Perhaps the most exportable aspect of hip hop is its existential sensibility — its celebration of place, despite limitations. With verbal dexterity, hip hop’s creators transformed themselves from ghetto dwellers into esteemed characters involved in complex narratives. Hip hop infused their neighborhoods with cultural currency and mythical resonance. If not a Shangri-La, then at least a “Shaolin” — the name the Wu-Tang Clan conferred on their poverty-ridden neighborhood on New York’s Staten Island. Hip hop culture renamed and reimagined.
Some 25 years after its birth, the genre has become a $5 billion industry but remains troubled at home. Beset by a growing chorus of critics who charge that its glorification of the “Thug Life” promotes misogyny, violence and crime, hip hop’s advocates are on the defensive. This is not a new position; since its emergence from the ghettos of New York City in the late ’70s, many mainstream critics have deemed hip hop a dysfunctional element of pop culture — a soundtrack for sociopaths. The violent murders of some of hip hop’s most popular artists give its detractors a powerful argument.
A dedication to authenticity, or “keeping it real,” is an important value that requires hip hop artists to stay close to the fears and aspirations of the community that birthed them. But since murder remains the leading cause of death for young black men, hip hop may be keeping things a bit too real.
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Commercial motives have warped and corrupted the genre. The record industry uses personal rivalries between rappers as marketing tools to ratchet up sales. Rap “beefs” may reap profits, but they also wreak havoc. Carlton “Chuck D” Ridenhour, frontman of the influential group Public Enemy, blames the East Coast-West Coast beef that virtually paralyzed the rap world in the mid-’90s on a “climate of violence” perpetrated by the record industry. “I think the culture has been mishandled by putting out violence,” he told Newsday following the October murder of Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell of Run-DMC in his Queens studio.
Most famously, many attribute the unsolved 1996 murders of two of hip hop’s most iconic rappers, Tupac Shakur and Christopher “the Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, to a feud between rival record labels. In a two-part September series in the Los Angeles Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chuck Philips provided ammunition for those who link the murderous scenarios of many rap lyrics to the lifestyles of its major players. He reported that Shakur’s killer is a gang member whom the rapper had assaulted in Las Vegas earlier that night. More explosively, Philips claims that Wallace paid a bounty for the hit and supplied the murder weapon.
But Philips’ conclusions are disputed in Biggie and Tupac, a new documentary by Nick Broomfield. The film, based heavily on a book by Randall Sullivan called LAbyrinth, points to Marion “Suge” Knight, CEO of Death Row Records (recently renamed Tha Row Records), as the guiding hand behind both murders. Broomfield and Sullivan speculate that Knight ordered the killings because Shakur was going to sue Death Row for unpaid royalties, and Wallace’s death would make the first murder look like part of the bicoastal rap feud.
Like Sullivan’s book, much of the film is based on the allegations of former L.A. police detective Russell Poole, who says he was discouraged from following solid leads on the case because they pointed to police involvement. One of the most provocative aspects of Broomfield’s film is the allegation from Wallace’s mother that the FBI had both rappers under surveillance at the time of their murders. “It surprised me that Biggie and Tupac had been under surveillance for so long — for months, particularly in Biggie’s case,” Broomfield told the Village Voice in September. “He wasn’t considered a political person, but he and Tupac and rappers in general were regarded by the FBI as focal points of potential political unrest.”
Some claim that federal forces are instigating hip hop beefs in the same way COINTELPRO operatives kept militant black organizations at each other’s throats during the ’60s. “The only way to get to the top and bottom of both murders is to find out once and for all what the U.S. government knows about them,” writes Cedric Muhammad of Blackelectorate. com, a Web site that has featured several articles alleging a COINTELPRO-style campaign is in play against rappers.
The New York Times revealed the existence of a special NYPD unit designed to focus specifically on the hip hop industry, investigating violence and other crimes and consulting with “detectives who do similar work in places like California and Florida.”
The FBI is investigating whether Jam Master Jay’s murder is linked to organized crime, reports the Ananova.com news service, and “federal authorities say several unnamed stars from the rap industry are under the microscope for possible criminal conspiracies.”
If the FBI is indeed sowing the seeds of division, the hip hop community is fertile soil. Though these murders provoked temporary spasms of remorse and public gestures of self-reflection, little seems to have changed in the brutal, materialistic core of rap culture.
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Ironically, one of the most socially conscious corners of hip hop is now coming under increased scrutiny from federal authorities because of alleged ties between the “Beltway snipers” and an Islamic group known as the Five Percenters. Certain phrases and symbols used by sniper suspects John Muhammad and Lee Boyd are common jargon of the group.
