Pop: I'm Bad, Therfore I Am | Essay | Chicago Reader

Pop: I'm Bad, Therfore I Am 

Rap music is populist postmodernism, self-referentiality you can dance to. And it's driving the black middle class crazy with guilt and embarrassment.

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The time has come to praise rap music. This indigenous product of black America is not only a fresh wind blowing through the stagnant cultural ether, it's also the perfect expression of the inner-city zeitgeist. Yet rap is treated like a musical stepchild. Culture mavens, black and white, dismiss it as merely an obnoxious expression of adolescent bombast--or worse, as a loud celebration of those behavior patterns conservative social scientists have dubbed "tangles of pathology." Village Voice jazz critic Stanley Crouch, who is black, has denounced rap as "noise produced by a bunch of young hoodlums bragging about how antisocial they can be."

Rap, however, is much more than that. For starters, its very existence is testimony to the resilience of the human spirit. Although it was born raggedy in New York City's least tony neighborhoods and parented by the most despised segment of America--the black underclass, rap (and the "hip-hop" movement from which it sprang) still has managed to widen society's angle of vision. Despite widespread media criticism (the latest occasioned by rap artists' reputed tendency to inspire violence at their concerts), rap increasingly pervades American pop culture--from commercials to top 40 radio. And in foreign lands, especially Europe, rap is correctly seen as urban folk music.

New York City's mid-70s hip-hop movement, which spawned break dancing and a degree of respect for graffiti artists, drew its name from rap's characteristic wordplay and rhyme. Rap itself was shaped by the oral traditions of African-American culture--in particular, black-preacher cadences, rhyming folktales like "Signifyin' Monkey," street gang marching chants, prison-born monologues like "Hustlers' Convention," and the agitprop conga-poetry of 60s groups like the Last Poets--and informed by James Brown's funk formulas. But while the two other well-known products of the movement have virtually disappeared from public view, rap maintains its creative edge.

Although it has a venerable African pedigree (the ancient griots, or itinerant troubadours, of West Africa rapped lessons in tribal history), rap's use of "found" sounds and convention of recombination place it clearly in the postmodern camp. The style's aesthetic regimen disassembles funk cliches and presents them, rearranged ("cut up," to use a term popularized by postmodernist writer William Burroughs), in wider musical and sociological contexts. With rhythm tracks built on a pastiche of musical quotes, rap gives us music with a peculiar cultural resonance--self-referentiality you can dance to. The music is an idiomatic expression of what David Byrne's Talking Heads (and their producer Brian Eno) tried to intellectualize into existence during their avant-funk period.

The style's sparing use of funk elementals and its minimalist tendencies in general provide a much-needed antidote to the synthesized, vapid ear candy that so much "urban contemporary" music has lately become. Rap also reflects our society in a bizarrely accurate way: lyrics often refer to thick gold chains, expensive sneakers, Guccis, Mercedes, Ballys, and various Vuittons. This emphasis on luxury items is not merely "compensatory ostentation"--the attempt to disguise low social status through flagrant displays of wealth--though that is part of rap's cultural raw material. This blatant worship of prestigious brand names also purposely damns the gauges this society uses to quantify worth.

Braggadocio predominates in rap, and it is compensatory. When a rap artist like L.L. Cool J invents dozens of imaginatively preposterous ways in which he's "badder" than other rappers ("And since I'm a good friend of father time/I'm not getting older as I say this rhyme"), his rhyming skill itself fulfills his assertion. It's sort of an inner-city variant of the Reverend Jesse Jackson's therapeutic but corny "I Am Somebody" chant, with proof. The method of self-promotion is the reason for it.

During these times, when most spheres of life for African-Americans are worse than they've been in a long time, and when black youth, especially males, are presented with overwhelming evidence of their own irrelevance, rap's bold declaration of worth is almost existential: "I'm bad, therefore I am!" The rap motif--rapping about being the best at saying you're the best--evolved out of black youth's search for an affirmation they rarely find in this society. Rap's a pristine cultural expression, an anthropologist's (or semiotician's) dream: art, unmediated, directly from the psyche. Like the work songs of the slave plantations, the frenetic gospel of the black church, like bebop and the blues, rap fills a sociological as well as an aesthetic void. Its power is generated by the same frustrated black energy that burned down Watts, Newark, and Detroit in the late 60s. These days, the frustrations are even greater.

