Deconstructing the False Good Rapper/ Bad Rapper Dichotomy
In this corner: Common, in that: 50 Cent. In this corner: Dr. Martin Luther King, in that: Malcolm X. In this corner: W.E.B. DuBois, in that: Booker T. Washington. Standing outside of the ring: Dilated Peoples.
You’ve really got to feel for the Dilated Peoples. Assuming, of course, you’ve heard of them.
If you’re a serious, studious hip-hop fan, you probably have. The Los Angeles-based trio of rapper/ beatmaker Evidence, rapper Rakaa, and DJ Babu achieved a level of notoriety on the progressive rap circuit in the late ‘90s and ‘00s, and managed the delicate balance of maintaining their indie cred while releasing four excellent albums on a major label (Capitol). But new label management came in with a different vision for the band, and things fell apart in due course.
But Dilated’s happy in the long run, because they’re back on their own with no corporate 'massas' to have to answer to. Their CD/DVD The Release Party (Decon) smartly chronicles their ups-and-downs, and throws in their videos, two new songs and some remixed tracks for good measure. The title track is a pun that won’t be lost on those in the music industry. “Release party” normally refers to some catered, guest-listed affair trumpeting the official launch of a new CD. The trio flips it into an “I Have a Dream”-sampling anthem of freeing themselves from the expectations of mega-conglomerate bean counters.
Evidence spells it out about as clearly as possible in this concert clip:
A record deal is just a key to a door that opens up a lot of bullshit, OK? Right now, live and direct, from Dilated to the people directly, no middleman, right here. So we are independent, we are off our label, and we are celebrating. . .
Yes, you’ve got to feel a bit sorry for the Dilated Peoples. Not because they’ve seized the freedom to make the music they want to make – that’s cause for a standing ovation these days. No, the bummer here is that you’d think that at this moment in time, a rap band committed to artistry, community, and social integrity as core values would get a little bit more love from people wondering why such bands don’t seem to exist in large numbers.
The Release Party dropped earlier this summer, smack dab in the middle of the year-long discourse on hip-hop culture and its effect on society. It started with the YouTubing of Michael Richards’ public use of “nigger”, and continued through the Don Imus/ “nappy-headed hos” flap. Hip-hop culture got blamed for making such sentiments possible, maybe even permissible, to exist within the pop media spectrum.
Self-appointed culture warriors who hadn’t paid much attention to hip-hop in the past, from Oprah Winfrey’s televised summit to Myron Magnet’s neo-con, post-Cosby screed in the summer issue of City Journal, came out of the woodworks, imploring rappers to wash their mouths out with soap and address the seemingly rampant sexism and violence in their lyrics (although the debate seemed to be more energetically focused on the former, as if that would solve the latter problem all by itself).
Of course, rap is used to being a target, for some of these transgressions and others as well. During prior dustups, the record industry was fat and happy, rap records were making money, and the furor usually wound its way to a back burner in the fullness of time. But things in the game done changed. The major record labels are no longer raking it in by the bushel – CD sales have been falling for years, and digital revenue hasn’t completely covered the shortfall.
Rap CDs have taken the sharpest plunge of all. Any further devaluation of rap music in the marketplace would have been horribly bad for business, so no one was in much of a mood to pick a fight with the prevailing mood on the street. Rap elders Russell Simmons and Master P proclaimed themselves down with the new-time religion, and even stars from the current generation like Chamillionaire renounced using “nigger”. (See also The NAACP’s Mock Burial of Its Relevance)
They’ve each been anointed a Leader of the Non-Gangsta School, celebrated for music that extends the artistically and culturally progressive strain of late-‘80s “golden era” rap. They’re also the ones most frequently trotted out as proof that there’s plenty of rap music devoid of guns, beatdowns, and big-bootied, thong-wearing women.
As the late July release of Finding Forever (Geffen) approached, it became more of an event than his previous six releases. As in so many other aspects of life, timing is everything. The hype for the new CD got rolling right at the summer peak of the anti-gangsta, “nigger”-burying, stop-polluting-our-community outrage, just in time for everyone to acclaim it as The Antidote for All That Is Bad About Rap.
Common’s endless odes to the uplifting jazz and funk of the early ‘70s go down like comfort food for older rap fans, while their young brothers and sisters probably remember Common from his Resurrection (Relativity, 1994, when he was known as Common Sense) or Like Water for Chocolate (MCA, 2000) days. That audience, plus Common’s rock critic bonafides, propelled Forever to the top of the charts on its debut, his first #1 hit.
