Hip-Hop Uprising


Carter

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