Yo! Your TV Raps: Hip-Hop on US Television

Hip-hop's TV exposure has been strong, giving us a mixture of critique, celebrity, and celebration. Who, in the '80s, would've guessed that hip-hop would have such cultural presence?

Back in the '80s, when LL Cool J was going on about his "Radio" and Big Daddy Kane was "raw", hip-hop didn't get much play on television. There were hip-hop movies, like Krush Groove, Breakin', and Wild Style, and Mr. Magic's radio show influenced an entire generation of listeners, but when it came to catching hip-hop on TV, the instances were few and far between. Basically, we had Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City.

Who, in the '80s, would've guessed that hip-hop would have the cultural presence it has today? Recently, I told someone I saw Timbaland on a soap opera and she thought I was kidding until I showed her the recording of it. She still can't believe it.

In 2007, hip-hop's TV exposure has been strong, giving us a mixture of critique, celebrity, and celebration. For some, it might be "overexposure". Nevertheless, viewing hip-hop on television can be a fascinating exercise when you consider the nature of TV programming itself: time slots, camera angles, editing, voiceovers, commercial sponsorship, product placement, and corporate hierarchies.

Full analysis of hip-hop on television requires us to be mindful of the medium of television as well as the content. It's important to keep in mind that the ads we call "commercials" are the actual TV shows. The so-called "show" is really the "commercial". The point is to get you to watch the advertisements, and get you to shell out cash for food, pills, clothes, detergent, or whatever you can be persuaded to buy. Especially the food. Most of our opposition to TV relates to depictions of violence, misogyny, and "minority" representation, but the food imagery is where we take the hardest hits. Our diets are killing us faster than the stereotypes, yet we let the food images float under the radar.

At any rate, here's a look, along with some comments, at a few choice TV spots on the tube in September and October of 2007.

I. Critique

As the debate continues over hip-hop's lyrics and imagery, we've seen church-sponsored billboards denouncing specific rappers, various hip-hop summits, controversy over a shock jock's derogatory comments about a university basketball team, and rallies against the music industry. In September, protesters of Black Entertainment Television's programming demonstrated outside of BET CEO Debra Lee's Washington D.C. home. As if Hell Date isn't the best show on TV right now!

BET's 3-part Hip Hop vs. America, premiering on September 25, arrived with all of the history of the rap debate as its baggage. The series showcased a spirited dialogue among a distinguished panel of rappers (Nelly, T.I., Chuck D), scholars and intellectuals (Michael Eric Dyson, Nelson George), models (Melyssa Ford), and editors and journalists (Diane Weathers, Farai Chideya). Instead of going through a blow-by-blow of the discussion, I'll share these observations:

1. When we're assessing lyrical content, we need to decide if we want to be results-oriented or process-oriented. If we're results-oriented, we look at the end result and compare it to some sort of checklist. Lyric Inspector Number 12 will say, "He used the N-word, H-word, and B-word too much, and he rapped about killing too many snitches." At best, artistic intent is a secondary consideration. If we're process-oriented, we're looking to encourage and nurture the vision of our artists. This means there might be some adults-only content or uncomfortable imagery. In this case, we'd be concerned with whether the artist is realizing his or her talent and working on ways to encourage this.

2. Addressing misogyny and gender inequality in hip-hop is important. However, I'd like to see the inquiry go beyond urging male artists to craft female-friendly material or to cease using the H-word and the B-word. Female emcees can create compelling narratives and personas and, in doing so, they could transform the male-female dynamic in hip-hop. Our discussions should include this so we can say more than, "Yo, I like Missy and, oh yeah, Jean Grae is hot, too." Allowing male emcees, through their word and image choices, to function as the gatekeepers to female self-esteem and empowerment is an unhealthy and imbalanced proposition that contributes to the very problems we're trying to solve. Further, this panel spent too much time talking about Nelly's video for "Tip Drill".

3. Since it's a truism that the violent, unjust, and misogynistic legacies of society ("America", if you will) remain in the backdrop of everything that goes on, including hip-hop, it is a viable argumentative strategy to position "America" as the umbrella of influence over our culture. If you're trying to "win" the argument, or at least force a stalemate, you can succeed by saying, "America is all about money" or "America was founded on violence". But, if your goal is to build understanding about art and engender cultural progress, this strategy truncates the dialogue when it should be extending it. Pointing to general society in response to questions about individual lyrics provides a context for those lyrics, but it's not a satisfying answer.

4. I'm surprised Michael Eric Dyson doesn't have a rap album. I think it could be good. He's got the flow and he's already got a working acronym (he referred to himself as a "Public Intellectual with Moral Principles"). He just needs the right beats. Hey, could we get Madlib to produce it?

