the corner selling dope-I mean that mayor may not have its place too because it’s there, but I’m just saying-I ain’t never shot nobody, I ain’t never stabbed nobody, I’m forty-five years old and I ain’t got no criminal record, you know what I mean? The only thing I ever did was be about my music. So I mean, so, while we’re teaching people what it is about life in the ghetto, then we should be teaching people about what it is about life in the ghetto, me trying to grow up and to come up out of the ghetto. And we need every- body’s help out there to make that happen.
-Melle Mel, lead rapper of and main songwriter for the seminal rap group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, in an acceptance speech during the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, March 2007
HIP HOP IS IN A TERRIBLE CRISIS. Although its overall fortunes have risen sharply, the most commercially promoted and fi- nancially successful hip hop-what has dominated mass-media out- lets such as television, film, radio, and recording industries for a dozen years or so-has increasingly become a playground for carica- tures of black gangstas, pimps, and hoes. Hyper-sexism has increased
2 THE HIP HOP WARS
dramatically, and homophobia along with distorted, antisocial, self- destructive, and violent portraits of black masculinity have become rap’s calling cards. Relying on an ever-narrowing range of images and themes, this commercial juggernaut has played a central role in the near-depletion of what was once a vibrant, diverse, and complex pop- ular genre, wringing it dry by pandering to America’s racist and sexist lowest common denominator.
This scenario differs vastly from the wide range of core images, at- titudes, and icons that defined hip hop during its earlier years of pub- lic visibility. In the 1980s, when rap’s commercial value began to develop steam, gangsta rappers were only part of a much larger iconic tapestry. There were many varieties of equally positioned styles of rap-gangsta as well as party, political, afrocentric, and avant-garde, each with multiple substyles as well. However, not only were many styles of rap driven out of the corporate-promoted main- stream, but since the middle to late 1990s, the social, artistic, and po- litical significance of figures like the gangsta and street hustler substantially devolved into apolitical, simple-minded, almost comic stereotypes. Indeed, by the late 1990s, most of the affirming, creative stories and characters that had stood at the defining core of hip hop
had been gutted. To use a hip hop metaphor, they were driven un- derground, buried, and left to be dug up only by the most deeply in- vested fans and artists.
Gangstas, hustlers, street crimes, and vernacular sexual insults (e.g., calling black women “hoes”) were part of hip hop’s storytelling long before the record industry really got the hang of promoting rap music. Gangstas and hustlers were not invented out of whole cloth by corpo- rate executives: Prior to the ascendance of corporate mainstream hip hop, these figures were more complex and ambivalent. A few were in- teresting social critics. Some early West Coast gangsta rappers- N.W.A., and W.C. and the Maad Circle, for example-featured stories that emphasized being trapped by gang life and spoke about why street crime had become a “line of work” in the context of chronic black joblessness. Thwarted desires for safe communities and
meaningful work were often embedded in street hustling tales. Even-
tually, though, the occasional featuring of complicated gangstas, hus- tlers, and hoes gave way to a tidal wave of far more simplistic, dispro- portionately celebratory, and destructive renderings of these characters. Hip hop has become buried by these figures and “the life”
associated with them. This trend is so significant that if the late Tupac Shakur were a
newly signed artist today, I believe he’d likely be considered a socially conscious rapper and thus relegated to the margins of the commer- cial hip hop field. Tupac (who despite his death in 1996 remains one
of hip hop’s most visible and highly regarded gangsta rappers) might even be thought of as too political and too “soft.” Even as he ex-
pressed his well-known commitment to “thug life,” his rhymes are perhaps too thoughtful for mainstream “radio friendly” hip hop as it has evolved since his death.
This consolidation and “dumbing down” of hip hop’s imagery and storytelling took hold rather quickly in the middle to late 1990s and
reached a peak in the early 2000s. The hyper-gangsta-ization of the music and imagery directly parallels hip hop’s sales ascendance into the mainstream record and radio industry. In the early to middle 1990s, following the meteoric rise of West Coast hip hop music pro- ducer Dr. Dre and of N.W.A., widely considered a seminal gangsta rap group, West Coast gangsta rap solidified and expanded the al- ready well-represented street criminal icons-thug, hustler, gangster,
and pimp-in a musically compelling way. This grab bag of street criminal figures soon became the most powerful and, to some, the
most “authentic” spokesmen for hip hop and, then, for black youth
generally. For the wider audience in America, which relies on mainstream
outlets for leaming about and participating in commercially distrib- uted pop culture, hip hop has become a breeding ground for the most explicitly exploitative and increasingly one-dimensional narratives of black ghetto life. The gangsta life and all its attendant violence, crimi- nality, sexual “deviance,” and misogyny have, over the last decade es- pecially, stood at the heart of what appeared to be ever-increasing hip hop record sales. Between 1990 and 1998, the Recording Industry
4 THE HIP HOP WARS
Association of America (RIM) reported that rap captured, on average, 9-10 percent of music sales in the United States. This figure in- creased to 12.9 percent in 2000, peaked at 13.8 percent in 2002, and hovered between 12 and 13 percent through 2005. To put the impor- tance of this nearly 40 percent increase in rap/hip hop sales into con- text, note that during the 2000-2005 period, other genres, including rock, country, and pop, saw decreases in their market percentage. The rise in rap/hip hop was driven primarily by the sale of images and sto- ries of black ghetto life to white youth: According to Mediamark Re- search Inc., increasing numbers of whites began buying hip hop at this point. Indeed, between 1995 and 2001, whites comprised 70-75 percent of the hip hop customer base-a figure considered to have re- mained broadly constant to this day. j
I am not suggesting that all commercial hip hop fits this descrip- tion, nor do I think that there is no meaningful content in commer- cial hip hop. I am also not suggesting that commercially successful gangsta-style artists such as Jay-Z, Ludacris, 50 Cent, T.I., and Snoop Dogg lack talent. It is, in fact, rappers’ lyrical and performative tal- ents and the compelling music that frames their rhymes-supported by heavy corporate promotion-that make this seduction so powerful and disturbing. They and many others whose careers are based on these hip hop images are quite talented in different ways: musically, lyrically, stylistically, and as entrepreneurs. The problems facing commercial hip hop today are not caused by individual rappers alone; if we focus on merely one rapper, one song, or one video for its sexist or gangsta-inspired images we miss the forest for the trees. Rather, this is about the larger and more significant trend that has come to define commercial hip hop as a whole: The trinity of com- mercial hip hop-the black gangsta, pimp, and ho-has been pro- moted and accepted to the point where it now dominates the genre’s storytelling worldview.
