The Intelligent Forty-year-old's Guide to Rap
December 1, 1991
Dec 1, 1991
37 Min read time
Rap poetry is full of cutting-edge linguistic innovations.
Like many forty-somethings, 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
I bust the most rhymes in New York
Reporters cry, producers jive
They want to be down with the...
King (king, king... )
The wanted man (echo: man), from
the wanted clan (clan)
Wanted by every fan (fan), across the land (land)
Got a G.A.N.G. off the street (street)(Unison) Are you N-D-M-C complete?
—RUN-DMC, “Run’s House"
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 canon 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,
With eyes that pry not, tongue that ne’er repeats
Fond to spread friendships, but to cover heats;
To help who want, to forward who excel;
This, all who know me, know; who love me, tell;
And who defame me, let them be,
Scribbers or peers, alike are mob to me.
—Pope, “The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace Imitated"
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
Writers treat me like Coltrane, insane
Yes, but to me I’m a different kind
We’re brothers of the same mind, unblind,
Caught in the middle and, not surrenderin’
I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin’. . . .
‘88 you wait, the SI’s* will
Put the last in effect, and I still will
Rock the hard jam, treat it like a seminar
Reach the bourgeois, and rock the boulevard
Some say I’m negative, but they’re not positive...
—Public Enemy, “Don’t Believe the Hype"
*The SI’s are Public Enemy’s security-and-dance squad.
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 ever-trickier 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.
P. See, now I keep the secret, and not you!
The bribing statesman- F. Hold, too high you go.
P. The bribed elector- F. There you stoop too low.
—Pope,"Epilogue to the Satires, Dialogue II"
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
And if I’m correct here your name is Roxanne?"
She said, “How’d you know my name?” I said, “It’s getting around,
Right now, baby, you’re the talk of the town.
Please let me walk you to the car, my rap will be brief."
She said, “I’ve seen you before; you look like a thief."
I said, “Me? the doc? a hood? A rock?
Running around the street and robbin’ people on the block?
Naaaah, that’s not my style, to crime I’m not related.
As far as I’m concerned, I’m too sophisticated. . . ."
She said, “You call yourself a doctor?” I said, “This is true."
"Then explain to me really what doctors must do."
—UTFO, “Roxanne, Roxanne"
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’Advisory: 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
From full size to queen size to king size to highrise
Even bunk beds, I know how to work the legs.
If Pooh ain’t the answer, you must be sick as cancer.
So move around, let it ring, it might be me to answer.
So come take a dip with your private dancer,
Nasty, naughty, over six; call me shorty but I’m long.
Like Stretch Armstrong I go on and on and on and on.
Never in a scandal and I’m never caught scheming,
Knew Pooh was dope ever since I was semen,
Swimming in my daddy’s big nuts.
But now I’m scooping girls with the big old butts;
My rhymes the response for the macks well, acts well
Hell, it don’t even matter, Poobah ain’t game
for the shit chit-chatter
"Poobah’s in town, oh shit let’s scatter"
You can hide that ass but itjust don’t matter.
The 90s is here, Pooh is on the mass out.
Huns that I done, always seem to pass out.
But honey wake up, this ain’t the place to pass out.
You try to play me, I have to throw that ass out.
Frozen hoes, good riddin, cause when Pooh’s come out
there’ll be no skidding.
Caught her on a looker, know where I took her
To a short stay around my way
And like Mony say, it was the perfect way.
I caught a verse from the Christian and it say, “Praise the
Skins lined up on the roof for when I’m bored....
—Brand Nubian, “Step to the Rear"
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 “hos” (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-Pepa, 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-Pepa 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.
In Part One of this guide, we discussed why rap lyrics can seem stupid to forty-year-olds, especially on the all-important subjects of microphone prowess and sexual boasting. Once one realize the deep dedication of this art form to the fears, fantasies, and projections of early- and middle-adolescent males, raps become less affronting and more reflective of a particular human state of mind. Not a state of mind we’d want to go hack to, bat one that we can respect.
Rap’s corresponding strength, as with young teenagers, is explicitness. In political raps as on the sexual subjects the strengths and limitations carry over.