5. I'd feel like these "state of the black community" panels were worthwhile if each member of the panel, representing various occupations and interests, named one thing he or she, or even their industry, could do to contribute to more "positive" black imagery and/or empowerment. And don't talk about what you've already done, because obviously none of us are doing enough or else there wouldn't be so much to complain about. What can you do better?

6. The discussion of commercialization's impact on hip-hop takes on a whole new dimension when said discussion is interspersed with commercials, especially ones with rappers helping to sell "corn" chips and ringtones.

BET CEO Debra Lee on the state of hip-hop and BET

Interestingly, the United States House of Representatives convened an Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing the same day as the premiere of BET's hip-hop series. The hearing, which Jon Stewart had some fun with on The Daily Show, was titled "From Imus to Industry: The Business of Stereotypes and Degrading Images", and the first session included testimony from music industry executives, while the second session included testimony from David Banner, Master P., and Michael Eric Dyson. Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush chaired the proceedings.

The second session was by far the liveliest, with David Banner and Professor Dyson launching verbal haymakers at Congress right out of the gate. I almost felt sorry for the subcommittee members. Almost. Until I remembered that they spent the day watching music videos and hanging out with rappers! I wouldn't mind getting elected to Congress so I could meet David Banner and Master P. Speaking of which, Master P. chose the road less traveled, declaring that his own discography had contributed to hip-hop's ills and, therefore, he was willing to take responsibility for helping to cleanse the music scene.

I honestly had a hard time taking the proceedings seriously. But, that's always my problem with the United States Congress. Partly, it's the result of watching C-Span when some Congressperson is giving the speech of his or her life, speaking all sorts of truths, impassioned and inspired, and then the camera gets a wide shot of the assembly and you realize there are only five people there. Where does everybody go? They've got something more important to do than the positions they were elected to? Can more than five of y'all listen to a speech? Can we get that bill passed? Geez.

My other problem is that Congressional hearings remind me of the movie The Distinguished Gentleman, an Eddie Murphy joint in which a conman (Murphy) decides he can pull off the biggest, fattest con game coup of all -- working in Congress!

Among the film's hilarious social commentary, there's a scene in which a Washington fundraising guru ("Terry Corrigan", played by Kevin McCarthy) asks Eddie Murphy's character about his stance on "sugar price supports". Murphy, of course, has no idea, so Corrigan explains, "If you're for 'em, I've got money for you from my sugar producers in Louisiana and Hawaii. If you're against 'em, I've got money for you from the candy manufacturers." After a little more of this, Murphy finally says, "With all this money coming in from both sides, how can anything possibly ever get done?" Terry, holding his half-full (or half-empty?) wineglass, smiles and replies, "That's the genius of the system."

While hip-hop was being dissected in the media and in Congress, we got a different look from VH1's Rock Docs: Fade to Black and Classic Albums. Both episodes premiered on October 3, with the Fade to Black film giving a peek inside Jay-Z's concert at Madison Square Garden and his inspiration, while Classic Albums spotlighted Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt. The great thing was that being a Jay-Z fan was not a requirement. It wasn't about 'who's the best rapper' or 'which rappers have beef'. It was about discussing hip-hop in artistic terms for a change, with regard to aesthetic choices, creative decisions, and technical details. Whoops, we'd better be careful with that. Someone might mistake "rap" for actual music.

ABC's Nightline show aired another Jay-Z appearance (September 27), highlighting the rapper's visit to the United Nations to advocate clean water standards in suffering countries, as well as his documentary on the subject. Lack of clean water is a terrible problem that affects the entire globe and has us drinking from water bottles manufactured by soda companies. In 1999's "New World Water", Mos Def explained it like this: "Consumption promotes health and easiness / Go too long without it on this earth and you're leavin' it".

I'm not a big fan of the interview style in which they ask you questions and, instead of just letting your whole answer speak for itself, they cut and paste snippets of your answers among random images, sound bytes, and voiceovers. It's an interview collage. In the midst of this, Jay-Z couldn't get away from the hip-hop critique. After spending the requisite time on the water problem and Jay-Z's trips to villages where children are languishing in unsafe conditions, the interviewer wanted Jay's view on his lyrical content, not to mention the obligatory Beyoncé reference. Children are not getting clean water! Why should I care about Jay-Z's romantic life?

