Since its genesis Rap music, as well as the greater Hip-Hop culture, has been dumped on for various reasons. If you take a passing glance at the pseudo-internet-intellectual’s vitriol, it seems like they have much to say about rap’s ills. Forums across the web, as well as certain scholars, pundits, talking heads, and all other so-called experts (usually from the conservative side of the spectrum) have lambasted rap for its many negative qualities. The long laundry list includes rapper’s egotism, sexism, lack of lyrical skill, the unmusicality of rap’s structure, braggadocio of ones large bank-roll, glorification of violence, racism, glorification of drug use, sexual overtones, homophobia, hyper-sexuality of both black men and women, excessive profanity, glorification of incarceration, the use of sampling, and the laundry list continues depending on the people who concocted the list. However, like all musical genres Rap music is far more complicated and paradoxical. By looking at its long and rather glaring history you will find many topics and issues that were, and remain pertinent used in the music. Some argue that Rock N Roll had the power to push for desegregation, integration, and cooperation. Like Rock, rap music has created a bond across the racial spectrum amongst the people who grew up listening to the music. We, I include myself as one of these avid listeners, heard many issues being discussed in rap that were not clearly touched upon by rock music. Grunge did open the doors, but there were many times where a Nirvana or Soundgarden or Alice In Chains lyric was nearly indecipherable. Unlike grunge music, rap was loud, fast, ad in your ear. Maybe, like riots, people did learn from rap and its many topics worth covering. Here are a few themes that rap music tackled indiscriminately, and with far more aggression than any other genre of music.
Last night as I was cooking I was blasting random rap from my youth. One of my favorite groups was De La Soul, and their best album is their second, De La Soul is Dead. As the title suggests, the content is dark, especially when compared to their more optimistically hippied out debut 3 Feet High and Rising. The song that went for the jugular was “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa.” It’s a jarring narrative about a sexually abused daughter whose father plays the annual role of Santa Claus at the local mall. After a long bout of pain and suffering decided to shoot him point-blank during his shift at the mall.
It’s a vivid song as she pulls the trigger amongst all the screaming mothers and children. Like that scene the entire song is addressing sexual abuse, as well as the fact that both Plug One and Plug Two (The MC’s of the group) play troubled teens who are mentored by the man, the monster the abuser. Besides the horrid abuse they acknowledge that people at times either dismiss it as teen angst, or treat with down right disbelief. This is a glaring example of how a rap song can transcend its negative stereotypes.
Rap scholars and historians have pointed to the 1982 release of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message” as the first real conscious rap song. The song, along with poignant video, chronicles the grime and drug-infested realities of living in the streets of the ghettos. The song spoke of lost hope and dreams amidst the doom and gloom brought on by a shrinkage of all support systems. Although rap music quantitatively in content is far more interested in excess and escape, there were a few songs that depicted the harsh realities of life. During my research I came across an older recording like “The Message.” Profile Records is mostly known as the label that landed Run-DMC, but one of their earliest releases was by a rapper or group called The Rake. They dropped a single on Profile in 1983 titled “Street Justice,” which is a tale reminiscent of the film Death Wish.
The song is rapped by a man, who sounds older and established as a working class guy living in the city with his wife and daughter. One day his house was broken into and his wife and daughter were roughed up by the assailants who were teenagers. They were later caught, arrested and tried, but the justice system failed him because they were let go. He raps that the punks were let off because their lawyer labeled them misdirected youth, hence justice failed in his case.
He then says that the punks stepped to him and told him that he was next, hence it was time to “beat the punks on the battle front.” He then goes Charles Bronson on them (Death Wish reference) as he basically kills them one by one. In the end he says that you have to take the law into your own hands because in the end it wont help. It’s sad how realistic it was at that point due to the cutting of the police force due to budget cuts in New York City in the 1970’s. However, in the current situation in the carceral state some blacks still have to deal with street justice.
The graphic above is just for show, and is not much of a reliable source, especially the last assertion that rap music listeners are more likely to have problems with drugs and alcohol. However, it proves the point that the generation growing up on rap music is far more lax when it comes to Marijuana. This attitude is due to the fact that they don’t fall for the war on drugs rhetoric, which is a mixture of racism and bullshit. Rap music, especially more recently has been overtly glorifying drugs, and the newer trend being pharmaceuticals. However, if you look at rap in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s during the height of the crack epidemic you’ll find plenty of anti-drug rap songs. One of the most pronounced was the classic “Close the Crackhouse” as an MC group effort.