And explicit political fantasy can be even more shocking (and more tonic) than explicit sexual fantasy. Moreover, where a mature sexual attitude seems to disqualify a rapper, a sophisticated racial-political poetics has been tolerated in some respected artists.
That’s not to say that much of the politics doesn’t hate a strong quality of adolescent fantasy, currently focused on the eschatology of a New York- based sect called the “5% Nation of Islam.” In their mathematics, the five percent are those African-Americans who have “knowledge of self,” while eighty-five percent lack that knowledge, and ten percent, including Christian preachers, know the true knowledge but won’t give it out. White Americans don’t count because, as in the Nation of Islam, all Caucasians are low-IQ hybrids created (“grafted”) in a failed science experiment by the wicked magician Yakub some 6,000 years ago. All argument to the contrary—“tricknowledgy” is the hip-hop term—is part of the conspiracy to keep African-Americans ignorant of their true role as the original Asiatic people, soon to be restored to rule after the approaching apocalypse.
Thus jovial rap like Brand Nubian’s “Drop the Bomb,” with the opening chorus, “We gonna drop the bomb of the Yakub Crew,” refer to a fantasy of having all white people dead, and to the prophesied apocalypse which the late Elijah Muhammad saw as involving aerial bombing by a giant flying saucer, and, by way of a pun, to the act of fine political rapping itself, often described in slang as “dropping bombs from the microphone.”
To this imagery, the Five Percents add the appealing doctrine that the black man is God, individually as well as collectively. So knowledge of the self is knowledge of God. Another key jargon phrase is “The black man is the original man.” (The DNA researchers believe that the black woman was the original man, but as we used to say in the sixties, close enough far folk music.) This leaves open the role of the black woman, which appears to be both inferior and (sometimes) protected. Female rappers, even those with Arabic stage names, have yet to drop Islamic science from the microphone, at least in any code I ran decipher.
As opposed to the buttoned-up Nation of Islam image, these young Muslims seem to have no problem with sexual braggadocio, smoking marijuana, if not crack, and wearing flamboyant clothes. Begin God has privileges as well as responsibilities. They knock pork-eating in passing. but have not made a big case against alcohol.
The second major stream of Islamic artists are those more influenced by the Nation of Islam, though they are not always enrolled members. This group is at least explicit about Black Muslim doctrine, has digested more of it into socio-political protest, and has a more serious, angrier tone. More sweatsuits and hoodies, fewer Afrocentric robes and pyramids. Even here, Ice Cube (“in the process of getting my ‘X’”) ran make a malt liquor commercial with reported approval from Nation of Islam authorities.
Though the intelligent forty-year-old may be drawn to the well-outlined extremes, the common assumptions of 1991 rappers may still surprise. These are the children for whom affirmative action admissions proved the gateway to racist classrooms, with sour chances anyway in a declining economy. It’s as though the historical records is scratched and keeps playing the line “Educate yourself and get ahead.” So rap has picked up the tone arm and put it back at an earlier song titled “Black Nationalism.” As youth, they have more connection to media and education that to economics or foreign policy. So their protest is less about the distribution of property and income in American than about the lack of positive African history in the textbooks. Their vision is of a self-sufficient and self-policing ghetto, their demands are for respect rather than reduced rent.
On the positive tip, nationalism means self-sufficiency and self-education on AIDS, drugs, drop-out prevention, the Gulf War, and South Africa, and lively debates on conspicuous consumption, spousal abuse, gang membership, and ghetto crime. Because rap is a folk music, it is technically easy for rappers to combine for “We Are the World” all-star projects against apartheid, for abortion rights, or for Latin consciousness.
It would be narrow-minded to say that the gangster rappers who aren’t Muslim aren’t political. Or that a winking novelty song about sexual double-dipping, “O.P.P.” by Naughty by Nature, isn’t the hit rap single of 1991. All-for-the-moment materialism will always be a factor in any American youth culture, and romantic outlaws know no color barrier. Over the medium haul, “non-political” rap will keep the more didactic artists honest.
However, any Christians in the house are keeping it quiet, MC Hammer being the proverbial exception and ideological outlaw.
Political confidence and a Muslim worldview did not come immediately to the art form. The first recorded rappers, fifteen years ago, were making dance party music, often outdoors for break-dancers. The first protest records, such as “The Message” (1982), were snapshots of how bad life is in the ghetto. This is the most common type of overtly political song in any music; in rap the implicit romanticism of slices of life appeals to both black and white fans.
