Watching Rap

Erik Nielson

Somewhat lost in the glamour of fame, money, and recognition that typifies hip-hop success is the fact that "all eyes on me" includes the police and the feds. Yet surveillance of rappers is very real, and the result is a strange case of artists hiding in public.

In March of 2008, the LA Times published an article that implicated Sean "Diddy" Combs and his associates in the 1994 shooting of Tupac Shakur at Quad Recording Studios in New York. A few days later, the Times retracted the article once it became apparent that the author, Chuck Phillips, had relied on fabricated documents and less-than-credible sources. Nevertheless, despite the quick (and embarrassing) retraction, the story got nearly one million hits on, more than any other story for the year, and as a result, the story-within-the-story became the overwhelming public interest in the shooting, even 14 years after the fact.

While this interest came as a surprise to just about everybody who reported on the Times apology, it probably didn’t to most rap fans. There have long been questions about the circumstances of the 1994 shooting, as well as the second one in 1996 that took Tupac’s life. There have been similar questions about the murder of his New York rival, Notorious B.I.G., and deep suspicions within the hip-hop community that both rappers' deaths were not just the predictable result of rap's East/West coast feud, but involved institutional forces that have long sought to contain and control the hip-hop movement. For this reason, any story that claims to shed new light on the circumstances surrounding their deaths, both of which remain unsolved, draws the rabid curiosity of rap fans worldwide.

Their interest is easy to understand. After all, there is suspicion, even as reported among mainstream media outlets, that officers within the LAPD actually carried out the murders. There is also suspicion that both Tupac and Biggie were under police surveillance at the time of their deaths, making it very difficult to explain how both murders could go unsolved. In an attempt to uncover the details of Tupac's death in particular, November 2005 saw then-Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia (the 2008 presidential candidate for the Green Party) introduce HR 4210, the Tupac Amaru Shakur Records Collection Act, in order to compel federal, state, and local authorities to publicly disclose “all Government records related to the life and death of Tupac Amaru Shakur.” McKinney contended that Tupac was closely monitored by intelligence agents up to and including the day of his death. And while the ostensible goal of HR 4210 was to bring to light any facts that might help solve his murder, its wider purpose was to expose any ongoing activities reminiscent of the government’s COINTELPRO days of the '50s and '60s, when black artists and activists were routinely monitored by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

As it turns out, McKinney’s suspicions were neither unfounded nor incredible. About a year earlier, the Miami Herald broke a story titled “Police Secretly Watching Hip-Hop Artists,” which revealed that the Miami police were secretly watching and keeping detailed dossiers on hip-hop celebrities, including DMX and Sean Combs, who visited South Florida. As the story spread, it became clear that Miami police were not alone and had been working in concert with a hip-hop task force within the New York Police Department. This task force, created in the wake of the Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. murders, began compiling intelligence on well-known rap artists, often by keeping them under hidden surveillance while they were in New York City, and sharing that intelligence with police departments across the country.

In 2005, retired cop Derrick Parker, the self-proclaimed founder of this task force, was featured in a DVD called Black and Blue: Legends of the Hip-Hop Cop, which details the surveillance practices of police who were following rappers throughout New York. Parker released a book in August of 2006 on the same subject. In 2007, Don Sikorski released his documentary, Rap Sheet: Hip-Hop and the Cops, in which he expands Parker’s focus to include hip-hop performers nationwide and the extent to which they are under surveillance by local and federal law enforcement whenever they venture out in public. There have also been two films released since 2005 -- Hip-Hop Task Force and Hip-Hop Task Force, Vol. II -- that have taken police surveillance of the hip-hop industry as their dramatic inspiration.

This recent mainstream interest in the subject may suggest that these kinds of surveillance tactics are new, but the existence of the “hip-hop cops” is really just further evidence of a long-standing tradition of institutional surveillance of rap as a whole -- a tradition that has been so pervasive that in many ways it has become intrinsic to the genre as we know it. In other words, rap is what it is because of surveillance, with some of its most notable features having evolved as a direct response to it. To make this point first requires a brief overview of the crucial role surveillance has played in the emergence of hip-hop in general and rap in particular. Then we can take a closer look at the way some of contemporary rap’s themes and aesthetics were shaped by the response to seemingly omnipresent surveillance.


