February 15 – Volume 16, #2
“The Year of Hip-Hop: From Boogie Down to Trickle Down”
It doesn’t always seem like it, but the conditions for black people in America have improved exponentially in the past five decades. Still not enough, and there remains much work to do. But strides have been made to be sure.
In spite of tangible gains in income, college degrees and home ownership, there is undoubtedly still more to be done. The black unemployment rate continues to be double that of whites as it has been through most of the 20th century onward. We suffer disproportionately from health afflictions such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. There are examples all around us that single-parent households hold up as well these days as the mythical nuclear family in facilitating the proper socialization of children. But it is highly problematic that so many of our black women are the only economic contributors to the family in a society that grossly underpays its women in comparison to men in every industry in America.
The task of the Civil Rights Movement was to press America to live up to its constitutional ideals and afford all of its residents the basic tenets of citizenship. But the task of the hip-hop generation; of which I’m a part, was to pursue greater economic freedoms to go along with the political ones. And regardless of how much flossing you might hear your favorite rapper doing, we have failed miserably in creating the kind of economic power that transcends into the level of political influence that disenfranchised Jews gained through their work in early Hollywood, for example.
Plain and simple, the fundamental problem for black folks in America is a lack of mass, institutional ownership.
Sure, there have been pockets here and there such as Harpo Studios and Motown a generation earlier, but by and large our community remains almost totally dependent on our white benefactors for fundamentals like food, clothing, shelter and jobs.
Hip-hop; when it first started, was such an important medium for the black collective because it allowed us to produce images of ourselves that ran in direct contrast to the caricatures of black people that have been most predominant in mainstream media, TV and the aforementioned Hollywood. It was important to have voices like KRS-One and Chuck D because they challenged black and white kids alike to learn the histories of people that our school teachers forgot to tell us about. But even if it had failed to do any of that, hip-hop has been critically important to the black community because it has served as a mechanism for mass employment during a time where Reaganomics had transformed the workforce to one where the middle class can’t possibly be seen without squinting really, really hard.
I have spoken before on the fact that hip-hop was born out of an environment of economic destitution. Since that time, funding for public works like education, infrastructure and housing have been slashed even more dramatically in the name of trickle-down. It is hard to fathom what those jobless figures may have ballooned to had hip-hop not created a plethora of millionaires and opportunities for gainful employment.
Of course, we hear a lot (far too much actually) about the wealth accrued by rappers. But hip-hop has also provided steady gigs for the Rock Steady and others to get paid for their craft all over the world. DJ’s like Jazzy Jeff and Kid Capri are working literally every day of the year somewhere on the globe and get so many offers that they actually have to turn down work. Hip-hop graffiti writers have been able to take their art from the subways of New York City to the board rooms of Nike where they have been commissioned to design shoes for Phil Knight’s outfit. Many times, it has been these break boys, DJ’s, MC’s and writers that have been the only ones willing to give their cousin who just got back from prison a job working security, as a traveling secretary or a booking agent. While many of our young people have been forced to take on mountains of debt to acquire skills at business schools and other university departments, some of our most innovative entrepreneurs are hip-hop moguls who only set foot in a college classroom to collect five figure speaking fees. Absent some of the century-long Hollywood networks that span back to Samuel Goldwyn, some of our generation’s most innovative filmmakers have been able to cut their teeth by bringing the hip-hop nation’s lived experience to the world via the big screen. In very real tangible ways, hip-hop has improved the lived reality of black people in America by putting money in their pockets.
But the existential ways that it has affected the black community shouldn’t be overlooked either. Hip-hop was revolutionary when it emerged and later broke into the mainstream on its own terms because it gave us unadulterated control (for a few years anyway before white-owned corporations realized how lucrative it could be) over our image in a way that previous generations of black folks could have only dreamed of. To see with my own two eyes MC Lyte portrayed as an Egyptian goddess, and Dr. Dre be the target of shots at a rally but continue expressing himself unbowed was important for this impressionable adolescent.
This isn’t to say there weren’t other images as well. There were to be sure. The gods, queens, earths and righteous dred-headz were positioned side-by-side with the gangsters, pimps, thugs and hoochies (they need love too, after all) in the hip-hop of my youth. It was important to present the entire black experience. And our experience isn’t just the black America presented on the Cosby Show, all the while obscuring an edgier, shadier experience just beneath the surface. (alleged and otherwise) Fuck that. Building those kind of facades takes too much effort. And whether you’re America’s dad or not. Time and time again, the hip-hop nation had learned that, at the end of the day, most of white America still sees you as a nigger.