The expanded commercial space of these three street icons has had a profound impact on both the direction of the music and the conversation about hip hop-a conversation that has never been just
about hip hop. On the one hand, the increased profitability of the gangsta-pimp-ho trinity has inflamed already riled critics who per- ceive hip hop as the cause of many social ills; but, on the other, it has encouraged embattled defenders to tout hip hop’s organic connec- tion to black youth and to venerate its market successes as examples of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. The hyperbolic and polarized public conversation about hip hop that has emerged over the past decade discourages progressive and nuanced consumption, participa- tion, and critique, thereby contributing to the very crisis that is facing hip hop. Even more important, this conversation has become a pow- erful vehicle for the channeling of broader public discussion about race, class, and the value of black culture’s role in society. Debates about hip hop have become a means for defining poor, young black people and thus for interpreting the context and reasons for their clearly disadvantaged lives. This is what we talk about when we talk about hip hop.
The State of the Conversation on Hip Hop
The excessive blame leveled at hip hop is astonishing in its refusal to consider the culpability of the larger social and political context. To many hot-headed critics of hip hop, structural forms of deep racism, corporate influences, and the long-term effects of economic, social, and political disempowerment are not meaningfully related to rap- pers’ alienated, angry stories about life in the ghetto; rather, they are seen as “proof” that black behavior creates ghetto conditions. So decades of urban racial discrimination (the reason black ghettos exist in the first place), in every significant arena – housing, education, jobs, social services-in every city with a significant black popula- tion, simply disappear from view. In fact, many conservative critics of hip hop refuse to acknowledge that the ghetto is a systematic matrix of racial, spatial, and class discrimination that has defined black city life since the first half of the twentieth century, when the Great Black Migration dramatically reshaped America’s cities. For some, hip hop
6 THE HIP HOP WARS
itself is a black-created problem that promotes unsafe sex and repre- sents sexual amorality, infects “our” culture and society, advocates crime and criminality, and reflects black cultural dysfunction and a “culture of poverty.” As hip hop’s conservative critics would have it, hip hop is primarily responsible for every decline and crisis world- wide except the war in Iraq and global warming.
The defenses are equally jaw-dropping. For some, all expression
in commercialized hip hop, despite its heavy manipulation by the record industry, is the unadulterated truth and literal personal ex- perience of fill-in-the-blank rapper; it reflects reality in the ghetto; its lyrics are the result of poverty itselrz And my favorite, the most ag- gravating defense of commercial hip hop’s fixation on demeaning black women for sport- “well, there are bitches and hoes.” What do fans, artists, and writers mean when they defend an escalating,
highly visible, and extensive form of misogyny against black women by claiming that there are bitches and hoes? And how have they gotten away with this level of hateful labeling of black women for so
long? The big media outlets that shape this conversation, such as
TimelWarner, News Corporation, Bertelsmann, General Electric, and Viacom, do not frame hip hop’s stories in ways that allow for a serious treatment of sexism, racism, corporate power, and the real historical forces that have created ghettos. When well-informed, progressive people do get invited to appear on news and public af- fairs programs, they wind up being pushed into either “pro” or “con” positions-and as a result, the complexity of what they have to say to one side or the other is reduced. Although the immaturity of “beef” (conflict between rappers for media attention and street
credibility) is generally considered a hip hop phenomenon, it actu- ally mirrors much of the larger mainstream media’s approach to is- sues of conflict and disagreement. Developing a thoughtful, serious, and educated position in this climate is no easy task, since most participants defend or attack the music – and, by extension, young black people-with a fervor usually reserved for religion and patriotism.
Why We Should Care About Hip Hop
The inability to sustain either a hard-hitting, progressive critique of hip hop’s deep flaws or an appreciation for its extraordinary gifts is a
real problem, with potentially serious effects that ripple far beyond the record industry and mass-media corporate balance sheets. We have the opportunity to use the current state of commercial hip hop as a catalyst to think with more care about the terms of cross-racial exchanges and the role of black culture in a mass-mediated world.
Indeed, we should be asking larger questions about how hip hop’s commercial trinity of the gangsta, pimp, and ho relates to American culture more generally. But, instead, we have allowed hip hop to be perceived by its steadfast defenders as a whipping boy (unfairly beaten for all things wrong with American society and blamed as a gateway to continued excessive criticisms of black people’s behavior) and charged by its critics as society’s career criminal (responsible for myriad social ills and finally being caught and brought to trial). Npt much beyond exhaustion, limited, and one-sided vicious critique, and nearly blind defense is possible in this context. Very little honest
and self-reflective vision can emerge from between this rock and
hard place. Why should we care about hip hop and how should we talk about
it? Serial killer, whipping boy, whatever, right? It’s just entertain-
ment-it generates good ratings and makes money for rappers and the sputtering record industry, but it doesn’t matter beyond that. Or does it? In fact, it matters a great deal, even for those who don’t listen to or enjoy the music itself. Debates about hip hop stand in for dis- cussion of significant social issues related to race, class, sexism, and black culture. Hip hop’s commercial trinity has become the fuel that propels public criticism of young black people. According to some critics, if we just got rid of hip hop and the bad behavior it supports (so the argument goes), “they’d” all do better in school, and struc- turally created racism and disadvantage would disappear like vapor. This hyper-behavioralism-an approach that overemphasizes indi- vidual action and underestimates the impact of institutionalized
8 THE HIP HOP WARS
forms of racial and class discrimination – feeds the very systematic discrimination it pretends isn’t a factor at all.
The public debates about hip hop have also become a convenient means by which to avoid the larger, more entrenched realities of sex- ism, homophobia, and gender inequality in U.S. society. By talking about these issues almost exclusively in the context of hip hop, people who wouldn’t otherwise dare to talk about sexism, women’s rights, homophobia, or the visual and cultural exploitation of women for corporate profit insinuate that hip hop itself is sexist and homo- phobic and openly criticize it for being so. It’s as if black teenagers have smuggled sexism and homophobia into American culture, bringing them in like unauthorized imports.
