Don Imus is not having the Best Week Ever. Last week, he was a carefree shock jock, borrowing the idioms of hip-hop to besmirch the Rutgers’ Women’s Basketball team. Today, he’s lost his CBS Radio program and its televised broadcast by MSNBC.
So, now we’ve reached the Moving On phase of any public scandal. You know, the point at which commentators start talking about Lessons Learned and What Good Can Come Out of This and so on. And on. I may not live through this weekend of platitudes; Friday morning, I heard a newsman interviewing CBS News’ Bob Schieffer who was asked if the whole media landscape might improve as a result.
Let’s be blunt. Clearly Imus (and his executive producer Bernard McGuirk who has gotten off scott-free in this, despite the fact he used the word “ho” first in that on-air exchange) were borrowing a phrase from the African American community and specifically from rap lyrics. There are already voices saying that if we’re going to get Imus fired for such language then his critics, especially Al Sharpton, ought to be going after the rappers. For example, this excerpt from Eazy-E’s 1988 track “Boyz-n-the-Hood“:
She said somethin’ that I couldn’t believe
So I grabbed the stupid bitch by her nappy-ass weave
She started talkin’ shit, wouldn’t you know?
I reached back like a pimp, slapped the ho
If you want an example of more recent vintage, there’s a popular club track right now called “There’s Some Hos In This House.” Jason Whitlock in the Kansas City Star put it bluntly: “Imus isn’t the real bad guy.” The black community would be better served by going after hip-hop’s glorification of gangsta culture instead of a “bad joke” and “a slip of the tongue” by Imus. This is a legitimate argument, which I might simplify as “We ought to clean our own house first.” But there’s a counter to that: Old white guys mainly represent the authority of this country – and Imus hung out with a list of household names from politics and the media establishment – so one could argue that their racism is more dangerous than any self-hatred perpetrated by black artists because when it comes from Imus – cheered on by Tim Russert – it makes racism more acceptable.
But that’s me. And I’m a hip-hop fan and have been for the past 25 years. Believe me, I’m not crazy about the lyrics in a lot of popular rap songs, nor the way that women are portrayed in the accompanying videos. But before we start falling all over the music industry to clean up rap, let’s set some context.
In hip-hop’s Golden Age of the Eighties, there was great diversity of content. There were hardcore guys like Schooly D and Ice T, but there were also groups like De La Soul and Kid ‘n Play. The gangsta genre really started in the late Eighties with N.W.A. – that’s Niggaz With Attitude, in case you missed them – and Too $hort, but it was the advent of the Nielsen SoundScan tracking system that changed everything. As Jeff Chang describes in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, his classic chronicle of hip-hop’s rise:
When the first Billboard chart based on Soundscan was released on May 25, 1991, the results shocked the music industry. Within weeks, country singer Garth Brooks and hair-metal band Skid Row had hit number one. Independently distributed N.W.A.’s Efil4zaggin debuted at number two. At the same time, dozens of big-bank pop and rock acts tumbled off the charts. What the industry thought were niche acts – country, metal, and rap – were in fact the biggest things going.
In late ’92, former N.W.A. member Dr. Dre released The Chronic, followed by works from Snoop Dog, Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G., and others. The major labels figured out that this new tougher sound meant big money.
Today, if you turn on the TV or the radio, you’ll hear Young Jeezy or Lil’ Wayne, but the hip-hop landscape, as a whole, is far more complex. If you’re not a fan of sexist, violent, homophobic, drug-glorifying lyrics, there are plenty of other choices. But that’s not what’s on the top of the charts. Add to that this one little fact: Many hip-hop purchasers are white.
In his 1998 book Act Like You Know: African-American Autobiography and White Identity, Crispin Sartwell examines 200 years of black autobiography and shows that white audiences have certain expectations when it comes to black texts. The violent highly-sexualized black male is an old image; the taste of young white males for depictions of black gangstas goes way back. And while critics like John McWhorter have assailed rap as regressive and destructive, they don’t realize that the situation is more complex.
