The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

How Capitalism Underdeveloped Hip-Hop: A People's History of Political Rap (VI and V)

This is the third post covering the fourth and fifth 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.


West Coast Projects, the Rise of Gangsta Rap, and Congress’s War on the Youth

Gangsta Rap burst forth in its nascent form in the late 1980’s in the heart of Los Angeles. To comprehend how this subgenre of rap developed, however, the ruthless conditions which originally produced the gang epidemic must be recognized. Institutionalized racial segregation, economic deprivation, and social degradation, enforced by hegemonic government and business structures, had historically plagued communities of color in the area and produced a distinct history which would give rise in the 1980’s to a prodigious spike in gang activity and violence. Historically marginalized groups would be pitted against one another in despondent economic conditions and forced to compete amongst themselves for the paltry scraps that fell from society’s table. Government departments, banking agencies, and the real estate industry would play into the game of get-rich-quick racial segregation. Redlining, the practice of denying or increasing costs of housing and insurance to economically segregate communities along racial lines, played a fundamental role in the homogenous racial composition of west coast urban areas. In 1938, the Federal Housing Administration released an underwriting manual which all lenders were forced to read, explaining that areas should be investigated in order to determine “the probability of the location being invaded” by “incompatible racial and social groups” and, more importantly, that for a “neighborhood is to retain stability” it must “be occupied by the same social and racial classes” because a change in these would lead to “instability and a decline in values.” Some entrepreneurs “figured out how to hustle racial fear” by buying at low prices from whites fleeing their homes and selling to blacks at prices significantly higher than market level. This effectively kept blacks and whites segregated into different neighborhoods.

After World War II, public housing projects were constructed, giving Watts the highest concentration of public housing on the West Coast. Combined with this historic segregation, the 1980’s brought with it “deindustrialization, devolution, Cold War adventurism, the drug trade, gang structures and rivalries, arms profiteering, and police brutality” which would combine to “destabilize poor communities and alienate massive numbers of youth.” In the same decade 131 manufacturing plants closed their doors, Los Angeles’s official unemployment was at 11 percent in 1983 and in South Central youth unemployment was over 50 percent, one quarter of Blacks and Latinos lived below the poverty line, and living conditions had drastically declined. Even when gangs attempted to make peace and establish long-standing treaties with one another, no infrastructure was in place to maintain stable communities with jobs and social services. In fact, when the leaders from seven rival gangs called a truce and marched to City Hall to request funding for social services, they were told they could apply for a paltry $500 grant. This denial was on top of the conservative economic agenda dominating the political domain at the time which had already cut spending on subsidized housing by 82 percent, job training and employment by 63 percent, and community service and development programs by 40 percent from post-World War II era progressive spending policies.

It was within these conditions that by the 1980’s, after the dismantling of political organizations such as the Black Panthers and Young Lords, 155 gangs would claim over 30,000 members across the city. Gangsta rap, as it was labeled, would attempt to articulate, and in some instances glorify, the street life so common in Los Angeles. Immortal Technique points out that a “factoid of information probably purposely forgotten through the years is that before it was labeled ‘Gangsta Rap’ by the industry itself it was called ‘Reality Rap’ by those individuals that created it.” Political prisoner and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal explains that the music was spawned by young people whom felt “that they are at best tolerated in schools, feared on the streets, and almost inevitably destined for the hell holes of prison. They grew up hungry, hated and unloved. And this is the psychic fuel that seems to generate the anger that seems endemic in much of the music and poetry.” This anger would shine through on tracks such as “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A., where rapper Ice Cube explains that he’s “From the gang called Niggaz With Attitudes” and “When I'm called off, I got a sawed off, squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off!”

