This is the second post covering the third section of my paper on hip-hop and the political and economic conditions under which it was fostered. Due to blog limitations, my footnotes are not included. However, I will post the Works Cited with the last post. Also, if anyone wants a PDF copy (around 35 pages, sort of long) I will be glad to e-mail them one.
INDEX: How Capitalism Underdeveloped Hip-Hop: A People’s History of Political Rap
+ Introduction: Historical Phenomena, Hip-Hop Culture, and Rap Music
+ The South Bronx in the 1970’s and Material Conditions in Hip-Hop’s Birthplace
+ Afrocentricity, Black Power, and Hip-Hop’s New School
+ West Coast Projects, the Rise of Gangsta Rap, and Congress’s War on the Youth
+ Corporate Consolidation and the Telecommunications Act
+ Bursting Onto the Mainstream Scene and Contemporary Political Rap
+ Hip-Hop at a Crossroads: Conditions Today and Where Do We Go From Here?
+ Works Cited
Disclaimer: The language expressed in this article is an uncensored reflection of the views of the artists as they so chose to speak and express themselves. Censoring their words would do injustice to the freedom of expression and political content this article intends to explore. Therefore, some of the language appearing below may be offensive to personal, cultural, or political sensibilities.
Afrocentricity, Black Power, and Hip-Hop’s New School
Hip Hop was originally honed in house parties, parks, community centers, and local clubs by pioneers such as DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash. Independent record labels were quick to pick up on the enormous buzz generated by this new street sound. Small record executives, with their ears to the street, realized that “there were potentially many more millions of fans out there for the music,” but they needed a way to push it from the traditional arenas where spontaneity reigned into the lab where Hip-hop could be researched, developed, and put into radio rotation. Rap had to “fit the standards of the music industry” and labels had to pursue methods which in which they could “rationalize and exploit the new product” to “find, capture, package, and sell its essence…Six-man crews would drop to two. Fifteen-minute party-rocking raps would become three-minute ready-for-radio singles. Hip-hop was refined like sugar.” The laws of capitalism dictated that the art form had to be commodified, manufactured, and sold to a market. After the initial commercial success of “Rapper’s Delight” and “The Message,” corporate encroachment would quickly invade Hip-hop sovereignty. This seminal musical format would act as a medium through which two distinct worlds would mesh; young, black youth who aspired to spit rhymes and find a way out of their seemingly despondent condition would be introduced to nascent white record executives, opening what ostensibly appeared as new, untested feasibilities to previously marginalized artists. As early Hip-hop head and B-boy Richie “Crazy Legs” Colon would comment, “it was getting us into places that we never thought we could get into. So there was an exchange there... [but] that was also the beginning of us getting jerked…that’s a reality.”
The struggle over control of the culture would be a reminiscent theme for the next decade. Dissident rap presenting a critique of the political economy would briefly touch mainstream society in the early and mid 1980’s before being stifled and ostracized. In the next few years, the crossover of rap acts like Run-D.M.C. and the rise of overtly political rap groups such as Public Enemy, along with lesser known but highly controversial artists such as Paris, would trigger intense debate over the nature of Hip-hop and the direction it was headed. Passing from the pioneering old-school, a new era of Hip-hop would develop consisting of a fresh blend of Afrocentricity, cultural nationalism, calls for a neo-Black power, and a focus on the African diaspora. It would delve into the questions of race and racism and the legacy of slavery, along with a critique of institutionalized forms of oppression and ideas of what methods could adequately challenge them. It also presented artists with the first taste of corporate control over creative expression, a tension that would remain a prominent theme throughout the history of rap music. Any definite time frame would only succeed in confining the progression of Hip-hop into arbitrary, categorical stages that lack accurate representation of the often overlapping and dynamic evolutionary process of the art. However, in the mid 1980’s it became apparent that rap was burgeoning into uncharted territory.
