How Hip-hop Has Embraced and Rejected the Firearm
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.”
On the phone in 2005, Chuck explained the need to make such a statement. "I just think there’s never been a time such as now that there is so much imbalance,” he said. "When I was growing up, we played cowboys and Indians with little toy guns and water guns, and even my first song was looking at the gun as a revolutionary tool, but not as a leisure weapon to shoot yourself with. And that was the right to bear arms, and that was what made me come out with ‘Miuzi Weighs a Ton,’ using it as a metaphor for my brain in songs.”
Unfortunately, while Chuck D’s music and motivations have always been well-considered, his group’s message wasn’t so consistently understood. Many fans were taken more by the sight of S1W (Security of the First World) on stage in fatigues, swinging replica Uzis and performing militaristic dance steps, than they were with what PE were trying to communicate with the image. Some of Public Enemy’s own followers believed the hype.
A share of KRS-One’s fan also absorbed his messages selectively. KRS is credited with helping set the stage for both the positive-minded Native Tongues movement and gangsta rap — a testament to the Blastmaster’s incredible artistic balance. In the movie based on the life of Curtis Jackson, as the scene shifts from the star as a boy to the star as a young man, he points a .357 revolver at the mirror. He raps along with one of his hip-hop heroes as BDP’s "9mm Goes Bang” plays on his deck. A Public Enemy poster hangs on the wall behind him.
In 1989 Los Angeles’ N.W.A. broke through with their second record, Straight Outta Compton, and revolutionized the rap game. The L.A. crack epidemic had taken hold, drug dealers were stockpiling weapons and homicide statistics were set to soar. When Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E rapped about AK-47s and Uzis, it wasn’t as a metaphor for their brains. They were talking about shooting cops, "bitches” and their fans. With the controversy around the song "Fuck the Police,” Straight Outta Compton set new standards for lyrical gunplay — and sales. It went triple platinum, selling more than three million copies, an unheard of number for a non-commercial hip-hop LP. Ironically, the album sparked another trend, one that continues to drive sales of hip-hop: its retail success was fuelled largely by suburban teens.
The album shifted some of hip-hop’s focus towards the West Coast and away from the positivity of "Self-Destruction.” Straight Outta Compton did include Dr. Dre’s upliftingly unfit "Express Yourself,” but the LP’s dominant message was that gangsters plus guns, mixed with a scoop of misogyny, could equal commercial success. Many rappers on both coasts got the message.
In 1991, on "Same Song,” a track created for Dan Aykroyd’s movie Nothin’ But Trouble, as the Digital Underground’s Shock G prepared to pass the mic to a then little-known rapper and D.U. dancer, he rapped "Just watch, ‘cause my name is Shock, I like to rock, and you can’t stop this / 2Pac go ‘head and rock this.” With the Digital Underground, Pac would clown around on the mic, keeping his lyrics lighthearted. At other times the NYC-born, Baltimore-and-Oakland-raised artist rapped about teenage pregnancy, police corruption and the frustrations of ghetto living. Sometimes Pac was straight gangsta.
"America has always celebrated bad boys and gangstas,” Shock G said, "from Christopher Columbus to the wild Wild West to Scarface to Eazy-E to George Bush. This is precisely why a well-read and formally trained poet, actor, historian and activist like Tupac saw the need to incorporate some ‘thug’ into his style.”
"Why do you think so many in hip-hop are so determined to convince everyone they’re ‘never scared’?” Chris asked.
"Since the fearless ‘gangsta’ mentality became such a marketable characteristic within the entertainment industry, many artists choose to tap into that success by projecting themselves as part of it in an attempt to capture the interest and curiosity of the average non-gangsta record buyer, as well as the camaraderie of the other fellow gangsters. Meanwhile, the young budding personalities whose minds are still supple and mouldable find themselves imitating this popular behaviour before they fully understand the repercussions of living that way. The result is often a prison term for an action of violence in response to an insignificant attack on one’s pride or character. A time to kill used to be when there was no other option, but lately a mere verbal dis to one’s attire or neighbourhood can lead to murder.”
Shock G’s belief in the significant influence of rap music on youth is nothing new. In 1990, Shock (and his alter ego, Humpty Hump) joined some of the West Coast’s most respected rappers to record "We’re All in the Same Gang,” organized in response to an explosion of gang violence, the vast majority of which involved guns. The track featured Tone Loc, Ice-T and even N.W.A.’s Ren, Dre and the "violent hero” himself, Eazy-E. Letting listeners glimpse through their images and rapping about the real ends of a gangster lifestyle, they took a stand against the killing.
Shock G evaluated the gunplay in rap music today in a word: "Boring. It’s just a popular trend right now. In some cases it’s an excuse for not having anything else interesting to talk about. It’s also insurance for some rappers: ‘Don’t criticize my style or I’ll shoot you.’”
While the West Coast’s finest were dropping "We’re All in the Same Gang,” back east positivity still ruled the rap music of the day. It was, in many fans’ memories, hip-hop’s golden age. Groups like Main Source and A Tribe Called Quest produced timeless, and virtually gatless, classics. Brand Nubian’s 1990 LP One For All was another masterpiece that didn’t glorify pieces. When a reunited Brand Nu played Toronto in 2004, Lord Jamar talked about the influence of emcees on issues such as gun violence.
"I think they’re very influential,” Lord J said, as Sadat X snoozed on the side. "Life imitates art; art imitates life. Once you say something on a record, there is a segment of the population that is influenced by that. They will directly do what you tell them. People say, ‘Aw, that’s stupid. You can’t let a record influence you.’ Yeah, but people do. Not everybody does, but a lot of people do. And that’s why you gotta watch what you say. Rap artists are role models. We can’t raise people’s kids, but at the same time, we’re influencing people’s kids, and you gotta be aware of that. You can’t brush it off and say, ‘The parents need to check the lyrics for them.’ They can’t always check the lyrics for them. It reaches people.”