For many arbiters of culture, high art and popularity are mutually exclusive. Thus rap, a truly populist strain of postmodernism, is ridiculed rather than appreciated. Members of the black middle class (and many "wannabes") are particularly derisive. In fact, they've become rap's severest critics. Ever since the idiom's 1979 commercial debut--with the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight"--predictions of its demise have peppered conversations at cocktail parties, church socials, and Urban League meetings throughout the land. Rap's expressive style, its boast and bombast, is culled from an inner-city attitude that is repellent to many in the black middle class, a good number of whom are fleeing the urban realities that spawned that attitude. For these ghetto expatriates, rap is a sound track for sociopaths. And let's face it, the style's aggressive, menacing pose evokes the very ills--violence, crime, and vandalism--that propelled middle-class blacks' flight.

But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of rap's demise have been greatly exaggerated. It seems that whenever culture watchers begin to write the genre's obituary, another single spurts into the mainstream. Kurtis Blow did it in 1979 with "Christmas Rappin'" and in '80 with "The Breaks"; Melle Mel's "The Message" did it in 1982; and in 1985 it was Run-D.M.C.'s "Walk This Way." Today, L.L. Cool J and Eric B. & Rakim have found some crossover success. The Beastie Boys, a white rap group whose album Licensed to Ill hit number one on the Billboard chart, have enjoyed the most widespread success. (Rap purists, however, dismiss the Beasties as parodistic.)

Rap's mainstream breakthroughs may be few, but the style has flourished in the urban underground. And although its New York City birthplace remains rap's stronghold, devotees are everywhere and multiplying. Geography no longer limits its appeal; albeit belatedly, southern blacks have also caught the rap bug.

Rap's hegemony in the inner cities was challenged briefly by the funk-and-horn vamps of Washington, D.C.'s "go-go" music and by "house," Chicago's neo-disco contribution to the sonic landscape. But go-go has come and gone, and house is no longer a home for young Chicago blacks (although it's all the rage in trend-hungry London). Meanwhile, rap has grown stronger and more versatile. L.L. Cool J's "lover's rap" ballad, "I Need Love," has taken the style into "panty-wetter" territory, an area formerly occupied by crooners like Freddie Jackson, Luther Vandross, and (panty-wetter emeritus) Smokey Robinson. Admission into this hallowed category ensures rap some longevity in black popular culture: love-man ballads are the preferred accompaniment for the red-lit, "slo-grind" house parties that are such an enduring tradition in black urban society.

But aside from that somewhat minor stylistic elaboration, rap's rich basic formula (rhythm and rhyme, alliteration and metaphor, have a contrapuntal relationship, with bass and percussion to provoke dancing) still hasn't been fully mined, though some groups have taken some new directions. L.L. Cool J's Bad, Eric B. & Rakim's Paid in Full, Kool Moe Dee's How Ya Like Me Now? and Public Enemy's Yo! Bum Rush the Show all tap the rap mother lode and add their own shine. Public Enemy puts a black nationalist spin on the music: "Nothing wrong with a song to make the strong survive." Rakim, however, is a genuine revelation. His unconventional rhymes, with meanings both literal and ironic, add a new dimension to rap wordplay: "The only time I stop, is when / Somebody drop, and then / Bring 'em to the front 'cause my rhyme's the ox-y-gen." Or "My unusual style / Will confuse you a while. / If I was water, I'd flow to the Nile."

His unusual style has ushered him directly into the rap pantheon. Ice-cold intonation chills his voice, as the rhymes gush in a sinister monotone. Rakim uses syllabic variation to effect hornlike verbal riffs while a steady funk bottom anchors the beat. Eric B.--the music man, or the DJ, on the "cut" behind Rakim--is one of the many hip-hop magicians who have helped transform turntables into multifaceted musical instruments--"wheels of steel," as one album title puts it. These DJs are skilled at cutting and rearranging "found" rhythmic patterns, and at "scratching" records to produce a jarring, percussive counterpoint; they've promoted a wide-ranging eclecticism. Nowhere else can you find a James Brown bass line juxtaposed with the computer-funk of a group like Kraftwerk, or with the rock licks of groups like Queen and Aerosmith. Even jazz gets a play--quotes from Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts" make an appearance in Kool Moe Dee's latest single, "How Ya Like Me Now?" Rap's sharp focus--its distinctive musical characteristics, attitude, and history--prevents these eclectic influences from diluting its integrity, yet these new, disparate elements provide a continuous flow of energy and ideas; their inclusion also embodies the very spirit of postmodernism.

