Just as I have credited hip hop for positive opportunities and being the voice of the people, I must acknowledge as well the destructive paths traveled on account of gangsta rap glorifying the street life. As I write this there’s a kid out there somewhere who, like the youngsta that was influenced by Chicano gangbangin’ rap, is to have his life destroyed by the misappraisals he has placed on some rapper’s portrayal of the life of a gangsta/dope-boy being glamour filled and without consequence. Here, he’s failed to put in perspective the fact that these squares often narrate my story without taking penitentiary chances. All he sees is their designer clothes, beautiful women and expensive cars and jewelry. To him this is the life. And if all it takes to obtain it is to be a gangsta/dope-boy, then he figures he can simply connect the dots between their world and the ‘hood. Thus the lyrics of Young Jeezy and T.I., for example, become the directive and the ‘hood a suitable apprenticeship. Like Rosetta Stone, gangsta rap teaches the language of the streets—violence. To his dismay, however, he eventually learns the hard way he’s been setup to embrace a deathstyle created by the capitalist hunter. Though, there are those who remain adamant and refuse to turn it lose even at this point. He’s in too deep; cultivated by an image that’s too powerful to relinquish. Sadly, gangsta rap and the culture it reflects upon and inspires within him has become his mentor. It beats at the heart of his moral compass and too often fills the shoes of an absent father who wasn’t there to teach him not to take life lessons from rap music.
That said, let us get into those aspects of gangsta rap, and I emphasize gangsta rap, that came to mistakenly define hip hop and of more importance, how it became a tool of social manipulation.
To begin, I believe it important to distinguish “rap” from “hip hop.” Here, I again excerpt from Professor Bogazianos’s work where he writes:
The distinction’s importance can perhaps best be encapsulated in a now-famous line by pioneer rap artist KRS-One: “Rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live.” In this conceptual schema, rap is believed to be only one, heavily commercialized, commodified, and appropriated element within a larger hip hop culture. Where hip hop is viewed as a broad culture efflorescence, rap is often seen as that which the entertainment industry has been able to profit from most efficiently. Thus, for many, the term “rap music” is automatically pejorative, while “hip hop” suggests something grander, more pure, organic, and authentic.
For the average middle-age white American, hip hop and “gangsta” rap have always been inseparable but, for hip hop enthusiast, there was always something funky about the sudden appearance of “gangsterism” at a time when political hip hop was dominating the charts. For decades there’s been this conspiracy theory kicked around street corners and barbershops in the Black community that “Gangsta rap was a ploy to convince Black people to kill each other.” While plausible given the destructive influence of the music, we should take a moment to reflect on how the increased dominance of gangsta rap came to push the politically conscious rappers to the fringes of the hip hop world—before jumpin’ to conclusions.
Although hip hop was originally known as house party music, by the late ‘80s, it had evolved into a political movement that was instrumental in exposing a new generation of Black youth to the speeches of Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. We had just not long ago (during the 1960s) demonstrated our collective ability to place demands on a racist government to get some “act right!” and up the “tokenism.” The lyrical content of conscious rappers endeavored to throw fuel on the flame and keep it lit so as to carry the torch of our revolutionary past onto our revolutionary future given the fact that we had yet to overcome the racist and capitalist forces which operated to suppress our social and economic development. The truth telling told by the conscious rappers of this era was powerful in their portrayals of Black suffering and resistance in America. For these political hip hop giants expressed the underground outlook of righteous indignation at the dogmas and nihilism of imperial America.
Conscious rap, however, was damn near extinguished when gangsta rap came on the scene to take us, by happenstance or design, two, three, four, steps backwards. To this end, the highly controversial Professor Cornel West notes:
…hip hop was soon incorporated into the young American mainstream and diluted of it prophetic fervor.
With the advent of the giants of the next phase—Tupac Shakur, Ice Cube, Biggie and Snoop—linguistic genius and gangster sentiments began to be intertwined. Ironically, their artistic honesty revealed subversive energy and street prowess in their work and life. As the entertainment industry began to mainstream the music, that street prowess became dominant with racist stereotypes of blackmen as hypercriminal and hypersexual and black women as willing objects of their conquests.
The “subversive energy” and “street prowess” West speaks of would, needless to say, work to make everything that was designed to destroy us seem cool and acceptable. Thus, the gangs, drugs, violence, and lack of respect for our people, especially our women, became something to glorify and exploit lyrically. This essentially christened our misguided sense of piety as ruffians in the extreme.
The forces behind these phenomenons have been traced directly to two cultural and economic occurrences in the Black community beginning in the 1970s: (1) the festering drug and gang cultures—which were stimulated by the second: the socioeconomic changes caused by the de-industrialization of America’s manufacturing sector which caused significant social and economic disorganization of the nation’s inner-cities beginning in the 1980s as a primary element in the emergence of crack-cocaine and the related violence. Needless to say, the declining job market and drugs and guns provided by the Contras made for an environment ripe for destruction. Black youth, such as myself, were without the revolutionary tempest of Black Nationalism and thus, without the communal force of the Village and family organization, engaged in the distorted exercise of pursuing an individualistic and destructive masculine identity. This entailed for us to not just simply embrace a savage approach to violence to regulate and stave off competition in the Dope-Game, but so too a callous attitude towards getting paper at the expense of poisoning our community with dope and lead.
