Derek Belle is a sophomore in USC’s Marshall School of Business, currently dual-majoring in Business Administration and Accounting. There was a brief time from mid to late 2013 when he aspired to a post in the print media, but that aspiration has since dissipated upon the realization that he could actually buy things with money. He is a firm believer that writing is the highest form of art, that rainbow sherbet is God’s greatest gift to mankind, and that accounting will almost probably prove itself a fun and exciting career path.
“I got a right to be hostile, man. My people been persecuted!” (Public Enemy) Indeed, Flavor Flav’s people have been persecuted. They have been victims of discrimination, segregation, slavery, suffered through the worst adversity that mankind is capable of creating, and all the while have been slowly losing their collective cultural identity. Flav’s proclamation, however, contains the qualifying verb been, and rightfully so. They have not necessarily been persecuted in recent decades, or at least, less so; people have more sense than that these days. They are simply ignored, marginalized to the point of invisibility and left with neither means nor space to be seen. That is, until they began forcibly carving them out with microphones and turn tables in the late 1970’s. They created not only a unifying medium of self-expression, but also opened a visible and relevant discourse concerning the plight of urban, primarily Black, youth. Though it carries with it more than just racial and economic themes, early American hip hop subculture reflects the vast extent to which urban youth is marginalized by the hegemonic culture of the American upper classes in their attempts to lash back, verbally and physically, at a society that has long since forgotten them.
Hip hop is one of the largest cultural movements the world has ever seen. In the past forty years, it has grown from its humble origins in the Bronx to a cultural phenomenon spanning the globe from Germany to South Africa that generates billions of dollars in revenue (Peterson). The gargantuan stature to which hip hop has grown makes a discussion on the subject exceedingly difficult. For this reason, any attempt at one must be framed in more narrow terms. According to James Peterson, hip hop culture consists primarily of four elements: DJ-ing, rapping, graffiti, and break dancing. It is not synonymous with rap music, though rap has grown to be the largest and most culturally relevant of the four. Peterson also recognizes three distinct eras in hip hop culture: “The Old Age” (1979-1987), “The Golden Age” (1987-1993), and “The Platinum Present” (1994-the present). The second hip hop epoch is most relevant in this case given that in recent years, hip hop culture has grown much closer to hegemony than subculture and the commodification of its practitioners has added to it a marketing dimension that is external of the movement itself. Commercialization of hip hop only largely occurred in the late 90s, creating a widening gap between music and the culture from which it was born (Preston). However, this does point to a larger theme in the dominant culture from which hip hop emerged. In much the same way that I cast aside commercial hip hop, so too does the youth it claims to represent (Dyson). Impoverished youth with uncommon talent are alienated and disenfranchised in the hegemonic culture to the point that they readily sacrifice their place in the cultural identity (“roots” hip hop) they had been so desperately trying to create for the promise of an escape from the harsh reality of urban living. The money, fame, or simple lack of gunshots associated with mainstream recognition as a rap musician is just too good to pass up when one considers the alternative. That alternative being a return to the lowest class of poverty, a third rate education, and the fear that comes with living in the de facto battleground for American class warfare. The bleak outlook of urban life is perhaps best summarized by guest MC AZ on Nas’s classic debut album, Illmatic, who refrains, “[l]ife’s a bitch and then you die./That’s why we get high./’Cause you never know when you’re gonna go.”
This sentiment manifests itself not least in the selected argot of the hip hop subculture. Primarily, its inversions of accepted social norms serve to undermine hegemonic ideas of value as well as various racial and class dichotomies present in American society. As Peterson points out, the phrase “dead presidents” (money) has come to represent much more than just green paper marked with the faces of presidents who are no longer living. For urban youth like Nas who is “out for dead presidents to represent [him]” or Rakim who leaves his “residence/Thinkin’ how could [he] get some dead presidents,” to pursue these “dead presidents” is to pursue the likeness of racist, elitist, white men who our country reveres as fallen heroes (Peterson). They are not only symbols of the oppression of impoverished Black youth, but they also represent a myth of the American president as perpetuated by the American people. By placing the likeness of men who are revered almost as gods on currency, we lend similar reverence to that currency. The phrase “dead presidents” and the pursuit thereof is an appropriation of this reverence. It is an affront to the hegemonic ideology of American consumerism and more generally greed, proclaiming that these youth who the American public (and government) has forgotten are not only taking the currency that we hold so dear yet withhold from them, but reducing its value to little more than paper possessing the likeness of men long passed and a means of escaping or improving the toxic environment of the inner city. Because the dominant culture surrounding hip hop refuses to hear the public outcries of these forgotten youth, they force it to listen with the only thing that holds absolute power in modern American society: money. As rapper AZ puts it, “it’s evident, this world is controlled on dead presidents,” and the powerlessness of the members of hip hop culture to change that is nearly equaled by their powerlessness to change their own socioeconomic condition.