Their rhymes signified a shift from the revolutionary programs set forth by previous political rappers and instead focused on a complete self-indulgence in instant gratification; drugs, women, the murder of enemies and assassination of police, everything was fair game. It was N.W.A.’s track entitled “Fuck tha Police,” released in 1988, which garnered national media attention. The rather prophetic song would become a universal slogan in ghetto communities just four years later with the police beating of Rodney King and subsequent urban uprisings. Disgusted with the police brutality they witnessed regularly, N.W.A. would take up the issue, not politically, but with an individual vengeance and wrath previously unmatched. Beginning with fictitious court hearing in which “Judge Dre” would preside “in the case of NWA versus the police department,” the “prosecuting attorneys” MC Ren, Ice Cube, and Eazy E would each lay out their case against the Los Angeles Police Department. Ice Cube’s opening lines, brimming with unparalleled virulence, would set the tone: “Fuck the police comin’ straight from the underground, young nigga got it bad cuz I'm brown, and not the other color so police think, they have the authority to kill a minority.” Reminiscent of Paris’s earlier fantastical verbal assassination of President Bush, MC Ren would warn police “not to step in my path” because “Ren’s gonna blast,” and, turning the tables, he confidently proclaims his hatred towards the police “with authority, because the niggas on the street is a majority.” Eazy E finishes the last verse, emphasizing that fact that cops should not be perceived as immune to violent resistance: “Without a gun and a badge, what do ya got? A sucka in a uniform waitin’ to get shot.” The controversy revolving around this song would push the album it was featured on, Straight Outta Compton, to double platinum status. By June of 1989, the right-wing backlash against N.W.A. would be front page news, an entertainment manifestation of the “War on Gangs” which L.A. Police Chief Darryl Gates had already brought to South Central.

The atmosphere of late 1980’s was dictated by punitive measures explicitly directed at youth and relentless attacks on youth culture. The Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act was passed in 1988 and enhanced punishments for “gang-related offenses,” created “new categories of gang crimes,” and gave up to three years in state prison for even claiming gang membership. This piece of legislation had profoundly harmful repercussions for youth who identified with, or even may have displayed certain characteristics of, being involved with a gang; police considered any combination of two of the following examples to constitute gang membership: “slang, clothing of a particular color, pagers, hairstyles, or jewelry.” Within a decade most major cities and at least nineteen states had similar laws. The crossover into what became a congressional attack on Gangsta rap was facilitated by opportunistic politicians who pounced excitedly on the chance:
Tipper Gore, the wife of former vice president Al Gore, and Susan Baker, the wife of Bush’s former campaign manager, James Baker, formed Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) which called for, and received, a congressional hearing on record labeling. Every song listed by the PMRC and presented at the congressional hearing as being too explicit and obscene and in need of censorship labeling was done by a Black artist.
While politicians and networks of Christian fundamentalist groups had already begun anti-hip-hop campaigns under a guise of protecting morality, what Thompson labeled the “cultural civil war,” it was failed liberal politician and head of the National Political Congress of Black Women, C. Delores Tucker, who spearheaded the congressional war on Gangsta rap. Teaming up with cultural conservatives, Tucker, through a fa├žade of feminism and racial pride, organized a concerted campaign against rap in order to push through legislation that strengthened juvenile-crime laws and crackdowns on youth. Inverting cause and effect, she argued that the hip-hop generation would become internalized “with the violence glorified in gangster rap” and that rap music created a “social time bomb” which would “trigger a crime wave of epidemic proportions,” only to be stopped by smothering the cultural and musical developments of ghetto youth.

