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Jeffrey j. Weiss
Paul von Blum
Silja j.a. Talvi
On Second Street
Stolen lives Project
Activist Priorities 2000
Slippin' & Slidin'
Gay and Lesbian Community Notes
Jan knippers Black
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Ever since the world of hip-hop edged into public consciousness in the late 1970s, mainstream and alternative media have slagged the music and its listeners for encouraging gang violence, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and nihilism. Despite the bad press, by the end of the century the music had become a billion-dollar industry.
In 1999, the Recording Industry Association Of America reported that rap music sales had reached a 10.1 percent market share and 10 of the top 40 albums of the year were rap records. The trend holds in 2000, with platinum-plus album sales (over one million units sold) being generated by new album releases by Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, DMX, Ice Cube, Eminem, 2PAC & Outlawz, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
Beyond music, the cultural impact of hip-hop is all pervasive. Influencing clothing and hair styles, street slang, sexuality, advertising, TV, and film, rap culture is now mainstream. Originally the expression of a mostly low income black and Latino youth culture in New York City, hip-hop today is the dominant music of all youth. With this commercial clout, corporations are embracing rap music and rap artists as a means of marketing goods to everyone.
In a recent interview with Billboard magazine, Joe Marrone, CEO of Antra Records, explained: “If you watch corporate America, there is a mass amount of cross-promotion with hip-hop today in commercials, in products. Years ago, these major corporations wouldn't associate themselves with this form of music. They felt it wasn't a healthy way to go. They now understand that you have to because that's where the market share is.”
Despite the market share, however, hip-hop, at the dawn of a new century, is artistically stagnant. In the quest for big-time commercial success, beats and rhymes and performers have all started to sound the same.
Since the mid-1990s, hip-hop crossover has been fueled by a relentless outpouring of thug life tales from the hood reporting grim and glamorized realities of urban turf wars, easy loot, and ostentatious living. While gang warfare and drugs are still rampant in inner city communities, hard core rap would have us believe that virtually all black and brown youth embrace the gangster lifestyle. It's a fairy tale that sells.
As music writer Nelson George shows in Hip-Hop America (Penguin Books, 1999), rap music is about “a generation coming of age at a moment of extreme racial confusion.” Growing up in the era of Ronald Reagan, neo-liberalism, industrial flight, AIDS, an expanding black middle class, heightened economic disparity, crack, and an exploding prison-industrial complex, hip-hop became youth of color's most powerful means of telling the truth about their lives. With harsh, often startling verse and throbbing wall-rattling beats, hip-hop evoked America's violent and racist underbelly.
With the release of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back in 1988, Public Enemy managed to channel rage and frustration through a militant set of raps intending to stir resistance “by any means necessary.” In the same year, NWA's Straight Outta Compton rallied alarm and inspiration with a prophetic rhyme entitled “Fuck The Police.” In a wave of “consciousness raising,” rappers such as KRS-One, Poor Righteous Teachers, and Native Tongues critiqued institutions of white power, while ripping destructive values of the streets. For a short moment, Afro-centric, Black Power politics pushed onto the pop charts.
For whites, of course, politically oriented rap had its own uses. A substantial portion of Public Enemy's white following shared sympathy with the group's anti-racist message, and like hip white youth through the century, viewed black dissidents as models for their own outsider identity.
But with the rise of the harder, meaner “gangsta” school of the mid-1990s, hip-hop's white audience discovered a more suitable (and less politically demanding) soundtrack for suburban rebellion. In the cold, live-for-the-moment nihilism of Dr. Dre, Tupac, Snoop Dooggy Dog, and the Notorious BIG, violence, sex, and money ruled the day. Wth videos now rap's dominant promotion vehicle, thug life pulp fiction translated remarkably well as small screen mini-drama. In the safety of a white teenager's bedroom, mayhem and murder offered edgy entertainment with no risk or context.
Hip-hop's “poets of negation,” as Nelson George calls them, as well as their young black audience, knew their streets and neighborhoods as a more complex and contradictory reality. But what started as a stark and graphic reflection of post-Civil Rights black America became a music industry marketing scheme to maximize profit. Despite the increasing one dimensionality of the music, the destructiveness of gangster values, and the murders of the genre's two biggest stars (Tupac and Notorious BIG), mainstream hip-hop today is about “getting paid.”