That condition, however, has spawned more than simply discussions of currency. Also present in hip hop subculture are themes of violence, misogyny, and, perhaps most prominent, race. Thematically, race receives no greater attention than in the highly pervasive and highly sensitive term n****r or its derivative n***a. In a broad cultural context, the term is an offensive racial epithet for any Black person. In the argot of hip hop subculture, however, it is an expression of solidarity, an indicator of a person worthy of high praise, a generic term for any individual, or, in some cases, it is used to malign a usually absent subject, typically with the racial subtext removed (Morgado). Hip hop’s appropriation of the term is much more than a simple inversion of a social norm. Because it alters the criteria for being a n****r from race to socioeconomic conditions, laudability, or completely removes any such criteria altogether, the word n***a blurs the dichotomy between black and white that exists in American society (Morgado). At the same time however, the word’s intrinsic African-American-ness (politically correct, no?) offers to Black youth something that it does not offer to whites. That something would be a place in the growing collective cultural identity for Black youth that the word n***a symbolizes, the identity of the hip hop subculture. A white man could be a n***a, he just can’t tell people about it lest he face the wrath of the Black community given the word’s heavily racist overtones, and the creation of this new dichotomy between black and white (same construction, different paradigm), one in which Black youth receive better footing, is central to the ideology of hip hop subculture. It is an ideology that, at its core, seeks representation for one of the most marginalized classes in America. It is a novel concept really, invisible man playing the centrifugal force of social progress, but its utility, insofar as it calls attention to the plight of urban, Black youth in a way that no one else could or would, far exceeds the depth of its novelty. It provides Black, inner-city youth with a much needed avenue of expression and opens a discourse with the hegemonic presence of the American upper classes that they would not normally receive, given their stereotyped, stigmatized, and above all, marginalized status in American society.
The marginalized status of Black youth is hinted at elsewhere in hip hop culture, beyond simply its rhetoric. MC-ing is only one quarter of the hip hop subculture (Peterson). The second most prominent is DJ-ing. While the DJ’s of the “Golden Age” don’t necessarily possess an argot to call their own, as they typically do not speak on tape, they have developed their own tool with which they are capable of appropriating and subverting elements of the hegemonic culture: sampling. A DJ, armed with his turntables and vinyl records, can take a sound, any sound, distort it with a mixer, play it together with another sound, or scratch over it to turn it into something uniquely his own and uniquely hip hop. As Dyson points out, this is often done with distinctly non-rap affiliated music such as Prince, George Clinton, David Bowie, or John Lennon. This is an appropriation of music not originally intended for the marginalized Black youth, among other groups, of the 1980’s and 90’s, forcibly removing it from its intrinsic exclusivity and placing it in a position accessible to the Black youth it excludes. Sociologically, this could be construed as an attack on the musical hegemony of the American upper classes. It seeks to include the alienated by squabbling for “sonic space” in the music industry, battling for record sales with more established and less Black forms of musical expression to give a voice to a community that does not already have one. This territorial battle in hip hop is also very literally a battle, fought with guns, knives, and in extreme cases, words. In cities, youth are killed for drugs or money or gang allegiance. Across city lines, however, it is the MC’s doing the fighting. West Coast vs. East Coast, Biggie vs. 2pac. The desire for territory and the vehemence with which it is defended reflects the disenfranchisement of urban youth. They can’t have money and they can’t hope for a better life without creating it themselves, so they must take what little they can. From street corners to the artistic styles that define their collective subculture, what boundaries they can draw themselves, they must. This would prove to be a fruitless endeavor, as the one boundary whose removal or revision is absolutely necessary to their continued existence is the one they were born on the wrong side of: the boundary between urban youth and upper class America. It is a boundary drawn long ago, and its socioeconomic implications have grown to symbolize the complete and utter rejection of an impoverished class of African Americans who have been forced to lash out by the only means they have, the creation of their own entirely new and entirely distinct culture that offers both means and space for their plight to be seen.
