THE MESSAGE: Hip Hop Is The New Apple Pie
by Polar Levine – Polariy/1,
For a political class that clumsily instigates global mayhem like a large pack of boozed-up jocks in a small bar, it sure does scare easily. After one terrorist attack it shuts down the Constitution and draws up plans to bomb or imprison anyone with a towel on his head.
Now, unable to do anything useful about our catastrophe in Iraq, Congress moves on to a more manageable mortal threat — rap lyrics. The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection chaired by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) convened to address the issue last week. The hearing was a made-for-Jon Stewart event — these media-clueless hacks straining to persuade (not force) titans of the recording industry to stop releasing hard core rap — one of the industry’s few remaining golden geese. Our leaders, however, would find it easier to sleep at night if they knew that, after more than a generation in the cultural bloodstream, rap has become as safe as milk to a young audience that is in no way shocked or corrupted when they hear the dirty words that guys like Snoop, Dick Cheney and Mom & Dad use in public every day. And that the booty in all the videos is basically of the retarded ring-a-ding-ding variety of the Rat Pack’s swingin’ fifties — but with ! better graphics. What’s disturbing to me is not that rap presents a threat to American society’s brain-dead power grid; it’s that rap no longer tries.
When I first heard The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the sun orbited Earth one time in tribute. My idols were Dylan, Zappa, James Brown and Coltrane and I was discovering Ginsberg, Dada and Cage. That song had the power to enlighten through wordcraft both graphically real and surreal. And it was driven by the collage medium of the Futurists and Dadaists on up through Cage and beyond. Plus it had groove, my primary addiction since I was hatched. Rap was the future of the future and it defined the very essence of NOW. By the time my kid was five he’d already digested James Brown, the Beatles, Cab Calloway, Hank Williams, Celia Cruz, Bob Marley, Olatunji and Elvis. Then I slipped in some rap starting with Public Enemy and Tribe Called Quest. Nine years later, rap is all he listens to and most of it has been a pablum of sing-songy choruses, kiddie jingle synth hooks, juvenile rhymes with “dirty” words (that no longer even shock the old folks)! and pathetic grooves — like a gangsta Barney with a cheesy beat. Junior is too old to take Dad’s playlist suggestions seriously, but his summer camp counselor had the creds to set my little man straight. He now regularly raids my collection.
The few pockets of brilliance and relevance that remain — mostly underground — prove the rule that hip hop has become as blandly American as mass-produced, lab-processed apple pie. The most threatening cultural force mainstream America has faced since Jack Johnson has become so non-threatening to power, so predictable and so darned cute that any middle and upper class suburban sixth-grader can accurately mimic every gesture in the lexicon and be ghetto for Halloween. Even Karl Rove finds it cute. When poverty, prison and lack of opportunity become fashion statements for the comfortable — only to be abandoned after college orientation week — something very perverse has occurred in our cultural DNA. For well over a decade hip hop has provided racists with an uninterrupted flow of images to validate their hate. Meanwhile the mainstreaming of the gangsta minstrelsy has upstaged its backstory of poverty and hopelessness; an ongoing tragedy no longer able to co! mpete for attention.
Here we have a medium based on words and messages with artists who can sling them and a gargantuan corporate infrastructure to deliver them to millions of people. But almost 30 years after The Message, hip hop culture is more rigidly conformist than the Eisenhower era and offers only a micro-variety of flavors in its country of origin (things are more promising elsewhere). And it has virtually nothing to say that isn’t about f–kin’, fightin’ and blingin’ while anybody with less property than Diddy is struggling to pay the monthly and our tax money is sponsoring apocalypse. But few rappers find that stuff compelling enough to rage about. The post-Katrina Kanye West has moved on, having more pressing outrages to vent about. He’s squirting like a baby because MTV didn’t give him a space man. And 50 Cent threatens (for real or for promo) to go home if he doesn’t sell more product than West.
It’s so typical that our tax dollars — particularly Mr. West’s and Mr. Cent’s tax dollars — are wasted on bogus congressional investigations into the politicization of the Justice Department and the war in Iraq when subpoenas should have already been issued to determine how it came to be that Kanye West left Vegas with only his dick in his hand. And why has there not been bold bi-partisan legislation mandating the purchase of 50 Cent CDs by every American adult, child and fetus?
So don’t push them ’cause they’re close to the edge.
They’re tryin’ not to lose their head.
(Ha ha ha ha. Ha)
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