Like many fortysomethings, I hadn't noticed anything special about teenage culture since the disco crash. Then, two years ago, I began planning a novel set in Boston among illegal aliens from El Salvador. I wanted to contrast one underground group with another, and who is more underground, in any age, than teenagers? Teenage North Americans seemed the natural foils for our invisible neighbors from Central America, many of whom also arrive as teens.
But my first interviews on the slang and culture of 1989 collegians found even the most willing informants ironic and tentative about their own group identity. Most of the youth I met seemed to be small copies of the young fogies they wanted to become, the mysterious silent generation that came of age in the Reagan era.
I had hoped for at least a subculture with a little more ... elan. I asked about the cliques and types on and off campus. I heard about "trendoids" and "geeks" and "progressives" and "techies" and "mods" and "nutty-crunchies" and "art fags" and "sixties relics" and "nerds" and "Wall Streeters" and "headbangers." I couldn't imagine any of them having much to say in my novel. There was more variety but little variation from the 1968 Columbia College typology: "pukes" versus "jocks".
Then I mentioned that my characters were a little less clean-cut than all that, and one of my informants said, "Oh, they probably listen to rap music."
Word up, that's what my characters were listening to, and have been listening to ever since. When I'm with them, I'm listening, too.
Two Barriers, Ten Claims
Now, there are two barriers a middle-aged person has to get over to enjoy rap music. It's dumb, and it sounds ugly. I absolutely concede the subjective power of the two barriers. To an intelligent forty-year-old, rap initially is dumb and does sound ugly. On the other side of the barriers, I make some large claims for rap:
1. While most First-World poetry has retreated to the academy, rap is a grassroots poetic movement, massively popular, with sporadic moments of the best popular poetry since Dylan.
2. Rap is the first truly postmortem popular art, integrating new technology with neo-primitive contents.
3. Beyond even previous pop musics, rap brings teenage male folk culture especially African-American sources--out for public examination. It's hard for a middle-aged person to hear what teens are saying, and hard for a member of the majority culture to hear minority views, especially on the emotional channel. Rap is a great opportunity.
4. There are some really bright, positive, articulate kids in this thing, working on tough social and personal problems. Rap is communicated wisdom as well as misinformation.
5. Rap poetry is full of cutting-edge linguistic innovations.
6. Rap has finally shifted musical accents from the deep south to urban New York and Los Angeles. At last, you can have a Brooklyn accent and be cool.
7. Rap is multicultural and politically incorrect at the same time, thus generating political controversies that get us out of the intellectual doldrums.
8. The MCs prize clear pronunciation. You can get all the sneaky little lyrics.
9. Nobody can say it doesn't rhyme, and you can dance to it.
10. You can check it out in the privacy of your own electronic cottage; in fact, there are so few live rap shows that you don't even miss much staying home.
You may notice that barrier number one ("It's Dumb") and claim number three are about the same thing. In fact, this is the heart of the matter: rap is deeply and powerfully the expression of early- and middle-adolescent males. It is the strength of that psychological commitment that has kept rap from flying apart despite fifteen years of musical change and political controversy.
90 percent of rap lyrics are in the form of personal boasting, threats directed at male peers, and threats directed at larger social groups. The intelligent forty-year-old will remember these themes in his/her own teenage thinking, and marvel that what was once restricted to family shouting matches and schoolyard cliques can now be expressed on CD.
Like many kids of modern artists, rappers spend a lot of mike time on self-reference, as in "I'm a poet and you better know it." A comparatively modest claim:
My name is DMC, the longtime craze
The relationship with male peers is all-important but deeply conflicted. In the field of poetic prowess, much effort is spent on criticism of lesser rappers, "Sucker MCs.' Off-mike, the liner notes are filled with long lists of acknowledgements of fellow artists. Star rappers appear on each other's records, produce new groups, and praise each other in interviews.
The mutual respect is the business ethics of seventeen- to thirty-year-olds. Yet the lyrics are for younger males; "I'm great and you're not," defines male identity from twelve to seventeen. Rap has never had a tribute song, while supporting numerous feuds.
