By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
The film Deep Cover had it exactly right: in America—not just hip-hop—it's not so much that the rich are all the same color; it's more that it doesn't matter what color you are if you're a commodity. You can be white like Regis Philbin, black like DMX or yellow like a Pokémon because among the pawns shilling for giant multinational conglomerates, there's only One Love, One Nation.
The closest today's hip-hop will get to the politics of Malcolm X is perfectly conveyed in the opening of DMX's "Party Up" video, when the rapper angrily attacks a broken ATM machine. The message: "You trying to get between me and my paper, bee-yatch? I will spend my cash BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY."
Make way for the consuma gangsta. Down. For real.
The kind of colorblind exploitation at the heart of contemporary hip-hop is well-captured in Black and White, the new film by director James Toback that's been stirring up discussions in colleges and nightclubs across America. Early in the film, Wu-Tang Clan associate Oil "Power" Grant considers the fact that white people come into hip-hop looking to grab some "life force" from its black creators, while he just wants some information from white people. In the ensuing drama, everyone plays and gets played, whether it's black rappers using a wannabe white b-boy to carry out a hit, a corrupt white cop ruining the life of a black basketball player, an Aryan female who talks about "being true to yourself" while dropping men as soon as they stop being players, or white documentary film producers trailing white groupies into hip-hop's black inner sanctum. In what is perhaps the most surreal feature of the film, the only person remaining above the fray is Mike Tyson (playing himself), who alternates between outbursts of gay-bashing and seemingly sage ethical pronouncements that make him a kind of Yoda for the local hip-hop community.
The idea for the film came to Toback in the mid-'90s when he was rolling with the most manicured, coifed posse ever to endanger the streets and $3,000-per-night suites of Manhattan, road dogs so glaringly, blindingly white as to make a Semite feel straight-out Nubian. I'm talking about Leo DiCaprio and his infamous "Pussy Posse," which included lesser heartthrob Tobey Maguire. If banging bitches was their prime directive, hip-hop was their fuel.
"There was hardly a rap lyric they didn't know by heart," Toback recalled, "and they wore baseball caps backward, baggy pants down to the knees, and affected the physical gestures of that world. And since I've had my own ride with the mixing of races and cultures when I was living at Jim Brown's house back in the '70s, I thought, 'This is for me.'"
In the obsessed tradition of cult filmmakers like Abel Ferrara and Jesus Franco, Toback is one of those directors who transmutes his personal predilections into art, or sometimes into watchably bad Nastassja Kinski films. In any case, this celluloid horndog quickly homed in on the aspect of hip-hop that most fascinated him: the politics of interracial booty.
"If you ask girls 17, 18 years old about their sexual history, how many guys they've been with, and you ask them how many were black and how many white, you get the feeling that for the first time, they're trying to figure it out," the director observed. "Sometimes the race of the guy was his sixth identifying quality. That would have been inconceivable as early as seven years ago, and now it's common."
Given enough time, Toback predicts, hip-hop will turn America into an all-shades, no-colors mecca like Brazil—hopefully without Brazil's racial caste system. "I think that, socially, the major long-term effect of hip-hop culture is going to be a totally different view, on a mass scale, of interracial sexual behavior. There's no coming back from that. So even though economically you could say that hip-hop's almost a counterrevolutionary movement, racially and sexually it's definitely a revolutionary movement."
Not everyone agrees with Toback that hip-hop's sexual mores point to the future. Robin D.G. Kelley, professor of history at New York University and author, most recently, of Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America, considers hip-hop's sexual politics its most reactionary component. "In some ways, it's an old-school pimp ideology of complete domination of women and of a male fantasy of having women chasing after you, willing to do anything for you," Kelley observed. "And then there's the valuation of white women over black women because, for pimps, white women have always represented the height, the pinnacle. At the same time, the homophobia is vicious—precisely because of the extent of homosexuality in the hip-hop world and because people don't want to come out."
In fact, as much as Black and White tries to "mix it up" when it comes to interracial sex, there's one demographic that seems to fall by the wayside in the film: black women, who find themselves sexually outflanked by uptown white girls in prep-school uniforms.
For all his enthusiasm for hip-hop's sexual smorgasbord, Toback has no illusions about its economic implications, viewing hip-hop as a kind of minstrel capitalism whose motto is "I'll be whatever you want me to be as long as I get paid."