PRINT March 1992


Rap Hermeneutics

THE PUBLIC ENEMY T-SHIRT worn by Terminator 2’s young hero John Connor aligns him with “resistance” in some vague form, but hardly with an underground. After all, everyone knows who Public Enemy are, or their name wouldn’t be in a big-money entertainment aimed at a nation of millions. The shirt works as a Stones T-shirt might have in 1970, but not as a Sex Pistols T-shirt would have in 1980. It functions like the Guns N’ Roses song on the sound track: we’re hip, the filmmakers are saying, but accessible. (And we contain multitudes, from Axl to PE’s Chuck D.) Yet this shirt is far more richly symbolic than any rock band’s would have been. For whites in the audience, it’s suggestive of racial tolerance and political concern, but also of toughness, danger, controversy, and difference. Public Enemy’s image is heavier than any rock group’s, and goes farther to signify John Connor’s total righteous cool. No matter how multiracial rap’s audience, this costume choice suggests, rap isn’t part of rock.

Public Enemy themselves don’t glory in this difference. “We ride limos, too,” Chuck D assures us, “Run with the rock stars, still never get accepted as.” These lines from PE’s 1988 hit “Bring tha Noize” reflect a view of rap stars as second-class citizens in the musical firmament. It’s worth asking why Chuck D thinks being “accepted as” a rock star, rather than the world-famous rap star he is, would be a worthy goal.

Loosely speaking, rock stars aspire to heroism—their best technicians, in fact, are known as “guitar heroes.” And since Achilles, the hero in the West has stood for the aloneness of radical difference. This isolation from the group is the source of his poetic aura, and of his vulnerability. Rock stars are notoriously mortal, and rock was accumulating dead avatars from its infancy; its energy comes from the death drive, or its forestallment. Rappers like Chuck D, on the other hand, aspire less to heroism than to leadership. And despite its roots in a community where violent deaths are legion, and where one in four young men is behind bars, this music has produced few martyrs. It is about surviving, and proud of it—like Ice-T when he sneers “You should’ve killed me last year.” There’s no death-entranced rap equivalent to David Bowie’s “Rock ’N’ Roll Suicide” or Lou Reed’s “Heroin.” When rappers mention death, it’s usually boastingly, as something that can’t happen to them.

However fraudulently, much rock still promises Dionysian release. But the ecstasies of rap lie not in abandon but in the precision of breathtaking verbal fluency. Rap is realistic rather than escapist, challenging rather than comforting. It’s street music, and you don’t trance out on the street. While rock vocalists are seen to give themselves up to something, rappers strive for control—and lose sexual appeal and charisma. What makes performers sexy isn’t their power to master us but their ability to give in to their feelings and be moved, and rappers are rarely allowed the luxury of weakness or sorrow. There’s been a tragic consciousness in rap from the beginning, but it’s usually been tied to the specific unhappy situation of African-Americans (in Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” for example) rather than to the human condition. The Geto Boys’ recent hit “Mind Playin’ Tricks On Me” is an extraordinary exception, and the group in general is the only one I’ve seen live that comes close to terribilitá.

These differences reflect the broader divide between the avant-gardist cultural assumptions of all but the most commercial rock and the more mainstream values of rap. Rap has a willingness to please that’s the antithesis of rock’s jazz-descended cool. There are gradations, of course, but even hardcore rappers extend more courtesy to their audiences than rock bands. It’s hard to imagine Ice-T, Chuck D or any of the Geto Boys turning his back on the audience for most of his show, or deliberately insulting them—which happens frequently enough in rock. And though there are underground rockers and jazz musicians who like to boast of the difficulty of their playing, of how they won’t really be understood for twenty years, rappers want to be understood now. In practice, rappers’ striving to be “large” amounts to the ordinary writ large, not to radical difference or experimentalism.

Rappers are unique among 20th-century artists in the candor of their pursuit of material success. At one end of the spectrum, Public Enemy champion sobriety, education, and black capitalism; at the other, the Geto Boys make malt liquor ads and assure us “I Ain’t With Being Broke.” Even misogyny wears a material face: the main sin women are accused of in rap is gold digging. What’s pathetic about much rap materialism is in fact the modesty of its aspiration. LL Cool J’s “The Do Wop,” written when he was 18, takes us through a rapper’s day, including a mink coat, a BMW—and a visit to a White Castle. The adoring crowd aside, there’s nothing in his fantasy beyond the reach of a moderately successful small businessman.

