Battle for the Soul of Hip-Hop

Like news quizzes? Here’s a stumper. What public figure said this last week to a NEWSWEEK reporter? “In terms of what certain media outlets show you, it’s very one-dimensional. It’s not just hip-hop music–TV and movies in general are very narrow. Sex, violence, the underbelly, with junkies, prostitutes, alcoholics, gamblers. The new trend today is depravity.” If your final answer was Joe Lieberman, Lynne Cheney, Dr. Laura or some first-term congressman in a close race, go sit down. It was Mos Def, 26, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based activist, actor, bookstore owner and gold-album-selling rapper, impeccably cool, a sworn enemy of censorship–and even an admirer of Eminem, the right wing’s demon-rapper du jour. When a guy like Mos Def thinks the culture’s getting out of hand, you’ve got to wonder if all this election-year posturing might actually be about something after all.

Last week, in hearings before the Senate Commerce Committee, Hollywood executives went into rope-a-dope defensive mode when castigated about the marketing of violent movies to children. But the entertainment product line–or “art form,” as we used to call it–that worries people the most this year is hip-hop music. What was a marginal musical form 20 years ago has come to dominate the pop charts. Eminem’s latest, the jaw-droppingly harsh “Marshall Mathers LP,” has sold gone septuple-platinum–neck and neck with Britney Spears–while the latest CD by his producer Dr. Dre, godfather of gangsta rap and cofounder of N.W.A, went quintuple-platinum. Six of last week’s top 20 albums were rap records. All of them had parental-advisory stickers.

In her testimony at those same Senate hearings, Lynne Cheney, wife of Republican vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney, made Eminem exhibit A. Dr. Dre meanwhile promises his client’s next CD will be even harder-core. (In a NEWSWEEK interview last week, we asked Eminem if he was surprised by Cheney’s attack, and his publicist cut him off. “Uh-uh. We’re supposed to be talking about the music.” So apparently even a guy who raps about raping and murdering his mother will toe the line when he has to.) Though a new NEWSWEEK Poll finds that 41 percent of voters nationwide say they listen at least occasionally to rap–and three quarters of voters under 30 do–almost two thirds say it has too much violence. Sixty-three percent of listeners think it has a bad attitude toward women, and substantial majorities believe it’s too materialistic and contains too much sex.

Rap has drawn flak for years. After the controversies over N.W.A’s “F–k Tha Police” (1988) and Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” (1992) came the 1996 murder of Tupac Shakur and the allegedly tit-for-tat assassination of Biggie Smalls–widely and irrationally interpreted as proof positive that violent lyrics cause violent behavior. Hard-core rap music is now driven almost exclusively by sex, violence and materialism. The latest perceived outrages against decency, morality and good taste are the plague of “booty” videos on MTV and BET, the vogue for songs about pimping and the “Bling Bling” mentality. In that 1999 song by B.G. of New Orleans’s Cash Money Millionaires clique, the ringing sound of a cash register serves as a metonymy for Trumpian hyperwealth and its conspicuous display. (The Jewelers of America reports a 40 percent-plus increase in the sales of white gold and platinum since the high-rolling Puff Daddy hit the scene. Coincidence?) Twenty years after rap’s first top-40 hit, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, even people within the hip-hop community itself feel betrayed. A lot of the people who not only love the music but helped create it wonder if this colossus is a Frankenstein’s monster–with $50,000 worth of white gold draped over its neck pegs. “Everything people hoped for came true,” says Reginald C. Dennis, 34, former editor of the influential hip-hop magazine The Source, “and everyone’s miserable about it. It was a hollow dream.”

