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'Stakes Is High' | The Nation

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'Stakes Is High'

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In the new global entertainment industry of the 1990s, rap became a hot commodity. But even as the marketing dollars flowed into youth of color communities, major labels searched for ways to capture the authenticity without the militancy. Stakes was high, as De La Soul famously put it in 1996, and labels were loath to accept such disruptions on their investments as those that greeted Ice-T and Body Count's "Cop Killer" during the '92 election season. Rhymers kicking sordid tales from the drug wars were no longer journalists or fictionists, ironists or moralists. They were purveyors of a new lifestyle, ghetto cool with all of the products but none of the risk or rage. After Dr. Dre's pivotal 1992 album, The Chronic, in which a millennial, ghettocentric Phil Spector stormed the pop charts with a postrebellion gangsta party that brought together Crip-walking with Tanqueray-sipping, the roughnecks, hustlers and riders took the stage from the rap revolutionaries, backed by the substantial capital of a quickly consolidating music industry.

About the Author

Jeff Chang
Jeff Chang, a 2008 USA Ford Fellow in Literature, is the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop...

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Rap music today reflects the paradoxical position of the hip-hop generation. If measured by the volume of products created by and sold to them, it may appear that youth of color have never been more central to global popular culture. Rap is now a $1.6 billion engine that drives the entire music industry and flexes its muscle across all entertainment platforms. Along with its music, Jay-Z's not-so-ironically named Roc-A-Fella company peddles branded movies, clothing and vodka. Hip-hop, some academics assert, is hegemonic. But as the social turmoil described by many contemporary rappers demonstrates, this generation of youth of color is as alienated and downpressed as any ever has been. And the act of tying music to lifestyle--as synergy-seeking media companies have effectively done--has distorted what marketers call the "aspirational" aspects of hip-hop while marginalizing its powers of protest.

Yet the politics have not disappeared from popular rap. Some of the most stunning hits in recent years--DMX's "Who We Be," Trick Daddy's "I'm a Thug," Scarface's "On My Block"--have found large audiences by making whole the hip-hop generation's cliché of "keeping it real," being true to one's roots of struggle. The video for Nappy Roots' brilliant "Po' Folks" depicts an expansive vision of rural Kentucky--black and white, young and old together, living like "everything's gon' be OK." Scarface's ghettocentric "On My Block" discards any pretense at apology. "We've probably done it all, fa' sheezy," he raps. "I'll never leave my block, my niggas need me." For some critics, usually older and often black, such sentiments seem dangerously close to pathological, hymns to debauchery and justifications for thuggery. But the hip-hop generation recognizes them as anthems of purpose, manifestoes that describe their time and place the same way that Public Enemy's did. Most of all, these songs and their audiences say, we are survivors and we will never forget that.

The "conscious rap" and "neosoul" genres take up where 1970s soul experimentalists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield left off. At their best, they are black-to-the-future havens of experimentation that combine a grandiose view of pop music's powers, an earnest hope for a better world and a jaded insider's disdain for rote commercialism. Crews like Blackalicious, the Coup, Jurassic 5, Zion I and dead prez have attained modest success by offering visions of twenty-first-century blackness--hypertextual rhymes, stuttering rhythms and lush sounds rooted in a deep understanding of African-American cultural production and ready-made for a polycultural future. The Roots' album Phrenology stretches hip-hop's all-embracing method--the conviction that "every music is hip-hop" and ready to be absorbed--to draw from a palette as wide as Jill Scott, Bad Brains, James Blood Ulmer and the Cold Crush Brothers. Common's Electric Circus takes cues from Prince and Sly Stone in reimagining the hip-hop concept album.

Tensions often spring from the compromises inherent in being given the budget to build a statement while being forced to negotiate the major label's Pavlovian pop labyrinth, and others have left the system to, as Digital Underground once famously put it, do what they like, albeit for much smaller audiences. Public Enemy has gone to the Internet and to indies in order, they say, to "give the peeps what they need," not what they think they want. After spending more than a decade in unsuccessful efforts with major labels, rapper Michael Franti now records on his own Boo Boo Wax imprint. It's hard to imagine his latest effort, "Bomb Da World"--whose chorus goes, "You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can't bomb it into peace"--passing muster in the boardrooms. Berkeley-based rapper Mr. Lif cut two of the most funky and politically challenging records of the year, the Emergency Rations EP and I Phantom LP, for the indie Definitive Jux. The EP's clever conceit--that the rapper has literally "gone underground" to escape angry Feds--is easily the wittiest, most danceable critique yet of the USA Patriot Act.

Hip-hop has been roundly condemned within and without for its sexist, misogynistic tendencies, but it has also created room for artists like Me'shell N'degeocello, Mystic, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Goapele and Angie Stone to mix up and transform both rap and r&b. "Neosoul" has been especially attractive to women and post-young 'uns. Its hip-hop feminist critique came into sharp relief last year. After years of flying high, rap sales crashed by 15 percent, leading an industrywide plunge. But multiplatinum newcomers Alicia Keys and India.Arie were garlanded with a bevy of Grammy nominations. Keys and Arie celebrated "a woman's worth" and were frankly critical of male irresponsibility. India.Arie's breakout hit "Video"--in which she sang, "I'm not the average girl from your video"--stole the music that had once been sampled for a rap ode to oral sex called "Put It in Your Mouth."

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