The problem is not the lyrics alone. Public Enemy’s Chuck D once famously said, “Rap is CNN for black people.” Some depictions of “ghetto life” in rap lyrics serve as social commentary, some as documentary, and some as literature. I’m a great believer that nothing in art should be out of bounds. Shock jock Don Imus or rapper Young Buck should both be able to use any kind of language they want. The problem for hip-hop is one of narrow focus. It’s all about the Benjamins.
Filmmaker Byron Hurt took a critical look at hip-hop in his documentary HIP-HOP: Beyond Beats and Rhymes and shows quite clearly that white fans and the record labels exert a great deal of economic pressure on what hip-hop artists can do creatively if they wish to be successful. If you want to be a little indie rapper (so-called backpackers) you close yourself off from financial rewards. If the network of radio stations, music channels and record labels only highlights a certain kind of hip-hop – giving both black and white listeners only more of the same – than that will be what prevails.
What happened with Imus is a closely related phenomenon. White fans sometimes aren’t content to just listen to these songs, they want to get in on the attitude. Imus and McGuirk probably felt like they were dipping into the cool pool of young hipness by using such language. They’re hardly alone. At the Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner, comedian Brad Sherwood did a rap song with Karl Rove occasionally chiming in. When you watch the footage of these two middle age white men you feel like your brain will explode. Even Karl Rove wants to be an MC.
That brings me back to how I might choose the targets of my ire. I don’t like much of the lyrics on the rap charts. But I think I would choose to go after bigger game than The Game.
If you’re one of those folks who hate rap and consider it primarily a thuggish celebration of pimpin’ and bustin’ a cap in the other gentleman’s posterior, allow me to make a few suggestions.
If you want hear hip-hop’s artistic possibilities, you probably couldn’t do much better than De La Soul‘s 3 Feet High and Rising (1989). If you instead want to hear social commentary and political criticism, try Public Enemy‘s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988).
Canadian artist K-Os raps and sings, with a blend of hip-hop, reggae, folk, and more. His new album is Atlantis: Hymns for Disco. I love “Heaven Only Knows” and “Superstarr Pt. Zero” off of his 2003 album Exit.
Perhaps you’ve heard how Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo joined forces to work as Gnarls Barkley. The Cincinnati, OH duo Ilwil, consisting of Ilyas Nashid (aka Il) & Donwill. collaborated with Brooklyn MC/Producer Von Pea as the group Tanya Morgan. They met online and started collaborating, trading MP3s and WAV files, only meeting in person half-way through producing the album Moonlighting (2006).
The ATL‘s own Outkast achieved crossover success in 2003 with the double album Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below, thanks to two incredible hit singles: “Hey Ya” and “The Way You Move.” You should also check out their 1998 classic Aquemini.
Kanye West fascinates me because he participates in rap’s excesses as much as he struggles against them. He’ll record a song that’s not terribly disrespectful toward women and then turn around and speak out against homophobia in rap. He can come across as horribly arrogant, but he is incredibly talented and holds very high artistic standards for himself. For a genre filled with so much posturing, it’s nice to see someone who wears his heart on his sleeve. Check out The College Dropout (2004) and Late Registration (2005).
If you want to be up on all the current trends, you should be reading The Smoking Section, the essential blog for all things hip-hop.
UPDATE: Here’s some background information, if this topic interests you. I’ve had my eye on Imus’ shenanigans for a while, thanks to the work of Philip Nobile. This was not the first racist or sexist remark by Imus or McGuirk, not by a longshot. If you still aren’t convinced that hip-hop has any artistic merit, check out some of my past writings on the genre. I discussed my concerns at the influence of gangsta rap in the context of how Kanye West fits into hip-hop landscape. Lots of hip-hop fans like to compare the music to jazz, much to the dismay of jazz purists; I looked at attempts to combine the two forms and discussed their musical differences. Much of hip-hop is based on sampling, a practice that continues to be controversial and sometimes criminal. And if you still like to think that it’s all a passing fad, it’s actually turning into an oldies genre. Finally, I looked at whether any art, especially hip-hop, has a responsibility in the way it shows the uglier side of life.