Afrocentric rap, advocating a unique mix of cultural nationalism and Pan-Africanism, can trace its roots to Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation, an organization of reformed gang members who attempted to take back their streets through the creation of innovative cultural outlets, many of which would develop into early Hip-hop culture. Bambaata “started to believe that the energy, loyalty, and passion that defined gang life could be guided toward more socially productive activities…he saw an opportunity to combine his love of music and B-boying with his desire to enhance community life.” After some initial musical success, however, tensions began to mount between Bambaataa and the man who signed him, Tom Silverman, founder of the independent label Tommy Boy Records. Bambaataa recounts, “The record companies would try to tell us what we should make, what we should do…We said, ‘Listen, we’re the renegades, we sing what we want to sing, dress how we want to dress, and say what we want to say.” This sort of outright resistance to artist manipulation worked for a time, when artists dealt primarily with small, independent stations during the nascent stages of Hip-hop’s development. Later, however, when the corporate structures completely enveloped the art, it would be nearly impossible to individually challenge such enormous institutions.
Queens rap trio Run-D.M.C. “is widely recognized as the progenitor of modern rap’s creative integration of social commentary, diverse musical elements, and uncompromising cultural identification” into what would become known as the New School of Hip-hop. Fueled by Jam Master Jay’ complex, percussive beats and brilliant lyrical deliverance, Run-D.M.C. would burst into the mainstream by signing a distributing deal with Colombia records. Bridging the gap between rap and rock, Run-D.M.C. appealed to a wide range of audiences from rugged, street hustlers to well-to-do white kids in a desperate search to branch out from the cultural confinement of suburbia. As their album Raising Hell rushed to platinum status, they catapulted rap music into mainstream discourse and charted a new path for commercial success. The group presented an interesting dynamic where, challenging corporate-driven consumerism with lines such as “Calvin Klein’s no friend of mine, don’t want nobody’s name on my behind,” they simultaneously promoted a specific style of apparel with tracks such as “My Adidas” that would break with previous, flashily clad rap artists and forever tie Hip-hop’s look to the styles of the street. Raising Hell would end with “Proud to Be Black,” a track emphasizing African history and the struggle against slavery while documenting the historical progress of black people. Involving themselves in specific struggles or causes, such as doing benefit performances for the anti-Apartheid struggle, they did not shy away from political issues.
On “Wake Up,” the trio echoed calls for democratic participation of the masses, full employment, fair wages, and an end to racial prejudice that would be familiar to any socialist activist. They provided a glimpse of the shape a truly humanizing society could take:
There were no guns, no tanks, no atomic bombs / and to be frank homeboy, there were no arms… / Between all countries there were good relations / there finally was a meaning to United Nations / and everybody had an occupation / 'cause we all worked together to fight starvation… / Everyone was treated on an equal basis / No matter what color, religion or races / We weren't afraid to show our faces / It was cool to chill in foreign places… / All cities of the world were renovated / And the people all chilled and celebrated / They were all so happy and elated / To live in the world that they created… / And every single person had a place to be / A job, a home, and the perfect pay…The song is haunted by the chorus proclaiming that all the hopes and desires for the fanciful world articulated are “just a dream.” The group switches gears on “It’s Like That,” citing unemployment, atrocious wages, ever-increasing bills, and the struggle to survive within the confines of a capitalist political economy. At the end of each verse they communicate their prodigious frustration manifested from the despair and helplessness prevalent in oppressed communities, leaving the listener with little hope for change: “Don't ask me, because I don't know why, but it's like that, and that's the way it is!” Grand ideals aside, Run-D.M.C. ultimately did not pursue a confrontational approach to the dominant institutions in society and, thus, their commercial success in part reflects their desire to integrate into the established system rather than attempt to dismantle the established structures.
Ideas of collective social change would be articulated more thoroughly by artists such as Public Enemy. Coming from a relatively well-to-do, although still highly segregated, post-white flight neighborhood, Public Enemy’s ambitions were to “be heard as the expression of a new generation’s definition of blackness.” As opposed to artists who may record a political song or sneak a witty, politically charged punch line into a mainstream hit, Public Enemy would focus entire albums around counter-hegemonic themes reflecting their constantly evolving political philosophy. Their Black Nationalist ideology did not go unnoticed in their first album, but it would augment over time as the group developed their own conception of a new Black Power. On It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet they delved deeply into race relations, the oppression of the black community at home and abroad, and brought into question entire institutions of society they viewed as perpetuating racism. The group also spoke openly of their support for Palestinian liberation and against U.S. imperialism. On “Bring the Noise,” they challenged black radio to play their music and on “Party for Your Right to Fight” they evoked images of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party in a “pro-Black radical mix” while aiming verbal invectives at J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI for their historically repressive roles against the black community.