So unlike a Civil Rights generation that pushed Rosa Parks instead of Claudette Colvin to be the symbol of desegregation because it would be more difficult to assail sister Rosa’s morality; we never shied away from exposing our blemishes and warts. There was crime, there was greed, there was stark poverty and the hard choices that came with it. What hip-hop did, which mainstream white America failed to do for generations was give these images context. White America portrayed black realities as some sort of genetic or cultural inevitability by presenting figures like Mammy and Stepin Fetchit without any wider social backdrop. Hip-hop didn’t just present characters, it told listeners what informed these characters’ world. You be the judge on whether or not Scarface’s actions are acceptable. What you can’t say, if you listened closely, was that you couldn’t rationally understand why he’d take them given the options that his environment allowed him.
The larger social context is important to understanding any art, whether it be hip-hop music or Impressionist paintings. Black artists, label heads, producers and videographers have a responsibility to be conscious of the role of context. As hip-hop industry professionals have gotten more rich (if not necessarily wealthy), it seems impossible to argue that they have been as conscious as their predecessors in bringing context to the images that are created by black people in the larger social world.
That word conscious has gotten a bad rap in recent decades. Not only does this term often erroneously bring to mind an effeminate, suburban, asexual, backpacking, and downright soft wing of hip-hop culture, “conscious” also has been positioned as being the “positive” ying to the “negative” yang of gangsta, crunk and jiggy rap. Conscious doesn’t mean positive. Most MC’s aren’t interested in defining the parameters of positive and negative for listeners. Like most people, good hip-hop songs have some aspects of both. What conscious hip-hop music does provoke is being thoughtful. And a truly gifted MC can rhyme about selling drugs, eating coochie, sucking dick, riding skateboards, picking your nose or living in the ghetto while still stimulating the listeners’ intellect.
Is picking boogers negative? Not for the person whose nose is clogged. So there should be a space for would-be rappers to broach these subjects that are a part of a diverse and wide-ranging black experience.
But the story shouldn’t be shared just to sensationalize that activity in a sophomoric manner that is more characteristic of junior high bathrooms, MC’s should actually challenge the listener to think on some level.
Through most of our history in this country it has been literally illegal for black folks to read and gain more information about ourselves and our world. In the years since the legal barriers have been broken, this mis-education has continued on unabated by subjecting us to school environments where only the most determined among us can learn. This brain-freezing sundae is topped off with delectable sprinkles of distraction by trivial things that have no real bearing on our everyday lives. The five or six companies that control what we are entertained by have worked tirelessly to shut out most all outlets of conscious stimulation on the TV and airwaves. And the complexity of the black experience has been simplified into a series of disposable, cut-out cardboard figures.
It is deplorable the way that white folks have profited from stereotyped images of black people for several generations now. It is far, far, far worse to see how few black rap artists are courageous enough to actively fight against this process.
Hip-hop music should never be limited in its subject matter. Our lives are three dimensional. And the vast majority of this existence is not spent planning for revolution or attending hands-off Assata rallies. We sell and do drugs. A lot of them. We fuck like crazy. We make some poor choices sometimes. But a true MC does not offer a clichéd representation of these themes. Like a gifted painter, they craft their masterpieces in layers. Layers that you may not get all at once at first. Layers that the casual, lazy observer will never see. In this way, truly experiencing and appreciating the artwork not only requires something of the painter. It requires something of the viewer as well.
MC’s, talk about your drugs, dope buys gone wrong and your fake homies who snitched on you. But take some time to also discuss the role that the criminal justice system, school system and political system have played in affecting not only your choices, but the choices of millions of others who will be affectively shut out of this system in spite of paying their debt to society.
There are rappers who do this like Dead Prez, Jay Electronica and Immortal Technique. And even Jay-Z , Raekwon, Rick Ross or Fat Joe will ruffle some feathers in the seats of power for a bar or two. But usually not much more than that, and that’s wack. Black people are in too deep a state of crisis for those among us with the largest access to black ears not to use their platforms to generate more energy to help change these conditions. Most of the time it seems that the solution is the same bullshit that Ronald Reagan offered. If you get rich like Jay-Z, Wayne or Drake or everything will be just fine. But these astute business men don’t share any information on how to build the kind of magnificent levels of wealth that they have obtained. Instead, they and their clones spare few moments in educating the impoverished black masses on how to quickly part with their money.
