LETTER FROM NYC: BUM RAP, column
Melody Maker, January 30th 1993
By Simon Reynolds
Alternative rockers from the Chili Peppers to Sonic
Youth rallied eagerly to MTV's "Rock The Vote" crusade:
underneath the urgency with which they exhorted kids to
register, you could clearly read the message "VOTE CLINTON".
But rappers were conspicuous by their abstention. Ice T
couldn't be bothered to express a preference between the
candidates, while post-election, an underwhelmed Ice Cube
declared that now he was looking forward to getting "Clinton
out of the White House."
You could hardly blame the hip hop community for feeling
uninvolved. Clinton went out of his way to placate white
fears, with his strategic masterstroke of dissing Sister
Souljah, his cold shouldering of black leaders like Jesse
Jackson, and his often-aired plan to put 100,000 more cops on
the streets. Of course, you could hardly blame Clinton for
doing what he had to do to lure the Reagan Democrats (the
white, worried middle class) back into the fold. This was
politics as usual, and a lot of Black Americans gritted their
teeth and accepted it.
What was truly unnerving and despicable was the deafening
silence maintained by all the candidates concerning the LA
riots. In the Middle Ages, popular revolt functioned as a
form of petition. Rioters knew that the uprising would be
quelled, but they also knew the King would pay attention and
make an effort to alleviate their woes. But the LA riots
failed to elicit such a response from the political classes,
bar some woffle about creating 'enterprise zones' to
encourage business to move into the destitute inner cities.
So what do you do if you're black, from the ghetto, and
the most virulent and visible explosion of your pain and fury
has been swept under the carpet? The rap equivalent of
rioting is songs like Ice T's "Cop Killer" and Paris' "Bush
Killa": unconstructive, if perfectly justifiable, expressions
of rage, symbolic and ultimately sterile. These songs remind
me of Morrissey's petulant fantasy "Margaret On The
Guillotine", written at Thatcherism's zenith, when it seemed
the "good folk" were outnumbered by the loadsamoney majority.
The problem with the "killa" songs is that rage is vented
in the instantly gratifying fantasy of revenge, rather than
channelled into politics (which takes a lot longer to get
In the pilot issue of Vibe, a new rap culture
mag, Greg Tate agonises over whether hardcore rap is just a
"momentary containment of [black anger] or worse, an
entertaining displacement?" For Tate, rap's problem is that
it's "agenda-less. It reacts better than it proposes."
Despite hip hop's astonishing cultural victory (its
permeation of US society from advertising to fashion), it's
yet to prove itself as "a harbinger of the black revolution".
In truth, hip hop is going through a bit of a
slack, directionless phase, and its problems are aesthetic as
much as political. Public Enemy's music has gotten mighty
tired: maybe Chuck D's recent pilgrimage to Africa will
rejuvenate, although the black Clash might end up recording a
Sandinista style turkey. The only sonic innovators around
are Cypress Hill, with their Hispanic-flavored, 'blunted'
vibe (a blunt is a special kind of joint), and Arrested
Development, who were last year's De La Soul, i.e.
bourgeois-turned-bohemian art-rap. And the only really
magnetic characters are Treach from Naughty by Nature and Ice
Cube, whose charisma and intelligence sustains their solid
but unimaginative music. The rest of rap is awful samey,
from butt-fixated crossovers like Mixalot's "Baby's Got Back"
and WrecksN'Effect's "Rump Shaker", to the underground's
unremarkable variations on the same old gangsta/B-boy themes.
Apart from the braggart bitch-dissing, hardcore rap's
main message is it's own refusal to cross over. This
fretting over "authenticity", which is partly an anxiety to
keep whites (as consumers and performers) out, has had a
inhibiting effect on the music. The retreat to old school
purism means every record revolves around the same formula: a
mid-pace funky beat, "phat" bassline, and looped samples
(usually jazzy horn-squawks or Hammond ripples). The
"authenticity" school of thought is articulated by the rap
magazine The Source (its name connotes roots, heritage). If
only the highbrow detachment of Vibe* could be combined with
the fanzine-like street-level patriotism of The Source, then
hip hop would have a magazine that could set challenges for
the music rather than follow in its wake. Rap sorely needs
such an injection of impetus.
* no really that's what Vibe was like in those days! Greg Tate was a regular contributor and not that out of step with/further out than the rest of the contents.