It’s helmed by the great Professor X from the criminally underrated rap group The X-Clan. There are many more from groups like De La Soul (“My Brother’s A Basehead” and “Say No Go”), to Public Enemy (“Mega Blast” and “Night of the Living Baseheads”), as well as great songs from many notable rappers and rap groups like Masters of Ceremony (“Cracked Out”), The Maniacs (“Crack, Crack, Don’t Do It”), N.W.A. (“Dopeman”), Poor Righteous Teachers (“Get off the Crack”), Kool Moe Dee (“Monster Crack”), Brand Nubian (“Slow Down”), and MC Shan (Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing”), just to name a few. Although there were plenty of songs depicting the life of the dealer, it wasn’t just a glorification of the dealer, but also a critique as well. Here’s one of the best video about the epidemic, as well as America’s double standard thanks to Public Enemy!
Sex is many things to many people, but as men we must remember that sex is also about power. The fact that we can show our domineering sexual prowess over women can give any meek fellow the ego of a muscle-bound freak. Unfortunately one of the most overtly used formula for rap is the sexist imagery of the domineering male and the subservient woman (who is also beautiful in the current society’s standards). However, if you stop and listen to rap music you will find a wealth of songs about love and its deeply complicated inner vortex. Parallel to Rock music’s ode to that special lady (from “Anna” to “Zelda”), Rap music also has its many odes to that special lady (spanning from Warren G.’s “Annie Mae” to Grandmaster Caz’s “Yvette”). Each song is a sensual ode to a woman, and each is delicately rapped by the rapper or group speaking of this deep love. This is an aspect of that complexity of rap music. If you delve into the Ego Trip book of Rap lists you’ll find a long list of these songs. Here’s one of my favorites, “Latoya” by one of the best MC’s, Just-Ice;
There are plenty of rap songs that delve into the intricacies of love and lust, as well as everything in-between. One of my favorite albums, which I wrote a blog about, is Danger Mouse and Jemini the Gifted One’s Ghetto Pop Life. It has depth and dimensions that touch on humor and sadness as well as love and lust collapsed and compressed into two tracks. The first “Yoo-Hoo” talks about hollering at a women while the Jemini praises the woman he’s following with the duality of the lustful callings along with sensual overtures of love. The second song “Im’a Doomee (Love Letter)” is even more in-depth where the lyricist is pleading with his love about the life and lust on the road. He laments the fact that he cheats while opening up his feelings and vulnerabilities.
Rap and religion have gotten a lot of attention thanks to some old farts on the conservative end of the spectrum. The criticism goes that rap music is a bad influence (And the vitriol boils only when white teens are perceived as the victims of the influence), hence it’s swept under the rug along with all the other pathologies attached with rap music. There have been articles attacking that ridiculous myth including a great piece by Stereo Williams for the Daily Beast:
Where he mentions the many Christian references made by rappers throughout the history of recorded rap music. It ranges from artists such as Doug E. Fresh, just listen to the great collaboration with the young Slick Rick (known then as MC Ricky D) on the song “The Show.” The song is laden with religious imagery. There are others like Run, of Run-DMC, becoming a Reverend, the many biblical references made by southern rap groups like Goodie Mob, Lauryn Hill’s references on her masterpiece The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, as well as the most recent debut masterpiece by Kendrick Lamar, good kid, M.A.A.d city where you can hear the lord’s prayer. There are also plenty more religious allusions with regards to other religions like Islam, shown through the vocal support for the Nation of Islam by various rappers, as well as respect for the off-shoot Five Percenters.
The saddest part about this editorialized bullshit is the fact that this topic was researched and written about by scholars like the great book above by Dr. Monica R. Miller titled Religion & Hip Hop. The book is a great study asking both scholars and laypeople to stop looking at Hip-Hop through the Christian lens. There is also another great book of articles edited by the scholar Anthony B. Pinn titled Noise and Spirit: The Religious and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music. Like Dr. Miller’s book, Pinn is trying to shed light on the complexities of spirituality amidst a musical genre that is very individualistic, and materialistic. It also highlights how certain rappers embrace their own version of spirituality while not always eschewing their heritage and traditions.
To end this section I want to mention what Tupac kept telling reporters, liberal deuches, conservative cunts, the police nation, state officials feeding from the trough of corporate greed, and all their mindless minions (and I’m criminally paraphrasing) that “All eyes are on me, but I don’t care. At the end of the day G-d is my only judge. Like many people of faith, this is the real mission statement of us all.
There are plenty more rap songs about the travails of ghetto life, drug addiction, and the sheer weight of the history of being black in the United States, as well as more micro issues I mentioned above. Unlike other American musical genres that seem either stuck in suspended animation, Jazz I sadly there as well as Country, while rap keeps prying open these issues, while constantly challenging society and always expanding as an art of true expression from the heart.
Keep It Real, or until everything goes wrong!!!
#RapandReality #StereoWilliams #Religion&HipHop #NoiseandSpirit