By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
This is a good place to address the Scarface myth in hip-hop, since you can't swing a dead cat in a room full of b-boys without hitting at least six thug capitalists who claim to be the living incarnation of Tony Montana.
Point 1: Tony died. That is to say the excesses that took him to the top also destroyed him. He never got the chance to launch a Scarface clothing and footwear line or take Jennifer Lopez to the Source Awards. You have to factor that in. You can't just say, "I'm Tony Montana, except for the death part"; that's built into the myth. Otherwise you're not Tony; you're Tony's slightly soberer assistant, Manny—that is, before Tony killed him.
Point 2: Had Tony Montana lived, we all know he would have ended up a Republican. What gangsta rappers and Republicans have in common is their espousal of a predatory capitalism alongside a kind of social conservatism. They spray paint the society with an ersatz morality—the keep-it-real, down-with-the-hood mantra—that masks the mercenary ruthlessness at its core.
Anyone who catches on to this is a player-hater. The habit of browbeating and demeaning player-haters in hip-hop is the natural consequence of survival-of-the-fittest player mentality. Accumulation of wealth must coexist with utter contempt for those without the wherewithal to accumulate wealth; in the terms of social Darwinism, they are too weak.
Hip-hop's player ideologues have lots in common with liberal-bashers who denounce welfare recipients as parasites, or media pundits who dismiss World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund protesters in Seattle and Washington, D.C., simply because they dared question capitalism's prerogatives—much more in common with those players than with most black Americans who vote Democratic and don't want to see the entire state dismantled so that we can watch Viacom duke it out with Time Warner over who gets to commodify what slice of the human experience.
Surely, though, there must be some cutting-edge political issues that today's commercial hip-hop artists can take on between going on shopping sprees in Italy, pricing Lexuses, and locating off-site storage facilities to house all their cash? What about the Confederate flag in South Carolina? Or the police-brutality issue that some rappers have addressed with the rather perfunctory Hip-hop for Respect album?
Power and Raekwon gave up some reflexively sympathetic "No doubts" and "For sures," but nothing seemed to strike their fancy. Power talked about giving back to the community. "I give back. I got 10 kids that I put through college all across America. I'm from Staten Island. Just 'cause I don't go back to Staten Island every 10 minutes and reiterate, 'Yo, I'm from Staten Island' does not mean I'm not doing something."
He was getting somewhat riled at this point.
"It's how you do it," he continued. "You don't gotta sit in your neighborhood and be a lit professor, saying, 'Yo, I'm part of the hood.' Yo, fuck all of that—you're full of shit."
But it's as if Power was having the argument with himself. He posited the equation in which giving to your community equals activism, only to reject it out of hand as a cop-out.
What about issues closer to hip-hop, such as radio and the recording industry? For instance, HOT 97, the powerhouse New York City hip-hop station, will play a Dr. Dre song, like, every 10 minutes, off Dre's new album—the one with the marijuana leaf on the cover and an inside photo of Dre sniffing a giant bag of chronic. Then the same station will run an anti-drug ad, thereby giving airplay simultaneously to marijuana lovers and to those sustaining the drug policies putting millions of users in prison.
"That's something we're not even gonna touch because they are the people who play our music, but that's what you notice," Power said. Even though he was condoning hypocrisy, his disarming candor was impressive. "It is hypocrisy, but as long as we don't fall victim to that hypocrisy and be a part of it and talk out of both sides of our mouth, then you know that it affects us."
Of course, both Peter Tosh and Bob Marley had no qualms about calling for the legalization of marijuana in their songs. "Yeah," Power responded, "and they died. The hip-hop world is not in a position to take on the world in that manner. All we can do is be artistic and whatever it is we do, strive for the best and take the good from the bad."
Raekwon chimed in, "It's the way of the world, son."
And, ultimately, that may be the "realest" truth about hip-hop.
"Hip-hop was never meant to exist outside of commodification," explains Berkeley's Osumare. "To expect hip-hop to stay poor, keep it real, and resist all capitalist temptation is putting a bit much on the genre itself."
True, but hip-hop artists also bring much of this moral scrutiny on themselves. If Britney Spears were to suddenly mutate into a self-described "street prophet" who "speaks the truth," a "crazy mothafucka" who "drops bombs the Man don't wanna hear," she'd soon be running the same gantlet of credibility and authenticity that many rappers are put through.