You didn’t hear much in the media about materialism in rap until gangster imagery exploded in the late ’80s. As rappers told stories of selling drugs and shooting people, bohemian critics reeled in disbelief; gangster metaphors had to be explained away, or condemned. Frank Owen wrote in Spin in 1988, “The rappers’ gangster imagery is, in the phrase coined by French writer Jean Baudrillard, hyperconformism: the simulation of the mechanism of the very system that excludes them.” We should credit rappers with more imagination. Yes, some of the motive behind rap gangsterism is admiration for criminality—the same American fascination that has spawned noir novels, journalism, and film, which no one has called hyperconformist. Some is, in the words of David Samuels, “the conscious manipulation of racial stereotypes” for white suburban voyeurs. And as Alan Light has pointed out, “Rappers knew that they could cross over to the pop charts with minimal effort, which made many . . . attempt to prove their commitment to rap’s street heritage.” But behind the boasts, there’s also amazement—that they’re getting paid to enjoy speech, rather than serving time in an office or bagging groceries for minimum wage. Like criminals, they’re getting away with something. It’s not that gangsterism is admirable per se, but that rapping is as radical an answer to the grimness of work and as breathtaking an escape from the dour structures of adult life.

For some time now the problem with capitalism hasn’t been that it doesn’t work but that it’s no longer fun. Opposition culture has failed to make good on this. Rock musicians are as often as not appalled at the possibility of uniting work and play that they in fact represent; they wear their bad conscience on their sleeve, from the ambivalences of the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ’N’ Roll Star” on. Yes, the business of rock is joyful excess, but excess looks more and more like business as usual. The business of rap is just business, yet it still looks like fun. Rap is postmodern not only in form—its samples extending the “cut-up” and the appropriationist collage to music—but in its culture, where art looks more and more like business even as it looks more and more like play.

Rap doesn’t exactly join work and play, but it blurs the division considerably, not only in the pleasure taken in making the music and living the life, but in the delight in speech underlying the whole art. On first hearing, the sheer fluency of some rappers suggests the ecstasy of the child’s first immersion in speech, repeating strings of words over and over for the thrill of it. Rap’s suggestion of a union of work and play, art and business, recalls the worlds both of pro sports and of criminal activity, and rap’s posses shadow and are shadowed by the sports team and the gang. With its cult of the posse, its identification with the neighborhood, and its call-and-response dynamic, rap is the music of the group, not the lonely hero. Its world functions in many ways like the world of sports: although each team has its star or stars, the fan identifies with the team rather than with the individual player. (All those team caps are no coincidence.)

Like gangs and teams, rappers have been given to trademark clothing, jewelry, and logos. Their now-waning taste for gold chains and designer names has often been tagged by middle-class whites as vulgar, and pathetically enthralled with the most bankrupt aspects of capitalism. Owen offers a deeper interpretation: “Rather than simply aping the lifestyles of the rich and famous, homeboys are recoding the trappings of affluence, caricaturing mainstream consumption.” Making broad signs of identity is also a logical response to the way white society has cartooned blacks. Rap’s symbol system is often a form of mirroring: if society thrusts on you a stereotypical yet inescapable identity, put on a crude and exhibitionistic mask. The exaggerated looks in rap culture reflect both blacks’ and whites’ obsession with blacks’ appearance—i.e., with the color of their skin. (The young Oakland rapper Del tha Funkeé Homosapien’s “Dark Skin Girls” is remarkable because many male rappers take the opposite preference for granted.) Rap’s symbolic defiance is essentially reactive, and many of its visual identifications are a return of the repressed. Rappers themselves have noted that gold chains are, after all, chains.

Rap’s imagery isn’t so much poetic as suggestive, obeying the language of dreams, of psychoanalysis, or of Surrealism. Sometimes rap’s politics seem surreal too, in their wrongheadedness, or in the way they simultaneously cut through and regurgitate the dead tissue of the past. Like the Geto Boys at Madison Square Garden in January, first asking for the black power salute, then sampling from the “Star-Spangled Banner”—and this as the intro to the anti–Gulf War song “Fuck A War.” Like Choice, a woman rapper from Houston, restoring, or ignoring, four hundred years of American history as she belts out what’s just an aside in “Payback”: “The South is in the goddamn house!” This is what the Civil War was fought for. What’s crucial to these moments isn’t, finally, that the artists in question are black, but that they’re American, born to covet both limos and street credibility, to valorize work and criminality at once, to hope against all merely reasonable expectation for lives that are adventures. It remains to be seen whether rap has been using capitalism or is being used by it, but it also remains to be seen whether the rest of us are capable of taking up the pleasures, and astonishments, it offers us.

Ann Marlowe writes about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll for the LA Weekly and The Village Voice.