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Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America.

Reviewed by Houston A. Baker, Jr. University of Pennsylvania

One of the most bizarre black events of 1994 was the spectacle of Reverend Calvin Butts - pastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church and one of America's most prestigious grown men - presiding at a Walpurgis Night, in which construction equipment drove over piles of compact rap discs as the sign of a new morality. Then there was the spectacle of a turbaned Philadelphia Councilwoman, C. Delores Tucker, speaking with high bourgeois condescension about the excesses of rap music; she looked for all the world just like a character from William Makepeace Thackeray's Barchester Towers. While influential and obscenely rich white media moguls, white telecommunications and entertainment giants turned out (produced) rap discs with glad abandon, adult black leaders were moralistically upbraiding black youth and jumping idiotically up and down in the streets on top of the mere product.

But, of course, black adults have not been the only pundits to step forward and confront the moral panic occasioned by rap. White policemen's leagues, ladies' clubs, syndicated columnists, and everyday men and women in the street have decried the "sick," "criminal," "noisy" impropriety of the black popular cultural form known as rap.

Rap first gained currency in the 1970s. Ironically, each new confrontation and glad pronouncement of the death of rap has seemed to trigger ever more inventive directions of the form. The efforts of Run-DMC, one of rap's earliest groups to gain mega-stardom, seem veritable child's play in the company of the gangsta, fusion, jazz, absurdist, cool, and balladic variations of rap that rule a substantial portion of the airwaves today.

From its first commercial success during the 1970s, rap's powers of persuasion were never in doubt. Its powers of adaptation and global influence, however, have proved both surprising and frustrating to even the most tireless adult detractors of the form. One reason for rap's seductive staying power might be inferred from the fascinating work of Professor Tricia Rose, who is a member of the American Studies faculty at New York University.

Rose argues that rap is a unique expressive cultural response by black and Hispanic youth to the miseries of postindustrial urban America. She writes, "In the postindustrial urban context of dwindling low-income housing, a trickle of meaningless jobs for young people, mounting police brutality, and increasingly draconian depictions of young inner city residents, hip hop is black urban renewal." The words hip hop alert us to another reason for rap's survival, one that goes beyond its mere powers of response to urban woes. Rap carries "juice" because it is a crucial fixture in the structures of feeling (the praxis and style) that comprise the culture of "hip hop."

Rose has divided her text into several large divisions. After analyzing the deterioration of urban living conditions that accompanied deindustrialization in the United States, she turns to the early tripartite composition of hip hop culture: Graffiti, breakdancing, and rap are duly explicated. Rose pays requisite attention to the sometimes surprising connections between outmoded industrial skills (such as electronics repair) and an emergent technology of rap with its cleverly engineered electronic sound systems. Paradoxically, such systems were sometimes constructed by out-of-work electronics repairmen, or would-be-employed black electronics technicians. Rose discusses the fluid transformations of a hip hop celebrity like Fab Five Freddy, who went from graffiti writer, to rapper, to broker of graffiti art, and finally to host of MTV's popular show Yo! MTV Raps.

Rose's discussion of rap's emergence from the fantastic colors, kinesthetics, styles, vocals, and sonics of hip hop is ethnographically captivating. She manages to recreate the scene of emergence by drawing on interviews with rappers and through a sometimes too abundant employment of academic secondary sources. After tracing hip hop's origins, she proceeds to discuss the stylistic composition of hip hop (flow, layering, and rupture), differentiations between Western concert music and rap, the oppositional "rage" of selected male tappers, and the dynamic space of black women in the hip hop industry. Her general argument might be summarized as follows: A unique collage of voice, music, sound, and silence is achieved by the layering and ruptures of rap. Rap's "flow" is the product of a skilled mastery of hip hop culture's structures of feeling. It is dependent as well upon a mastery of recording-studio technology, as it is pushed into the "red" (i.e., the zone on studio meters that indicates distortion). When rap's collage is most effective it serves as a voice of opposition or resistance to hegemonic and oppressive arrangements of the dominant culture in the United States. This hegemonic culture seeks always to define black and Hispanic youth as both disorderly and criminal. Importantly, Rose analyzes black women rappets as energetic contributors to a black rage (noise?) that resists such oppressive definitions.

