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As hiphop nears its 20th yearand I my 25thI find myself increasingly disappointed with rap music and the culture that surrounds it. The fantastic materialism and casual sexism that dominate commercial radio are shallow and immature. However, Puffy and Jermaine Dupri’s musical masturbation is only slightly less engaging than the single-minded attacks of those who seek to undercut them. It is doubtful that champions of the underground like Company Flow would have anything more to talk about if Mase or Jay-Z quit rhyming. Rap’s “playas” and “playa-haters” are nothing more than fools and followers caught up in an unproductive feedback loop. Older fans, like myself, are becoming disillusioned with the music’s diminishing substance.
Much like a teenager who joins a gang for the loyalty or a college student who pledges a fraternity for the community service, I was encouraged in my early allegiance to hiphop by a few key misconceptions. Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary, X-Clan’s To the East Blackwards, Brand Nubian’s One for Allin the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was impossible for any rap enthusiast not to come into contact with these slammin’ albums and others with similar themes. If you weren’t careful, the strong messages of racial pride and solidarity in these compositions might have led you, as they did me, to believe that rap was black empowerment music. Thanks to Nelson George’s Hip Hop America, I now know that my optimism was simply the detrimental effect of listening to too much KRS-One and Chuck D in high school. As one of hiphop’s early chroniclers, George has insight into its past and is not afraid to be brutally honest about its lowest moments.
“Hip hop has actually had surprisingly little concrete long-term impact on African-American politics,” George asserts:
Hip hop’s major problem…is that MCs are not social activists by training or inclination. They are entertainers whose visibility and effectiveness as messengers are subject to the whims of the marketplace. For all Public Enemy’s impactand there were at least four years when the band embodied the best of this cultureits ultimate strength lay in making and selling records.
Following this idol-toppling revelation, George goes on to explain how hiphop has done just as much (or more) to further the sales of Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger, and Timberlands as it has to convey the teachings of Malcolm X or black nationalism. The truth in his examples is enough to make me regret having spent most of the decade waiting for rappers to finally fuse music and politics in a way that would have an impact outside of the dance floor.
But the idea that raps would be the battle hymns of young black revolutionaries was fostered in me by another wrongful assumption. George broaches the subject obliquely at first: He says in the opening chapter, about the origins of hiphop, “Within the African-American community [breakdancing] came and went. Perhaps breaking would have been forgotten altogether if it hadn’t been for the almost religious zeal of Puerto Rican teenagers.” In fact, because the music first evolved to suit the dancers, George ultimately credits these Latinos, and Caribbean-influenced DJs like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, with hiphop’s invention. Just as these early manifestations were not solely the province of young African-Americans, George asserts that rap and hiphop culture owe much of their longevity to the enthusiasm andwell, let’s face itthe wallets of white people.
“One of the prevailing assumptions around hip hop is that it was, at some early moment, solely African-American created, owned, controlled, and consumed. It’s an appealing origin mythbut the evidence just isn’t there to support it.” The quote is from the chapter titled “Black Owned?,” easily the most eye-opening of the entire work. In it, George reveals a lengthy list of rap’s Caucasian fairy godparents and how, for whatever personal reasons, they helped hiphop attain the overexposure it has today. George notes that “[a]ntiwhite rhetoric flows through hip hop,” and it is easy to rail against blatant vultures like Vanilla Ice or be suspicious of shady characters like Eazy-E’s former manager Jerry Heller. But for every bloodsucker, there is an honest businessman like Russell Simmons’ enigmatic partner Lyor Cohen or an undeniable creative force like producer Rick Rubin, both white.
As the world became more accepting of hiphop, I confess that I did not grow more accepting of those nonblacks who wished to be involved. My possessiveness was based on the fear that a wholly African-American art form was in danger of being co-opted or corrupted and the belief that it was my responsibility as a young black male to safeguard it. This paranoia seems pretty silly in light of George’s summation of the situation: “[W]ithout white entrepreneurial involvement hip hop culture wouldn’t have survived its first half decade on vinyl.” That comment doesn’t even mention the hundreds of thousands of white consumers who supported rap during its early years.
Certainly, rap has been corrupted over the past two decades, but its corrosion probably has little to do with race and a great deal more to do with the “permanent business” George deems responsible for making rap profitable. Regardless of the explanation, it is apparent that the music is past its golden age. Fortunately, recognizing that hiphop is neither a birthright nor a flawless tool for uplifting black people makes it is easier for me to let go.
Throughout Hip Hop America, George addresses, rather matter-of-factly, some of the inescapable ugliness of what hiphop culture has become. There are enlightening yet disturbing chapters on the questionable business practices that go on behind the scenes. He also relives the sexually charged melodrama of 2 Live Crew and the violent tragedies of Tupac and Biggie.
But Hip Hop America is not a sordid, tell-all book. It romanticizes neither heroes nor villains. It is also not reliable as a “history of.” Rather, George arrives at his big picture by zooming in a on a few individuals, ideas, and episodes that bear out his argument: Def Jam empire head, Russell Simmons’ dual roles as stalwart hiphop advocate and savvy businessman, the music’s questionable dependence on sampling, Lisa “Sister Souljah” Williamson’s distorted public image.
Though his unbiased handling of such topics might make it seem so, George is not one of hiphop’s many detractors. Actually, I think he’s a big fan. The author’s greatest strength is his proximity to the subject. He is privy to details that are hidden from anyone without such a long career covering hiphop and black music. As a journalist, however, he is under the same law as the much-defamed gangsta rappers: He has to “keep it real.” Hiphop’s supporters have always envisioned their art form as a musical revolution that can effect change. To many others, hiphop now appears as an untameable phenomenon that has forced itself upon mainstream culture. George reveals how the music and its creators have always been under control: vulnerable toand in some cases guided bythe inflexible powers of the music industry, big business, and politics in America. CP