Meanwhile, the black bourgeoisie (if I may use such an unfashionable, leftist word) continues apace its search for a musical form to call its own. And since it slavishly subscribes to Western cultural hierarchies, it sees musical categories as class distinctive (whiskey-drinking, "country" black folks favor the blues, the uneducated working class is partial to contemporary funk, and reefer-loving bohemians dig jazz). Things may have changed just a bit in recent years, but by and large most class-conscious black folks remain bound to such prejudices. Take the blues, for example: while many white critics hail the genre as a fount of artistic vitality and insist it is nothing to be ashamed of, the blues are still a bit too proletarian for the worldview of upwardly striving blacks. KoKo Taylor, Valerie Wellington, and Son Seals may be all right with the yuppies, but buppies have a lot of problems with them; check their audiences. And what about reggae? Well, except for empty gestures of obeisance to Bob Marley (whose posthumous celebrity transcended the genre he popularized), nothing doing. The music is too subtle for those weaned on urban contemporary, a musical diet of continuous crescendos. Nor can the tailored bup crowd get past the dreadlocks.

Thanks to the ubiquitous Wynton Marsalis, many of these strivers have drifted to jazz. The accolades poured upon the young, dapper neo-bopper have made them sit up and take notice. Marsalis's success in the classical music field also lends him legitimacy: although most black middle classers remain personally estranged from European "high art," theoretically they endorse it, and thus admire Marsalis's mastery of its forms. Almost single-handedly, the 26-year-old trumpeter has lifted jazz out of its bohemian haunts and conferred upon it some three-piece-suited respectability. And aside from the considerable value of his music (though that's somewhat limited by its reverence for nostalgia), Marsalis's image is something a buppie can like. They also like to boogie, however, and even Marsalis's charisma can't hide the fact that jazz has become an exclusively aural art form; dancing is not allowed. (Jazz began as dance music. But to satisfy Western canons of art--canons that exclude dance music, except waltzes, from the category of serious music--jazzmen seeking respect ignored the feet.)

That rap rings no bells with buppies makes sense, but their zeal to denounce it suggests a deeper source of hostility. Perhaps it's no coincidence that, just as there's a rap gap, the gap between the black middle class and the one-third of the black community classified as poor is larger now than ever before in African-Americans' postslavery history. And according to recent figures, more than half of all black children are born into and reared in poverty. This means that as much as half the next generation of black Americans may be handicapped at birth, born to poor mothers who lacked the knowledge or means to provide themselves with proper prenatal care and nutrition. After birth, the damage will be compounded by nonnurturing environments and poor education. And this just as American society is becoming increasingly complex and ever higher standards are being required for participation in the job market. From the perspective of young black men, the situation clearly is hopeless.

Many successful young blacks, meanwhile, have adopted some version of the theories being propagated most successfully by Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, and Walter Williams, three widely published black conservatives. According to this view, argued persuasively by its proponents, the blame resides principally with characteristics of the black culture. They maintain that the black inner cities have evolved a self-perpetuating culture of pathology (of which rap is a part), and that it can only be changed by individual initiative from within. Underclassers need only pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, these conservatives insist. This, of course, lets the black middle class off the hook. And by vigorously denouncing all inner-city cultural products, like rap, they can join in the underclass bashing that has become this country's latest rage. The national symbol for this new attitude is Bernhard Goetz, who was acquitted of attempted murder by a jury after admitting he shot four underclassers because he thought they meant him harm.

If intuiting bad intentions is motive enough to attempt murder, then a lot of people, not just the underclass, are in serious jeopardy. And this is something even affluent blacks should be quick to recognize: fearful whites on urban streets are just as suspicious of black middle-class jazz enthusiasts as they are of rap-loving thugs. They simply can't tell the difference. Also, whites may not be aware that the survival game in black neighborhoods requires an aggressive image. In an environment in which the shadow of crime looms as high as the unemployment rate, it's safer to look the part of victimizer rather than victim.

Sired in the muck of civilization, rap has already made its mark on 20th-century culture, and it's a good guess the mark will grow larger. Those who claim the style is just the cathartic expression of hormone-ravaged teenagers have apparently forgotten that Charlie ("Bird") Parker and Miles Davis were teenagers when they helped birth the classic style of jazz now known and hallowed as bebop. In fact, many of the same criticisms now leveled at the rappers were once aimed at those torch-bearing beboppers of the 40s and early 50s. Am I equating hip-hop with bebop, you ask? The answer is yes.

It's been a long time, I shouldn'a left you

Without a strong rhyme to step to

Think of how many weak shows you slept through

Time's up! I'm sorry I kept you.

--Rakim

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

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