Public Enemy undoubtedly pushed political hip-hop to a new level. Their intense, in-your-face rhymes promoted a historical revival amongst black youth previously separated from prior cultural developments and struggles of the past. However, as Dyson points out, this can lead to rappers hoping to emulate the methods of the past without a critical analysis of its strengths and weaknesses or, worse yet, to promoting vacuous calls to past movements’ cultural icons intended to draw reverence without attempting to augment the organizational infrastructure required to proactively challenge oppressive institutions. Still, given the tyrannical nature of the society in which they lived, the group labeled themselves “the Black Panthers of rap” as a symbolic expression of their hostility towards the system. However, the framework within which they operated, borrowing large portions of their theoretical interpretation of society to the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan, did not allow them to adopt the Panthers’ revolutionary, socialist critique of the political economy. It was replaced instead with a form of black militancy aligned primarily with a narrow conception of Black Nationalism. Public Enemy would drastically differ from the Panthers who had come to reject Black Nationalism as a racist philosophy, aiming their crosshairs more broadly on capitalism and arguing racism was a byproduct of that particular economic mode of production. Regardless, Public Enemy’s prodigious contributions to political hip-hop cannot be ignored. They fostered political discussion and pushed hip-hop to embrace black liberation. Yet, they would fail propose a cohesive, theoretical alternative or method through which this could be achieved.
Other times, political hip-hop took the form of cathartic, impulsive depictions of violence stemming from the wrath manifested within oppressed black communities. One example, Oakland rapper Paris, who adhered early in his career to a form of Black Nationalism similar to Public Enemy’s, would seek a sort of lyrical revenge against individuals and institutions he found oppressive and exploitative. Through songs like “Bush Killa,” where he fantasized about assassinating then President George H. Bush, he would decisively embrace a black militancy that challenged the past legacy of King’s non-violence: “So don’t be tellin’ me to get the non-violent spirit, 'cause when I’m violent is the only time you devils hear it!” Later in the song he goes on to poignantly express his disgust with the predatory nature of military recruitment while uniquely mimicking the famous line from Muhammad Ali, “Yeah, tolerance is gettin’ thinner, ‘cause Iraq never called me nigger, so what I wanna go off and fight a war for?” Presumably due to the radical nature of his music, Paris was dropped from his record label, Tommy Boy, after parent company Time Warner reviewed the content of his album. He distanced himself from the Nation of Islam, and thought that they were “more concerned with what was wrong with society than with how to change it.” Nearly two decades later, and still rapping under his own label, Paris would go on to develop a political stance that, while still bonded to certain aspects of his previous Black Nationalist thought, would become decidedly more working-class in its orientation, emphasizing class struggle and interracial solidarity rather than a simple black-white dichotomy.
The 1980’s were, undoubtedly, a time of creativity, diversity, and cultural exploration within the musical realm of Hip-hop. Artists even tested the waters with politically significant album covers. Paris placed a potent photo of riot police choking a black protestor in his 1989 release Break the Grip of Shame. Rapper KRS-One, paraphrasing Malcolm X on his album title By All Means Neccesary (1988), poses on the front cover in a fashion reminiscent of Malcolm’s famous photograph; Malcolm, standing with AK-47 in his right arm and peering out of the drapes with his left, symbolized the vision of armed self-defense and intellectual self-determination. KRS-One, adorned in a fashionable outfit and carrying a more contemporary Uzi, personified these principles Malcolm so vehemently defended throughout his life. Chuck D of Public Enemy explains, given the group’s extensive list of politically charged album covers, that sometimes “the covers were thought out more than the songs.” Corporate control was illuminated in this artistic arena as well when hip-hop trio KMD attempted to release an album titled Black Bastards which featured a “Little Sambo” character being hung; Elektra, their label, quietly rejected the album and its politically charged album artwork.
