Fifteen years ago, rappers like Public Enemy, KRS-One and Queen Latifah were received as heralds of a new movement. Musicians–who, like all artists, always tend to handle the question “What’s going on?” much better than “What is to be done?”–had never been called upon to do so much for their generation; Thelonious Monk, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder were never asked to stand in for Thurgood Marshall, Fannie Lou Hamer or Stokely Carmichael. But the gains of the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s were being rolled back. Youths were as fed up with black leadership as they were with white supremacy. Politics had failed. Culture was to become the hip-hop generation’s battlefield, and “political rap” was to be its weapon.
Today, the most cursory glance at the Billboard charts or video shows on Viacom-owned MTV and BET suggests rap has been given over to cocaine-cooking, cartoon-watching, Rakim-quoting, gold-rims-coveting, death-worshiping young ‘uns. One might even ask whether rap has abandoned the revolution.
Indeed, as the central marker of urban youth of color style and authenticity, rap music has become the key to the niching of youth culture. The “hip-hop lifestyle” is now available for purchase in every suburban mall. “Political rap” has been repackaged by record companies as merely “conscious,” retooled for a smaller niche as an alternative. Instead of drinking Alizé, you drink Sprite. Instead of Versace, you wear Ecko. Instead of Jay-Z, you listen to the Roots. Teen rap, party rap, gangsta rap, political rap–tags that were once a mere music critic’s game–are literally serious business.
“Once you put a prefix on an MC’s name, that’s a death trap,” says Talib Kweli, the gifted Brooklyn-born rapper who disdains being called “conscious.” Clearly his music expresses a well-defined politics; his rhymes draw from the same well of protest that nourished the Last Poets, the Watts Prophets and the Black Arts stalwarts he cites as influences. But he argues that marketing labels close his audience’s minds to the possibilities of his art. When Kweli unveiled a song called “Gun Music,” some fans grumbled. (No “conscious” rapper would stoop to rapping about guns, they reasoned, closing their ears even as Kweli delivered a complicated critique of street-arms fetishism.) At the same time, Kweli worries that being pigeonholed as political will prevent him from being promoted to mass audiences. Indeed, to be a “political rapper” in the music industry these days is to be condemned to preach to a very small choir.
“Political rap” was actually something of an invention. The Bronx community-center dances and block parties where hip-hop began in the early 1970s were not demonstrations for justice, they were celebrations of survival. Hip-hop culture simply reflected what the people wanted and needed–escape. Rappers bragged about living the brand-name high life because they didn’t; they boasted about getting headlines in the New York Post because they couldn’t. Then, during the burning summer of the first Reagan recession, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released “The Message,” a dirge (by the standards of the day) that seethed against the everyday violence of disinvestment. Flash was certain the record, which was actually an A&R-pushed concoction by Duke Bootee and Melle Mel, would flop; it was too slow and too depressing to rock a party. But Sugar Hill Records released the song as a single over his objections, and “The Message” struck the zeitgeist like a bull’s-eye. Liberal soul and rock critics, who had been waiting for exactly this kind of statement from urban America, championed it. Millions of listeners made it the third platinum rap single.