PRINT March 1995


Rappers' Redux

HIP-HOP’S RELENTLESS modernity is currently in doubt. It’s not that the fierce competition to reinvent rap year by year has weakened any—viz. the recent emergence of Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, and Jeru the Damaja as claimants to the East Coast title of leaders of the Now School. But the art of representing true hip-hop is no longer the only game in town. A wave of reminiscing has flooded the house with Old School memorabilia, and back-in-the-day yearnings are the flavor of the moment.

The most visible symptoms of this backward-looking mood are the reunion of crews like the Treacherous Three and the revival of youthful interest in the pioneer spirit of the likes of Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Whodini, Schoolly D., and Kool Herc (not to mention break dancing, Adidas, park jams, and the whiff of aerosol). Today’s aficionados debate hip-hop’s origins with a competitive edge that recalls famous MC battles like Kool Moe Dee versus Busy Bee, or Cold Crush Four versus the Fantastic Five. This reemergence is not just the revenge of the patriarchs upon disrespecting young bloods for using rap’s music-battle traditions to glamorize homicide. Black music has always revered veterans who are active into a ripe old age, and the exclusion of Old School rappers from the commercial cornucopia enjoyed by their juniors has been ironic and unjust.

Under the cover of respect to the fathers, a community is also trying to police itself against the “go for the self” attitude of postgangsta rap. It’s not just the white media and policemen’s associations who are coming down on the Glock-packing griots of the war zones and their “40-ounce-and-a-blunt” mentality. Harlem minister Calvin Butts, NAACP heavies, Dionne Warwick, the National Political Congress of Black Women, and assorted intellectuals-against-nihilism have all joined the chorus of disapproval, and James Brown himself now forbids X-rated rappers from sampling his voice. Last summer, Public Enemy weighed in with Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age, a condemnation of black self-hate and amorality that went nowhere, leaving the Bomb Squad’s wall of noise hanging inert in the hot air like low-lying ozone. Once the undisputed conscience of hip-hop, Chuck D. seemed like a tired elder statesman, almost mimicking the civil-rights generation’s censorious posture toward the pants-sagging homies of the ’90s. Since PE’s 1989 call to “fight the power,” the power has fought back, and some of it is black—mainstream, established, and high on moral righteousness feeding off suburban anxiety. In response, hip-hop’s mandate to take it to the next level has developed various ways of dodging the punches. The most straightforward reactions have been age-of-innocence anthems like Ahmad’s “Back in the Day” and Coolio’s “I Remember.” It doesn’t matter that these vocalists are teens, so that their golden age before the driveby, gangbanging years only dates back to the mid ’80s. The proximity of homicide in the lives of young urban blacks has magnified each survived year into an eternity of memories. And given the near-genocidal scenario on the streets, and the elected powers’ increasing commitment to punitive social policies and repressive policing, youth nostalgia of the “What if we just didn’t grow up?” sort is plaintive but sensible.

Other responses, though, are more mature, even outright elegiac, as in “They Reminisce over You (T.R.O.Y.),” Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s 1992 testimonial to a dead friend. Such remembrances echo visually in our inner cities’ many memorial murals to untimely deaths, documented in Martha Cooper and Joseph Sciarra’s 1994 photo collection R.I.P.: Memorial Wall Art (Owl Press). Meanwhile, as rap’s beats-per-minute have eased off, Quiet Storm R&B balladeering has siphoned off some of the hip-hop audience with its smooth appeal. So, too, jazz-junkie highbrows have tried to upgrade rap’s uncouth standing through fusion with a more respectable genre under the Digable Planets’ Rebirth of the Cool rubric. A more camp formulation can be found in horrorcore rap, as B-movie graveyard humor fuels a Gothic genre. This Blacula phase of rap transmutes the psychosocial nightmares of thuglife into Rocky Horror Picture Show outtakes. Ever the pantomime prince, Snoop Doggy Dogg takes up some of the conventions in Dr. Dre’s 18-minute video for “Murder Was the Case,” surely a bid to better Michael Jackson’s epic “Thriller” video with an updated brand of ghoulish realism. Snoop has mainly been associated with the most musically successful version of the good-old-days formula—the G-Funk sound out of Long Beach.

Originating in Dre’s massive 1993 The Chronic, G-Funk’s laid-back, sinister groove has eclipsed East Coast breakbeat’s rapid-fire delivery, not just in commercial sales but also in the perennial bicoastal contest to define the sound of the moment. Slow, low, and fat, G-Funk’s head-nodding vibe came as the ultimate knowing response to a hip-hop scene in desperate need of cooling off. Drawing the heat off gangsta rap by recycling the funk of their early youth, the kinship grouping of Dre, Snoop, and 1994’s new rap star, Warren G (Dre’s younger half-brother and Snoop’s best friend), nailed down a classic auto-cruising sound and provided a slew of accompanying life-style images on video and film.

While hip-hop has always given props to producers— Hank Shocklee, Prince Paul, Pete Rock, Eric Sadler, Eric B—the emergence of producer-rappers like Dre and Warren G is a significant response to the demand for black control over musical product. Warren G’s hit “Regulate—the G-Funk Era” captures this situation in a complex metaphor: an old byword for a hired gun, “regulator” is also used here to describe the MC who controls the word flow on the mic. As a producer and more, the rapper is also in a position to regulate the flow of industry product and its linked modes—records, videos, films, advertising, clothing, accessories, endorsements. So the idea of the “regulator” touches all three phases of the gangsta era—Original Gangsta (on the streets), studio gangsta, and now the industry gangsta.

In this respect all the funkster trappings are the right retro choice. The Pimp Look adopted by ’70s funk heroes like the street hustler and the superfly vigilante advertised a new affluence linked to control over black resources and commodities (a control summarized in the visual power of the blaxploitation film). Rather than adopt this style ostentatiously, G-Funk evokes its stony coolness, replacing the pimpmobile with the low-riders’ saloon. Not surprisingly, George Clinton is G-Funk’s forebear of choice; his intergalactic freakiness is preferred to James Brown’s tell-it-like-it-is soul realism, which presided over New School hip-hop. Clinton’s Mothership futurism was as much a utopian response to the ’70s ghetto as the Buck Rogers futurism of early hip-hop, with its synthesizer-driven anthems like “Planet Rock,” its glammy space-age outfits like those of the Fearless Four, and its graffitists like Futura 2000. This kind of futurism was instantly outdated when Run-D.M.C. initiated the New School in the mid ’80s. But even in the most ghettocentric forms of reality rap, hip-hop has maintained the sense of a movement progressing toward some future rendezvous with social and cultural justice while remaining true, in the best tradition of black music, to some version of its roots.

The current spate of reminiscing and revivalism suggests a hiatus in this forward momentum. Perhaps it’s nothing but a genre thang, and some wags are sure to label it the post-Modern or self-reflexive phase of rap, in which a genre that has exhausted itself begins to recycle the past. If so, then there is a conservative logic at work in rap that this music has managed to override until now. More likely, however, we are seeing some serious deflection of the full-frontal attacks on hip-hop in the last few years. While the most resilient responses are drawing upon black heritage, the result is not exactly a culture in denial of the present. The time is still now. But where is the rage for the future?

Andrew Ross is a professor and director of the American Studies program at New York University. His latest book is The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature’s Debt to Society (Verso).