But what’s wacker than that is that so many black consumers accept this.
It’s true that the MC’s of my youth offered more substance than the microwave rap served up today. But this wasn’t only because these cats were so special or enlightened. The major difference was that an MC would rather lose his left arm than lose his core audience.
We shitted all over Hammer not for making simple, catchy, soulless music. Plenty of rappers, rappers we love, have done that. Hammer was wack because he sold a knockoff version of our culture to a bunch of dumb people who wanted a safe, disposable, sanitized hip-hop. A hip-hop that will let the casual fan dance and have a good time, but won’t dare ask them to think.
How is the ringtone rap made by today’s rappers any different?
The only thing that’s different is that now it’s your favorite rapper making the music instead of easy targets like Hammer or Vanilla Ice.
Phony rappers should be more responsible. But like you and me, they have jobs to do. Lincoln Perry, the man who portrayed Stepin Fetchit, was actually a pretty radical dude in his personal life. And unlike his stage persona, he was so gifted with words that he had an extensive career as a writer for the Chicago Defender. The brotha was doing what he had to do to get a check during a time where it was nigh impossible for black folks to get paid that kind of money. Although there are wider labor opportunities for blacks today, modern-day minstrel rappers are making the same kind of market calculations that Perry did nearly a century ago. And one will be hard-pressed to find an industry more slimy than the music business. In this environment, sustaining a music career is a delicate balancing act for even the most gifted of artists. There’s a lot of records to be sold in promoting themes that are destructive to the black community like drug dealing, overconsumption of non-wealth building products and mindless drug-induced sexual hedonism.
Most of this music is being bought by white people, just like most of the –dare I say- conscious music by cats like Immortal Technique, Dead Prez and Jay Electronica.
But no matter how many tracks white headz in Sioux Falls and my niggaz in Tokyo download from I-tunes, black folks will always set the trends in hip-hop culture and rap music. Shit isn’t really official until it gets our approval. Black men and women, what hip-hop music are you giving your seal of approval to?
Don’t get it twisted. The most important thing in a hip-hop record is that it gotta be funky. It didn’t mean a thing if it didn’t have that swing in the early 20th century and it don’t now.
But these days, not only is the black rap audience letting wack MC’s get a pass for failing to produce tracks that are mind-unraveling, increasingly they failed to get called out for putting out garbage product.
Most of us are powerless to change the workings of a record industry that is decades old. We may not be able to outweigh the influence of the radio program directors who insist on playing the same 20 songs every day. And it is likely that the DJ at your favorite club may not take kindly to your suggestion that he not play the same songs you heard on the radio on the way to the club all night considering that you stood in line for an hour to pay 30 bucks.
But we have absolute control over what we buy, what we play in our cars and what we expose others to. Will consuming better rap music help to stop the violence in Chicago, prevent cops from killing young black men or strengthen the black family? By itself, absolutely not. The issues impacting the black community have been too long in creation to expect such a simple solution.
But we can no longer pretend like these messages don’t matter either. I had many influences as a youth. My parents being chief among them. But they got plenty of help in raising me from A Tribe Called Quest, Ice-T, Ice Cube, Uncle Luke and Public Enemy. Chuck D said an explicit goal of their music was to create a million new black leaders, and I think they did. I know a lot of Public Enemy’s disciples personally. I’d like to imagine myself as one of them.
It has always taken a village to raise boys and girls of African descent. The slum village of hip-hop was one that was constructed from the ground-up to reflect the views and aspirations of the disenfranchised. This idolization of the lifestyle of the rich and famous that is so common in rap music not only fails to reflect those values, it doesn’t speak to the collective black experience of most people in this country. It doesn’t even speak to the collective experience of most rappers. Today’s most visible rap griots would be well-served to root themselves in this tradition that hip-hop was built upon. And we must all do our parts to force them there. Black people in America are engaged in a most unfair fight for our spirit, mind and very survival. We need every weapon possible at our disposal to vanquish the bullies amongst us. This hip-hop uzi still weighs a ton if we can learn to stop aiming it ourselves. Peace and God bless,