This conversation about the state of hip hop matters for another reason as well: We have arrived at a landmark moment in modern culture when a solid segment (if not a majority) of an entire gener- ation of African-American youth understands itself as defined pri- marily by a musical, cultural form. Despite the depth of young black people’s love of the blues, jazz, and R&B throughout various periods in the twentieth century, no generation has ever dubbed it- self the “R&B generation” or the “jazz generation,” thereby tether- ing its members to all things (good and bad) that might be associated with the music. Yet young people have limited their cre- ative possibilities, as well as their personal identities, to the perime- ters established by the genre of hip hop. No black musical form before hip hop-no matter how much it “crossed over” into main- stream American culture-ever attracted the level of corporate at- tention and mainstream media visibility, control, and intervention that characterizes hip hop today. It is now extremely common for hip hop fans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, especially black fans, to consider themselves more than fans. They’re people who “live and breathe hip hop every day.”
This level of single-minded investment, forged in the context of sustained blanket attacks on hip hop music and culture, makes ob- jective critique nearly impossible. Of course, this investment is itself partly a response to the deep level of societal disregard that so many
young, poor minority kids experience. As Jay-Z says in the remixed version ofTalib Kweli’s “Get By,” “Why listen to a system that never listens to me?” For anyone who feels this way about anything (reli- gion, patriotism, revolution, etc.), critical self-reflection is hard to come by. The more under attack one feels, the greater the refusal to render self-critique is likely to be. But such fervor is also the result of market manipulation that fuels exaggerated brand loyalty and con- fuses it with black radicalism by forging bonds to corporate hip hop icons who appear to be “keeping it real” and representing the ‘hood. In turn, the near-blind loyalty of hip hop fans is exploited by those who have pimped hip hop out to the highest bidder. Members of the hip hop generation are now facing the greatest media machinery and most veiled forms of racial, economic, sexual, and gender rhetoric in modern history; they need the sharpest critical tools to survive and
thrive. Another reason this conversation is important is that the percep-
tions we have about hip hop-what it is, why it is the way it is-have been used as evidence against poor urban black communities them- selves. Using hip hop as “proof” of black people’s culpability for their circumstances undermines decades of solid and significant research on the larger structural forces that have plagued black urban commu- nities. The legacy of the systemic destruction of working-class and poor Mrican-American communities has reached a tragic new low in
the past thirty years. Since the early 1980s, this history has been rewritten, eclipsed by
the idea that black people and their “culture” (a term that is fre- quently used when “behavior” should be) are the cause of their condition and status. Over the last three decades, the public conver- sation has decidedly moved toward an easy acceptance of black ghetto existence and the belief that black people themselves are re- sponsible for creating ghettos and for choosing to live in them, thus absolving the most powerful segments of society from any responsi- bility in the creation and maintenance of them. Those who deny the legacy of systematic racism or refuse to connect the worst of what hip hop expresses to this history and its devastating effects on black
10 THE HIP HOP WARS
community are leveling unacceptable and racist attacks on black people.
The generalized hostility against hip hop impinges on the inter- pretation of other visible forms of black youth culture. For instance, black NBA players are tainted as a group for being part of the hip hop generation stylistically, no matter their personal actions. The few who have committed violent or criminal acts “prove” the whole lot of them worthy of attack. In a league that has mostly black players and mostly white fans, this becomes a racially charged (and racially gen- erated) revenue problem. Such group tainting does not occur among white athletes or fans. The National Hockey League, a league that is predominantly white (in terms of both fans and players) and experi- ences far more incidents of game-related violence (they take time- outs to brawl!) is rarely described as problematically violent. Indeed, no matter how many individual white men get in trouble with the law, white men as a group are not labeled a cultural problem. At a more local level, hip hop gear, while considered tame-even cute- on middle-class white wearers, is seen as threatening on black and brown youth, who can’t afford not to affiliate with hip hop style if they are going to have any generational credibility.
In short, the conversation about hip hop matters a great deal. Our cultural perceptions and associations have been harmful to black working-class and poor youth-the most vulnerable among us. The polarized conversation also provokes the increasing generation gap in the black community-an age gap that, in past eras, was trumped by cross-generational racial solidarity. But I wonder, too, if the effects of corporate consolidation-and of the new generational and genre- segregated market-niche strategies that dismantled the multigenera- tional and cross-genre formats that defined black radio in the past-have exaggerated, if not manufactured, the development of a contentious generational divide in the black community.
Who is hurt by our misunderstandings of hip hop? Surely, all of American society is negatively affected by both the antagonism lev- eled against it and the direction that commercial hip hop has taken. If we continue to talk about black people and race generally in near-
parodic terms, our nation will not overcome its racial Achilles’ heel; the American democratic promise, as yet unfulfilled, will end up an irreparable, broken covenant. The current state of conversation about hip hop sets destructive and illiterate terms for cross-racial community building. The people most injured by the fraught, hos- tile, and destructive state of this conversation are those who most need a healthy, honest, vibrant (not sterile and repressed) cultural space: young, poor, and working-class African-American boys and girls, men and women-the generation that comprises the future of the black community. They have the biggest stake in the conversa- tion, and they get the shortest end of the stick in it.
In this climate, young people have few visible and compassionate yet unflinchingly honest places to turn to for a meaningful apprecia- tion and critique of the youth culture in which they are so invested. The attacks on black youth through hip hop maintain economic and racial injustice. Many working-class and poor black young people have come up in black urban communities that have been disman- tled by decades-long legacies of policy-driven devastation of such communities. This devastation takes many forms, including urban and federal retreat from affordable housing, undermining of anti- discrimination laws that were designed to end structural racism, po- lice targeting, racially motivated escalations of imprisonment, and re- ductions in support for what are still mostly segregated and deeply unequal public schools. Very little of this history is common knowl- edge, and critics avoid serious discussion of these factors, focusing in- stead on rappers and the ghettos they supposedly represent.
The defenses of hip hop are also destructive. The same media that pump commercial hip hop 2417 fail to take the time to expose the crucial contexts of post-civil rights era ghetto segregation for hip hop’s development. Rappers and industry moguls who profit enormously from hip hop’s gangsta-pimp-ho trinity defend their empires purport- edly in the interests of black youth. The constant excuses made about sexism, violence, and homophobia in hip hop are not just defenses of black people via hip hop; they are hurtful to black people. Corporate media outlets empower these businessmen-rappers, underpromote
12 THE HIP HOP WARS
the more sophisticated rhymes, and play down the vigorous and well- informed analysis and criticism. Many fans consume lopsided tales of black ghetto life with little knowledge about the historical creation of
the ghetto; some think the ghetto equals black culture. These deci- sions not only dumb down the music but minimize fan knowledge and constrain the conversation as a whole.