Beyond mainstream rap, however, a new political and moral sensibility is on the rise. While the gangster formula has been ruling the marketplace, various alternative semi-popular groups like Jurrasic 5, Blackalicious, Outkast, and Dilated Peoples have carved out sizable followings with beats and rhymes straying from consensus clichés. The breakthrough fusions of hip-hop/R&B by Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, D'Angelo, and Erykah Badu have signaled a turn to themes of community responsibility, spirituality, and respect for women. And in the more overtly political vein, the work of Spearhead, The Roots, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli has reflected an upsurge of hip-hop activism.
In recent months this turn toward more conscious rap has been evidenced in a number of new releases challenging fans and fellow artists to political mobilization. With front-page headlines stirring the Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo travesties, mounting evidence of the race and class bias driving death penalty convictions, the expose of the LAPD, and the on-going expansion of the nation's prisons, its timely for rappers to target the criminal justice system. On No More Prisons (Raptivison) various rappers, actor Danny Hooch, and professor Cornel West unravel facts and fiction about our corrupt legal institutions. Police brutality is the subject on “Hip-Hop For Respect,” a single produced by Organized Noize, a hip-hop all-star team including RZA from Wu-Tang, Black Star's Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Rah Digga, and Common. And on the upcoming album of Wyclef Jean, we get a tribute/protest inspired by the Diallo murder.
The most exciting and provocative examples of hip-hop's political resurgence, however, are found on albums that take on social and economic conditions more broadly. Like Water For Chocolate (MCA), the fourth album by Chicago's Common, is a multi-textured, marvelously produced recording blending jazz, soul, and world sounds into an artful backdrop for critical examinations of fake gangsta jive, pimp/whore contradictions, family and community ties, assorted street decadence, and the case of Assata Shakur.
With jazzers (trumpeter Roy Hargrove, Stephon Harris), kindred spirit rappers (Mos Def, the Roots), soul singers (D'Angelo, Erykah Badu) and an Afro-beat master (Femi Kuti) assisting, Common layers sounds and moods with the precision of classical suites. All this carefully designed order (and beauty) works as sophisticated hook to hold listeners through some painful probing of wounds and suffering in black communities.
Although clearly aware of the economic determinants of oppression, Common, on Like Water For Chocolate, is most concerned with the spiritual decay breeding in an unjust material world. When he declares “It's a shame what money do to a nigger brain” on “Dooinit,” he's decrying the empty material values of brothers and sisters up and down the class structure. On other tunes, without offering any easy prescriptions, he asks listeners to consider the meaning of “freedom,” “love,” and “purpose.” Finally, after more than an hour's worth of soul searching, Common turns the MC chores over to his father Lonnie “Pops” Lynn to sum up a better way. Smooth flowing soul-jazz carrying an elder's wisdom, “Pops Rap III...All My Children” is an intoxicating invitation to build hip-hop as an underground railroad to a freer, fairer world for all.
Describing their attack as a cross between Public Enemy and NWA, Dead Prez makes no bones about its anti-capitalist Black Panther flavored politics. On the explosive debut album Let's Get Free (Loud), the dual MC powers of Stic.man and M-1 rant critique and protest aimed “to get this shit off our backs.” Laying out diatribes against the lack of meaningful work, brainwash education, police brutality, and the criminal- ization of black maleness, Let's Get Free is hands down the most confrontational record of the year.
Explaining the Dead Prez mission in a recent interview with Bay Area writer Eric K. Arnold, Stic.man commented, “The prison population ain't nothing but us. Crack came in the eighties and that's took half of our brothers and pops. The police murdering us on all coasts, it's a war on us, know what I'm saying? And this music, hip-hop, came from the people. The businesses and corporations took it and made some new mutant form out of this shit. But at the essence, it's about communicating our struggle, our experiences. And trying to analyze our struggle and come up with a solution. That's what's calling it out.”
This calling out also cuts two ways. Although Dead Prez proclaim “capitalism means black suffering,” Let's Get Free lays out a stiff code of values and lifestyle changes for a new generation of activist youth. On the “Tomorrow” section of the disc, raps such as “Be Healthy” and “Discipline” make suggestions for exercise, a veggie diet, drinking lots of water, and living an organized life. The more political “Today” section includes a call to raise the bar on respect for women and give up the cheap thrills of ego and conspicuous consumption (“I don't wanna be no movie star/I don't wanna drive no fancy car”).
The real power of Let's Get Free, however, comes in the moments when Stic.man and M-1 unleash their fury on the system. “Police State,” “Behind Enemy Lines,” “‘They' Schools,” and “We Want Freedom” are pushed along by fluid, molten lines bursting with insight, rage and bravado. Throughout, the mix of samples, beats, and live instruments (particularly Bernard Grubman's guitar) pumps grooves and noise that foster delirious agitation. A fire bomb for the new hip-hop uprising. Z