It’s been said that whatever is happening in the streets dictates the content and direction of the music. Accepted as such, the rappers of the late 1980s onto the ‘90s went hard and heavy narrating what was happening in the ‘hood. This was a sound that soon proved to $ale when N.W.A. went platinum. This success along with others inevitably made gangsta rap a “gangsta’s paradise” for corporate America. Here it was you did not simply have kids like myself relating to and living in the narrative, but, more importantly, white kids who caught the vapors and became the leading force driving consumer demand. Consequently, this pushed conscious rap into the margins of the entertainment industry. According to many observers, including Professor West:
The companies perceived that white kids were much more interested in the more violence-ridden, misogynist mode than in the critical, prophetic mode [of conscious rap]. This packaging for eager rebellious youth in vanilla suburbs—now 72% of those who buy hiphop CDs and even more who illegally download them—lead to an economic boom for the industry, until its recent downturn.
Professor West goes on to point out what a horrible irony it is that the poetry and critique of conscious hip hop could be co-opted by the consumer preferences of suburban white youths—white youths who long for rebellious energy and exotic amusement in their own hollow bourgeois world. He notes how the Black voices from the ‘hood were “the most genuine, authentic voices from outside the flaccid mainstream market culture that they could find. So the recording and fashion industries seized on this market opportunity.”
The market opportunity that Professor West speaks of is the same market opportunity that, long before gangsta rap, corporate America had been capitalizing on with the violent portrayals of the Italian Mafia, which appeared first in book form, later movies. Italians got in on the action by writing and producing books and movie scripts to honor their gangstas. It was thus inevitable that Black Americans would follow suit. We went on to create an entire industry of Black exploitation films that showcased our pimp and gangsta cultures which were at their height during the 1970s. Without question, this influenced rap music and hip hop culture today.
With gangsta rap, however, the impact would have a far greater devastating consequence on the conscience of Black America. The mental health in the Black community was at its worst. Crack-cocaine and the rise of gang violence had taken its toll on the progressive culture that once strived. And to glorify the destruction was simply too much. Critics drew the line and began questioning the artists’ integrity. How could they rap about and praise the destruction of their own community? The fact of the matter was, every man had his price and some could be bought for less than others. In face of multi-million dollar record deals, fame and fortune prevailed over a rapper’s dignity.
With the demand for gangsta rap high and major labels like Universal and Capital Records giving up million dollar contracts, it was no questioning what message was going to be marketed and promoted or who was going to control it. Corporate America had stumbled across yet another medium by which to exploit society’s fascination with gangsters, drug dealers, thugs, and murderers. For gangsta rap was yet another form of entertainment that some people perceived to be exciting and dangerous. In this, corporate America would be forthright in grabbing a hold of that destructive energy created by the “Ghetto Fabulous.” It successfully captured the essence of the deathstyles in the ‘hood and capitalized on them by promoting mainstream surrogates who flew under the banner of “real”; portraying the deathstyle from a safe distance.
Consequently, corporate America had grabbed a hold of something that would be highly criticized by the Black community. For unlike the criticisms that befell the Black exploitation film industry, gangsta rap and the drug and gang culture it reflected upon had come to captivate and influence a far more impressionable Black youth. The issue then became: Was the corporate take over of hip hop a ploy to wreak havoc in the Black community?” There is no simple answer to the question. Though, such a conspiracy theory unquestionably gained momentum in face of the fact that
[m]usic… has always been one of the many driving forces of inspiration for the passion of culture and soul. From the powerful beat of the African ancestry drum to the penetrating tone of the European’s trumpet, there harmonies have signaled the intentions of war and peace, fear and sanctuary. Literally, they were the most notable and effective tools of psychological warfare.
To this end, there are many ways to which music has been used to psychologically organize or disorganized a people. Historically, African culture illustrates music is a part of every aspect of life from work to worship. Take for example how African Spirituals were vital to the mental health of our enslaved ancestors. These spirituals provided hope and lightened their toll. To this day music can be found in the work place for this very reason. In terms of play, music can make the game more pleasurable. Think about how much more of a pleasurable experience it is when and where there is a well orchestrated band playing at a football or basketball game, for example. The affect of which is comparable to how score is used in movies to set the mood of a particular scene. In terms of ceremony, music can make our celebrations more meaningful and more purposeful. And in terms of worship, it has power to make our praise more powerful.