The public conversation is both an engine for and a product of the current state of commercial hip hop. Driven by one-dimensional
sound bites from the polarized camps-a format designed to perpet- uate a meaningless and imbalanced form of “presenting both sides” – this conversation is not only contributing to the demise of hip hop but has also impoverished our ability to talk successfully about race and about the role of popular culture, mass media, and corporate conglomerates in defining-and confining-our creative expressiOns.
Versions of what has happened to hip hop that include both the ways that hip hop reflects black and brown lived experience and cre- ativity and represents market and racial manipulation have been, thus far, destined for media obscurity. It is as if the real sport of our conversation about hip hop is mutual denial and hostile engage-
ment. Intelligent, nuanced dialogue has been drowned out by the simple-minded sound bites that sustain this antagonistic divide.
Advocates and supportive critics have made a valiant effort to par- ticipate in this conversation in complex, subtle, and meaningful ways. Many writers, journalists, poets, scholars, and activists have made important contributions to the popular, literary, and scholarly treatments of hip hop. Michael Eric Dyson, Davey D, bell hooks, Mark Anthony Neal, Patricia Hill-Collins, Cornel West, Adam Mansbach, Jeff Chang, Dream Hampton, Scott Poulson-Bryant, Oliver Wang, Nelson George, Gwendolyn Pough, Imani Perry, Jef- fery Ogbar, Paul Porter, Greg Tate, Marcyliena Morgan, Lisa Fager Bediako, Angela Ards, Kevin Powell, George Lipsitz, Robin Kelley, Bakari Kitwana, Joan Morgan, and Kelefah Sanneh have all offered insightful reflections on and analyses of hip hop in their respective fields. Several others have contributed blogs and other web commen-
taries that try to sort through the current state of hip hop in a produc- tive way. But these writers and scholars are not being relied upon to
frame the mainstream conversation. The terms of this conversation need our direct attention because
they keep black youth and progressive thinkers and activists locked into one-sided positions and futile battle. If we fail to address its con- tradictions, denials, and omissions, we will become subjected to and defined by the limits of the conversation rather than proactive partic-
ipants in shaping it. I want to delineate the key features-the broad- est strokes-of this conversation, since the microstruggles in which hip hop gets embroiled usually cover up the larger terms that perpet-
uate tiresome and disabling conflict. This conversation is an integral part of the current state of com-
mercial hip hop. But to properly situate the conversation, we need to account for the larger forces driving the changes in hip hop. Why has the black gangsta-pimp-ho trinity been the vehicle for hip hop’s
greatest sales and highest market status? Why did a substyle based on hustling, crime, sexual domination, and drug dealing become rap’s
cultural and economic calling card and thus the key icon for the hip hop generation? Familiar answers like industry manipulation and racism contain important truths but gloss over five key factors that have worked synergistically to create these toxic conditions:
• New technologies and new music markets
• Massive corporate consolidation • Expansion of illicit street economies • America’s post-civil rights appetite for racially stereotyped enter-
tainment • Violence and sexually explicit misogyny as “valued” cultural
Together, these five factors explain the complicated forces that have grossly distorted the legacy of hip hop while also contributing to the conversation about it. Whereas the final three are discussed in the context of the various debates about hip hop that I examine in the
14 THE HIP HOP WARS
chapters that follow, the first two-the role of new technologies and new music markets and the unprecedented impact of massive corpo- rate consolidation – have a systemic effect on the entire field of dis- cussion, and so their inclusion in this introduction is warranted. For now, let us simply note that the debates that have played out in the hip hop wars mask the full depth of the corporate and economic cir- cumstances that redirected commercial hip hop, with an especially dramatic turn taken in the middle to late 1990s.
New Technologies, New Music Markets
Hip hop came of age at the beginning of a new technological revo- lution. Mter the late 1970s, when hip hop emerged onto the public scene, all forms of media technology exponentially expanded. Net- work television met stiff competition as cable televisions’ hundreds of niche market-driven cable stations increased market share, espe- cially as music became a predominantly visual medium (MTV and BET served as major anchors for this shift). Our listening format changed from records to CDs and computer technology. Advanced recording and digital technology became widely accessible to inde- pendent artists, producers, and consumers, changing the way music was made, purchased, consumed, shared, distributed, and stolen. Today, cell phones are MP3 players, with downloads and ringtones representing yet another expansion of the music market. These changes have made room for additional independent record labels and more local music production and distribution (at less cost and greater profits), thereby sustaining genres that might have been im- possible to maintain solely with local support before this revolution took place.
Hip hop, like nearly all black musical forms that preceded it, began as a commercially marginal music that was subjected to segregated treatment and underfunding. It was characterized by smaller produc- tion and promotion budgets along with the assumption that the rap audience would be a youthful segment of Mrican-Americans-an al-
ready proportionately small consumer market-and an even smaller percentage of whites and other ethnic groups. During the 1980s, when rap artists were developing commercial appeal, traditional but highly irregular sales measures were still being used-measures that especially underrepresented fan interest in unconventional music. As New York Times writer Neil Strauss described it: “Until 1991 the pop music charts were notoriously unreliable. Paying off record store em- ployees with free albums, concert tickets, and even vacations and washing machines was the standard music-business method of manip- ulating record sales figures. Even the Billboard magazine charts, con- sidered the most prestigious in the business, were compiled from the store managers’ oral reports, which were inaccurate to begin with and easily swayed.”l
In 1991, Soundscan, a sales measurement system that tracks al- bum purchases at their point of sale, was introduced. Although new methods of sales figure manipulation were eventually developed by record industry sales executives, new and explosive information emerged with the advent of Soundscan: Two renegade genres, hard rock and rap, came in at the top of the charts, showing the greatest actual sales and outstripping mainstream pop acts. Two weeks after the advent of Soundscan, Paula Abdul’s “Spellbound” was “replaced at the top by the Los Angeles rap group N.W.A.’s ‘EfiI4zaggin’,’ which had appeared on the chart at No.2 the previous week.”4
Soundscan initiated a dramatic reconsideration of what the record industry believed mainstream youth wanted to purchase; the results indicated that large numbers of young white consumers (whose consumption drove pop chart positions) wanted to hear gangsta-oriented rap music and would support it heartily. This en- couraged an increase in record label investment in hip hop produc- tion, distribution, and promotion on radio, especially for gangsta rap. Radio was considered the big breakthrough for hard-edged rap. Veteran radio and music programmer Glen Ford-co-owner and (from 1987 to 1994) host of Rap It Up, the first nationally syndicated radio hip hop music program-draws crucial connections between
16 THE HIP HOP WARS
the new data about consumption and the new corporate strategy for promoting gangsta rap:
By 1990, the major labels were preparing to swallow the independent
labels that had birthed commercial hip hop, which had evolved into a
wondrous mix of party, political and “street”-aggressive subsets. One
of the corporate labels (I can’t remember which) conducted a study
that shocked the industry: The most “active” consumers of Hip Hop,
they discovered, were “tweens,” the demographic slice between the
ages of 11 and 13. The numbers were unprecedented. Even in the
early years of Black radio, R&B music’s most “active” consumers were
at least two or three years older than “tweens.” It didn’t take a roomful
of PhOs in human development science to grasp the ramifications of
the data. Early and pre-adolescents of both genders are sexual-socially
undeveloped – uncertain and afraid of the other gender. Tweens revel
in honing their newfound skills in profanity; they love to curse. Males,
especially, act out their anxieties about females through aggression
and derision. This is the cohort for which the major labels would
package their hip hop products. Commercial Gangsta Rap was
born-a sub-genre that would lock a whole generation in perpetual arrested social development. 5
In 1993, Bill Stephney, a well-respected musician, producer, and
promoter known for his ground-breaking work with political rap
group Public Enemy, saw older teens being targeted as well. “It’s a
function of the culture,” Stephney noted in connection with industry
decisions that had driven hard rap’s triumph over the FM airwaves.