After a cycle of message songs, the “new school” rappers like Run-DMC and LL Cool J expressed their solidarity mostly with street-style clothes and aggressive vocal delivery. That their gold chains did not mix with anti-apartheid politics was a point that took another cycle to clarify itself, with prodding from old-schooler activist Afrika Bambaataa and the “Third Generation” rap groups now in effect, starting with Public Enemy in 1987.
The pendulum then veered to West Coast gangsta rap (Ice-T, NWA, Ice Cube), with its hardcore street languages and explicit fantasies of violence against police and women. That, and a revival of nationalist and self-sufficient thinking in the African-American community set the stage for the overwhelming identification of rap Afrocentrics with various black Muslim sects over the last two years. As rap has always had that postmodern tolerance—it’s all in the mix—new fads don’t eliminate old ones, just push them back on the burner.
The hegemony of Muslim rappers is unlikely to last longer than previous rap fads. But it may well add a new category to the standard repertory of sexual boasts, physical threats to competitors, raps about poetic ability, message songs, and didactic warnings. Already separatist politics are being challenged in a friendly, tolerant, postmodern way by rap’s two major political innovators, Public Enemy and KRS-ONE.
Welcome to the Terrordome
For the politically minded forty-year-old, everything else in these articles is background for the proper study of Public Enemy. This group is so focused on racism and racial politics that in most songs they don’t even bother to boast. In fact the name of the group and their central theme—persecution is us—is a kind of anti-boast. Other rappers pose for cover photos with guns, cars, undressed women, or all three. Public Enemy pose behind prison bards or lined up in the crosshairs of a rifle scope.
Their sound, which has been widely disseminated by their producers and many imitators, is the mise-en-scene of paranoia: sirens, subsonic explosions, monster-movie echoes, haunted-house reverb, high-speed beats, whispering, scratching, Morse code phasers, relentless machine gun loops, sound-collage put deliberately off the beat. It’s not a pleasant music, nor relaxing nor seductive. It makes the listener nervous and attentive, hypervigilant. It is sound organized to reproduce the stress of surviving as a young black male.
The lyrics reinforce the horror-movie plot: that black males are brought up in ignorance of a conspiracy to kill them. And while Public Enemy is certainly preachy, their great strength is their ability, as poets and musicians, to dramatize the emotional reality of their vision. Chuck D, the main writer of the group, has a knack for encapsulating political ideas in phrases, often song titles, so pithy they are as quoted as Dylan’s were in the sixties. While the newsweeklies consider the changing demographics of the United States as a political motivator, Public Enemy titled an album “Fear of a Black Planet.” For the inhuman, robotic quality one can observe in crack addicts, “Night of the Living Baseheads.” For the theory that racism is largely reproduced in mass media, “Don’t Believe the Hype.”
Public Enemy is able to expound complicated ideas in a dramatic way because it is the only rap performance group with more than one character. It is, in fact designed as a Platonic dialogue among various facets of Africa-American young male style and opinion. Chuck D, the main rapper, wears a standard B-Boy uniform, sweats and a baseball cap, and raps rather subtle poetry even when shouting.
Flavor Flav, the one with the big clocks around his neck, is rap’s frightful clown, a bug-eyed scarecrow dancer like Mick Jagger at his most frenzied. He is the street-level, satirical corrective to Chuck D’s authoritative, prophetic voice. (Intelligent forty-year-olds who listen carefully will notice that rap MSs use street vocabulary but generally stick carefully to standard American grammar and radio-quality pronunciation. It’s not unusual that Chuck D argues a militant position in standard English, but the effect is heightened by Flavor Flav’s deliberate and very unusual use of an exaggerated accent, Black English grammar, and comic neologisms.) Rap has had various reassuring clowns, such as the Fat Boyz, Biz Markie, and some of the smuttier acts, but Flavor Flav is a much deeper trickster, a figure of folklore.
Terminator X, the DJ, is a silent, supercompetent technician. The fourth aspect of the performing group originally was Professor Griff, who headed a uniformed dance squad with plastic assault rifles, the Security of the First World, or S1Ws. Griff was an enrolled member of the Nation of Islam, and gave the group a paramilitary-revolutionary bodyguard out of the late sixties.