The game is given away by the fact that sucker MCs--competitors who steal one's rhymes-are more a metaphorical abstraction than real. They are almost never named as such, even in feuds. One reason is that rap music is almost entirely composed by assembling quotes from existing records, this may accustom rappers to the idea that their,rhymes are a social product. More likely the abuse of sucker MCs is a kind of schoolyard punch on the arm, testing the pecking order in a general way.
Competing talent actually present is ritually recognized in the "So-and-so's in the house" chants.
Poets of all eras and cultures draw on delayed adolescence. The Western cancon is chock-full of such material from the likes of Donne, Marvell, and Shakespeare, much of it in four-stress couplets that would go right out over the fat bass lines and James Brown samples of today. Perhaps the perfect rap forerunner was the man who said, "The life of a wit is warfare on earth," Alexander Pope. Not only was he a minority victim of discrimination, disabled, and hypersensitive to the slights of sucker MCs, but Pope busted dope rhymes and could clearly rock the house. To wit:
No pimp of pleasure, and no spy of state,
Now here's a contemporary Pope, Chuck D of the group Public Enemy, on the same themes:
The book of the new school rap game
'88 you wait, the SI's* will
The poetics of rap have gone through three distinct periods. The "Old School" rappers who first recorded favored long strings of rather mechanical couplets over beats assembled on turntables and tape loops. The "New School" of the mid-80s worked up more formal effects, conversational and choral techniques that had largely dropped out of modern poetry in English. Internal rhyme lent more rhythmic urgency. The music also was more produced, with much effort devoted to sound collages and turntable effects. In the current, "Third Generation," the focus again is on individual lyrics, with a (long) verse/refrain structure, but with a lot more enjambment, triple rhythms, and word play aside from the evertrickier terminal rhymes.
None of this would be alien to Pope, who wrote out some verses for two voices (here "P." is the poet and "F." a friend):
The poisoning dame- F. You mean- P. I don't.- F. You do.
A mere 250 years later, Dr. Ice recounted a conversation in similarly supple verse:
I said, "I'd like to be with you, if I can
Rap's main poetic forms are long lyrics and dramatic monologues, with interesting revivals of choral poetry and dialogues. Didactic poems and satires fill out a basically eighteenth century formal portfolio. Hit raps tend to be more repetitive, like short Romantic lyrics. Attempts at longer forms, such as rap operas and concept albums, haven't succeeded. We're a long way from a rap epic. Slick Rick, a fine storyteller, seems to hold a one-rapper niche as a balladeer.
Parents'Advisoty: Explicit Lyrics
The early adolescent sexuality of rap lyrics engenders much of the newsmagazine controversy about rap. Since we're all intelligent forty-year-olds here, let's keep this part of the discussion on a lofty intellectual level, shall we?
How about a few disconnected remarks from the eminent psychiatrist Theodore Lidz: "It has been said that an adolescent boy is a person with two heads and it is often the head of the penis that guides his behavior.... The adolescents continue to go around in the same monosexual groupings ... the boy is still fighting against his dependency upon mothering figures and fears losing his idenfity through engulfment by a female." (The Person, Theodore Lidz)
Again a mild example, from a talented young Muslim. Watch for all the puns on his stage name, Grand Poobah Maxwell:
Balling is my hobby, doing wonders in the bed
And so on and forth. Now the intelligent forty-yearold is not expected to identify, being possibly female and almost certainly past the psychological stages invoked. But it is possible to remember those early stages of adolescence: the frantic search for information, starting with looking up dirty words in the dictionary and moving into pornography, the bragging, the fantasies,-violent, obscene, unlikely-but just fantasies. In defending the pornographic rap of 2 Live Crew, Henry Louis Gates compared it to African-American folk poetry like "Signifying Monkey' and the toasts, such as "Ball of the Freaks." I'm not sure that porno-rap derives from oral tradition (though I am pretty sure that the sample on "Me So Horny" comes off a Folkways record of actualities from the Vietnam war). I think the relationship is more structural; this is what early adolescent minds generate.
One rhetorical shift is that dirty raps, like so much postmodern literature but unlike toasts, are in the first person. This is extra-alarming (or extra-stupid) to middle-aged people raised on third-person literature and first-person journalism. I would note Bernice Johnson Reagon's observation, apropos of spirituals, that many gospels sung in the first person were interpreted as freedom songs in the third person; she cites "This Little Light of Mine" and the old "I Shall Overcome," which she says was modified to "We Shall Overcome" only when white Americans became involved in the civil rights movement. Thus the intended audience of teens may have better cultural tools for contextualizing rap sexuality than the rest of us.