“You now have the prime IS-to 24-year-old demographic people who
grew up only on rap music, whether they be black, Latino or white.
Radio has decided they want to target this generation, and that rap music is the music they’re gonna program …. The radio stations
have had to play it; advertisers have had to deal with it; and corporate
America has understood it.”6 In the context of new technologies and
the expansion of media markets, this new interest in gangsta rap as a
mainstream profit stream moved swiftly into a multitude of markets
and related products.
Massive Corporate Consolidation
During this same period, the consolidation of mass-media industries,
aided by ongoing government deregulation, began to pick up steam.
Regulations designed to prevent monopolization were overturned
and large-scale consolidation in and across various media industries
took place in a very short period of time. Consolidation within a
given industry (when one or two record companies merge) gave way
to single corporations with dominant holdings in all mass media,
from newspapers, television, and musical venues to publishing
hOllses, movies, magazines, and radio stations. As late as the early
19S0s, these industries operated relatively independent of one an-
other and encompassed many internally competitive companies.
Media scholar Ben Bagdikian put it like this:
In 1983, the men and women who headed the fifty mass media corpo-
rations that dominated American audiences could have fit comfort-
ably in a modest ballroom. The people heading the twenty dominant newspaper chains probably would form one conversational cluster to
complain about newsprint prices … the broadcast network people in
another … etc. By 2003, five men controlled all these media once
run by the fifty corporations of twenty years earlier. These five, owners
of additional digital corporations, could fit in a generous phone
Five conglomerates-TimeM’arner, Disney, Viacom, Newscorpo-
ration, and Bertelsmann (of Germany)-now control the vast major-
ity of the media industry in the United States. (General Electric is a
close sixth.) Viacom, for example, owns MTV, VHI, and BET, along
with CBS radio, which operates 140 radio stations in large radio mar-
kets. The four biggest music conglomerates (each made up of many
18 THE HIP HOP WARS
record companies) are Warner Music, EMI, SonyIBMG, and Univer- sal Music Group. Together they control about 70 percent of the music market worldwide and about 80 percent of the music market in America. A multitude of artists have contracts with the companies that fall within these vast media categories. While rappers seem to be on a wide variety of labels and in different and competing camps and groups of subaffiliated artists, in fact many artists labor underneath
one large corporate umbrella. For example, Warner Music (which falls under Time Warner) has more than forty music labels including Warner Brothers (where rappers such as Crime Mob, E-40, Talib Kweli, and Lil’ Flip are signed); Atlantic (where rappers such as Flo Rida, Webbie, Twista, Trick Daddy, Plies, Diddy, and TI. are signed), Elektra, London-Sire, Bad Boy, and Rhino Records, to name just a few. Even a high-profile “beef” such as the one between rappers The
Game and 50 Cent looks somewhat tamer when one considers that The Game, whose music is distributed by Geffen, and 50 Cent, whose music is distributed by Interscope, are both included under the Universal Music Group parent company.8
Mass-media consolidation was rendered even more profound for the record industry after the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Although it enabled dramatic consolidation of ownership within the radio industry, the music industry’s key promotional and sales-generating venue, the
Telecommunications Act was described by many of its supporters as a telephone industry bill designed to allow Baby Bell phone companies to get into long-distance service, spur competition, and deregulate ca- ble rates. Included in this sweeping act, though, was a nearly buried
provision that lifted all ownership caps for radio-station broadcasters across the nation and permitted companies to operate as many as eight stations in the largest markets. Previously, broadcasters could own only forty stations nationwide, and only two in a given market. But now,
with such limited restrictions, wealthy and powerfully connected in- vestors were able to snap up a dizzying number of radio stations in an incredibly short period of time. By the end of 1996, ownership of 2, 157 radio stations had changed hands. And as of 2001, 10,000 radio trans- actions worth approximately $100 billion had taken place.9
Until this point, a relatively large network of small- to medium- sized local radio-station owners were accountable to the public and its local musical, cultural, religious, newscasting, community, and
political needs. Now, our public airwaves are profoundly dominated by a small number of very large national and international corpora-
tions. According to a study published by the Future of Music Coali- tion, “Ten parent companies dominate the radio spectrum, radio listenership and radio revenues …. Together these ten parent com- panies control two-thirds of both listeners and revenue nationwide.” Clear Channel is the mightiest of them all, owning a dramatic 1,240
radio stations nationwide, thirty times more than previous congres- sional regulation allowed. With more than 100 million listeners, Clear Channel reaches over one-third of the U.S. population. 1o
This consolidation has affected radio programming in many ways, including a higher consolidation of playlists within and across for-
mats, higher levels of repetition of record industry-chosen songs, ho- mogenized and in some cases automated programming, and the near erasure of local, non-record-industry-sponsored artists. Large corpora- tions profit from maintaining high levels of efficiency and consis- tency, which help them maintain the widest possible market share. Both efficiency and consistency of product encourage cuts in local
staffing as well as in idiosyncratic programming such as local acts and news that cannot be packaged and rebroadcast elsewhere. Commer- cially established major-label acts, because of their visibility and no-
toriety, are easily packaged for a national audience and easily transportable across regions. Thus they dominate their genre-specific
playlists across the country. Officially speaking, record stores are the primary sales venue for
recorded music; in reality, radio stations and music video programs provide the bulk of music promotion and sales. Radio and music video airplay are at the heart of artist visibility and record industry profits. Record companies try to convince owners and radio and music video program directors to play their artists’ music in elaborate and ever-evolving ways. Consolidation of radio-station ownership fo- cused and consolidated the record industry’s “promotional” contracts
20 THE HIP HOP WARS
with independent promoters, who do the radio-and television-station schmoozing and bribing on behalf of the record companies to en- courage them to add their clients’ songs to the stations’ playlists. In- stead of having to develop promotional relationships with hundreds of independent program directors, now record companies can negoti- ate with fewer corporate program directors who determine the playlists for dozens of stations around the country.
