By Rodrigo Bascuñán and Christian PearceWay back in 1982 Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released "The Message,” one of the very first commercially successful rap tracks, and a cut on which guns play a role. In the words of the All Music Guide to Hip-hop, it was "the first time hip-hop became a vehicle not merely for bragging and boasting but also for trenchant social commentary.” On "The Message,” Bronx-born Melle Mel does the math for would-be Pretty Boy Floyds, summing up the consequences of a stickup kid’s lifestyle: an "eight-year bid” in prison being "used and abused.” Mentioning a "street sweeper,” Mel isn’t rapping about assault rifles; he’s talking about the job his son could expect if he chose to drop out of school.
When he was inking "The Message,” it’s doubtful that Melle Mel foresaw the global culture that his creativity was helping give rise to. And he definitely didn’t see that guns themselves would one day become the message.
"I was listening to a radio interview,” Mel said, "and the first guy who made the drum machine — the Lindrum — he was a drummer, and he said if he knew what the Lindrum would have done for drummers and musicians, he would’ve never invented the Lindrum. It’s almost the same way I feel about rap.”
The obsession with firearms evident in a lot of rap music today didn’t develop overnight, nor did it emerge in a vacuum. Emcees are influenced by gun culture like most other males their age: they grow up reading the same comics, watching the same movies and playing the same videogames. Arguably, the success of The Punisher, Terminator and Grand Theft Auto, as just a few popular examples, has impacted the content of hip-hop even more than life on any street.
By now, however, hip-hop’s own social influence is undeniable. Just as video game designers look to movie directors for inspiration, and vice-versa, hip-hop inspires them both — not to mention other genres of music, and even pro sports. Hip-hop influences how people dress, what rides they dream of driving and what gats they pack. The effect of rap music on youth especially, how shorties see issues such as gun violence, is clear.
But while other entertainment industries have found it convenient to excuse the often sour fruits of their influence, some hip-hop artists have, like Melle Mel, never had a problem acknowledging their power and accepting responsibility for how they use it.
Hip-hop journalists Reggie C. Dennis and Cheo Hodari Coker both mentioned two tracks released in 1987 as critical contributions to the evolution of guns in rap: "9mm Goes Bang,” from Boogie Down Productions (BDP) and Public Enemy’s "Miuzi [pronounced "my uzi”] Weighs A Ton.” "When you held these records it changed your life,” said Dennis, "because no one had ever thought to just make weapons of destruction a nice part of a song.”
BDP recorded "9mm Goes Bang” for their first long-player, Criminal Minded. On the album cover Blastmaster Kris sits beside his DJ, Scott LaRock, the young artists draped in handguns, ammo belts and even a grenade. It was an image unprecedented in the culture. By the time Boogie Down Productions released its second LP, 1988’s By All Means Necessary, Scott LaRock was gone, shot dead as he tried to make peace at a party in the Bronx. And while his partner, KRS-One, could still be found holding a Micro-Uzi on the cover of his sophomore record — adopting Malcolm X’s famous pose as he peered from behind closed curtains with rifle in hand — the Teacher had emerged. KRS-One’s second album featured "Stop the Violence,” a song he followed a year later with "World Peace” on 1989’s Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip-Hop. When KRS did rap about guns — on "Love’s Gonna Getcha (Material Love)” from 1990’s Edutainment, for example — it was in the form of a parable, as a hot song with a chilling message.
In 1989 a young fan was killed in a fight during a BDP and Public Enemy concert. Soon after, KRS-One organized the East Coast’s most popular rap artists to collaborate on "Self-Destruction,” a single that addressed the violence that was victimizing hip-hoppers. We were in our early teens when the single dropped, and peace couldn’t have sounded cooler than coming from our favourite rappers. KRS-One set it off, Big Daddy Kane kicked a verse, even Just-Ice, who was implicated but never charged in the murder of a drug dealer in ’87, took the glory out of gangsterism with his rhymes. Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav closed out "Self-Destruction,” rhyming back and forth in classic fashion.
Chuck D’s attitude towards violence in the culture hasn’t changed in the years since. "The fact is, guns are our problem,” Public Enemy’s front man declared on PBS’s In the Mix program. "When you happen to look on TV and see these music videos glorify guns or hear a song talking about how guns is fly, you have to begin to separate the real. As a matter of fact, in reality, guns only cause pain for everyone involved.”