Rap is but one facet of a much larger movement called hip-hop. Whereas rap is a particular form of musical expression, hip-hop refers to something much broader -- as KRS ONE put it, “Rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you live.” Hip-hop grew directly out of New York’s pervasive gang culture in the early '70s, a culture that, by its nature, emphasized violence, territoriality, and group affiliation. By the mid-'70s, those gangs didn’t disappear, but they were slowly eclipsed by crews and posses of a different sort whose battles with one another were often waged by graffiti artists on the side of a train, by break dancers on a patch of dance floor, or by rival DJs on a stage. These burgeoning art forms became a way of life for minority youth in New York, but they also became a target of law enforcement agencies who resisted them.

Bansky graffiti installation, London

Break dancers, for example, were often hard pressed to find practice space because many potential locations were known to be under police surveillance. Graffiti artists, who drew the ire of city officials once their designs started showing up on trains in wealthy Manhattan neighborhoods, found themselves the targets of what was dubbed “an all-out war on graffiti.” At the height of the city’s assault, transit officials began taking drastic measures, such as erecting military-style barbed and razor wire fences around train stations and putting attack dogs behind them. At the same time, police established a special “vandal squad” -- with obvious parallels to the “hip-hop cops” of today -- that began stepping up surveillance of minority youth, raiding writers' homes, and making thousands of arrests. Intrinsic to the city’s furious attacks on graffiti in particular, and hip-hop in general, was the deeply-rooted fear that minorities would spread, literally or metaphorically, beyond the physical spaces set out for them through the de facto segregation that has long characterized American cities. The response was to watch them obsessively.

Eventually, the same thing happened to rappers, particularly when they began using their lyrics to overtly political ends. By the late '80s, high profile groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions on the east coast and Ice-T and NWA on the west coast were using their music to attack institutions of power within the United States. In 1988, two albums in particular -- Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and NWA’s Straight Outta Compton -- marked an important shift whereby rap became a vehicle for political discourse. Both albums fearlessly attacked law enforcement in particular, setting the stage for many other performers to follow suit.

Public Enemy's logo, a silhouetted man in crosshairs, really tells the story of what happened to rappers as a result. NWA, for example, found themselves and their record label targeted for intimidation by the FBI and other local law enforcement agencies after the release of the song "Fuck tha Police", while other acts began meeting resistance from police departments across the country when they tried to book shows. The result was that that many performances nationwide were simply cancelled, and even when shows did go on, both performers and spectators were regularly subject to intrusive searches and close surveillance, a practice that has become the norm at hip-hop shows today.


Given the extent to which rap has always been under this kind of pressure and surveillance, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that in many ways it has come to be defined by them. For one, no genre integrates surveillance practices into its themes more than rap music does -- just think of the hundreds, even thousands, of songs that address a sense of being watched or followed in some way. Gangsta rappers, for example, have gone multi-platinum in chronicling their encounters with the police, and one of the central concerns of more politically-oriented rappers has been the intrusive surveillance practices of law enforcement agencies at both the local and federal level. Many songs by these artists and others integrate surveillance technology directly into their lyrics by making explicit reference to devices such as phone taps, hidden cameras, and tracking devices, all being used by law enforcement agencies ranging from the NYPD to the CIA (and sometimes all at the same time).

For instance, take Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy”, in which the recurring question asked by the chorus is, “Who’s that peeking in my window?” The individual rappers respond by identifying “unmarked black helicopters” and “soldiers coming in the dark by plane”, who, in concert with organizations like the Internal Revenue Service and the United Nations, employ computer chips and serial-coded gates to monitor and control blacks as part of a “new world plan”. In the Firm's "Phone Tap", the rappers’ voices are distorted to sound as if they are being called in over a cell phone, giving us (the listeners) the same perspective as the federal agent who is tapping the lines. Three rappers who play the part of drug dealers discussing their next deal provide the verses, while a fourth (Dr. Dre) takes the part of the surveilling agent who repeats

We got your phone tapped -- what you gon' do?