They’re sick of the relentless marketing of sex (Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up”), misogynistic violence (Eminem’s “Kim,” in which he cuts his wife’s throat and locks her in the trunk of a car) and lyrics like Mystikal’s “Came here with my d–k in my hand/Don’t make me leave here with my foot in yo’ a–.” And they’re put off by what hip-hop journalist Cheo Hodari Coker calls “a culture of excess.” Bentley coupes, Cristal champagne and crisp hundred-dollar bills make up an entire lucre lexicon in the videos of director Hype Williams. For Coker, rap’s runaway success represents a blown opportunity. “We used to say, ‘If we had television exposure, access to magazines, all these things the white boys have, we’d be doing so much more. Now we have all that s–t and we’re not doing a damn thing with it. These cats have $150,000 watches and still end up everywhere two hours late.” Some old-school rappers worry about what their own kids are now seeing on MTV and BET. “I have a 6-year-old son,” says Darryl McDaniel, 36, a.k.a. D.M.C. of the pioneering trio Run-D.M.C. “I don’t want him thinking that drinking champagne and slapping bitches is what he has to do.” And idealistic new-school rappers worry too. “The endless strip-club videos and the sexist views toward women aren’t where hip-hop should be,” says Chicago-based Common, 25. “Our women are the queens of the universe.”

But other rappers don’t want to hear about their obligation to be “positive.” “What else can you rap about but money, sex, murder or pimping?” says Queens, N.Y.-based Ja Rule, 24. “There isn’t a whole lot else going on in our world.” And Dr. Dre says he tried to change direction in 1997, with the adventurous “Dr. Dre Presents… The Aftermath,” and nearly lost his shirt–that is, sold a mere 2 million units instead of his usual 4 million or 5 million. “I have kids and wanted to get away from the ‘bitches and hos’ and the violence,” he says. “But I had to come back to the real. Back to the gangsta.” As Michael Eric Dyson, professor of African-American studies at DePaul University, puts it, “There’s a war going on for the soul of hip-hop.”

It’s tempting to see this debate simply as one more generational dispute. Ex-Source editor Dennis, despite his own problems with current trends in rap, says old-schoolers just don’t understand. “By the time you’re raising kids, you’re not going to be on the corner with your hat on backwards, and it’s time for someone else to take the reins.” And the now antediluvian West Coast gangsta rapper Ice-T (who’s in his early 40s) doesn’t want to hear that things aren’t what they used to be. “That’s like Carl Lewis sayin’, ‘They ain’t runnin’ how I used to run.’ Well, they runnin’ faster than you used to run, motherf—–r. I listen to some of them rap now–I mean, come on, that s–t is warp-factor-seven hip-hop. Hip-hop is like rock and roll. It’s about wild men, scantily clad women and fast living. This is the food of human beings.” But even as unimpeachably new school a rapper as Eminem, 26, whom Ice-T says he’d never dare battle (“and I been in the game 15, 18 years”), admits he’s disappointed at the prevailing mediocrity–and nostalgic for the old days. “Besides Jay-Z and Redman, I can’t think of anyone who’s coming out lately who made me say, ‘Oh, s–t.’ With Big Daddy Kane, you couldn’t wait for a new album.” Fiery-haired Philly-based rapper Eve, 24, of the Ruff Ryders clique, looks back to a slightly later golden age. “I think if Biggie and Tupac were alive, you wouldn’t hear so much bulls—t like you do now,” she says. “Guys would be ashamed. They talked about something.” And Mos Def blames the music industry for endlessly promoting the same tired, vacuous product without offering much in the way of alternatives. “If all you make available is acorns, people will eat the f–kin’ acorns.”

