Just as hot trends meet their death when discovered by The Times Style Section-- see Trucker Hats -- emerging cultural themes usually go mainstream after a close-up in the paper's Week in Review. Now, after years of skirmishing below the Times' radar, the paper of record has taken notice of the nexus between conservative talk radio and hip hop.
In "The Kinship Between Talk Radio and Rap," David Segal celebrates the "uncanny... similarities between talk radio and gangsta rap."
First, pardon his jargon -- Segal actually focuses on hip hop at large, not gangsta rap, a subgenre that began in the 80s and is now virtually extinct. The article suggests four shared obsessions of rappers and radio hosts: Ego, haters, intramural feuds and "verbal skills." Surveying America's fractured media culture, Segal argues that these seemingly divergent loudmouths actually serve similar markets. "Rappers and conservative talkers both speak for a demographic that believes its interests and problems have been slighted and both offer stories that have allegedly been ignored."
For conservatives, the Obama era has clearly heightened the appetite for victimization. The Right's new heroes tell the same story, from Frank Ricci to Sgt. Crowley to Glenn Beck. It's hard out there for white men. That may sound odd coming from the party of business elites and racial majorities, yet as the critic Leon Wieseltier once observed, American conservatives, and especially the Christian Right, delight in combining "the power of a majority with the pity of a minority." Segal flags this "paradox" of overexposed, under-appreciated radio personalities. He notes that Michael Savage "is forever describing himself as an underdog, marginalized by the media" -- even though his show is carried on over 300 stations.
In hip hop, poverty, struggle and hustle are central to many rappers' personal narratives, even as success turns those experiences to distant memories. "How does Lil Wayne complain in song about the legions who seek his ruin," Segal wonders, "even as he dominates the charts?" To be sure, few other modern musical genres place as much emphasis on whether an artist keeps it real in his personal life. Jadakiss once insulted 50 Cent by noting that the rapper had moved to Connecticut -- a comment that simply doesn't translate for most musicians -- and echoes the bizarro populist narratives of multimillionaires like Bill O'Reilly.
But this overlap is not new. Hip hop commentators have noted these similarities for years.
"Think of everything you know about Bill O'Reilly -- it's also everything that you'd expect out of a gangster rapper," argued Jay Smooth, a hip hop radio show host, back in 2007. In an irreverent, rhyming YouTube video parodying O'Reilly and Fox News (below), Smooth continued:
He's an egomaniac that loves to brag about how successful he is... He's always getting into beef with his peers for no good reason. And in general he gets paid by promoting hate and conflict and negativity, but whenever you call him on it, he tells you that he's just reporting reality!
Segal's article neglects those antecedents, and ends meekly. He notes that both talk radio and hip hop are criticized for spreading "highly provocative words" that can undermine civility, and closes by quoting the observation that both camps essentially provide entertainment. What's missing, as any fan of rap or talk radio could tell you, is any acknowledgment of the battles between these two worlds.
Jay-Z, the hip hop legend who eclipsed Elvis for most chart-toppers by a solo artist in US history, released an album last week that personally assails Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh hit back with humor and some sexual references. For his part, O'Reilly has long targeted rappers, not only criticizing their lyrics but also urging his audience to boycott companies that use hip hop endorsements. And last year, the rapper Nas devoted a whole song to criticizing Fox News, and then teamed up with a black political organization to deliver critical petitions at the company's headquarters in midtown Manhattan.
There is more than an overlap in style and media impact here -- there is also a recurring battle over cultural power and the policing of rhetoric. At a time when our public discourse is increasingly poisoned with malice and gestures towards political violence, it is striking that so many critics of violent words in music don't apply the same standards to those who claim to practice journalism.