Industry-wide consolidation had a distinctive impact on black ra- dio, and this in turn dramatically influenced the direction of com- mercial hip hop. Counting just those formats that emphasize hip hop/contemporary R&B (sometimes dubbed “hot urban” stations, with a target demographic of 12- to 24-year-olds), we find that Clear Channel, Radio One, and Emmis Radio have an astounding number of major urban markets covered. “Urban” is a euphemism for black music genres and markets. The stations listed below represent the depth of corporate consolidation of stations dedicated to playing hip hop on urban radio stations. Keep in mind that these lists comprise only the names of “hot urban” !hip hop-focused stations; other black urban music formats such as Rhythmic Adult Contemporary (with a target demographic of 18- to 34-year-olds) and Urban Adult Contem- porary (with a target demographic of 29- to 45-year-olds) feature some hip hop but much more soul and R&B. Many of these other formatted stations are controlled by the same key players, however.
Clear Channel owns stations with the “hot urban”!hip hop and R&B format in nearly all major cities, many with large black popula- tions, including Boston (94.5 WJMN), Chicago (107.5 WGCI), Columbus (98.3 WBFA), Detroit (98 WJLB), Memphis (97 WHRK), New Orleans (93.3 WQUE), New York (105.1 WWPR), Norfolk/ Virginia Beach (102.9 WOWI), Oakland/San Francisco (106 KMEL), Philadelphia (99 WUSL), and Richmond (106.5 WBTJ). Emmis Ra- dio owns 106 KPWR in Los Angeles and 97 WQHT in New York.
Radio One, the other major player in the hip hop radio market, is black owned and controls at least fifty-three urban music stations in sixteen markets, fourteen of which are hip hop focused. Radio One founder Catherine Hughes, who began as the owner of a small black
radio station, carried out the legacy of black radio as a local commu- nity service operation – one among many of her roles and capacities. Despite this legacy, Radio One-given its need to remain profitable in the context of massive consolidation – has supported the record industry’s drive to promote the consolidation of programming that in- cludes destructive caricatures of black people. Radio One owns ma- jor hip hop stations in Atlanta (107.9 WHAT), Baltimore (92.3 WERQ), Cincinnati (101.1 WIZF), Cleveland (107.9 WENZ), Columbus (107.5 WCKX), Dallas (97.9 KBFB), Detroit (102.7 WHTD), Houston (97.9 KBXX) , Indianapolis (96.3 WHHH), Philadelphia (100.3 (WPHI), Raleigh-Durham, NC (97.5 (WQOK), Richmond (92.1 WCDX), St Louis (104.1 WHHL), and Washing- ton, D.C. (93.9 WKYS).
Consolidation had an especially negative impact on black radio news programming that went beyond the drastic reduction of news on all radio stations. Historically, black radio news programs played a powerful role in gathering and disseminating information about black social-justice issues that were largely omitted from other radio program formats. Such programs comprised a vital communication network for the civil rights movement, for example. Bruce Dixon, managing editor of the Black Agenda Report, describes the historical role of black radio as “a transmitter and conveyor, as the very circula- tory system of public consciousness in Mrican-American communi- ties.” The deep reductions in local news programming and journalism felt nationwide in commercial radio have cut into a cru- cial form of black social activism not easily replaced by other news media. Indeed, it could be argued that the absence of local news re- ports on such activism, coupled with the expansion of destructive and simple-minded fare, has negatively affected African-American public consciousness-specifically, by reducing black community knowledge about crucial issues. ll
The consolidation of radio-station ownership not only raised the stakes for getting radio stations to play record companies’ designated songs; it also resulted in greater airplay on a wider network of sta- tions. The history of payola-paying to get your song played on the
22 THE HIP HOP WARS
radio – is long and storied. The refusal of most people in the industry to publicly admit to it has rendered payola a shadowy but still power-
ful force, plied in sophisticated ways to evade payola-inspired laws. It is a crime for a radio-station employee to accept any sort of payment to playa song unless the radio station informs listeners about the ex- change. Thus, record companies’ direct method of paying for airplay has been replaced by the indirect method of payoff. Independent promotion firms (called “indies”) are hired by record companies to
“do promotion” at radio stations. As reporter Eric Boehlert explains: “In exchange for paying the station an annual promotion budget ($100,000 for a medium size market) the indie becomes the station’s exclusive indie and gets paid by the record companies every time that station adds a new song. (Critics say it’s nothing more than a sani-
tized quid pro quo arrangement-station adds a song, indie gets ‘d )”12 pal . In the case of urban music, considered by some the wild west of an
industry widely perceived as corrupt and volatile, the money is less likely to go toward the radio’s budget than to end up in the program director’s hands-either as cash or in some other form of gifting. This arrangement takes place in both radio and music video program-
ming, despite public denials from corporate executives. Reports that the practice is prevalent have been made by many industry insiders, nearly all of whom want to remain anonymous. In 2001, Eric Boehlert asked an urban industry insider whether payoff-taking is widespread. The latter replied: “What do you mean ‘widespread’? It’s all the [urban] stations everywhere.”ll
Paul Porter-a former radio and BET video programmer who, with Lisa Fager Bediako, cofounded Industry Ears, a nonprofit, non- partisan, and independent organization that focuses on the impact of media on communities of color and children – has spoken openly about how payola works both at radio stations and at music video sta- tions like BET:
During my first week as program director at BET, I set up the
playlist, deciding which videos would be played and how often. I cut
the playlist from four hundred titles to a mere eighty because they
had been playing any videos a record company sent over. Some in-
dustry executives were elated because their videos got more airplay;
the others were furious. And if you were a record label executive,
you needed to make sure I was happy. Almost everybody in this in-
dustry takes money. If they have the power to put a song on the radio
or a video on television, they’ve been offered money to do it-and
they’ve taken it. Maybe it’s only been once or twice. But they’ve
done it. 14
Porter admits to taking cash payments for adding songs and videos (which was standard operating procedure). He also reveals how the high cost of music videos raised sales expectations and thus expanded
Videos became so expensive. I just started noticing all the pressure
when it came to adding videos, everybody wanted to be on BET since
MTV wasn’t playing anything black in those days. It started small,
with sending you and your girl to Miami for the weekend first class,
nice hotels, tickets to Knicks playoff games, offers to big ticket con-
certs in Europe. Then it just became money, flat-out straight money. I
went to work in New York for two years and when I came back to BET
in ’99 as program director, the second week I was there I was staying
in Hotel George and I got a call from the promoter who said, “Hey
man, I’m sending you this package,” it was for Arista records, right,
and I’m like “cool,” I’ve never met the guy blah blah blah-I got a
FedEx on Saturday, I got fifteen grand! In an envelopeP;
In this era of massive corporate mergers, corrupt record industry promotional methods in collusion with radio stations are empowered and consolidated while independent black local musical culture and radio are subsumed or dismantled. Commercial hip hop is driven by
this Byzantine system; gangstas, pimps, and hoes are products that promotional firms, working through record companies for corporate
conglomerates, placed in high rotation.