Hooray for Common, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Unfortunately, mass-market curiosity for “alternative”, “progressive”, “backpacker” – any adjective meaning “diametrically opposed to ‘gangsta’ ” will do – rap music began and ended there, pretty much. The Dialted package didn’t generate nearly the ink or income that Common captured, and neither did Talib Kweli’sEardrum (Warner Brothers) or Pharoahe Monch’s Desire (UMVD), to name-check two other stalwarts of rap’s left wing. One would think that if any of the gangsta detractors had been serious about wanting to hear rap music of substance, they would have done a little homework to discover that there’s quite a bit of it already out here.
Why, the cover of the 5 September 2007 Rollling Stone, with our two protagonists in full stare-down mode, borrowed from the tired contrivance of the pre-fight weigh-in brouhaha, that most cynical of promotional hustles. Whose CD would sell more became the issue of the hip-hop street, as if this were a political campaign in which you could only choose one offering. Here in Chicago, Kanye’s (and Common’s) hometown, some of the hip-hop radio stations made it sound like marching out and buying Graduation was a civic duty akin to voting (of course, the uniquely Chicagoan mantra is “vote early, vote often”). Add to it 50’s declaration that if Kanye moved more product than he did, he would retire (yeah right), and the hype couldn’t have been any louder.
In retrospect, it’s probably not surprising that Kanye took the day by about a 3-to-2 margin (not that selling more than 670,000 CDs the first week out makes 50 a loser by any stretch). First, all the rockist music critics were predisposed to appreciate Kanye's honest self-reflection, Daft Punk samples (not to mention Can) and willingness to change up his sound, qualities nowhere in sight on Curtis. A no-brainer hit like “Stronger” doesn’t hurt matters. By contrast, Curtis was a flawed product and a lot of people knew it. Its release date had been pushed back from June, which often is not a good sign, and nothing about it had generated much positive buzz. One could easily argue that without the faux battle with Kanye, Fiddy wouldn’t have sold nearly as many copies of such a weak CD as he did.
Curtis also had the misfortune of being the wrong CD at the wrong time. Yes, it sold more product than just about anything else released so far this year. But it was full of 50’s warmed-over gunplay escapades and loverman schtick. At a moment when the mass audience was not feeling like another shoot-‘em-up playlist, that’s exactly what 50 delivered. After a wholesale slice of dialogue from a third-rate gangster movie, the CD proceeds through titles like “My Gun Go Off”, “I’ll Still Kill”, and “Fully Loaded Clip”.
We’ve heard such tripe before, way too many times, and yet Curtis’ biggest drawback isn’t the violent imagery, it’s the utter lack of passion. At no point does Fiddy sound like he gives a damn. He and his producers are content to fashion some mildly interesting beats to accompany twice-told tales, as if we’ll happily swallow it all as long as it sounds nice on the iPod. I’m convinced that music is becoming a loss leader for his other ventures, as portrayed on the insert that fell out of the jewel case (what, no mention of the publishing line?). Curtis succeeded only in making wanton gunplay and ghetto nihilism sound boring.
Not that Kanye’s effort was an unqualified success, either. While moments of brilliance abound, so, too, do moments when Kanye is busy testifying about his brilliance. He could get away with it on his earlier efforts, while he still had the patina of an underdog outsider. But those days are long gone, and it’s a hard trick to simultaneously celebrate your rock star-ness while still wanting us to see you as a hungry young man with something to prove (namely, your own wonderfulness). Either way, Kanye’s self-absorption is almost as off-putting as, well, Fiddy’s self-absorption; both Greg Tate in the Village Voice and Sarah Godfrey in the Boston Phoenix observed that for all the hype, the two mega-rappers have more in common than not.
It doesn’t matter why you bought whichever CD you bought. It only matters that you bought it (as opposed to downloading it for free). You were not making a political statement by buying one CD or the other. You simply helped a worldwide fatcat get a little fatter. Some tried to make Kanye’s larger bottom line a referendum on the fate of gangsta rap. Oh, would that it could be so easy, to just outsell gangsta rap into oblivion. At the end of the day, Universal is less concerned about how its music drives life and culture in the broader community, than about having at least one week this year with decent sales figures.
And Universal doesn't much care how it does it, either. In this case, it rode a 21st century version of one of the most odious schemes ever foisted upon the masses. Without seemingly working very hard at it, Universal tapped into an all-but-primordial fear among Americans, with a great big assist from Fiddy and Kanye’s go-along complicity. Universal’s need for big sales numbers dovetailed quite nicely with the debate over rap lyrics to add a barely-veiled subtext to an otherwise spirited debate, devoid of broader social context, among rap and pop fans. It wasn’t a question of which rapper was more popular, it came down to a matter of choosing values.
