I recently watched an episode of The O'Reilly Factor. I was staying at a hotel. It was late. I struck out at the bar. I was bored. O'Reilly and sports reporter Jason Whitlock were hashing out the police raid of Michael Vick's Virginia estate. Whitlock theorized that hip-hop was the reason Vick engaged in dog fighting. "This hip-hop culture is destructive to young people," he said. "And if you want to stay in that culture, it will lead you to a coffin, a jail cell or major embarrassment." Tell that to Jimmy Iovine.
There are numerous reasons to account for Vick's interest in dog fighting. Just because DMX has pit bulls in his music videos doesn't mean hip-hop is a logical explanation. Isn't it more likely that Vick isn't bright and he takes pleasure in watching animals fight? Why not blame Virginia Tech? He attended the university for two years. Shouldn't they have taught him some compassion? Then again, we're talking about an institution where the culture is so twisted it drove one student to pack excessive heat and shoot up the student body. When did violence/violence against animals become a hip-hop thing and not an American thing? Did everyone forget our vice-president flat-blasted a guy in the chest during a quail hunt last year? Trust me, Cheneyburton is so not hip-hop.
I don't care much about Vick or this scandal. You'll get no argument from me that dog fighting is cruel. But isn't this the new Eric Estrada sex tape we've heard so much about? Next month when Rush Limbaugh gets caught smoking crack with illegal Mexican workers who were trimming his marijuana bushes won't we have forgotten about Mikey? Besides, there's something hollow about our outrage on this issue of cruelty considering our country is dolling out death to other human beings here, there and everywhere. Can I get some outrage to go with that shake? I know it's foolish to take anything O'Reilly seriously but this situation did bring to light two issues that irk me big time.
- Why is hip-hop always blamed for problems that aren't its fault?
Why are commentators who aren't experts on hip-hop culture given a platform to speak about it?
With regard to point one, here's what I know to be fact. On a macro level, hip-hop has created millions of jobs and generated billions of dollars in revenue for our country. Where would AOL/Time Warner (which employs Whitlock), Disney, Sony and all the other monster media companies be without the money they've made from the manipulation of this art form? In fact, there was no such thing as a Jason Whitlock, a Steven A. Smith or any of these lingo-fied black sportscasters until Eric Berman wrote an article in Vibe in 1997 praising Stuart Scott for infusing sports broadcasting with hip-hop vernacular.
Other than technology, and maybe Baywatch, hip-hop, which is a proponent of capitalism, is America's most effective cultural ambassador. It has convinced the citizens of other nations, even our rivals, that our aspirational world view is the best philosophy on the planet. It's been so effective we've got the Russians eating Big Macs and the Chinese shopping for Rocawear jerseys at Walmart.
On a micro level, hip-hop gave me the courage to step off my college campuses to work with kids in Philly and Harlem. It taught me to fight the power and that being black is nothing to be ashamed of. Many other Americans who did not have access to higher education learned from hip-hop that any barrier to entry can be overcome with creativity and entrepreneurship.
More than anything I'm tired of having to defend my culture. It is a sickening exercise that only colored people have to endure. For the record, hip-hop accounts for more empowering music, artwork, dance and writing than any other cultural movement in the history of our country. It has now been in effect mode for over 30 years. By comparison, The Civil War lasted four years, the American Revolution was good for eight, the Civil Rights Movement barely broke a decade and the Harlem Renaissance lasted 20. Sure hip-hop has its contradictions but what doesn't? The Catholic church says god loves all people... unless you're gay or you want to have an abortion. Our Declaration of Independence says all men are created equal yet this country has one of the most complex caste systems on the planet. Organized athletics allow black men to play the games but only recently have they been allowed to coach the teams.
I will give Whitlock this, a lot of rap music is junk. However, that doesn't mean he's correct when he categorically classifies rappers as jigaboos. He reasons that they glorify drugs and violence. I don't agree with that construct but even if I did how would that make MCs any different than other musicians? Country music is loaded with tall tales of dishonesty, debauchery and violence. Rock is the worst when it comes to the degradation of women and the promotion of drug culture. Pop, well that's inherently brain dead on all fronts because it's meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Here's the card Whitlock is missing and it's the difference between a straight flush and a handful of crap. Many traditional forms of hip-hop, like rap, have been appropriated into the pop culture cannon because, like Jenna Jameson's pornos, they make big companies big money. What Whitlock and other uninformed critics often attribute to hip-hop is actually a pop culture knock-off made specifically to sell to a dumbed-down mass market audience that is gender and race neutral. Keep in mind, money follows the masses and this country is 75% white.