Griff precipitated a crisis for the Public Enemy over most of the 1989 when he was quoted in a series of wildly anti-Semitic statements. The group’s inability to make a clean break with Griff set it back considerably. Critics concluded that the group was unable to contain the controversy because the group was genuinely anti-Semitic, or because the group was pigheaded about outside criticism, or because Chuck D was an indecisive leader. There is some truth to tall three assumptions, but I think the larger problem is that Public Enemy could not simply purge Professor Griff without limiting themselves as a microcosm of the black youth community. It took two years for Griff to filter out of Public Enemy. The group’s new associate is a woman, Sister Souljah, whose role is still developing.
Public Enemy describes itself as supporting Minister Farrakhan, but this is in part a militant pose, and in another part an expression of respect to a rhetoric they have recast to their own purposes. Chuck D is as apt to use Christian imagery as Muslim imagery, although this has been increasingly true of Farrakhan’s speeches as well in recent years.
What Public Enemy has taken from the Nation of Islam is a willingness to criticize weakness and internal divisions in the black community. The group has grown by doing this. Their first album claims power, but their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, names the obstacle as media-induced confusion, and includes African-American media figures in the attack. Fear of a Black Planet admits that on the present planet, not all black males are the best fathers, that some od them assassinated Malcolm X and Huey Newton, that some are dissin’ the sisters and worse, and that some made “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” a best-selling song.
This year’s album, Apocalypse ‘91, admits that some black men drink:
Never could follow a man with a bottle.He’s a baby with a beard, not a feared role model,And they ask where I get it; I got it from my pops.With a man in the house, all the bullshit stops.
Public Enemy’s energy is critical and analytical rather than positive’ Chuck D is one poet for whom learning black history is not mainly an exercise in self-esteem. In the group’s current single, “Can’t Truss It,” it is clear that at every stage of white oppression, black disunity was crucial:
Going, going, getting to the roots,Ain’t giving it up, so I turn one loose.But then again I got a story, harder than the hard core:Cost of the Holocaust, I’m talking about the one still going on.I know where I’m from, not dum-diddy-dumFrom the base motherland, the place of the drumInvaded by the wack-diddy-wackFooled the black,Left us faded. King and chief probably had a big beefBecause of that, now I grit my teethSo here’s a song to the strongAbout a shake of the snake, and he smile that went alongWith that.(Chorus)Can’t trust itOh no, no, no
In the chorus, “Can’t trust it” is a critical evocation of MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This,” while the “no, no, no” response is in the rhythm of the chorus of the Rolling Stone’s “Satisfaction.” The verse has a rolling subtext of such musical allusions, from the sixties “Ain’t giving it up” and “Turn me loose,” through “dum-diddy-dum” and “wack-diddy-wack” substitutions, which imply that the nonsense syllables in black pop music arise in a context of censorship, and on to the “shake of the snake,” which is both a treacherous slave contract (shaking heads with a snake-like dealer) and a reference to musical rattles.
That kind of allusive depth makes Chuck D’s raps inimitable poetry and reinforces his basic gestures, in this case an evocation of the experience of slavery, an argument that such history is repeated today, a critique of Uncle Toms and black opportunists, and a deconstruction of African-American music and attitudes. Terminator X adds such musical commentary as an Arabic-sounding obbligato in the chorus, produced but the turntable/mixer technique of “transforming,” of which he is a master. Flavor Flav adds other layers of meaning in the “Can’t Trust It” video, both in skits of slavery and resistance and in his dancing on the “performance” cutaways.
While many Black Muslims might pick up familiar phrases in a Public Enemy song, so might devotees of modern literature who can translate Chuck D’s attitude back to the original public enemy modernists, such as Rimbaud. While most rappers are young and optimistic, and enjoy the postmodern paradoxes of spoken music, Chuck D has engaged many of the hang-ups of modern man: self-absorption to the point of paranoia, romanticism and revision of history, extremes of self-confidence and self-loathing, the role of the individual in an increasingly technical art. That Chuck has refused to become academic or as elliptical as Dylan under similar pressures testifies to his strong commitment to keeping his audience for an increasingly progressive music.
