"Die for this Firm! Live for this Firm/Niggas learn, nuttin should come before your fam"
–Nas, Firm Fiasco
"Yo, the smoothest killer since Bugsy, bitches love me"
–Cormega, Affirmative Action
"Who shot ya? Mob ties like Sinatra"
–Notorious B.I.G, Brooklyn's Finest
"Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again
–Don Corleone to Sonny, The Godfather
"In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the woman."
–Tony to Manna, Scarface
Revisionist history is not new to America, or the world for that matter: From Columbus, to abolitionist Presidents with slaves, to translating the Bible so that God is a man (yea, sorry, he was genderless…or gender-full, however you like to look at it), to the idea that Africans are "primitive," rewriting history is one of the worst elements of Western society since it's "rise" to prominence.
So in light of the recent conviction of Kimberly "Lil Kim" Jones for perjury and the subsequent New York Times editorial, and discussions I've had afterward, and numerous other discussions I've had regarding this issue of revisionist history and misnomers in hip-hop, it is time to clarify some things and clear the name of hip-hop in this mess.
The history of hip-hop is more or less known. However, few people seem to understand how hotly contested hip-hop was as it started to exert its commercial power in the mid- to late 80's. As hip-hop moved into the larger consumer market, it had to be commodified.
The late 80's/early 90's saw the burgeoning of what hip-hop could be both commercially and creatively. Rakim made rhyming an artform and as a result, it became predominant face of hip-hop. Run DMC perfected the trade-off style with aplomb. A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were injecting hip-hop with more traditional forms of music broadening the minds of heads to what hip-hop can be as an aural instrument. Salt N Pepa, MC Lyte and Queen Latifah were showing the diversity of black femalehood. NWA and Public Enemy made artful proto-political statements that scared the shit out of mainstream America (and by extension, their kids loved it…anything to piss off the parents, eh?).
In short, hip-hop was growing. And what was most palatable and interesting to the mainstream was the darker music of people like NWA. This is what ended up being commodified and led to the current state of commercial hip-hop today.
Like anything that gets appropriated, things get lost in translation. The first music to really explode was the so-called gangsta rap. I say "so-called" because the term was coined by people like C. Delores Tucker, black conservatives who wanted to deflect attention from the very real issues that rappers like Tupac (2PACALYPSE Now), Ice-T (Cop Killer), and NWA (Fuck the Police) were saying by pointing out their rampant misogyny, xenophobia, racism and violence. Not that these things aren't important elements to point out, but like most conservatives, Tucker and her cohorts really tried to paint a picture of young black America that said all of these things are pathological and ignored completely the legitimate elements in the music. And by doing so, any genuine critiques of racism, police brutality and poverty were swept under the rug.
But despite the institution of the "parental advisory" sticker, the only thing that Tucker and her cohorts really succeeded in doing was making so-called gangsta rap more and more attractive to white kids and young impressionable blacks who didn't have the mechanisms to understand what was good and bad about the music by making it seem as if the artists were promoting violence.
The fact of the matter is that those early rappers were not advocating violence for violence sake. Much of the violence in that early music can be read as resistance. Misguided, perhaps, but a real statement about the socio-economic conditions of their lives. Before NWA the country had no idea of the rampant corruption of the LAPD. That is a profound shift, one that is belittled when NWA are considered always and only "gangsters".
Throughout the 90's the so-called gangsta rap term got applied to any music that had violent elements. In essence, if it had a sticker on it, it was gangsta rap. And the fact that Doggystyle and 2PACALYPSE Now are fundamentally different albums got lost on a society that misuses language all the time. Gangsta rap sells. So anything that got that label had a certain mystique it wouldn't otherwise have. What Mobb Deep does is nothing like what Tupac did. What Biggie did is nothing like what Scarface does. But all four artists are considered gangsta rappers.
Nowadays, gangsta rap is a complete parody of itself and people throw the term around ad nauseum. The simple fact remains, however, that the term is a misnomer that was used to tag a music that had the potential to rock the affirmative action provided boat for black conservatives.
And while the basest elements of hip-hop became mainstream hip-hop for the masses, Tucker and her cohorts succeeded only in misrepresenting that first era of music that, while flawed, had very real things to say. And so people even now think of artists like Tupac and NWA as always and only misogynists who revel in violence and nihilism. And the result for mainstream hip-hop itself is that people like 50 Cent take all eyez on me from Tupac and not 2PACALYPSE Now.