Among some of her chief targets was Tupac Shakur (2Pac), who was not quiet in his opposition to Tucker and her political opportunism. Tupac, staying true to his roots on “Nothin’ But Love,” outlines the composition of his family tree as one of “Panthers, pimps, pushers, and thugs;” this unique mixture helped him to articulate a conception of the rebellious ghetto lifestyle blended with the legacy of black struggle into what he termed “Thug Life.” An acronym, which stood for “The Hate U Gave Little Infants Fucks Everybody,” his idea of “Thug Life” was a “new kind of Black Power” that young black males were forced to live through:
These white folks see us as thugs, I don’t care if you a lawyer, a man, an ‘African-American,’ if you whatever…you think you are, we thugs and niggas [to them]…and until we own some shit, I’ma call it like it is. How you gonna be a man when we starving?...How we gonna be African-Americans if we all need a gun?
Tupac, whose mother Afeni Shakur was a prominent Black Panther and political activist, would utilize his connections with the streets and balance his music with historical connections to political organizers such as Huey Newton and chilling urban tales of despondent situations such as the fictitious tale of the teenage mother Brenda and the ever-present black-on-black violence. Through this unification of social commentator and street participant, Tupac would authenticate his image to millions of youth, black and white alike. Tupac’s response to Tucker’s critique of the lyrical content of his music was redolent of Chuck D’s interpretation of rappers as journalists who help to show the world the gruesome reality of urban street life; as he argued, “I have not brought violence to you. I have not brought Thug Life to America. I didn’t create Thug Life. I diagnosed it.”

Furthermore, according to Dyson, the attempt to suppress “gangsta rap’s troubling expressions” is manipulated for “narrow political ends” that fail to “critically engage…artists and the provocative issues they address.” While dialogue concerning rampant homophobia, sexism, and other dehumanizing aspects of certain rap artists should be challenged, it should be done so in a way that does not alienate and isolate, but engages and allows for the artist to transcend both actions that reflect the dominant ideology and the use of oppressive language. Rapper and activist Son of Nun summarizes his position:
Some real rappers spit truth every night, but say stupid shit when it comes to gay rights. They talk about the Panthers, but they never knew that Huey woulda’ called their asses out for what they do…So, in my music, I try not to call out specific emcees…[because] I realize that I have more in common with them, then I'll ever have in common with the label head or the corporate people putting that music out… [Despite sexist or homophobic remarks] when you read the interview and listen to some lyrics, you'll see that there's a revolutionary consciousness that's there at the same time…and I'd rather see those brothers as my comrades whom I can build with, as opposed to people I need to chop down and diss…
This extension of the right-wing economic attack on working class and poor youth into the cultural realm, as exemplified by politicians like Tucker, should not be viewed in isolation from the larger historical trends occurring at the same time; it operated within a certain political economy and aided the perpetuation the dominant ideology required in order to push through neoliberal economic policies.

The mental framework in which Gangsta rap functions is articulated by Immortal Technique, drawing on the theoretical contributions to education outlined in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he explains, “Our youth and young adults see these gangstas and other ruthless men [famous gangsters, drug kingpins, etc.] as powerful beyond the scope of a government that holds them prisoner. People emulate their oppressor and worship those that defy him openly.” This does not, however, mean that Gangsta rap is devoid of a political foundation or that it should be ostracized by the Hip-hop community. As Dyson argues, “While rappers like N.W.A. perform an invaluable service by rapping in poignant and realistic terms about urban underclass existence, they must be challenged…[to understand] that description alone is insufficient to address the crises of black urban life.” Thus, this fusion of gangster and rebel, a sort of misguided revolutionary, groping in the darkness of urban decay and abandonment for a way to challenge oppressive, hegemonic institutions, finds its musical expression in the West Coast rap scene. Today, gangsta rap has spread far beyond the streets of L.A. and into every neighborhood, ghetto, suburb, country, to every corner of the world. The rebellious, gangster appeal, devoid of social content and reality, continues to be marketed on every street corner; a sort of “manufactured, corporate bought thug image” is pushed to the youth while “the Revolutionary element is for the most part completely sanitized by the corporate structure.”