But the rap against today’s rap isn’t merely esthetic. Chuck D, leader of Public Enemy–the most important political rap group in hip-hop history–recently posted on his Web site a jeremiad against the “dumbing down” of rap. His screed was prompted by the fisticuffs that shut down an awards ceremony hosted by The Source magazine. He accused rappers of flaunting “their rewards for ignorance to black folks and, foolishly, to everyone else while buck-dancing and outcooning the next cat.” In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Chuck D, 40, insisted that he didn’t want to sound like “some bitter old man,” but recapitulated his argument that hip-hop’s verbal and video images of young black men strutting, rutting and shooting feeds racist stereotypes. “The endorsement of thugs is white people’s fantasy of what they want us to be.” Chuck D’s thinking resonates with Spike Lee’s new film, “Bamboozled,” which presents hip-hop as essentially a modern-day minstrel show. And the point isn’t lost on “conscious” young rappers like Mos Def. “I’m in complete agreement with what Spike has to say,” he says. “It’s minstrelsy because that’s what white people want to believe about us–that it’s about ‘money, cash, hos’ for all of us.” Yet for some in the black community, the worst consequence of the bling-bling sensibility isn’t how blacks may appear to whites, but what blacks might be doing to themselves.

The Source–not to be confused with the magazine–is a small storefront in Atlanta, at the edge of the Atlanta University Center, a group of historically black colleges including Spelman and Morehouse. Here every night is open-mike night, and up to 100 students–mostly young men, whose parents have sent them here to study biology, science or communications–show up to pursue what they think could be a more glamorous and lucrative career in rap. If their flow is tight and the crowd is with them, they may be invited back to rhyme again. And who knows what record executives might be out there in the audience?

As the number of young black men attending college steadily dwindles–it’s now down to about half the number of black women–the piles of unsolicited demo tapes get higher in record-company offices. Sports and entertainment have often been the brightest lures for young African-Americans with more than modest ambitions. But it seems easier to be the next Jay-Z than the next Michael Jordan: just talk dirty to a canned drumbeat, right? As for the options parents seem to prefer–paying off student loans for the next 10 years as you trudge up the corporate ladder toward the glass ceiling–well, these days it’s losing appeal. As the St. Louis rapper Nelly puts it in his recent No. 1 rap hit, “Country Grammar”: “Bill Gates, Donald Trump–let me in now!” John Paxton, a 19-year-old Morehouse premed major and the son of an Atlanta doctor, says he’s just going to school to keep his parents happy. “They’d kill me if I didn’t.” But his real life, he says, is rapping. “Being a young black man, hip-hop is the only thing you can do to really blow up.” To a student from Paxton’s relatively privileged background, a prospective hundred grand or so a year isn’t really “blowing up”–it’s just surviving. In today’s shark-tank economy, he may have a point. “My parents are doing well, but looking at the whole picture of the country, black people should have way more than they have at this point. And really the only way we’re getting close to that is with hip-hop. My parents don’t get that.”

So welcome to the bling-bling generation. If they seem a little over the top, they’re just embracing what the culture at large has been telling them to value. “Hip-hop has always been about people with their faces pressed up against the windowpane,” says journalist Coker, “looking in on this other life that they’ve always been rejected from. Back in 1990, a rapper would’ve been satisfied with buying a condo and two Mercedes-Benzes. Now he’d want a $5 million house and five Mercedeses. They want the things that everybody else is talking about.” Rapper B.G., who coined (no pun intended) the expression “bling-bling,” says that when he put the song together, “I was just thinking how I like to get my shine on when I go out. You know, I’ve been through a lot. Life is hard growing up in the projects and seeing all kind of things kids shouldn’t see. So now that I got myself out of that situation and doing well, I’m going ‘bling-bling’ because I deserve to. I’m young and black and making my money the right way. When people try to hate on us for talking about material things, it’s bulls–t. We all like nice s–t–black or white. We’re just putting our wish list to a beat.” This sounds a little more convincing before you learn that B.G.’s Cash Money colleague Baby has $100,000 worth of platinum dentistry in his mouth.

