The real story behind the rap revolution.
MORE than a decade ago, when young inner-city street poets first set their brand of provocative talk/sung lyrics to the driving beat of drum machines and the scratches of needles across records, skeptics predicted a quick and painful demise for the new music. They were wrong.
Today, rap, or hip-hop as its practitioners prefer, is a pervasive presence in popular culture, informing not only America's musical tastes, but its fashion trends and vernacular as well. Telltale signs of rap's influence are evident everywhere. Hollywood has co-opted it, and so has Madison Avenue. Sanitized for mass appeal, rap is used to promote a wide range of products--from hamburgers to automobiles. And, in the middle of the road realm of Top 40 music, rap is used to comment benignly on the human condition.
"People have realized that rap is an art form that gives you the freedom to make a lot of statements," says Grammy-winning rapper Marvin Young (a.k.a. Young M.C.), one of the new breakthrough rap stars who have taken the music from its street roots to Top 10 prominence. "Rap is on the cutting edge of music today. That's why so many people are attracted to it."
But rap has another, grittier face, one that some people find far less attractive. It is in this unsanitized form that rap has come under intense fire.
Critics are alarmed by the rage, sexual explicitness and inflammatory language spewed forth by some of rap's more controversial artists. Further down from Youn M.C. on the pop charts are groups like N.W.A. (Niggas With Attitude), Public Enemy and The 2 Live Crew. While all make decidedly different socio-political statements--from Black nationalism to satyric hedonism--each proffers a style of rap that is definitely raw.
Mrked by their allegedly incendiary rhymes--replete with liberal doses of four-letter words--these rappers and their anti-establishment messages speak directly and passionately to a generation of agnry youths.
"The music represents how a particular group of young Black people--particularly inner-city young people--see the world and their place in it," says Walter Allen, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at UCLA.
Yet critics--most of them over age 30--say the music and its performers promote violence, racism and sexism (only a small cadre of rap's top stars are female). As record sales mount, and young Blacks adopt defiant songs like Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" as personal protest anthems, the cries of rap's alarmist detractors grow more shrill. Not since the advent of rock'n' roll has a music form been so widely embraced and excoriated at the same time.
Public Enemy, with its aggressively pro-Black, overthrow-the-system messages, has been blasted by some people who say that some of the group's messages are anti-Semitic. But the group's lead rapper, Chuck D., says the attacks are more a reflection of White America's discomfort with the revolutionary sentiments seething in the inner cities.
"It's a fear of the power in the music and in the Black community [that brings the criticism]," he says. "But you can't quiet down the feelings by stopping the music."
The 2 Live Crew, whose song lyrics are so X-rated that Florida Gov. Bob Martinez has attempted to have their albums banned in his state, occupy a space in that segment of the rap world where macho preening and sexual braggadocio prevail. It is a male-only world that few females (most notably the duo Salt 'N Peppa) have been able to enter, a fact that has led feminists to brand many of rap's biggest attractions as unabashedly sexist.
But rap's defenders say much of the critic ism stems from a generational gulf that prevents many older listeners from getting close enough to the music to understand its appeal.
"I think the people who view rap negatively don't understand the culture or climate that it comes from," says Ron Walters, professor of political science at Howard University. "There are a lot of frustrations in this generation, and when you talk to these young people you understand that that is where this expression is coming from. It is an honest art form."
Still, rap is a hard sell for a great many people born prior to the start of the war in Viet Nam. Even the apparel fancied by most rappers is off-putting to some adults who equate the paramilitary regalia, athletic warmup suits, expensive basketball sneakers and fat ropes of gold jewelry with gangs.
And then there's the language barrier. Between the expletives in some rap songs is an argot that is virtually unintelligible to all but the members of the post baby boom generation.
"It can be threatening when you have a generation speaking a language that you don't understand," says Dr. Walters, "but every art form that has emerged from the Black community has had its own slang."
Almost lost amid the furor over rap's bad boy image are the contributions of a large and growing number of rappers like Kris Parker (a.k.a. KRS-One) who are leading the charge to pull rap in more socially responsible directions. Parker, champion of the Stop the Violence coalition, uses rap to preach against drugs and gang warfare. "We do have a responsibility to the people who listen to our music to get across to them messages that might have a positive impact," says Parker, whose activist stance has earned him the additional nickname "The Teacher."
The rap fraternity--while it has bred some in-fighting--on the surface maintains a relatively united front. Rappers understand marketing. So if a Young M.C. or Tone-Loc (Tony Smith) can attract large White followings with their brand of innocuous party rap, you won't hear a lot of grumbling from the end of the spectrum where NWA and Public Enemy reside. "It's about new attitudes and new ideas being expressed," says Young, "and that's good for rap because it gets more people into the music and expands the record-buying base for everybody."
A sure testament to rap's expansion is the increase in record sales. Tone-Loc's "Wild Thing" was the biggest selling single of 1988-89. In fact, no record since 1984's "We Are The World" has sold better. Fully one-third of the songs on Billboard's (the music industry's bible) Top 40 list at any given moment in 1989 were either by rap artists or contained a rap.
"Rap is not this fad of inner-city kids that is going to go away," says David Mays, a Harvard University senior who is executive director of The Source, a bimonthly magazine devoted exclusively to rap that is produced by a group of Harvard students.
That rap has taken hold at a bastion of elitism such as Harvard is further evidence of its widespread appeal.
The profile of the typical rapper also has changed as the music has gained acceptance in broader circles. No longer is rap the exclusive province of undereducated inner-city youths who see it as their only ticket out of poverty. Middle-class rappers abound.
Young M.C., a 1989 graduate of the University of Southern California, holds a bachelor's degree in economics. Writing and performing rap songs has always been his hobby, but before he could delve into it full-time, he had to live up to a promise to his mother to finish college.
Clean-cut rappers like Young and Kid 'N Play, the rapping tandem that stars in this winter's phenomenally successful teen movie House Party, have blunted the edge of rap's image. In their hands, rap emerges as exuberent party music--youthful, danceable and, above all, harmless.
D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, another pair of collegiate, Cosby-kid looking rappers, also have helped gain general acceptance for rap with their ubiquitous appearances on cable networks like MTV and Black Entertainment Television.
"We want to bring rap out of the ghetto," says Will Smith (a.k.a the Fresh Prince).
But even rappers on this tamer end of the scale will say that their more fiery counterparts are also harmless. "They're just talking about what people are talking about in the community," says Tone-Loc. "It's out there what people are feeling. They're just putting it in music."
Art is suppose to reflect the culture from which it comes, many say. And rap, in all of its forms, reflects the movement and views of today's youth. "It's not something you have to be afraid of," says Dr. Allen of UCLA. "It's a form of social commentary that's not different from other cultural expressions that have come from other generations of Black people."
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|Title Annotation:||includes parents' guide to rap vocabulary|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1990|
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