Corporate Consolidation and the Telecommunications Act

This rejection of the revolutionary and embrace of the thug caricature so common in contemporary hip-hop is, in large part, a result of corporate monopolization of radio airwaves and dismantling of independent record labels. For years questions concerning rap’s viability as a musical genre and it’s viability as a pop music sensation surrounded the relatively young art. Industry executives looked upon rap with disdain, viewing it as a niche market unsuitable for broad consumption. This allowed the genre to slip under corporate radar and maintain a sense of independence from major pop labels for a significant period of time. After the innovative development in 1991 of SoundScan that utilized bar-code recording to garner hard data on music sales and replaced the previous “archaic method” which had relied on the retail personnel who compiled weekly, subjective reports of sales trends “open to interpretation,” rap was found to have a much broader appeal than originally thought. With this new, more objective methodology of measuring music consumption, rap jumped from the relative obscurity of being a subcultural phenomenon to a major competitor with rock and pop music on the Billboard charts. The “underreporting of rap was a result of long-standing cultural sensibilities and racial assumptions” on the part of retail personnel. Subsequently, industry executives who still may have “harbored ill feelings toward the genre” could no longer “ignore the sales data SoundScan provided…[or] the huge financial payoff it offered.” As hip hop observer and critic Craig Watkins explains, “In an industry that had long ago sold its soul to the guardians of capitalism, the commercial compulsions that operate among culture industry executives are a powerful force.” The music, however, would have to be tamed considerably.

These commercial compulsions galvanized industry executives to tighten their stranglehold on rap music. In order to protect their status within the capitalist framework and pop music industry, executives were forced to marginalize and reject progressive, dissident, revolutionary, socialist, or any other form of independent and autonomous rap that may present a systemic critique of the established relations of power in society. Corporate hip-hop, as exemplified with the rise of rappers like 50 Cent in 2003, “rested almost entirely on its ability to sell black death” where “guns, gangsterism, and ghetto authenticity brought an aura of celebrity and glamour to the grim yet fabulously hyped portraits of ghetto life.” Statistics are not conclusive, but Mediamark Research Inc. estimates that whites constitute around sixty percent of the consumer market for rap in the United States. Other sources, such as Def Jam CEO Russell Simmons, place the number somewhere closer to eighty percent. Regardless, it is obvious that hip-hop is not an exclusively black culture; the composition of the consumer market facilitates a sort of “cultural tourism” where a “staged authenticity” filled with racial stereotypes of black culture can be marketed to white youth.

Corporate consolidation of media outlets has galvanized this process of promoting a certain image of ghetto youth while downplaying the revolutionary or counter-hegemonic sentiments expressed in the music. Major labels and corporate conglomerates have very little interest in promoting artists who question capitalism or the free market fundamentalism. After all, it was that very system which originally granted them the ability to garner the enormous capital required to build their constantly expanding media empire. Immortal Technique articulates this concept:
The hood is not stupid, we know the mathematics / I make double what I would going gold on Atlantic / 'Cause EMI, Sony, BMG, Interscope / Would never sign a rapper with the white house in his scope / They push pop music like a religion / Anorexic celebrity driven / Financial fantasy fiction.
Without an understanding of the significant role that major media outlets play in promoting a specific paradigm, especially in the case of a popular musical juggernaut such as rap, the rise of the glorified, gangster image cannot be concretely analyzed. Chang comments that “a lot of times people will talk about 50 Cent, but they won't talk about the structures that have made a 50 Cent possible.” The structures Chang refers to are multifaceted, and include broad neoliberal market deregulations that, since the 1970’s, allowed for massive corporate takeovers of independent record labels and a consolidation of radio and other media outlets. For instance, by 2000, five companies – Vivendi Universal, Sony, AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann, and EMI – dominated eighty percent of the music industry. One act in particular, however, the Telecommunications Act passed by Congress in 1996, presented “a landmark of deregulation,” a “legal codification of the pro-media monopoly stance” that allowed the free market to shift power “decisively in the direction of the media monopolies.” The passage of this act had a percussive impact on the artists’ creative control over their music.