Now would appear to be the appropriate time to discuss the obvious counterpoint to my assertion that the cultural hegemony marginalizes Black, urban youth presented by the darker side of hip hop, gangsta rap. One could argue, and many have, that the violence, misogyny, materialism, and sexual themes (note that I omit homophobic because so too did contemporaneous critics of the early gangsta rap movement) present in gangsta rap music contribute to the negative view of impoverished, Black youth in American society and thus constitute the self-marginalization of the entire Black population by the few who publicly represent it, but if one were to make a deeper attempt at understanding gangsta rap, they would realize that this is simply not the case. Gangsta rap is commonly thought of by critics as worthless, except as a modern means of Blaxploitation by record companies and listeners alike, completely devoid of any artistic merit or didactic value, though this is not necessarily true. Such music does indeed exist. Its lyrics are typically inappropriate for the listening audience it targets, yes, and the ideas it propagates are both dangerous and self-destructive to a group of people who seek to break free from their stigma of being dangerous and self-destructive, yes. What these critics fail to take into account, however, is what this says about the cultures, both hegemonic and subversive, that facilitate its existence (Dyson). Ice Cube’s gangsta rap can be thought of as a descriptive attack on the marginalization of poor, Black youth, as opposed to the prescriptive efforts of groups like Public Enemy (Ciccariello-Maher). While such overtly political groups as PE seek to provide solutions, or at the very least a means for attaining them, to the problems immediately facing the subculture they represent, gangsta rappers simply describe the plight of Black, urban youth in lyrics that can be found in songs like Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day:” “cause just yesterday, them fools tried to blast me./Saw the police and they rolled right past me./No flexin’, didn’t even look in a n***a’s direction.” He neither asks for nor directs his listeners to active change. He simply tells them what is wrong; the demand is implicit: “things need to change now, or people like me will continue to die.” From the typical gangster this demand would be met with nothing but scorn or ridicule, perhaps even pity, but it is understood by his listeners that Ice Cube is a rare talent and to lose someone like him would be a detriment to the music industry, including the fans, musicians, and most importantly, record producers. As gangsta rap began to permeate the hegemonic culture surrounding hip hop, lyrics like these came to inspire fear and solidarity in a much broader cultural population than just the disenfranchised youth who can relate to Cube’s struggles. These struggles, which are created by the marginalization of inner-city youth, reflect the darker side of the American way of life, the “other half.” It instills fear in those ill-equipped to receive its message because, as members of a hegemonic upper class, they (we) are in large part responsible for the necessity of its creation. Gangsta rap provides a gruesome image of the waste and ruin created by our marginalization of an entire class of people, and, at its best, seeks a means of creating a space in which their collective voice can be heard.
In retrospect, it seems that Flavor Flav’s response to the commentator’s proclamation that, “[y]ou are quite hostile,” could be updated for a more modern take on the socioeconomic hierarchy of the United States: “‘I got a right to be hostile, man.’ In the eyes of the American people, I don’t exist anymore!” (Public Enemy). The marginalized African American has become an inconvenient truth for the happy majority that rules America today and continues, like so many generations before it, to ignore the strife it creates. We can only hope that one day, people will wake up and hear the message, will actually listen to the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X sound bites, and will, perhaps, put an end to the needless commodification of the most prevalent form of artistic expression African Americans have left. Maybe then we can finally have a real conversation about the fate of poor, Black youth. And maybe one day we can change that fate, but, for now at least, we have the melodious ramblings and catchy breakbeats of what amounts to little more than Black youth bashing their heads against a wall. Hopefully they break it.
AZ. “Mo Money, Mo Murder, Mo Homicide.” Doe or Die. EMI Records, 1995.
Ciccariello-Maher, George. “Brechtian Hip-Hop: Didactics and Self-Production in Post-Gangsta Political Mixtapes.” Journal of Black Studies 36.1 (2005): 129-60. JSTOR. Web. 1 Nov. +2012.
Dyson, Michael Eric. Between God and Gangsta Rap: bearing witness to black culture. New York: Oxford Unviersity, 1996. 161-86. Print.
Erik B. & Rakim. “Paid in Full.” Paid in Full. 4th and B’Way Records, 1987.
Ice Cube. “It Was a Good Day.” The Predator. EMI Records, 1993.
Morgado, Marcia A. “The Semiotics of Extraordinary Dress: A Structural Analysis and Interpretation of Hip Hop Style.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 25.2 (2007): 131-55. SAGE Journals. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.
Nas. “Life’s a Bitch (feat. AZ).” Illmatic. Columbia Records, 1994.
Nas. “The World is Yours.” Illmatic. Columbia Records, 1994.
Peterson, James. “’Dead Prezence’ – Money and Mortal Themes in Hip Hop Culture.” Callaloo 29.3 (2006): 885-909. JSTOR. Summer, 2006. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.
Public Enemy. “Prophets of Rage.” It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Def Jam Recordings, 1988.
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