NOT long ago, I was having lunch in a KFC in Harlem, sitting near eight African-American boys, aged about 14. They were extremely loud and unruly, tossing food at one another and leaving it on the floor.
What struck me most was how fully the boys' music - hard-edged rap, preaching bone-deep dislike of authority - provided them with a continuing soundtrack to their antisocial behavior. So completely was rap ingrained in their consciousness that every so often, one or another of them would break into cocky, expletive-laden rap lyrics, accompanied by the angular, bellicose gestures typical of rap performance. A couple of his buddies would then join him. Rap was a running decoration in their conversation.
Many writers and thinkers see a kind of informed political engagement, even a revolutionary potential, in rap and hip-hop. They couldn't be more wrong. By reinforcing the stereotypes that long hindered blacks, and by teaching young blacks that a thuggish adversarial stance is the properly "authentic" response to a presumptively racist society, rap retards black success.
Early rap began not as a growl from below but as happy party music. The first big rap hit, the Sugar Hill Gang's 1978 "Rapper's Delight," featured a catchy bass groove that drove the music forward, as the jolly rapper celebrated himself as a ladies' man and a great dancer.
A string of ebullient raps ensued in the months ahead. At the time, I assumed it was a harmless craze, certain to run out of steam soon.
BUT rap took a dark turn in the early 1980s, as this "bubble gum" music gave way to a "gangsta" style that picked up where blaxploitation left off. Now top rappers began to write edgy lyrics celebrating street warfare or drugs and promiscuity. Grandmaster Flash's ominous 1982 hit, "The Message," with its chorus, "It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under," marked the change in sensibility. It depicted ghetto life as profoundly desolate:
You grow in the ghetto, living second Rate/And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate.
The places you play and where you stay
Looks like one great big alley way.
You'll admire all the numberbook takers,/Thugs, pimps and pushers, and the big money makers.
Music critics fell over themselves to praise "The Message," treating it as the poetry of the streets - as the elite media has characterized hip-hop ever since. The ultimate message of "The Message" - that ghetto life is so hopeless that an explosion of violence is both justified and imminent - would become a hip-hop mantra in the years ahead.
The angry, oppositional stance that "The Message" reintroduced into black popular culture transformed rap from a fad into a multi-billion-dollar industry that sold more than 80 million records in the U.S. in 2002 - nearly 13 percent of all recordings sold. To rap producers like Russell Simmons, earlier black pop was just sissy music. He despised the "soft, unaggressive music (and non-threatening images)" of artists like Michael Jackson or Luther Vandross. "So the first chance I got," he says, "I did exactly the opposite."
IN the two decades since "The Message," hip-hop performers have churned out countless rap numbers that celebrate a ghetto life of unending violence and criminality.
Police forces became marauding invaders in the gangsta-rap imagination. The late West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur expressed the attitude:
Ya gotta know how to shake the snakes, Nigga/'Cause the police love to break a Nigga/Send him upstate 'cause they straight up hate the nigga.
Shakur's anti-police tirade seems tame, however, compared with Ice-T's infamous "Cop Killer":
I got my 12-gauge sawed-off.
I got my headlights turned off.
I'm 'bout to bust some shots off.
I'm 'bout to dust some cops off ...
Rap also began to offer some of the most icily misogynistic music human history has ever known.
Here's Schooly D:
Tell you now, brother, this ain't no joke,
She got me to the crib, she laid me on the bed,/I f---d her from my toes to the top of my head./I finally realized the girl was a whore,/Gave her ten dollars, she asked me for some more.
As N.W.A. (an abbreviation of "Niggers with Attitude") tersely sums up the hip-hop worldview: "Life ain't nothin' but bitches and money."
HIP-hop exploded into popular consciousness at the same time as the music video, and rappers were soon all over MTV, reinforcing in images the ugly world portrayed in rap lyrics. Video after video features rap stars flashing jewelry, driving souped-up cars, sporting weapons, angrily gesticulating at the camera and cavorting with interchangeable, mindlessly gyrating, scantily clad women.
Of course, not all hip-hop is belligerent or profane - entire CDs of gang-bangin', police-baiting, woman-bashing invective would get old fast to most listeners. But it's the nastiest rap that sells best, and the nastiest cuts that make a career. As I write, the top 10 best-selling hip-hop recordings are 50 Cent (currently with the second-best-selling record in the nation among all musical genres), Bone Crusher, Lil' Kim, Fabolous, Lil' Jon and the East Side Boyz, Cam'ron Presents the Diplomats, Busta Rhymes, Scarface, Mobb Deep and Eminem.
