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

Sisqo, the platinum-haired glamour boy who sings "The Thong Song," is ultimately in a much less tenuous position with the hip-hop authenticity squad than a rapper with messianic or Napoleonic pretensions like DMX, who actually expects to be taken seriously.

Nonetheless, some hip-hop artists do challenge the self-congratulatory orgy of materialism that dominates the industry. Each who does so, however, risks being labeled as a player-hater, an angry, failed wannabe. (Sound like a Republican campaign speech to you, too?)

Lately, "player-hater" has become a term of opprobrium, an all-purpose weapon used to silence any criticism of the commercial excesses in the rap world. "Calling someone a player-hater has been turned into a way to diffuse a debate about both the content and the quality of the music itself," points out Michael Barnes, UC Berkeley graduate student and DJ. "So as soon as you say to someone like Juvenile or the Cash Money Millionaires, 'Your music sucks,' they respond, 'Why you hatin'?'"

Still, artists like Mos Def and Talib Kweli and groups like Dead Prez have had the courage to break the code of silence and question the direction hip-hop is taking. "I remember when the worst thing you could be was a sellout," Kweli wrote in the liner notes of the Blackstar album. "Then the sellouts started running things. We call this song hater-players because we do this for the love."

Dissenting groups don't get the same airplay as DMX or Nas, but they nonetheless have loyal followings and continue to sell records. This is a pretty old story, too.

"There has never, ever been—even in the age of folk music and Bob Dylan—a vast majority interested in politically engaging diatribes against the system," noted NYU's Kelley.

"It's always been a minority, but the amazing thing is that it persists," Osumare concurred. "If you're looking for the rap underground, it's not on Warner Bros. or Arista or Columbia. There are people who made it, who aren't 'keeping it real' for some mythic black community somewhere, but keeping it real for themselves and staying true to themselves."

Criticism of hip-hop culture is too often, and too easily, deflated by the hopelessly facile question, "But what about the love?" If by "the love" you mean a kind of Teflon sophistry that interprets all monetary gains made by rappers as an assault on the system, then read Vibe. I'm not down with that. If nothing else, 30-plus years of countercultures real and fake have taught us that you don't "jack the system"; the system hijacks you.

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