Some rappers, such as Rakim, toyed with abstract ideas of personal and spiritual development, meshed with political Islam and the elitist vision of the Five Percenters, a group who believed that a gifted five percent of the world’s population was destined to fight against the exploitative ten percent on behalf of the ignorant, backwards eighty-five percent. Others, like rap group Naughty by Nature, found unique ways to tie in urban culture and style to the historic legacies of the past. On one of the group’s most political tracks, “Chain Remains,” rapper Treach vividly explicates on the cultural significance of the chain commonly worn by black, urban youth, tying it into the past history of slavery and the prison-industrial complex:
Bars and cement instead of help for our people / Jails ain't nothin’ but the slave day sequel / Tryin’ to flee the trap of this nation / Seein’ penitentiary's the plan to plant the new plantation… / Free? Please, nigga, ain't no freedom! / Who's locked up? Who's shot up? Who's strung out? Who's bleeding? Keep reading / I'm here to explain the chain remain the same / Maintain for the brothers and sisters locked / The chain remains…The last verse ends with an incendiary call to revolution, although the terms for which are not specifically outlined: “the only solutions revolution, know we told ya’, the chain remains ‘til we uprise, stuck in a land where we ain't meant to survive.” Despite calls for racial solidarity and social empowerment, the violence found in poverty-stricken urban areas often followed artists into the realm of entertainment.
When violence broke out at various rap venues in 1987, the hip-hop community was quick to respond with a Stop the Violence Movement. A group of artists organized a project “that would include a benefit record, video, book, and a rally around the theme.” On the record “Self Destruction,” a wide assortment of rappers came together to urge black youth to “crush the stereotype” and “unite and fight for what's right,” by stopping the senseless violence that plagued the black community. Unfortunately, it was not a sustained political campaign and, as Jeff Chang argues, Stop the Violence “was always less a movement than a media event.” KRS-One, re-launching the Stop the Violence 2008 campaign in a similar fashion, disagrees, claiming Chang’s interpretation is “inaccurate history and fake scholarship.” Regardless, media event or movement, Stop the Violence provided another example of rappers attempting to take control of their communities and control their own destinies.
New School Hip Hop was defined by its seminal, independent spirit of artists’ attempts to maneuver within the confines of an ever-increasing hierarchal, corporate, top-down structure. Indeed, as Chang notes, “Rap proved to be the ideal form to commodify the hip-hop culture. It was endlessly novel, reproducible, malleable, perfectible. Records got shorter, raps more concise, and tailored to pop-song structures.” The infrastructure needed to solidify corporate power over the culture was being rapidly built but originality and autonomy would not yet be completely shattered. The day would soon come, however, when creativity and free political expression would be stomped out and replaced with denigrating images of black men, as self-destructive gangsters and intellectually bankrupt drug-pushers, and black women, whose sole contribution is their sexual appeal, vigorously promoted by the dominant ideology. Generally, during this period artists would attempt to hold on “to the Black Panther ethic of remaining true to Blackness… to the people in the lower classes” while, on the other hand, rejecting the Party’s anti-capitalist stance; “Rappers wanted a piece of the American pie while staying grounded to the urban culture, and wanted to speak in their own voice and on their own terms.” Given the political, social, and economic conditions of the mid-1980’s, this was no surprise.
The sort of individualistic response exemplified by New School artists was developed within the context of a detrimental political vacuum left by the simultaneous failure and systematic repression of revolutionary left groups of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Instead of political organizers, rappers would view themselves as reporters whose primary vocation was to give the voiceless a form of expression and relay the conditions of ghetto life to the rest of the world. Public Enemy articulated this concept when he explained that rap was “Black America’s CNN, an alternative, youth-controlled media network.” Tupac would echo this concept, “I just try to speak about things that affect me and our community. Sometimes I’m the watcher, and sometimes the participant,” he commented, and likening himself to reporters during the Vietnam War, he explicated on his role, “That’s what I’ll do as an artist, as a rapper. I’m gonna show the graphic details of what I see in my community and hopefully they’ll stop it.” Rather than broad-reaching, collective social change achieved through organized resistance, rap music would act as a means to express counter-hegemonic, yet radically individualized forms of resistance that captured the very essence of the urban youth existence. This concept would be carried further into the realm of musical performance:
Rap…found an arena in which to concentrate its subversive cultural didacticism aimed at addressing racism, classism, social neglect, and urban pain: the rap concert, where rappers are allowed to engage in ritualistic refusals of censored speech. The rap concert also creates space for cultural resistance and personal agency, losing the strictures of the tyrannizing surveillance and demoralizing condemnation of mainstream society and encouraging relatively autonomous, often enabling, forms of self-expression and cultural creativity.It was this anti-authoritarian impulse, fostered in the hard streets of Los Angeles where police brutality was rampant and socioeconomic conditions were dire, that galvanized the next phase of Hip-hop which would take the nation by storm.