Like all genres, even gangsta rap has been reduced to it's simplest elements.
What you have now of course, is this assumption that what mainstream rappers are saying in their lives they are really living. And worse still, the industry is signing former "thugs" (like 50 and T.I.) and promoting them always and only as progenitors of senseless violence and misogyny.
And when these "thugs" bring their personal conflicts into hip-hop, beefs on wax turn into beefs in the streets.
Hip-hop is an inherently competitive genre. But what was once a beef over who has the best skills, who is the best on the block has now become who has killed the most people, who has lied to the police, who never snitches, who has the most "bitches", and who sells the most drugs. And people are attributing these elements to hip-hop culture as if rappers and black people (men in particular) are pathologically immoral.
Again, we have a problem here. The Times writer, Brent Staples, makes statements like this about the Lil Kim case: "That the hip-hop code helped to prevent the murderers from being brought to justice is easy to see." "Hip-hop code?" He is of course talking of the "don't snitch on your friends, go down for the family, mafia code".
But this isn't a "hip-hop" code. This is the code of the mafia subculture. A completely separate culture from hip-hop.
What Staples fails to do is make a larger case for the way in which mob style violence and codes have influenced a segment of hip-hop culture–and what facilitates such influence. He makes valid points about the way magazines like XXL, The Source and the like, lionize this behavior, but what he does not do is make the connection to the larger culture that has promoted the mob life in countless movies and TV shows for the last four decades.
Staples presents the "hip-hop world" as if it has no antecedent, as if the elements of which he is speaking come directly from black and hip-hop culture. And he presents it as if it is pathological behavior saying, "but it [Lil Kim's perjuring herself] was perfectly logical in the world of hip hop, where it is seen as more noble to go to prison than to "snitch" to the authorities."
This is a categorically false representation of hip-hop and what's worse, it's disingenuous.
The reality that many of the current mainstream rap artists are beefin and live (or claim to live) violent lives is not lost on anyone. But presenting it as if it is representative of all hip-hop culture is wrong. Furthermore, writers like Staples never seem willing to interrogate why it is that such behavior is so attractive to young blacks or where the images of mob life come from. They never interrogate why it is that Scarface, a movie about mainstream culture's cocaine drug trafficking (having nothing to do with black people) is so influential in mainstream hip-hop culture.
Let's be real people, names like Escobar, Scarface, Charli Baltimore, Cormega and Noriega are not black names. They are names co-opted from the mainstream media that lionizes, romanticizes the mob life. How is The Sopranos great art and Scarface isn't? It is interesting to me that the people who have issues with The Sopranos are Italian-Americans who are resisting the way Hollywood continues to portray them. If even members of their own community don't like the portrayals, why is it that black kids are so enamored of the lifestyle? What is the disconnect for them?
Staples calls back to the deaths of Tupac and Biggie and while it might seem to be applicable, neither of those rappers were killed because of the East Coast/West Coast feud. There is no evidence to say that this is the case. Furthermore, much of that feud was in the press.
Staples fails to problematize the reality that today's hip-hop fans were barely old enough to remember Tupac and Biggie as the artists that they truly were. He insinuates that hip-hop culture "has become inured to killings". What he should be talking about is that the industry has become "inured" and that it has made a killing (pun intended) from the deaths of those two artists. They have a vested interest in stirring the shit up–dead artists make a ton of money.
My purpose in discussing this is that people are quick to run around and say that rappers should be more responsible. This is obviously true. But that isn't the real problem here. Let's get at the root. Why do little black boys want to be drug kingpins? Why do they over identify with a segment of Italian-American life? Shouldn't the real question be, why does little Rasheed want to be a member of a completely different ethnic group? What is wrong with his own? Aren't there enough "cool" representations of blackness?
The fact remains that yes, there is too much violence in mainstream hip-hop. But question why Corporate America signs these types of artists. Question why it is that blatantly untalented artists are signed because of how many times they have been shot or who's crew they are associated with instead of really talented artists with things to say like Pharoahe Monche, Blackalicious or K-os.
As black folks, as thinking people, as hip-hop heads we need to stop reducing our art, our culture down to whatever distillation has been sold back to us by the corporate power structure without first thinking through what it is we are being sold. Gangsta rap is a misnomer and mob culture is not intrinsic to hip-hop. This is the truth.
But then why are we continually being told that this is all hip-hop is?
Originally written on July 4, 2005