In this corner: Kanye West, the Clean and Articulate Good Rapper. And in the opposing corner: 50 Cent, the Thuggish and Criminal Bad Rapper. (One could easily replace “Rapper” in the previous sentence with “Nigger”.) Just add water, and presto! Divide-and-conquer meets the digital download era.
50 has been picking this particular fight with Kanye, or his fans, for a couple of years now. He’s said that people gravitate to Kanye’s “positive”-leaning music, in essence, as a 180-degree departure from his decidedly-less-enlightened-and-proud-of-it fare. Granted, 50 spends so much time beefing with other rappers that it can legitimately be considered part of his branding strategy. But trying to make this particular beef (it takes two to tango, and Kanye has mostly opted out) recalls the early years of the civil rights movement, when black people were expected to choose between Martin Luther King’s (good) stoic moral persuasion and Malcolm X’s (bad) fiery demand making. Or go back 100 years, when the schism was between Booker T. Washington’s self-reliance mantra and W.E.B. DuBois’ insistence that racism was a societal problem.
There’s no way, of course, that either rapper actually deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence with any of those titans. But the idea is the same: there are only two schools of black theory, “good” and “bad,” and black America is to choose between the two. In this case, Kanye’s superior sales performance helped him overtake Common as the poster boy for Rap that Does Not Harm the Community. And while there are a lot of rappers who have made their coin churning out songs about violence and sex, 50 has more recognition and better sales numbers than just about all of them, not to mention the most easily remembered backstory (even young kids in the toniest prep schools, I would imagine, know that he was shot nine times in an ambush back in the day).
So for better or worse, by mid-September they came to represent the polarities between which black America supposedly finds itself, with their sales showdown being over-hyped and over-analyzed like a presidential primary. There could be only one winner under this scenario, and heaven help us all if it’s Fiddy.
The fact that this time around, it’s black people drawing the line of demarcation in the sand is a slight twist on the age-old formula. But the bottom line is still a choice between the anointed, sanctioned Good and the despised, foul Bad. And while I’ve never much liked gangsta rap, I refuse to get drawn into this false dichotomy. Just as with those far weightier debates, the way forward lies closer to embracing both than to rejecting one.
50 Cent is neither friend nor foe to me. Ditto Kanye West. If I were to see either brotha on the street, I would gladly extend some dap, without reservation. The current iteration of hip-hop’s self-examination is not about any specific individual at any point of the spectrum of diversity and ideas, and I will not be party to any impulse to deify or vilify anyone.
I don’t have to like accounts of issues being resolved with guns set to alluring beats. I don’t have to like images of women being debased, or portrayed in ways that can easily be considered debasing. I can avoid such music like the plague, and for years I have. But I cannot simply wish such music away, because to do that without addressing why so many of my brothas and sistas actually like that crap is like thinking an umbrella will stop the rain.
And yes, they are my brothas and sistas. Not objects of scorn to look down my nose at, but people who could have easily been my parents, my friends, my lovers, my kids. I will not reject them because their names are weird or their music is loud. I may not share their worldview, but I will not act like they don’t exist.
If 50 & company want to rap about cheap guns and cheap women, that’s their business. If the marketplace rejects them, oh well. If they get rich, oh well. Either way, it is useless at this moment to imagine rap without such lyrical concepts floating around, because that’s what’s floating inside the heads of many rap artists and consumers. How those concepts got there was hashed about on 25 September, both at a Congressional hearing calling music executives on the carpet for their role in over-promoting the Fiddys of the world (as opposed to the Dilateds of the world) and on the first part of a BET three-part town hall on rap. Neither effort solved anything, as if one stab at it could detangle such thorny issues.
To imagine that a cultural strain as grass-roots and first-person confessional as hip-hop should not convey any of the ugliness that we do to ourselves and each other is, at best, a bourgeois conceit. I never subscribed to Chuck D’s oft-quoted proclamation that rap is black America’s CNN, but much of it is as clear a mirror onto the psyche of black life as black pop has ever managed, and we discount the reflection it produces because the language is raw at some degree of peril and loss.
They might discover that the cultural landscape they aspire to bring about is in many ways closer and more populated than they currently think it is. And when they get there, the Dilated Peoples will be, to quote 50 Cent, patiently waiting.