By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
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.
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."
"Hip-hop comes in and says, 'Look, we've been poor; there's nothing glorious about that,'" said Toback. "'It's not that money is bad; it's bad that we don't have the money. And we would like it. And if you are so ready to part with it, we'll help you.'"
In this regard, Toback feels that hip-hop's self-pimping modus operandi is fully in sync with mainstream white American culture and history. "Part of the game is to exploit yourself, you know —'We've been exploited; let me get in on the exploitation of my own history.' That's as old as Buffalo Bill, who ended his life as a plunderer of the myth of Buffalo Bill. It's the difference between boxing and pro wrestling, which is one of the reasons wrestling has caught on —it's emblematic of this parody of the self that's going on and the cashing in on it."
Still, it's a risky game, since self-parody tends to erode the authenticity that makes the entire hip-hop culture salable in the first place. You start off keeping it real. Next thing you know, you're in a "Please Don't Hurt 'Em Hammer" situation. "Keep it real" once meant "Be true to your roots" but is now as vestigial as "God bless you" or "Peace" or "How are you doing?" Nevertheless, any obvious violation of keeping-it-real can kill a career.
"All hip-hop artists make a choice about how much they're going to sell their soul to the devil," said Dr. Halifu Osumare, a visiting professor of African-American studies at UC Berkeley who wrote a dissertation titled "African Aesthetics, American Culture: Hip-hop in the Global Era." "There's a fine line in playing that."
The few artists who walk this tightrope successfully can be considered "players with a conscience." It's a club with very few members, in which commercialism doesn't imperil integrity, and rappers can "get paid" and "keep it real" at the same time.
But it seems that nowadays, for every conscience player like Mos Def, you get 10 synthetic concoctions like Juvenile, a rapper who's all posturing and zero street cred, a kind of gangsta commodity that's as believable as a blazed-out Barney or strapped Tinky Winky. It's easy to keep it real when you're living in Disneyland.Black and White's performances by three Wu-Tang associates—in addition to Power, there's Raekwon and Method Man—may best represent the all-American commodification of the hip-hop revolution. Currently defunct, Wu-Tang is one of those rare rap groups that has managed to retain street credibility among devoted followers while fervently marketing their collective like so much Austin Powers memorabilia. Their second album, Wu-Tang Forever, was a $33, CD-ROM-enhanced unit featuring catalog numbers and even a free connection to America Online—a move Vibe magazine, ever cheerleaders for corporate-sponsored radicalism, interpreted as "hip-hop's first truly successful colonization of the boardroom."
In addition to producing records for the Wu and individual artists like Ol' Dirty Bastard, Power currently serves as chairman and CEO of Wu Wear, the ever-popular hip-hop clothing line that now boasts five boutiques nationwide. Raekwon, on the other hand, is a kind of round rap legend who possesses one of the most distinctive "flows," or rapping styles, in the hip-hop world.
Wearing colorful, loose-fitting Wu Wear for the interview, Raekwon bore an uncanny resemblance to another cross-cultural hero, Pikachu, the yellow Pokémon front man. Power did most of the talking, but when asked for a status report on the current politics in the hip-hop world, he tapped familiar territory—describing hip-hop's 20-year journey from the underground in the terms of Martin Scorsese's film Casino.
"It's like when Bugsy Seigel and them did Vegas back in the days," Power mused. "They did it out one degree, and then came in the corporations and blew it up but took away the fun and the immediacy of what it was all about. It's like Disneyland right now—anyone can be a hip-hopper right now, anyone can be a star."
And in one form or another, isn't that what the oldest, most conservative American Dream is all about—from George Washington to Horatio Alger to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Indeed, the seeming ease and arbitrary nature of wealth and celebrity may make it difficult to staff entry-level jobs at, say, Blimpie because everyone just wants to get to the part of the game where they're Jennifer Lopez. In this society, you're either Jennifer Lopez or you're ashamed of yourself.
Power responded to that suggestion with a sort of Level I player ideology, à la Ronald Reagan, that affirms that everyone can be Jennifer Lopez if they just try hard enough. "If you think it, you can be it," he exulted. "Reach for the stars; it's all in your head."
And then Power went where many hip-hop stars eventually go.
"Take Tony Montana and his boy," he said, referring to the central figure played by Al Pacino in Scarface. "They wanted to be coke dealers, but the same way we got from the street—from being niggas who was hustling and doing nickel-and-dime shit—we took that same energy to become the Scarfaces of this business right here. I'm Scarface in this business."
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.
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.