And then came the part that truly cracked me up. When asked if Jay-Z's nickname "Jay-hova" came about because he (Jay-Z) believed himself to be God or godlike, Jay-Z quickly said, "No," and when the interviewer followed up with, "You're sure?", Jay said firmly, "I'm positive," with a simultaneous exhale that seemed to say, "Are you out of your mind?"

II. Celebrities

It's cool to watch celebrities do the things that made them celebrities in the first place. I've been open and notorious about my love of Prince's music so, yeah, if they wanna make a reality show where Prince sings and dances for 30 minutes, I'm good with that. But if they decide to put Prince on The Surreal Life, I'm taking a purple rain check. It's not his element.

I'm not sure why we've gotten into watching celebrities function outside of their comfort zones: making attempts at ballroom dancing, trying to lose weight, getting "punk'd". Rapper Master P was quite popular on Dancing with the Stars not so long ago. Flavor Flav, on the other hand, might not have been "popular" as a result of his reality television appearances, particularly with Public Enemy fans, but he managed to upgrade his celebrity status.

This year, MTV's Celebrity Rap Superstar invited celebrities to display their skills as rappers, a Dancing with the Stars-style show for microphone fiends. Rap neophytes took notes from skilled and knowledgeable rap "coaches" like MC Lyte, Tone Loc, Kurupt, and Too Short. Judged by Da Brat, DMC, radio personality Big Boy, and the viewers, the contestants struggled through the majority of the competition. I didn't know it was so hard to stay on beat!

In the finale, Shar Jackson of Moesha fame eventually won the crown. I have to say her rendition of Missy's Get Ur Freak On was pretty darn entertaining, and it was nice to see Naughty By Nature hit the stage.

Celebrity Rap Superstar tells us two things. One, rappin' ain't easy. Two, we seem to like it when celebrities look ordinary and, perhaps more importantly, fallible. Maybe we don't want our movie stars, athletes, and music icons to be untouchable and larger-than-life, anymore. We want more accessibility, more intimacy. Sometimes, this is a good thing, like when Queen Latifah advocates more variety in our standards of beauty. At the same time, our need to see celebrities on "our level" can turn sour, exhibited by our interest in their failings, trips to rehab, arrests, custody battles, and lawsuits.

Welcome to The Salt-N-Pepa Show (October 15), a reunion of sorts for rap pioneers Salt & Pepa. The show chronicles the ups and downs of Cheryl "Salt" James Wray and Sandy "Pepa" Denton, as they struggle to work together again after years apart. There's no veneer of perfection here, but it is better than Being Bobby Brown.

I didn't expect to like this show, and I'm still not sure I do, but it did encourage me to examine the way I look at my favorite stars. In the first episode, Salt, having found peace through spirituality, is adamant in her refusal to perform certain songs from the Salt-N-Pepa catalog. Pepa, who felt abandoned by Salt's departure from the group, wants to make money and have a good time.

When Salt declared that songs like "Push It" and "Shoop" were in conflict with her ideals, I was like, "What in the world? If you're not gonna perform 'Push It', why bother?" But, on second thought, it's her material, and she should be allowed to realize her talent through her own lens of perception, not the wishes of her audience. I do, however, find that I'm most sympathetic to Pepa and can relate more easily to her point of view. I don't know if that makes me a freak or what.

Salt-N-Pepa Show

VH1's Bridging the Gap has handled the hip-hop celebrity factor from a different angle. Instead of competitions or direct conflicts, Bridging the Gap addressed the generational divide in hip-hop. Pairing an "old school" head with a "new jack" emcee, the show offers engaging collaborations. The first episode, on October 1, paired Eve and Queen Latifah, two female entertainers who appeared together in Beauty Shop and on Eve's sitcom, but hadn't recorded any music together. The second episode offered Snoop and the Game, another interesting duo, considering their West Coast affiliations and admiration for Dr. Dre.

A few collaborations I'd like to see, in random order: Slick Rick and Dizzee Rascal, Brother Ali and KRS-One, Blu (of Blu & Exile) and C.L. Smooth, Dres (of Black Sheep) and Von Pea (of Tanya Morgan), and MC Lyte and Common, because I liked how Common and Lyte handled their business in the song "A Film Called (Pimp)".

III. Celebrations

On their 2007 release, Bayani, Blue Scholars have a song with the lyrics, "VH1 never played hip-hop at all / how the f*ck they be the ones givin' hip-hop awards, y'all". Good point. Nevertheless, VH1's Hip-Hop Honors, which aired October 8, might be the best thing going when it comes to appreciating hip-hop and educating us about rap history. Sad, ain't it? This year's honorees were: Missy Elliott, Whodini, Snoop, the film Wild Style, Teddy Riley, Andre Harrell, and of course the mighty, mighty A Tribe Called Quest.

