City Paper is not for tourists
I could kill you. The words of this review could reach off the page, throttle you, blow your brains out, eviscerate you, leave you sliced and diced like a supporting character in a Friday the 13th flick.
Does that seem absurd? Tell it to feminist legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon, whose controversial little book, Only Words, not only takes French literary theory altogether too seriously but is currently trying to turn it into law. “To say it is to do it, and to do it is to say it,” she opines.
She’s talking about rape, which she considers indistinguishable from any unwanted sexual attention. By such criteria, though, gangsta rap and death metal are not merely aggression but actual violence. When Helmet and House of Pain team up to sneer “Just Another Victim,” their enthusiasm for tags on dead toes should be indistinguishable from actual homicide. So—after a dozen spins of Judgment Night, the rap-meets-metal extravaganza that contains “Victim”—why ain’t I dead?
The answer, which would seem obvious if not for the influence of MacKinnon and similar thinkers, is that speech and action are different. Anyone who’s ever expressed hatred, disgust, or even petty annoyance with a violent remark knows that. Still, it’s not as if rap and metal haven’t been asking for it. Take, for example, the Columbia Records press release for Cypress Hill’s recent Black Sunday: “ “Insane in the Brain’ is…a warning: that when it comes to the Cypress Hill crew, crazed intensity is more than skin deep; it’s a state of mind and a way of life.” In other words, to say it is to do it.
Judgment Night brought metal and rap’s respective death wishes together just as Village Voice critic Carol Cooper was fatuously arguing that “if I could choose what form of juvenile delinquency would afflict the black community…I’d want the more easily rerouted baby gangsters rather than an epidemic of teens who kill for Satan or out of boredom.” (When D.C.-area writer Steven Kiviat called her on this in a letter to the editor, Cooper retreated into race- baiting.) Cooper’s preferences aside, white metalists and black hip hoppers have long admired each other’s homicidal tendencies. To paraphrase Lou Reed, no kinds of murder are better than others.
Not that everyone on Judgment Night is celebrating killing. Class nerds Teenage Fanclub and De La Soul sample Tom Petty for a goofy tale of lost fame, “Fallin’, ” while Sonic Youth and the crazed-intense Cypress Hill praise that venerable teen-age tonic, pot, with “I Love You Mary Jane” and Mudhoney and Sir Mix-a-Lot hail a “Freak Momma.” More typical, though, is the work of pairings like Slayer and Ice-T (“Disorder”), Biohazard and Onyx (“Judgment Night”), Faith No More and Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. (“Another Body Murdered”), and Therapy? and Fatal (“Come and Die”). Though all are corpse-grinders, the viewpoints of these tracks range from the gangsta of “Judgment Night” to the neo-rev olutionary of “Disorder” to the dec adent of “Come and Die.” “Come and die/With me,” offers the latter, as much Goth as gangsta.
The entrance point for most of these death-affirmers is not Huysmans or Rimbaud, of course, but popular culture, especially movies. It’s altogether appropriate that this meeting of the diseased minds was arranged for the purpose of scoring a B-movie. “Feeling like De Niro in Taxi Driver” (rhymes, of course, with “survivor”), notes House of Pain in “Just Another Victim,” while the sentiments of tracks like “Come and Die” have been associated with horror movies ever since Black Sabbath named itself for a Boris Karloff flick.
MacKinnon might be pleased to hear Sir Mix-a-Lot explain of his “Freak Momma” that “I was raised on Prince so I gotta let you hear it”—he too a helpless hostage of Princely smut. Such lines, though, just point up how media-derived Night‘s messages are. Rappers, after all, can deal in victimology jargon just as confidently as can law professors: “They raped you, bruised and scraped you….In your eyes you’ve been victimized….Cover up the low self-esteem you feel….Swimming in guilt’s your favorite sport,” diagnoses “Just Another Victim,” which does have enough tough-guy swagger to conclude “you’re victimized but got no one to blame.”
There’s blame to spare on other Night tracks, notably the title track, in which Onyx vows to “raise hell and make the white man call me master,” and “Disorder,” in which Ice-T insists that “Our government is fucked…the media incites civil unrest.” (Could this media include the Time-Warner that decided Ice’s latest was too inciting for its shareholders?)
“We don’t need your war,” howls Ice before shifting into a speed-metal tempo, but Judgment Night doesn’t need his attempt to portray anti-establishment tantrums as do-goodery. A marriage of the two most monomaniacal pop-music styles ever, the album has no time for uplift—or pleasure, really, other than the sheer physicality of the hammering celebrated by the “bang your head” chant of “Another Body Murdered.” (Yeah, there’s marijuana, but here it’s more a warrior sacrament than the universal-grooviness aid it was to its hippie-era discoverers.) It barely even has time for sex, adolescent-male music’s perennial topic, which gives this music a curious chasteness more indebted to death metal’s decadent-ascetic tendencies than to gangsta rap, whose denigration of women—the recent prominence of pistol-packing rappers aside—is surely more dangerously influential than its glorification of murder.
The album’s most eloquent elements are its crossover hooks—the clanging cowbell beat of “Just Another Victim,” the inexorable power chords of “Disorder,” the un characteristically energetic swirling funk setting Dinosaur Jr. provided for “Missing Link,” its collaboration with Del the Funky Homosapien. As for the murderous message, it comes less from the street than from tattered comic books, worn-out videos, and dogeared sociology textbooks. No more vehement than a hundred other expressions of cocky adolescent-male death-lust, Judgment Day is no killer.