24 THE HIP HOP WARS
While the swift consolidation and hyper-marketing of the hip hop trinity haven’t entirely killed off more diverse portrayals, they have substantially reduced their space and their value. As a result, such portrayals are now harder to see, less commercially viable, and less as- sociated with prestige and coolness. Veteran “conscious rapper” Paris was quoted as saying: “What underground? Do you know how much good material is marginalized because it doesn’t fit white corporate America’s ideals of acceptability? Independents can’t get radio or video play anymore, at least not through commercial outlets, and most listeners don’t acknowledge material that they don’t see or hear regularly on the radio or on T.V”16
Throughout The Hip Hop Wars, when I use the phrase “commer- cial hip hop,” I am not referring to any artist signed to a record com- pany. In this market environment, nearly all artists who want to survive have to sign up to one label or another. “Commercial hip hop,” then, refers to the heavy promotion of gangstas, pimps, and
hoes churned out for mainstream consumption of hip hop. Powerful corporate interests that dominate radio, television, record produc-
tion, magazines, and all other related hip hop promotional venues are choosing to support and promote negative images above all oth- ers-all the while pretending that they are just conduits of existing conditions, and making excuses about these images being “reality.”
Challenges that emphasize the role of corporate power are on the rise. In the face of sustained protests and opposition by individuals and interest groups such as Al Sharpton, the Enough Is Enough cam-
paign, Spelman alum and Feminist Majority member Moya Bailey, and Industry Ears, mass-media executives have remained remarkably silent. In May 2007 Marcus Franklin reported in USA Today that Universal chairman Doug Morris and president Zach Horowitz de- clined repeated requests to discuss the issue, as did Warner chairman and chief executive Edgar Bronfman, Sony chairman Andrew Lack, chief executive Rolph Schmidt-Holtz, and EMI Group CEO Eric Nicoli. 17
Cowardly silence aside, these executives could not have trans- formed commercial hip hop into a playground for destructive street
icons alone. Clearly, the corporate takeover of commercial hip hop has also been facilitated, directly or indirectly, by artists (especially those who have become moguls and entrepreneurs) who gleefully rap about guns and bitches, liberal and conservative critics and aca- demics, and journalists who uncritically profile these artists and hip hop fans of all races, classes, and genders. This shift was not in-
evitable; it was allowed to happen. We must be more honest in think- ing about how black ghetto gangsta-based sales are the result of marketing manipulation and the reflection not only of specific reali- ties in our poorest black urban communities but also of the exploita- tion of already-imbedded racist fears about black people.
“Mainstream” white America, black youth, black moguls (existing
and aspiring), and big mass-media corporations together created hip hop’s tragic trinity, the black gangsta, pimp, and ho-the cash cow that drove the big mainstream crossover for hip hop. Unless we deal
with this part of the equation and see the dynamic as both new and very old – unless we acknowledge that racialized and sexualized fan-
tasies and the money they generate for corporate mass media helped elevate this trinity in hip hop-we’ll be back here again in no time,
to a different black beat. In the following chapters, readers will find the Hip Hop Top Ten:
the top-ten arguments about hip hop, five from each side of the po- larized debate. One way or another, the public debates about hip hop always come back to these ten issues. In each chapter, I will ex- plore one of these favorite claims against and defenses of hip hop,
challenging excesses, myths, denials, and manipulations as well as identifying the elements of truth that each argument contains.
Hip Hop’s Critics
1. Hip Hop Causes Violence 2. Hip Hop Reflects Black Dysfunctional Ghetto Culture 3. Hip Hop Hurts Black People 4. Hip Hop Is Destroying America’s Values 5. Hip Hop Demeans Women
26 THE HIP HOP WARS
Hip Hop’s Defenders
6. Just Keeping It Real 7. Hip Hop Is Not Responsible for Sexism 8. “There Are Bitches and Hoes” 9. We’re Not Role Models
10. Nobody Talks About the Positive in Hip Hop
There are two kinds of traps set by these popular, polarized, and partially true positions. I’ve already talked about their lack of com- plexity. But there is another trap: the hidden mutual denials on op- posing sides of the debate. Indeed, the fact that critics and defenders share many underlying assumptions about hip hop only mires us more deeply within this conversation. In Chapter 11, I explore these
mutual denials and discuss how they work to mask underlying atti- tudes shared by both sides. They direct our attention away from the ugly truths about ghetto fantasies and corporate influences, but also away from the kinds of progressive solutions that could nourish hip hop, open up opportunities for poor youth, and contribute to affirm- ing multiracial vision.