[In 1994], OutKast’s Southernplayalisticaddillacmuzik brought Southern gangsta to Star Trek samples, signally the new duo’s otherworldly talent. Big Boi and Dre played with pistols on their debut, reflecting life amidst the heat in Atlanta, but it wouldn’t take long before they’d moved as far beyond firearms as the bombs over Baghdad.
"Some people come up and ask, ‘Will we ever get another Southernplayalisticaddillacmuzik album?’” Dre said. "And I’ll be like, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t think so’ because we were sixteen, seventeen years old. We were doin’ all the things knuckleheads do in high school — you know, smokin’, drinkin’, carryin’ guns and all that type of stuff. So all that was a reflection of what was goin’ on, and I can’t fake like I’m seventeen years old... I think the whole term ‘keep it real’ killed hip-hop, because what happened was a lot of people thought keepin’ it real meant keepin’ it real ignorant and slum.”
OutKast’s debut also introduced the supernatural stylings of another ATLien, with the first verse on the unforgettably inspiring "Git Up, Git Out.” Cee-Lo Green provided us with some thoughts on the gat-clapping content of modern rap. "A lot of the guys talkin’ tough, I think a lot of it comes from insecurity,” said the vocal half of Gnarls Barkley. "I think if anything, our music is a defence mechanism. It seems like we’re so passionate about being heartless — can you dig it? And how is that even possible?”
Although it would be tough to squeeze Cee-Lo into any mould, he says that setting himself apart is still a challenge in today’s environment. "I’m different because I dare to be,” he emphasized. "And I really think it’s necessary, and I really empathize with today’s music and with today’s generation. The thought is horrifying, what their music or their lives will be like fifteen years from now, when we had a 2 Live Crew and we had a Public Enemy, understandwhatI’msayin’? To have balance, and both of them were prominent. But with today’s music it’s all the same and there’s no alternative, and it frightens me a bit. I feel like if I condone it, man, I’m condoning a much harsher world for my son to go out into, where he has to go out there and fend for himself and survive. And so if I’m left with no choice, I have to teach him how to hold a gun as well.”
So how did hip-hop lost its balance? Because SoundScan — the music industry’s sales monitoring system — is the almighty redeemer. If gangsta rap is moving, gangsta rap is what gets manufactured. For GangStarr’s Guru — whose references to gunplay were influenced by artists such as Scarface, Rakim and Big Daddy Kane, emcees who used guns as a metaphor or included messages and morals — the streamlining of rap music merely reflects the influence of corporate imperatives on all media. "At this point, hip-hop is being run by people who aren’t from the culture,” Guru said. "It started as a culture and for fun and as an alternative to violence, because it started when the gangs were ending in New York. And now it’s billion-dollar business, and what sells? Sex, drugs, violence.”
Oak-Town’s Paris agrees; he sees the rise of violent rap as hip-hop having gone astray in the hands of a few multinational mass media corporations such as Viacom and Vivendi Universal — labelled the "musical industrial complex” by music journalist Peter Spellman. The homogenization of the "Black CNN” parallels the homogenization of news broadcasting by CBS, NBC and the other CNN.
"Realize that 99 percent of the artists that are out there that do hip-hop are not artists in the true sense of the word,” Paris said, "in that they’re not true to what they believe in, in this current environment. And I say that because if the labels — if the two or three labels that are left — issue a blanket statement saying that they would no longer support music that was detrimental to the community, the majority of the artists that are out there would switch up and they would adjust to a more positive stance in order to be palatable to labels that they feel are gonna pay ‘em.”
Wise Intelligent, leader of the Poor Righteous Teachers, gave us the essence of hip-hop music: "Rap is like water. If you put Kool-Aid in it, you get Kool-Aid; if you put tea in it, you get tea. One might be more healthy for you than the other one, but it doesn’t change the fact that it came from that water.” When most kids go for a drink, they’re gonna reach for something sweet, something that’ll give them a quick rush. Trigger-happy gangsta rap offers young peeps exactly that, and much like purveyors of junk food, music companies have proven willing to keep feedin’ ‘em and feedin’ ‘em.
Excerpted from Enter the Babylon System. Copyright © 2007 Rodrigo Bascuñán and Christian Pearce. Published by Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
By James Keast
Unpacking gun culture from Samuel Colt to 50 Cent - through the lens of hip-hop music and culture - is seriously ambitious, but Pound magazine publisher Rodrigo Bascuñán and editor Christian Pearce were initially thinking even bigger. When the scope of Enter the Babylon System was narrowed down to firearms, the duo had little problem finding prominent rappers across the spectrum to speak up; getting the gun perspective was the challenge. "You have two sides that are so polarised, it’s hard to gauge when you’re getting good information,” Bascuñán says. "”Everyone has their agenda, and everyone is spinning - that’s the tough part, cracking through that and trying to stay impartial.”
Their balanced perspective brings a valuable voice of hard reality to this contentious debate, but will anyone hear them? "There are people who can’t look past guns and hip-hop - as soon as you put those two together, that’s just the end of the conversation,” Bascuñán says. "Unless Chris and I come out with ‘hip-hop is responsible for all the world’s problems, ever’ it’s not enough for them. They just hate the people it represents so much, they can’t have a rational dialogue about it.”
Bascuñán and Pearce, chuffed by their accomplishment, would love to revisit the idea of bigger picture concerns through a hip-hop lens: "the ones we felt that hip-hop had the most contribution to make were prisons, drug culture and poverty.”
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