What Whitlock calls hip-hop, a more informed person recognizes as pop entertainment; just like the movie 300; just like the video game Resident Evil. So blaming hip-hop for our societal addiction to drugs and violence is like hypothesizing it's Lindsey Lohan's fault every time an athlete gets pulled over for drunk driving. While we're being gratuitously obtuse, why not finger Mic Jagger for the steroid scandal in baseball. He's a famous drug user and rock music accounts for 34% of the music market so clearly there's a connection. What about violent movies and video games? Do we blame Bruce Willis for every late hit in football and every cheap slide tackle in soccer? After all, he's one excessively violent cat and a lot of people have seen his movies. If you tally the kills from all four Die Hard flicks, Willis is 50 times more gangster than 50 Cent.
This brings me to my second point. I'm tired of hearing people who don't know anything about hip-hop analyze it as if they have the scholarly credentials to do so. I've been to Europe and they have museums there but that doesn't make me an expert on impressionist painting. Whitlock is a former division two football player from Indianapolis with a degree in journalism from Ball State. He writes about sports for a living and although he was published in Vibe, not while I was running the joint mind you, his most relevant hip-hop credential is that he's black. Sorry Homes, that doesn't cut it. I can name a multitude of authors, none of whom are black, whose knowledge on this culture far surpasses your myopic observations. So stick to your skill set and keep telling America why Payton Manning is a clutch QB. When it comes to hip-hop, there's a spot waiting for you at the end of the bench. Use it.
For all the commentators who aren't sure whether they're qualified to speak on hip-hop, your CV is the only yard stick you need. It should contain a degree (or two) from an accredited academic institution and an author credit to a book or numerous articles about the culture. Life experience qualifies if you're Kool Herc or equivalent. If not, you're under-qualified for the position of hip-hop critic. Akin to all my republican homies who hate affirmative action, I agree that it's unfair for an under-qualified person to be given a job when there's someone more qualified kicking around. We should all set our minds to rectifying this problem immediately. I propose the following solution. Let's examine why our country has historically maintained an inherently negative perception of anything with cultural roots in minority communities. The history of (black) American music is a prime example and my American experience has convinced me that it's deeper than that.
When I was an undergraduate at UPenn I majored in English with a concentration in African-American literature. There were so few courses in my concentration I was forced to take graduate courses to earn a BA. I vividly recall being in Professor Houston Baker's class on black female writers and listening to a roomful of white PhD candidates spout un-researched opinions on the texts. I'm yet to be confronted with another situation where so many smart people have made so many lazy, incorrect observations. It was insulting to me, and more importantly, Professor Baker, that these students didn't feel like the subject matter merited taking their butts to Van Pelt library and getting their research on.
If the class had been on European epic poems and a student was talking out of the side of his neck about La Chanson de Roland without being able to cite critical theory to back up his point, his opinion would have been dismissed immediately. Everyone would be looking at that cat like, 'Homey... this isn't special ed. Step your game up.' I know this because I've been in those classes too. So how come it doesn't play like that for my culture? By all means, be critical but recognize that harsh criticism of another culture almost always comes from a place of ignorance.
As much as I love to hate the haters I'm equally upset with the folks who know this culture and aren't representing it properly. I stepped away from my on-air duties to make room for some folks who were more eager to see themselves on TV. Now I'm contemplating a comeback from retirement because Toure, Wilbekin, Light, Smith and these other public hip-hop experts are sitting on their asses while the Whitlocks of the world run roughshod over my culture. In that regard perhaps Whitlock is correct, some of us hip-hoppers are no damn good.
Thanks for taking the time to read what I have to say. In an effort to help those who are unfamiliar with rap hear what I hear, I've compiled a short list of rap albums I find lyrically and sonically superior. They are in no particular order so read up on these albums on allmusic.com before you decide how to go about listening to them. Enjoy.
Eric B. & Rakim, Paid in Full
Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die
Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
The Game, The Documentary
Ras Kass, Soul On
Queen Latifah, All Hail the Queen
A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory
Pete Rock & CL Smooth, The Main Ingredient
Mobb Deep, The Infamous
De La Soul, De La Soul Is Dead
Ice Cube, Lethal Injection
Heather B., Takin Mine
Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the 36 Chambers
Pharoahe Monch, Internal Affairs
Rob Swift, The Abilist
The Pharcyde, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde
Boogie Down Productions, Criminal Minded
Gang Starr, Hard to Earn
Lauryn Hill, Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Genius/GZA, Liquid Swords
Masta Ace, Sittin' On Chrome
MC Solaar, Prose Combat
Mos Def, Black on Both Sides
Son of Ran, Tribute to Sky City
DJ Premier, NY Reality Check 101
I couldn't have said it better.
Please click on the player to listen.