Every one of these groups or performers personifies willful opposition to society and every one celebrates the ghetto as "where it's at." Thus, the occasional dutiful songs in which a rapper urges men to take responsibility for their kids or laments senseless violence are mere garnish. Keeping the thug front and center has become the quickest and most likely way to become a star.
NO hip-hop luminary has worked harder than Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, the wildly successful rapper, producer, fashion mogul and CEO of Bad Boy Records, to cultivate a gangsta image. Combs may have grown up middle-class in Mount Vernon, New York, and even have attended Howard University for a while, but he's proven he can gang-bang with the worst. Cops charged Combs with possession of a deadly weapon in 1995. In 1999, he faced charges for assaulting a rival record executive.
Most notoriously, police charged him that year with firing a gun at a nightclub in response to an insult, injuring three bystanders and with fleeing the scene with his entourage (including then-pal Jennifer Lopez).
Combs and his crew are far from alone among rappers in keeping up the connection between "rap and rap sheet," as critic Kelefa Sanneh artfully puts it. Several prominent rappers, including superstar Tupac Shakur, have gone down in hails of bullets - with other rappers often suspected in the killings. Death Row Records producer Marion "Suge" Knight just finished a five-year prison sentence for assault and federal weapons violations.
Many fans, rappers, producers and intellectuals defend hip-hop's violence, both real and imagined, and its misogyny as a revolutionary cry of frustration from disempowered youth. For Simmons, gangsta raps "teach listeners something about the lives of the people who create them and remind them that these people exist." 50 Cent recently told Vibe magazine, "Mainstream America can look at me and say, 'That's the mentality of a young man from the 'hood.' "
University of Pennsylvania black studies professor Michael Eric Dyson has written a book-length paean to Shakur, praising him for "challenging narrow artistic visions of black identity" and for "artistically exploring the attractions and limits of black moral and social subcultures" - just one of countless fawning treatises on rap published in recent years.
But we're sorely lacking in imagination if in 2003 - long after the civil rights revolution proved a success, at a time of vaulting opportunity for African Americans, when blacks find themselves at the top reaches of society and politics - we think that it signals progress when black kids rattle off violent, sexist, nihilistic, lyrics, like Russians reciting Pushkin.
How is it progressive to describe life as nothing but "bitches and money"? Or to tell impressionable black kids, who'd find every door open to them if they just worked hard and learned, that blowing a rival's head off is "real"? How helpful is rap's sexism in a community plagued by rampant illegitimacy and an excruciatingly low marriage rate?
The idea that rap is an authentic cry against oppression is all the sillier when you recall that black Americans had lots more to be frustrated about in the past but never produced or enjoyed music as nihilistic as 50 Cent or N.W.A. On the contrary, black popular music was almost always affirmative and hopeful.
OK, maybe rap isn't progressive in any meaningful sense, some observers will admit; but isn't it just a bunch of kids blowing off steam and so nothing to worry about? I think that response is too easy. With music videos, DVD players, Walkmans, the Internet, clothes and magazines all making hip-hop an accompaniment to a person's entire existence, we need to take it more seriously. In fact, I would argue that it is seriously harmful to the black community.
The attitude and style expressed in the hip-hop "identity" keeps blacks down. Almost all hip-hop, gangsta or not, is delivered with a cocky, confrontational cadence that is fast becoming - as attested to by the rowdies at KFC - a common speech style among young black males. Similarly, the arm-slinging, hand-hurling gestures of rap performers have made their way into many young blacks' casual gesticulations, becoming integral to their self-expression. The problem with such speech and mannerisms is that they make potential employers wary of young black men and can impede a young black's ability to interact comfortably with co-workers and customers. The black community has gone through too much to sacrifice upward mobility to the passing kick of an adversarial hip-hop "identity."
For those who insist that even the invisible structures of society reinforce racism, the burden of proof should rest with them to explain why hip-hop's bloody and sexist lyrics and videos and the criminal behavior of many rappers wouldn't have a negative effect upon whites' conception of black people.
AT 2 a.m. on the New York subway not long ago, I saw another scene that captures the essence of rap's destructiveness. A young black man entered the car and began to rap loudly - profanely, arrogantly - with the usual wild gestures. This went on for five irritating minutes. When no one paid attention, he moved on to another car, all the while spouting his doggerel. This was what this young black man presented as his message to the world - his oratory, if you will.
Anyone who sees such behavior as a path to a better future - anyone, like Professor Dyson, who insists that hip-hop is an urgent "critique of a society that produces the need for the thug persona" - should step back and ask himself just where, exactly, the civil rights-era blacks might have gone wrong in lacking a hip-hop revolution. They created the world of equality, striving and success I live and thrive in.
Hip-hop creates nothing.