I have three comments on this. First, Wild Style was a great selection for the Honors. If you haven't seen it, the special 25th Anniversary edition is in stores already. Get your hip-hop history lesson on.

Third, the Lupe Fiasco fiasco. Let's break it down.

Customarily, a presenter will introduce the honoree, along with video footage, and then their peers will perform a medley of songs in tribute. Sometimes, the honorees will take the stage alongside those peers, sometimes not. On this occasion, the segment devoted to A Tribe Called Quest showcased Common, Pharrell, Lupe Fiasco, and Busta Rhymes.

Common started things off with the laidback "Bonita Applebum", although I was hoping he'd do "Buggin' Out". Then, in the middle of "Electric Relaxation", Fiasco experienced a mishap with the lyrics. He chuckled and kept on rolling, while Common and Pharrell picked up the baton, culminating in an explosive cameo from Busta Rhymes. Later, A Tribe Called Quest performed and Q-Tip's energy was unbelievably high. Very cool ending.

Responding to criticism over his dropping the lyrical ball, Fiasco subsequently defended himself by saying he didn't grow up on A Tribe Called Quest, didn't have enough time to rehearse the final version of the lyrics, and didn't get props for finishing the set on a high note. Hip-hop fans weren't trying to hear that answer. "Why'd you even get up there?" fans demanded.

Honestly, I didn't think the performance was so bad. What kept everyone upset, I think, was his defense, the part about not being all that into A Tribe Called Quest. It's like if a kid from High School Musical was hired to do a scene from the play Romeo & Juliet and, after stumbling through a couple of lines, the kid says, "Hey, I don't really be checkin' for A Scribe Called Shakespeare. I mean, I know who he is, but I was never really feelin' him."

There are certain standards in the hip-hop songbook, songs that seep into the consciousness of the hip-hop audience, whether we want them to or not. Jay-Z, for instance, isn't my favorite rapper, but if someone said they were into hip-hop and didn't know a single Jay-Z song, I'd have to question their commitment. I've got 99 problems, but recognizing a Jay-Z lyric ain't one. Incidentally, hip-hop scholars know why I chose Shakespeare for the example above: "What you gotta do is know the Tribe is in the sphere / The Abstract poet, prominent like Shakespeare" (A Tribe Called Quest, "Excursions", The Low End Theory).

However, in Fiasco's defense, he's not the first rapper to flub a line in a song. Kanye West had a similar problem on Saturday Night Live. So what's really going on here? Perhaps it had more to do with us, as hip-hop fans, than with Fiasco as a performer. We likened him to the rappers of the "golden age" and heaped expectations for a "hip-hop renaissance" on his shoulders. For many, Fiasco was the perfect match for a tribute to Tribe. I'm not saying the pressure made him mess up, but it explains why we took the occurrence so severely. "We compared you to A Tribe Called Quest," we seemed to say. "How dare you say you're not into them!"

On a different note, the BET Hip-Hop Awards (October 17) came off as a true celebration. Award presentations accompanied performances, spoken word pieces, soliloquies, some thrilling rhyme ciphers, and even an appearance from two of the Jena 6.

I enjoyed two overall themes of the show. First, host Katt Williams and several presenters alluded to the global impact of hip-hop, accentuating the linkages and inroads that can be made through music. Along those lines, Kano won the award for Best International Act.

Second, the event exuded a sense of togetherness, as hip-hop "insiders" put up a united front of sorts against the critiques of "outsiders". Katt Williams, utilizing a church theme, set the tone in his opening monologue. Upon receiving the CD of the Year award, and tying with T.I. for the honor, Common stressed the unity motif, declaring that he doesn't separate himself from other rappers. "We're all hip-hop," he said. Just so you know, Common noted that the CD of the Year award was the first -- dig it, first -- award he had received on television! I guess we really did try to "India.Arie" him.

There were other examples of hip-hop unification. Presumably aware of T.I.'s arrest on the day the awards were taped, Busta Rhymes gave T.I. a brotherly shout out during his performance of "Hurt". KRS-One, as the recipient of the I Am Hip-Hop award (who else would receive that award?), emphasized peacefulness and community spirit. And finally, when West won the Video of the Year Award, he offered it to UGK and Big Boi, explaining that he didn't feel he deserved it. UGK and Big Boi took the stage, but of course gave the award back. I agreed with Kanye, the "International Players Anthem" video was stronger than "Stronger", but the point is: people can come together when they want to. Doesn't it feel good to see people up on it?

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