As a curious sidelight, Chuck D has made many anti-black-racist gestures, including touring and recording with the speed-metal group Anthrax, endorsing the white group The Young Black Teenagers (and using its leader on the new PE album), and recording several songs opposed to the Black Muslim rejection of mixed couples.
If, on the other hand, you must have a politically correct rapper with street credentials, there is KRS-One, whose records usually appear under the name Boogie Down Productions. I find much of his output a little dry, lacking the loose jollity of out-of-print first album, Criminally Minded. He does have the most mythic story in hip-hop, first becoming involved with the music as a homeless Bronx dropout. Scott LaRock was his counselor at a men’s shelter, and became the DJ in 1987, and KRS-One took on the mantle of being rap’s semi-official conscience. He has a recorded position on everything from black-on-black violence to ozone depletion and vegetarianism, not a syllable of which would get his hissed off any university platform. The best work of this autodidact is his critique of public education. In a better world, Albert Shanker’s punishment would be five hundred transcriptions of this one:
What do you mean when you say I’mrebelliousCause I don’t accept everything thatyou’re telling us?What are you selling us? The creatordwell in us.I sit in your unknowing class whileyou’re failing usI failed your class cause I ain’t withyour reasoning.You’re tryin’ make me you byseasoning.Pump my mind with “See Jane run.”“See John walk” in a hardcore NewYork?Come on now, that’s like a chocolatecowIt doesn’t exist no way, no howIt seems to me that in a school that’sebonyAfrican history should be pumped upsteadilybut it’s not. And this has got to stop.“See Spot run? Run get Spot?”Insulting to a black mentalityA black way of life or a jet-black family. …I believe that if you’re teachinghistoryDeal with the straight-up facts, nomystery,Teach the student what needs to betaughtThat black and white kids both takeshortsWhen one doesn’t know about theother one’s cultureIgnorance swoops down like avulture.—KRS-One, “You Must Learn”
However, what follows is a not entirely accurate list of black achievers that drops the question of culture altogether.
Judging by the brand new Civilization vs. Technology by Human education Against Lies, what KRS-One has had in mind all along is cooperative education, in which a variety of voices can be mixed into a postmodern mosaic. Superficially, H.E.A.L. is an all-star date like “We Are the World,” but the cause is publishing books and mailing them out free. The record conveys more intention than emotional or factual education, but it is a curious taste of music as a town meeting of the global ghetto.
Just the opening cut, “Heal Yourself,” features, in rapid order: Big Daddy Kane against drugs, Freddy Foxxx protesting racism and pro-white attitudes in the black community, LL Cool J on female masturbation (!), MC Lyte on the decline of pan-African education, Queen Latifah on women’s dignity, KRS-One on uniting the races against corporate exploitation, Ms. Melody with a dark vignette of spousal abuse, and Run-DMC in a kind of chorus about H.E.A.L. The crazy quilt is sewn together by the party-MC introductions of old-schooler Kid Capri. It’s as though a really slamming 1982 dance party suddenly turned into a nonjudgmental therapy group, as though rap were a medium for heartfelt exchange of ideas.
Musically, the record is all over the map, though frequently in Jamaica, but with two unusual efforts to combine hip-hop with white rock as collaborations wit Billy Bragg and Michael Stipe of REM. The subjects also jump around, but with a lot of focus on the status of women and the family.
KRS-One sneaks in after Ms. Melody’s “Anti Ho” with a prose description of a concert he played with sexist rapper Too Short. As he tells it, young women were shouting,
“We love you, Too Short. We love your music. We love you!” Sweet technique number one: what happened in the minds of these young ladies shows, or men in these shows? The question here is not about the group. We cannot point the finger at the group and say, “Well that group’s music is bad, and N.W.A. is bad…No, groups mean nothing here. We are going to ask this question today: who taught the masses of the people to respect sex and violence? Who are the teachers of these explicit lyricists?”
KRS-One (“Knowledge Rules Supreme Over Nearly Everyone”) has never stated his religious orientation, and seems determined to unite all factions of the rap community except hardcore misogynists on the H.E.A.L. roster. It is clear that his critique of education has spilled over into an intense preoccupation with the popular arts as a field of social struggle. He seems to share with Chuck D an analysis that who is on the radio playlists is more important than who is on the Supreme Court.