'Cause sooner or later, we'll have your whole crew.

All we need now is the right word or two

To make all it stick like glue. We got you.

The music video for the song adds the visual element to the surveillance, frequently depicting the rappers through a camera’s lens, or showing their faces on computers operated by the police. While these particular examples are admittedly extreme in the amount of ground they cover, they are nevertheless illustrative of the fixation with being watched that is generally characteristic of rap.

Symbolic Representations

Most popular and scholarly accounts of rap tend to emphasize it as a genre of extreme visibility, one whose performers openly invite the attention of the world around them. Indeed, Kevin Powell once described hip-hop as a voice for people "trying to be seen, heard, felt." This, of course, makes sense: not only has rap been openly antagonistic toward power structures in the US, suggesting a willingness to draw scrutiny, but it also comes from a long history of boasting and self-aggrandizement that also suggests the desire to be seen, watched, feared, and admired. However, a closer look at some of the ways rappers present themselves visually and lyrically reveals an equally strong tendency toward invisibility and anonymity, one that suggests a discomfort with the surveillance that has always plagued the genre.

Consider cars. They have always been an important symbol of wealth and mobility in African American popular culture -- indeed, in global culture -- but in rap, they are nearly ubiquitous in lyrics and music videos. One of the appeals of the car is that it affords a kind of privacy -- it is mobile (and therefore elusive) and has built-in mechanisms like tinted windows that frustrate surveillance. Even the typical driving position, laid back, functions to obscure the presence of the individual driver, making him or her tough to identify. In the song "Redbull" by the Wu Tang Clan, Inspectah Deck makes explicit the inherent anti-surveillance properties of the car: "Behind the tinted windows I lie low / On some hydro tryin’ to slide from the 5-0". He is lying "low" both literally and figuratively, trying to remain out of view of the police while he's driving with "hydro" (marijuana). In this example, and in rap in general, the car serves two competing functions. On one hand, with its stereo bumping and its chromed-out rims, it is intended to draw attention. On the other, its occupants remain hidden, suggesting the simultaneous desire to avoid detection. We can see something similar in Chamillionaire's 2006 Grammy-winning track "Ridin'". As police try to catch him "ridin' dirty", he uses his car to frustrate their attempts:

Recline in the seat, they can see me lean

I'm tint, so it ain't easy to be seen

Police see me ride by -- they can see these gleam

And my shine on the deck and the TV screen

In the music video for the song, it's worth noting that as he uses his car as a kind of screen behind which "it ain't easy to be seen", his clothing also switches to camouflage, an obvious use of clothing to reinforce his theme of evasion and disappearance. (It's also worth noting that Chamillionaire's name draws on the chameleon, the consummate disappearing artist.)

In NWA's song “Gangsta, Gangsta”, Eazy-E’s rhyme “Here's a lil gangsta, short in size / A t-shirt and Levi's is his only disguise” brings us to a discussion of hip-hop fashion overall. Hip-hop fashion has certainly changed over the years, but one of its enduring characteristics has been that it is way oversized. Rappers wear jeans that are so large that they will ride low on the waist (or even lower), their t-shirts or jerseys are always at least two sizes too large and hang well below the waist, the hoods on sweatshirts are often pulled up, and sneakers or boots are frequently unlaced, making them appear larger than normal. On one hand, these large clothes, reminiscent of the zoot suits of the previous generation, serve to exaggerate the MC’s size and physical presence, but they also serve the obvious function of obscuring or disguising the rapper as well. So too do the fashion accessories common to hip-hop: hats and bandanas that obscure the face and sunglasses that allow one’s eyes to see without being seen.