The Telecommunications Act relaxed ownership limits over radio and television for corporate entities, essentially creating fewer corporate conglomerates with concentrated control over various media outlets. Congress ostensibly passed the act under the tenuous postulation that “a deregulated marketplace would best serve the public interest.” As to be expected, its passage spurred a rapid absorption of smaller, local radio stations into the hands of large, already established companies such as Clear Channel, Cumulus, Citadel, and Viacom. The result was that hundreds of jobs were decimated, community programming was abandoned, and radio playlists became standardized across the country. For a stations like KMEL-FM in the Bay Area, whom prided themselves on being a “people’s station” by engaging in social issues affecting the San Francisco community, this meant being bought out and merged with competing stations; playlists became nearly identical, specialty shows were cut, local personalities were fired, and local or underground artists “unable to compete with six-figure major label marketing budgets” were left without a venue. Artists like Binary Star, who challenged the gangster caricature, would become, even more than before, systematically excluded by these corporate structures. Rhymes, such as those displayed on one of Binary Star’s most well-known tracks “Honest Expression,” would be consistently ostracized from airplay.

Conglomerates like Clear Channel, unlike locally controlled radio, had no community affairs department to foster dialogue or promote local artists with fresh sounds or unique lyrics. Companies downsized to maximize profits and regional programmers overtook local ones, signifying a further shift from local interests of listeners. The ever-present need to increase profitability also galvanized some stations to replace live disc jockeys with prerecorded announcers who would create localized sound bites and patch together entire shows based upon a master copy that was filtered down through regional and local distributors; radio truly became top-down. Subsequently, the public sphere in which artists could contest the image of the apolitical gangster or socially devoid party-goer shrunk rapidly. Corporate rap became a medium through which content was filtered and sterilized while dissident voices were marginalized or shut out completely. Even political rap was reworked into a specific consumer niche; “defanged as ‘conscious rap,’ and retooled as an alternative hip-hop lifestyle,” the prefix became “industry shorthand for reaching a certain kind of market” instead of an authentic, organic title.

Thus, as is the trend in a capitalist society where the “market...does not assure that all relevant views will be heard, but only those that are advocated by the rich [and can market a product of mass appeal that will attract advertisers, which dominate the programming message],” the Telecommunications Act has had profoundly negative implications upon hip-hop’s autonomy and ensured that the media landscape was “dominated by those who are economically powerful.” Likewise, the prodigious increase in corporate consolidation facilitated the process by which consumption could be artificially managed and manipulated by the “mass media’s capacity to convey imagery and information across vast areas to ensure a production of demand.” Therefore, the exclusion of particular forms of musical expression, especially those deemed political or controversial, are replaced with corporate-driven, marketed images of young black males adhering to a socially constructed thug stereotype. Fokami explains:
Corporations which dominate the media, have heavily marketed (to influence consumer demand), produced and perpetuated, the gangsta image by, among other things, playing gangsta rap lyrics, almost to the exclusion of other alternative voices that would contest such lyrics or image... The Act has made it virtually impossible for alternative voices in rap (either by the gangsta rappers themselves through their alternative “positive” tracks or by other “positive” rap artists) to be heard on the radio, since corporate conglomerates are less concerned with diversity in ideas but in meeting market created consumer demand for such lyrics.
While congressional attacks were pummeling rap music for degrading lyrical content and demeaning music videos, the same politicians were simultaneously passing laws which facilitated the crystallization of apolitical, socially devoid gangsta rap into mainstream pop culture. This apparently blatant contradiction is, when viewed in the context of the capitalist state, much more consistent than at first glance; the political establishment sought to promote corporate consolidation and media monopolization, thus limiting public space for dialogue and debate in the hip-hop community, which, in turn, allowed them to pursue a the preferable path of blaming the victims for society’s woes. Avoiding an uncomfortable and possibly incriminating dialectical analysis which would address the root cause, namely the dominant political and economic system, that perpetuates many of the social blights expressed in rap music, politicians attack the youth, especially Black and Latino youth, for problems that plagued urban communities long before rap music hit the scene.

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Derek Ide 2011


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