The downside, of course, is obvious. For one thing, “The Hot 100” only has room for so many rappers at a given time–100, max–and while the odds in favor of getting a record deal surely beat the odds in favor of making the Lakers’ starting five, you’re still safer with a college degree and a cubicle. And while an upper-middle-class kid like Paxton may have a fallback–like middle-class white kids who fail as rock auteurs–less-fortunate black kids may not. But is Puffyhood or Jay-Z-dom even an ideal worth holding up in the first place? Jacqueline Smith, 40, who teaches poor black middle-school children in Augusta, Ga., says no–but wonders what the alternatives are. “At the school where I teach, we have no funds to expose kids to other realities,” she says. “All they have is TV to help them dream, and hip-hop is their escape. That’s how a Jay-Z becomes their role model. It breaks my heart not to be able to take my students to the zoo or the museum, or to a play. Instead of criticizing hip-hop, the government needs to make available other things for these kids to do–give them options, so fast money and material things won’t be their only dream.” At home, Smith’s own sons, 10 and 14, need guidance too. “They’ll ask about ‘The Thong Song’ and why the videos have women looking like that and why men sing about women’s underwear all the time,” she says. “It’s hard on me because I can’t really explain it, but at least I’m here to try. Most of the kids I teach don’t have that type of support at home, so they’re trying to figure out these images by themselves.”

Kip and Dollie Banks of Silver Spring, Md., have one solution: keep their kids hip-hop free for as long as possible. No MTV, no BET. “Those two stations aren’t on at our home,” says Dollie, 35. “We have girls, and the images can be quite disturbing when it comes to how young black women are portrayed. Kids take all that in, and God knows how it makes them feel.” The Bankses spend their extra money on piano lessons and ballet classes. So far so good–except their daughters are only 5 and 7, and Dollie worries about the possibility that they could “rebel in five years because they’ve been deprived.” Another approach is that of Todd Smith, 30, of Westchester County, N.Y., whose four children range in age from 2 months to 12 years. Smith, whom you may know better as LL Cool J, sits with his kids as they listen to such hits as his “Doin It” and tells them “why I’m saying it and that it’s entertainment.” And Ice-T takes a similarly pragmatic approach with his 8-year-old son, Ice. “I don’t sit him down in front of porno movies, but if we happen to be watching an R-rated movie and a sex scene comes on, I don’t make him turn his head neither. I try to explain to him what’s going on. I’ve got good communication with him. The best thing is to be a parent that your kids can ask you anything.”

But even the least-dysfunctional two-parent family can sometimes fall short of that ideal. And what happens to children like the ones Jacqueline Smith teaches? They have to confront, largely without adult guidance, puberty and poverty while immersed in a media environment of words, music and images that dangle sex and money and threaten violence. It’s enough to make the hippest First Amendment hard-liner–the connoisseur of Karen Finley and the “Sensation” show–understand where the Joe Liebermans and the Lynne Cheneys of the world are coming from. Freedom of expression can seem like a cruel travesty when it’s the doctrine corporate entertainment empires use to defend their marketing decisions.

Well, almost. The problem is that the impulse to protect the innocent and the unsophisticated so easily shades into the impulse to mind other people’s business and to get sniffy about other people’s pleasures. If “Bling Bling” or “Back That Azz Up” or “Kim” doesn’t suit our idea of fit entertainment for a civilized society, we’re free to say so. If the hip-hop community really gets burned out on the bling-bling ethos, it will go away. But of all the breaches of law and civility laid at hip-hop’s door–from hate crimes to noise pollution–it’s never been reported that rappers put a gun to the American public’s head and forced it to buy the stuff. Violence, sex and ostentatious excess have always entertained people–as Ice-T says, it’s the food of human beings, whether or not it provides much spiritual nourishment. Lately the culture seems bloated with empty calories, but whose fault is that? Since Mos Def got the first word here, let’s give him the last word too. “Artists,” he says, “are only going to repeat what the climate is saying. America is extremely violent and oppressive to a lot of different folks. It’s very hostile to youth, only treating them like consumers–or addicts. It’s terminal consumerism. What’s going on in media is just a symptom of the real sickness.” And neither Dr. Dre nor Dr. Laura’s got the cure.


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