In Beyond Flynn
Withal, rap’s political strength is a teenage strength. Rap hates hypocrisy and shocks us best with unvarnished truth. I remember the first time I heard “Wildside” by Boston’s Marky Mark, a white rapper with better muscles than vocal chords and the additional disability of being Donnie (New Kids on the Block) Wahlberg’s younger brother. “Wildside” begins as a weak deconstruction of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” The lyric is four stories about people, first names only, like a Globe Living Pages story. A high-school cheerleader got into crack and ended up in the morgue—this king of unspecific moralizing makes Marky an often dull rapper. To this forty-something, Lou Reed’s non-judgmental stance gives his work a lot more spiritual impact.
But I was listening to the third story, which is about Charles, who “had it all” and then plotted to kill his wide for the insurance. Oh, that Charles. The tension builds—mine did anyway—as Marky Mark continues into racial part of the story: “Then there was Bennett, guilty until proven so.” Yes, Marky can and does go on to explain how Charles Stuart’s walk on the wild side turned into persecution for hundreds of black males in Boston. I’ve gone from scorn to tears in thirty seconds.
“Wildside” isn’t as incisive as ED O.G.’s Stuart rap in “Speak Upon It,” but if a white kid with a whiffle haircut, beach-blanket pecs, and major-label support understands what went down on Mission Hilll, why the hell doesn’t Mayor Flynn?
But It Sounds Ugly
Well, there’s no arguing taste. But there’s very little in hip-hop that an intelligent forty-year-old hasn’t heard before. Literally heard before, since the sounds are snipped out of older records, including such old white bands as Aerosmith, Cream, the Doobie Brothers, Deep Purple, Steppenwolf, and even Kraftwerk, the German synth-rockers. I haven’t picked up any Grateful Dead samples, but I’m sure they’re out there somewhere.
Of course most of the snippets are drum-and-bass riffs from funkier records by James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic, Herbie Hancock, Mandrill, and selected old soul music. The original technique was to own two copies of each record, and cue up the drum break over and over again on alternating turntables, thrilling the break dancers. This technique came from disco DJs, as did a variety of exciting “echoes” and other enhancements that can be made by “cutting” bits of one record into another with two turntables and a mixing board.
At its core, rap is poetry recited over drums and bass, and to many people of all ages, that just sounds like music with the musical part taken out. However, the empty mid-range of rap tracks invited some very creative solutions. Turntable manipulations are right at one’s fingertips. Scratching a vinyl record with a turntable tone arm makes a rhythm effect like that of the rattles of West Africa and such African-American inventions as the berimbau, the washboard, and the guiro. But you’ve also heard scratching on Frank Zappa’s album We’re Only in It for the Money. Zappa derived many techniques of tape music and percussive noise music from earlier avant-gardists such as Edgar Varese, and in turn passed them on to avant-funkster George Clinton, an avatar of hip-hop.
But the more common form of scratching is the rapid cuing and back-cuing of an inch or three of groove without lifting the tone arm. Radio DJs used to do this to start up records in exactly the right place. But rap DJs could pick up anything—a word, a snippet of a song, a horn solo, a few notes by a whole string section, a laugh, a siren—an with varying hand moves affect the pitch and timbre.
DJs like Grandmaster Flash were rap’s first stars, and used teams of MCs and dancers to produce a stage show. But the initial thrill was the real-time production of rocking sounds with nothing more than a couple of turntables and a mixing board. Access to such inexpensive instruments made rap a folk music at a moment when disco was into its most excessive reliance on studio production.
Because rap DJs can “sample” any kind of music, they see rap as the king of all popular musics; however, they have been substantially outflanked by producers, who can get even more sophisticated effects with electronic studio equipment, then mix down a backing tape, over which MCs can perform on tour. There is even experimentation with “live” instruments, usually just bass and drums.
At the beginning of this year, there was a lot of talk in the rap press about superstar producers and the decline of the DJ as a creative force. But the records issued toward the end of the year tended to a simpler, less produced sound. The stage is set for a return of the turntable superstars.
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December 01, 1991
37 Min read time