Issues like sampling (thievery or creative appropriation?), cornmodification (does "double platinum" signify "inauthenticity"?), and feminism (is it a useful method of analysis or useless baggage from white women's culture work?) are all discussed by Rose. They are addressed with varying degrees of enthusiasm and thoroughness. However, they are always less compelling in the text than Rose's reflections on public space.

On the lower (bass?) frequencies Rose provides insights about American public space and the limited access to this space enjoyed by black and Hispanic teenagers. She writes:

The way rap and rap-related violence are discussed in the popular media is fundamentally linked to the larger social discourse on the spacial control of black people. Formal policies that explicitly circumscribe housing, school, and job options for black people have been outlawed; however, informal, yet trenchant forms of institutional discrimination still exist in full force. Underwriting these de facto forms of social containment is the understanding that black people are a threat to social order.

When a violent stabbing occurs at a major rap concert, the "venue availability" for rap concerts precipitously declines across the United States. Break dancers transform city sidewalks into stages because public gymnasiums and arenas are closed to them. DJs and rappers set up shop in parks and on street corners because they are (at rap's origin) unwelcome in familiar public spaces of entertainment. Thus, in its heyday, hip hop was the expressive cultural equivalent of an underground economy. Considered flagrantly unruly, it was policed out of the public domain.

To the extent that the "criminalization" of blacks, Hispanics, and "immigrants" in the United States is very much alive and in full effect today, American law still seeks to keep rap and other contestatory forms of cultural expression out of the public domain. Recent variations of "public" policing, however, offer an ironic reminder of the truth of that old adage "What goes around comes around." In America today, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives are busying themselves in conscious political efforts to eradicate certain expressive public domains altogether. Today's federal legislators represent sizeable United States constituencies who support and would applaud the elimination of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as well as our publicly supported endowments for the arts and the humanities. Rose's attention to national attempts to police or eliminate public space available to youth popular culture seems timely, therefore, as conservative Grundyism radiates from the beltway like a nuclear cloud.

Rose's enthusiasm for hip hop and her cultural studies analytical skills are productive and informative. It is perhaps her enthusiasm, however, that sometimes leads to problematic claims. And her cultural studies vocabulary is often derived from overly long quotations from secondary sources. For example, we need more evidence than Rose provides to verify her claim that rap "is black America's most dynamic contemporary popular cultural, intellectual, and spiritual vessel." One suspects that a select array of television programs and a cache of Sunday morning sermons would win the sweeps with actually existing black audiences against rap every time. The absence of class, age-group, gender, geographical, or other distributions in Rose's claim renders it a heady, but somewhat unsupported, boast.

As for secondary sources, it may be enough to say that, when Professor Rose quotes, she really quotes! It is sometimes very difficult to distinguish where or how precisely she adds to or formally enhances the insights of her sources. This may simply be a matter of style - a stylistic matter on a par with another of her tics that even patient readers may find a bit annoying. Professor Rose is prone to a Victorian moralizing and first-person indignation that seem odd. For example, "I am thoroughly frustrated but not surprised by the apparent need for some rappers to craft elaborate and creative stories about the abuse and domination of young black women." (This sounds a lot like C. Delores Tucker.) Like other moments of "personal opinion" in her text, nothing quite prepares us for this informal moralizing and indignant frustration. Problematic claims and certain stylistic annoyances to the contrary notwithstanding, Professor Rose has brought us the "black noise" in a way that makes us hugely wiser. Her project provides a fine provisional map for younger scholars who are vigorously at work exploring the dynamics of hip hop. And her book has already garnered the prestigious American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

One wonders if, during his next nocturnal spectacle, the good Reverend Butts will submit even Professor Rose's energetic scholarship to the crushing weight of bulldozers. Let us hope, instead, that the good Reverend and the honorable Tucker will do some serious reading that will lead them to an intelligent conversion. Professor Rose's Black Noise can certainly guide them to a fuller understanding of a black expressive cultural form that is already classic American sound.
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Author:Baker, Houston A., Jr.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1995
Words:1599
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