In the main, of course, the sexual boasting in rap sounds stupid to grown-ups because grown-ups are past those stages of psychosexual development. Look at what's going on here-nervous young people, on stage and off, break-dancing in same-sex groups and solo dancing in a circle. Dr. Lidz again: "The prepubertal boy . . . seeks knowledge, and is often fascinated by scatology, which has a sexual connotation to him, and in telling stories he must pretend to be one of the gang."
Yo! Hermeneutics! What's missing in this picture? There's a lot of sex talk but no one actually touches a girl, on or off stage. There is the most amazing barrier between rap and the black musical styles associated with actual courtship and seduction. Rap DJs will sample cowboy ballads, German synthesizer bands, all-white heavy metal, jazz piano riffs-but they cannot develop a fusion of rap with "house music," the black teen dance music for boy-girl parties. The slower, smoother ballads of late adolescent yearning, now called "R&B" when performed by African-Americans, sell well and record companies urge rap artists who can sing to try them. But no group that both raps and sings ballads, even the immensely popular Bell Biv Devoe, is taken seriously as rappers. The smooth soul music that goes on the turntable when older teen couples are alone, grown-up make-out music-few rap artists can fool with that stuff without incurring cries of 'sell out!" There is a school of shirts-off rappers, but except for LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane (journeymen artists solidly rooted in the mainstream), they are marginal figures like the white-Latin lover, Gerardo.
Raps and rappers can appear on records directed to the courtship needs of older adolescents, but this does not make them rap records, and it does not make those sounds any more acceptable for rap deconstruction.
Women are described in these boasts as "ho's" (but not madonnas), freaks, insatiable sadists, bitches and such. These descriptions are negative, but so one-dimensional that one can see that there is, at this psychological stage, very little real information about or interest in women as people. There is a lot of violent talk against women, as there is against sucker MCs. This raises the classic political problems of much pornography--it's frightening to children too young to use it, and it still appeals to physically mature people fixated in early developmental stages, your Freudian description of perverts and whackos. "Kill the bitch" raps may or may not inculcate bad attitudes in males in their early teens, who are generically terrified of women, but they are also available to grown-up wife-beaters.
Fans of the music point out the many didactic raps about sexual conduct and attitudes toward women, but sexually stupid raps are widely tolerated. Almost every rap record has one or two boasting cuts,just the way most bluegrass records have one or two gospel songs. I asked a female rapper in Boston, twenty one-year-old Dream Nephra, about 2 Live Crew, and she gave me the standard defense about the district attorney making a run for higher office by prosecuting rap records. I persisted, "But is their record actually any good?" She replied, "It's no better or worse than any other record like that, if that's what you like." What I hear in that is a tolerance for the needs of teenagers at different stages of development.
There are amazingly few raps about individual, named women. Remember that in most popular music, it's a commercial consideration to have love songs with common names like Mary. To the extent that women described in raps have any dimension, it's a fairly accurate portrait of fifteen- to sixteen-year-old-girls as seen by tentative swains: that they are stand-offish, diffident, treacherous, and erratic.That was the story with Roxanne, in the UTFO hit quoted above. It spawned answer songs by no fewer than three female rappers named Roxanne, all chiding the boys for the lack of looks, lack of money, and inadequate raps.
Female rappers since have had some success, mostly by taking up the Roxanne role. What they have for their female fans is not so sexual-female early adolescents form smaller, more intimate groups and obsess about heavy, platonic crushes, the stuff of R&B. The female MCs--Salt'n'Peppa, MC Lyte, Monie Love--get respect for a spunky, tomboyish style that takes no lip. Queen Latifah gets even more respect for a dignified, possibly maternal, stance and some gentle-but-firm Afrocentrism. As far as I can remember, only Salt'n'Peppa have ever been kissed in a video. Yo-Yo, despite her name, is a spunky female rapper who does rhyme about courtship problems like stealing other women's men. This, and her association with the major rapper Ice Cube, who says "bitch" a lot, have had her on a lot of talk shows in the last six months. X-rated female rappers have recorded, but attract little interest.