The origins of this fashion can be traced to many sources, but two are particularly interesting. The first is graffiti -- taggers not only operated under the cover of darkness, but they were some of the first in the hip-hop movement to wear baggy, oversized sweatshirts because they functioned to conceal their identity (as well as the cans of spray paint that they often stole). Thus, one of the few trends to have survived in a constantly changing fashion scene is one whose function it was to conceal identity and frustrate surveillance. The second source is prison. Not only did gangsta rappers popularize wearing denim prison uniforms, but the larger trend towards baggy clothing is derived from prison clothes that would sag once the authorities confiscated the belts and shoelaces of inmates. The extent to which rappers now don prison-inspired clothing is indicative of the profound effect that prison culture, which embodies surveillance practices in every way possible, has had on rap music as a whole. Just as in prison you are constantly visible (being watched) and invisible (just a number), so too with the prison-inspired clothes, which simultaneously announce your hip-hop affiliations and exaggerate your size, but also obscure your individual identity.

If cars and clothes work to obscure identity, then so too do the naming conventions in rap. While stage names are fairly common for performers in all genres of music, they are nearly universal in rap. There is obviously a political element to this, just as there was for figures like Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali, both of whom refused their given names and in doing so refused the identity imposed on them by a dominant, white culture. Rappers may be echoing that rejection of the dominant culture, but they also seem to be hiding from it. This is most evident if we look at rappers who have already created a stage name and then create an additional alter ego, frequently referred to as an alias, a word that clearly connotes a preoccupation with escaping detection. Eminem’s Slim Shady and Notorious B.I.G’.s Biggie Smalls are just two examples, though the most extreme is definitely the Wu Tang Clan, whose nine members, each with primary stage names, combine for more than 70 additional "aliases". For Wu Tang and others, these additional identities work to create multiple layers behind which the true performing artist can remain hidden, thereby reproducing in symbolic form the obscuring effect achieved in a more literal sense with cars and clothes.

And these examples are really just the tip of the iceberg. If we accept the importance of surveillance to the evolution of the genre, we can begin to read many other aspects of rap in a similar way: as responses to the disconcerting gaze of the outside world. Think of the widespread use of slang and neologism -- common to African American vernacular generally, but overwhelming in rap -- which suggests the need to maintain a kind of coded communication within rap and hip-hop. Or consider the aesthetic within rap, evident in sampling and voice distortion, that tends to favor a kind of technological mediation between performer and audience, an added layer that, like the alias or the oversized clothes, intentionally complicates, and in many cases obscures, the rapper's presence.

Rapper C-King

The Black Artist in America

These characteristics, evident across rap's various surfaces, speak to the conditions under which rappers practice their art and their fans enjoy it. Even three decades after hip-hop's birth, we are surrounded by reminders of the profound suspicion that black performance provokes. Take as an illustration the recent Street Dreams Tour, featuring Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne. As the tour's promoters began negotiating venues and dates, they ran into a roadblock when they tried to book the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, Rhode Island. Providence police, citing the potential gang violence that the show might incite, declared it "an extreme threat to public safety" and tried to shut it down. Nevertheless, against police recommendations, officials initially agreed to allow a performance, provided that the performers consent to a number of surprising conditions, including that they stay in their tour bus until ten minutes before taking the stage and leave town immediately after the show. In addition, both the performers and their fans would be subject to searches by a small army of security staff, who would use metal detecting wands, laser pointers, recording devices, and cameras to monitor the event. When the rappers agreed to all of these conditions, the city piled on more stipulations, which the performers ultimately refused. The show was cancelled, and the Street Dreams Tour had to find less hostile territory.

Today, with police following their every move, rappers have come to inhabit an environment defined by the ever-present threat of surveillance. To borrow from Michel Foucault, they are living in a "state of conscious and permanent visibility", one that undoubtedly shapes their everyday lives, their sense of identity, and, of course, their music. In this respect, rappers are not alone; they reside in a long tradition of black artists whose creative expression has been shaped, at least in part, by omnipresent surveillance. The heavily coded lyrics of the slave spirituals, and later the blues, speak to the artists' constant awareness of a hostile society watching their every move, and it is perhaps unsurprising that we can find a recurring theme of invisibility in literary sources ranging from slave narratives to contemporary African American fiction and poetry. Rap, however, is the true exemplar, confronting the American surveillance culture head on even as it finds new and creative ways to thwart it -- and in the process, offering its listeners a valuable insight into what it means to be a black artist in the United States.

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