Extraordinary creativity and possibility continue to come up through the narrow spaces that still remain. Not only do some artists find lyrically creative and community-affirming ways to make well- worn stories about street life seem renewed, but many brilliant artists and local community activists continue to write and perform rich, dy- namic stories and trenchant political commentary, the likes of which listeners almost never hear on commercial radio. I will identify these
marginalized but crucial artists and activists in Chapter 12. Among them are filmmaker Byron Hurt, director of the extraordinary film Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, who challenges fans as well as hip hop artists and their corporate representatives in powerful and progressive ways; Raquel Cepeda, whose fascinating film Bling: A Planet Rock connects U.S. consumption of diamonds to exploitation and violence and poverty in Sierra Leone; and rappers Lupe Fiasco and Jean Grae, whose music is funky, lyrically sophisticated, vibrant,
and progressive. These filmmakers and artists are rarely promoted. They are given little airtime in mainstream media, and thus many readers might think they simply don’t exist, might believe that the
mainstream corporate rappers, producers, and promoters who sup- port and excuse hip hop’s most destructive elements are all there is to
hip hop. Hurt, Cepeda, Fiasco, Grae, and many others are part of the solu-
tion because they are developing hip hop generation-based progres-
sive terms for the conversation about hip hop and encouraging community-affirming terms of creativity. Equally important, they are
finding ways to critique hip hop without bashing the entire genre, to support hip hop without nourishing sexist, homophobic, or racist ideas or promoting economic exploitation of the communities from
which hip hop comes. Finally, if my point about our being trapped in the false opposi-
tions sustained by our polarized conversation on hip hop has any value, it will generate some version of the following questions: What do we do next? How do we-those who have progressive visions and appreciate hip hop’s gifts-participate, judge, critique, reject, and support hip hop? How can we help hip hop’s youngest fans become
conscious of what they are being fed and of its impact on them and their communities? How can we change the conversation and the terms of play in hip hop itself? Which position should we take up vis-
a-vis hip hop, and on what should it be based? To answer these questions, I conclude with six ideas for guiding
progressive hip hop creativity and participation. So many of us are caught between rejecting hip hop and embracing it, while turning a blind eye to what has become the genre’s greatest profit engines. The terms of embrace and rejection we often settle on are not clear, nor do they help us shape a progressive vision that can transform what we
have now into what we might want to see in the future. These ideas represent community-inspired standards marked by a
balanced, loving, socially and politically progressive vision of creativ- ity and black public thought, action, and reaction. Developing this vision isn’t a repression of anger or sexuality or of artists telling their
28 THE HIP HOP WARS
truths. On the contrary, it is a vehicle for encouraging creativity that does not revolve around hurling insults and perpetuating social injus- tices. Countless times, in these hip hop wars, hip hop media mogul Russell Simmons has defended the right of artists to “speak from their hearts,” to tell their own truths. But do they tell all their truths in hip hop? And to what ends, to serve whom? Surely, no one wants
artists to speak from a false place, but the heart is not a predeter- mined place: It is a cultivated one.
Communities have always set limits on the depths of self-destructive iconography, language, and action that will be allowed. This isn’t a
matter of invoking police or government action. It is about taking cul- tural control of ourselves in a society that has long been involved in the destruction of black self-love, dignity, and community survival. Operating in the larger progressive interests of the black community- and society at large – is the aim. But to fulfill this aim, we have to con- solidate and illuminate the actions of those who are working toward
community-sustaining goals and promote the key principles about how self-expression can be cutting-edge, angry, loving, honest, sexy, meaningful, and empowering, no matter the subject. Black music has always been a central part of this affirming, truth-telling process, but in this so-called post-civil rights era, it is up against new pressures and re- quires new strategies.
We cannot truly deal with what is wrong in hip hop without facing the broader cultures of violence, sexism, and racism that deeply in- form hip hop, motivating the sales associated with these images. Yet, those of us who fight for gender, sexual, racial, and class justice also can’t defend the orgy of thug life we’re being fed simply because “sex- ism and violence are everywhere” or because corporations are largely responsible for peddling it. We can explain and contextualize why hip hop seems to carry more of this burden, but we can’t defend it. Even if sexism and violence are everywhere (and, sadly, they are), what I care most about is not proving that hip hop did or did not in- vent sexism, or the gangsta figure, bitch, ho, thug, or pimp, but show-
ing how the excessive and seductive portrayal of these images among
black popular hip hop artists is negatively affecting the music and the very people whose generational sound is represented by hip hop.
The destructive forms of black, racist-inspired hyper-masculinity for which commercial hip hop has become known make profound
sense given the alchemy of race, class, and gender in U.S. society. But we shouldn’t sit idly by or celebrate the fixation with the black pimp, his ornate pimp cup, and the culture of sexual, economic, and gender exploitation for which this persona stands. Understand-
ing and explaining are not the same as justifying and celebrating, and this is the crucial distinction we must make if we stand a fight- ing chance in this perpetual storm. The former-understanding and explaining-are an integral part of solving the problems with hip hop; the latter-justifying and celebrating-are lazy, reactionary,
dangerous, and lacking in progressive political courage. Yes, hip hop’s excesses will continue to be used as a scapegoat; but we must develop our own progressive critique, not just stand around defend- ing utter insanity because our enemies attack it. The mere fact that our enemies attack something we do does not make our actions wor- thy of defense.
We must fight for a progressive, social justice-inspired, culturally nuanced take on hip hop-a vision that rejects the morally hyper- conservative agenda and the “whatever sells works for me” brand of
hustlers’ neo-minstrelsy that have become so lucrative and accessible for the youth in poor black communities today. The Hip Hop Wars is a sometimes polemical, always passionate assessment of where we are, what’s wrong with the conversation we are having about hip hop, why it matters, and how to fix it. Too many people on both sides of this debate seem to have lost their collective minds, taking a grain of truth and using it to starve a nation of millions.
I hope this book will help galvanize progressive conversation and action among the thousands of current and aspiring artists, fans, par- ents, teachers, and cultural workers- black, white, Latino, Asian, young and old, of all backgrounds, from all places and spaces. I am even hoping that various industry workers and record and television
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executives will read this book, see themselves as part of the solution, and work harder to develop community-enabling ways to stay in busi- ness. This book is for everyone who feels uneasy about commercial hip hop-some who know that something is really wrong but can’t name it; others who are working to make hip hop the kind of cultural nourishment it can be but are getting very little help to fix it; and still others who remain sidelined, worried that jumping into the fray means being forced to take impossible sides in an absurdly polarized battle.