The magic of music is the power of the message. Words speak to the subconscious mind and the subconscious mind speaks to the conscious mind when we are seeking answers or inspiration. In that way, music can shape our attitudes about ourselves and those around us and our decisions and therefore the quality and characteristics of our lifestyles and lives. Music can shape our worlds by shaping one mind at a time. Accepted as such, then it don’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why President Reagan invited Easy E to the White House.
Clueless, Black audiences were further encouraged to subliminally embrace values of white hatred and violent aggression toward their own community. This became a more blatant norm by the message N.W.A. and other such groups promoted by glorifying the street life as a means to obtain status and respect. On the other hand, the likes of President Reagan, who knew full-well the influence of Hollywood and the entertainment industry, saw with the promotion of these values an already proven method by which to exploit the destructive outcomes of the message.
Here, I must digress to say unlike the gangstas of Wall Street or those that invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, and control Viacom and Universal Music Group, Blacks had no political clout. Thus it was foreseen that when we bit into this shit we would have no “safety net” to catch us and prevent us from falling into the traps set by the illusions of this entertainment.
Moreover, by controlling the content and image of what “gangsta” was to represent in the Black community—just as the ghetto was created by government and corporate business from which the rappers would narrate—the corporate take over of the hip hop industry would be in comparison to the take over of Black education and futures by white America during the Reconstruction era. Once again we tossed our pearls to swine because
[m]usic is about symbols and ultimately it is symbols that you evoke behavior from people. So when a culture creates symbols, those symbols are designed to evoke particular types of reactions, feelings and moods in its members. A culture establishes the potency of those symbols through rituals, through song and through dance.
One of the best ways to inculcate cultural values, a cultural spirit, is through entertainment. It’s while members are being entertained, while they are feeling good, that the song is carrying the cultural values into the mind and into the body. The lyrics that represent the cultural interests and the cultural values are being carried on the vehicle of the music, carried through the vehicle of the poetry. The togetherness, the cooperativeness, the mutual movement together and the synchrony of the culture is being entrained through the music and through the rhythm of the dance. Therefore when you let another people take over your music, when you let another people take over your dance and attach their content to it, they will use your own music, your own dance, your rap lyrics, your poetry and your own cultural symbols to carry their message into your bodies and into your minds such that you can only respond to their beck and call and to their wishes. As a consequence they get you to buy those sneakers and other items by associating them with your music. So they attach their content to our rhythm, their content to our songs. In this way they take our own instruments and turn them against the self.
That said, given the content controls influenced by corporate America, gangsta rap would come to heighten cultural values distorted by a perceptual worldview of material gain over life willing to pimp and poison for respect. Because the music came to consist of status symbols derived from a skewed image of manhood and material wealth instead of community and spiritual wealth, those very aspects of respect and prosperity we sought to gain from commissioning the behaviors and attitudes gangsta rap promoted, served to defeat the objective. For obvious reasons this was so because the behavior and attitudes are antisocial, anti-community, anti-Black; thus, not only self-destructive and community-destructive, but at odds with our power base—the community.
And who better understood these values as forms of social control and, as such, forms of social power by which to gain influence over our community? Racist and capitalist thinking white America had long since understood the power of values which manipulated destruction were profitable. One only need lay in the cut to collect the spoils as they tumbled down from the carnage. And it did not take a marketing genius to come up with a plan to push this sound. Since the days Columbus was a stick-up kid, the nation’s racists had taught us to love violence, drugs, ill-gotten gain, promiscuity, and fucking over people.
On that, I must again digress to note the irony and controversy hip hop has encountered in America’s classrooms. A few years ago (2010) a Sacramento, California high school teacher was criticized for introducing to her class the lyrical content and poetry of Tupac Shakur. The local news, News 10, broadcasted interviews of parents who took offense to their kids studying Tupac in light of his violent deathstyle, lyrics and criminal history. “Hump! The nerve of these white folks,” I thought to myself. Conveniently, they forget the atrocities Columbus brought upon the Americas—the rape, genocide, theft—a man who they teach their kids to admire with godlike sentiment. Hypocrites! In vilifying Tupac, neither the media nor the commentators sought to reflect on the fact that at the time he was murdered, he was out on bail appealing his conviction for rape. That the fact exists the court granted bail speaks to the fact that he was not a threat to the public safety. Nonetheless, this situation with the teacher (and this has occurred elsewhere throughout the nation where Tupac and hip hop was introduced as a subject of study) was sad because the lesson she was attempting to convey was hip hop has never been about music or some act, its culture. A culture that unfortunately in the case of gangsta rap
…is a reflection of the society we live in… [and] a disappointment to its founders, as it is so filled with ignorance and hate. It has done exactly what those who oppose this culture have always wanted it to do—enforce self-hatred among its people. Somewhere in corporate America, someone is laughing at us—at how we degrade our women and poorly influence our youth. We, Black Americans, no longer have slave masters but have become slaves to ourselves through the Hip Hop industry’s recycling of the same ignorance and hate that brought us to this continent in the first place…