Known as the “Nation of Gods and Earths” to insiders, the Five Percenters were founded in New York by Clarence “13X” Smith in 1964. Smith, a migrant from Danville, Virginia, had joined the Nation of Islam during the heyday of Malcolm X and rose to become an official at the NOI’s Harlem Temple. He was excommunicated in 1964 and quickly formed his own organization based on aspects of NOI philosophy. Smith later assumed the name “Father Allah” and set up shop in Harlem, where he taught for five years until he was murdered (theories have linked both the NOI and the NYPD to his killing).
Smith’s esoteric street science revolves around the notion that the universe operates by mathematical principles, and that the key to success (both personal and collective) is understanding them. Once a man achieved mastery of self, he became a God, the “sole controller” of his destiny. (Five Percenters refer to men as “Gods” and women as “Earths.”) The group’s name derives from a belief that 85 percent of humanity is bent on self-destruction due to ignorance of their own divinity. The next 10 percent have self-knowledge, but use it to exploit and manipulate the 85 percent; they are referred to as the “blood-suckers of the poor.” The remaining 5 percent are those “poor righteous teachers” who have self-knowledge (that is, they are aware of the divinity at the core of their identity) and teach “freedom, justice and equality to all the human family.” Much like the Nation of Islam, Five Percenters place a strong emphasis on family, education and self-reliance. Although the doctrine lacks the NOI’s restrictions on intoxicants, it extols self-control and forbids “uncivilized” behavior.
Some of hip hop’s most important innovators are Five Percenters: Rakim (whom some still consider hip hop’s best lyricist) is a member, as are rappers Nas and Busta Rhymes and singer Erykah Badu. Numerous rap groups, including Brand Nubian, Gang Starr, Mobb Deep and the Wu-Tang Clan, are also affiliated. Much of the hip hop vocabulary (“word is bond,” “represent,” “show and prove,” “dropping science,” “cipher,” “seeds,” and “G”) is rooted in Five Percent ideology.
Ted Swedenburg, a University of Arkansas anthropologist who has studied the Nation of Islam and its offshoots for many years, has compared today’s “Islamic rap” to the the spread of Afrocentric ideas during the days of Marcus Garvey and Noble Drew Ali in the early 20th century. But through music, the Five Percenters’ influence has been much greater. “What is interesting here is the fact that these heretical, esoteric teachings have been propelled, from their heretofore obscured places of origin, to the center of global culture,” Swedenburg wrote in a 1997 paper titled “Islam in the Mix: Lessons of the Five Percent.”
But with greater visibility comes increased scrutiny. Corrections departments in New Jersey and South Carolina have labeled the group a “security threat” and treat it like a gang. There are several court challenges to that designation, but as long as the group clings to its black nationalist doctrine, there’s little chance that its public image will be altered. What’s more, since there is no stringent membership process, some may use the group’s ideology to perpetrate, and even justify, illegal acts. The Five Percenters’ race-themed gnosticism also is interpreted as black supremacy by some followers, which further taints the group. The alleged connection to the Beltway snipers is sure to increase the scapegoating.
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Although black nationalist ideas form a strong part of hip hop’s foundation, today’s most influential rapper may be a white man. White rappers have always had some input in the culture, from the Beastie Boys and Third Base to House of Pain and, most infamously, Vanilla Ice. But Marshall “Eminem” Mathers has become the genre’s bestselling artist in history.
White artists historically have benefited from expropriating African-American art forms and, in that sense, Eminem simply conforms to that traditional pattern. But unlike many of his predecessors, he is recognized for his mastery of the form. He initially gained fame — and respect — in the non-commercial precincts of the hip hop underground, where lyrical complexity and rhythmic flow are the highest values. Hip hop fans generally applaud his rapping talent, and they don’t begrudge his mainstream success.
Eminem, rumored to be a choice for Time’s “Man of the Year,” also has been acclaimed for his acting debut in the movie 8 Mile. His cinematic persona is attractive for many of the same reasons he is such a successful recording artist. He projects an image of vulnerability and authenticity at the same time. Instead of emulating the thematic threads favored by black rappers, Eminem crafts lyrics from his own personal history. His forthright way of confronting the “white Negro” conundrum has won both white and black fans. He adapted hip hop’s celebration of situation to the trailer park and found success.
Although his rise to fame repeats a traditional pattern, it also exhibits major differences. He was “discovered,” cultivated and tutored by Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, a successful African-American rap producer. Eminem also remains respectful to the African-American culture that inspired him and has devoted considerable resources to assisting the black rappers who supported him during leaner times in his Detroit hometown.
The Eminem saga is yet another lesson about the potential power of hip hop. Like the legion of other whites, Asians and Latinos who embrace hip hop, Eminem has a relationship with black culture that is so far removed from racist traditions that it creates new possibilities. That’s the promise of hip hop: creating new possibilities.
This musical genre dreamed up on the streets of New York has become one of the planet’s most powerful — and enthusiastically embraced — forces of globalization. If hip hop’s originators can harness just a portion of the genre’s creative power to address the issues that uniquely beset them, hip hop can redeem its promise.
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