Hip! Hop! Shop!

Black Guys Imitating White Guys Imitating Black Guys: The strange end of the hip-hop revolution

No, Mr. Guzman, I think you know there's no such thing as an American anymore; no Hispanics, no Japanese, no blacks, no whites, no nothing. There's just rich people and poor people. The three of us are all rich, so we're on the same side.

—Newly minted white gangsta Jeff Goldblum and black partner Larry Fishburne tell a Colombian drug kingpin what time it is in Bill Duke's Deep Cover, 1992

It was the best of years, it was the worst of years—the bulletproof-vest years, the aim-for-the-head-and-chest years, as suburban white America in Y2K succumbed to the terms and conditions of hip-hop, the baddest force in cultural revolution since Elvis. But if 1950s white youth were snorting stepped-on black culture through the King's censored TV gyrations, today's white kids are mainlining the dope directly, thanks to MTV, BET, Dr. Dre and Snoop Deee-Oh-Double-Gee.

Two years ago, in Bulworth, a mythical white U.S. senator-turned-rapper called for a "procreative racial deconstruction" in which "we all fuck till we're the same color"; strange stories coming out of suburban hoods all over America make you think that hip-hop may bring that to pass. Stories of 11-year-old white girls asking their moms to buy them "Back Dat Ass Up" for their did-my-homework reward because it's their favorite new joint. Recently, the sure-to-be-cult film Whiteboys presented the surreal spectacle of rural Iowa b-boys bustin' mad lyrics like "I got so much juice from gettin' loose/that you can call me Bruce . . . Willis!" Their head MC, Flip Dog, assures his homies that his white skin is the unfortunate result of a reverse-mole skin disorder.

But let's quell any burgeoning fears of a black planet among Blockbuster-card-carrying, Toy Story 2-purchasing Americans. If you're worried that hip-hop is provoking some kind of racial identity crisis in which whites emulate blacks, don't be: for the past few years, much of commercial hip-hop has been about black people imitating white people imitating black people—so at the end of the day, you're only really changing back into yourself again.

Check it out. Hip-hop is Juvenile and his Cash Money Millionaire posse extolling the pimp paradise of money, bitches, credit and weed. It's Puff Daddy complaining about celebrity. It's Trina flaunting her Cartier diamond earrings. It's Jadakiss disrupting the sweet groove of Mya's "The Best of Me" to tell us that he's got "so many bags of money they won't fit in a bank." It's countless players debating the relative merits of Benzes, Bentleys and Beemers and pointing out the banality of frequent Concorde travel.

Bottom line, the hip-hop artists who've been getting most of the airplay are involved in the same money-worshiping orgy of self-indulgence as white folk.

It's hard to remember sometimes, but it wasn't always this way. Like punk, hip-hop was born of back-to-basics rebellion. Just as punk's fiery, callused-chord rage knocked the Bic lighters out of the hands of Supertramp fans, so did rappers scream into microphones and scratch up records to rail against the Afro sheen of the disco-club scene.

Flash-forward 20 years, and it's eerie how hip-hop's embrace of conspicuous consumption so closely resembles the Jou-Jou-clad vapidity and materialism of late-era disco.

Eerie, but not totally surprising. The disco-era band Chic was an early proponent of music making not for art or protest, but for the sake of getting paid. Its members openly admitted that it was the lifestyle of coke, private jets and no-hassle admission to Studio 54 that drove their ambitions. Chic's 1979 hit, "Good Times," extolled the admittedly dated hedonism of "clams on the half-shell and roller skates." It was symbolic that the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight"—widely acknowledged as the first rap hit—took its riff from "Good Times": even while early rap was a reaction to the synthetic sounds of the last days of disco, this underground music movement had unknowingly been imbued with the Gucci-worshiping sins of its disco godfather.

Nonetheless, as Nelson George points out in his book Hip Hop America, making hip-hop music "didn't start out as a career move but as a way of announcing one's existence to the world." Forged out of the urban mix of graffiti artists, breakdancers and street MCs, rap slowly but relentlessly came to occupy center stage in black music. And in the early '80s—when collapsing disco still clung to the clubs—rap's stage was more often than not a street corner or a house party. Rap didn't need to keep reminding itself to "keep it real" because the all-too-real streets were its headquarters.

A journalist covering the hip-hop scene in '85 wrote, "A true hip-hop spirit doesn't need or want a designer label on his jeans. His own name, or his tag, is the only commodity to promote." Run-D.M.C. rapped, "Don't want nobody's name on my behind."

By 1987, however, Def Jam Records' Russell Simmons had secured Run-D.M.C. a $1.5 million endorsement deal with Adidas. It was as good a signpost as any to signal hip-hop's inevitable descent into its current status as a kind of hip shopping guide.

The Hilfigerization of hip-hop was exacerbated by the ascendance of video, and when independent record companies like Def Jam were gobbled up by media conglomerates like PolyGram, the possibility of building a fan base from the streets up was dead. Just like everything else in America, hip-hop began to filter down from the corporate high-rise.

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