The Politics Of Hip-Hop

De La Soul’s classic debut, “Three Feet High and Rising”

Broken glass everywhere
People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care
I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat
I tried to get away but I couldn’t get far
Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car

With that opening verse, the nascent art form known as hip-hop/rap turned political. The tune was “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and it was released July 1, 1982. Soon after, I heard its staccato synth lines and urgent rapping everywhere in my urban neighborhood in York, Pa. A party-driven genre became an outlet for Black Americans to relay an existence and reality that was being ignored to the rest of the country.

This is the subject of an excellent podcast-within-a-podcast by Trymaine Lee, the MSNBC journalist known for his comprehensive and fantastic coverage of issues that affect the Black community. The podcast, “Street Disciples,” a special series that is part of his main podcast, “Into America.”

Believe it or not, hip-hop is in its 50th year. Its birth is traced to a single party put on in the South Bronx by DJ Kool Herc in August 1973. Lee covers this moment and how various factors contributed to hip-hop’s development in its early days. One was the devastating poverty that made the South Bronx look like a war zone during the 1970s.

Another was the massive cuts to education and the loss of music programs. Lee talks to a woman who describes having her instrument taken from her when her school lost its music program, which is as awful as it sounds. The musically inclined in the South Bronx had to get creative, and so, turning a record player into an instrument was sort of a necessity.

From there, Lee reviews the slow rise of hip-hop, key moments such as DJs creatively extending song breaks so dancers could do their thing during them (hence, of course, breakdancing), early hits like “Rapper’s Delite,” the Golden Age of Hip-Hop of the late 1980s into the mid-1990s when the genre exploded into multiple subgenres, the influence of the genre on fashion and society, and so on.

Given Lee is a political reporter, politics is part of the story. He plays a recording of the infamous campaign appearance in 1980 by Ronald Reagan in the South Bronx, where he yelled at people begging for help “I can’t do a damn thing for you if I don’t get elected.” Of course, Reagan was a man who kicked off his campaign by giving a states’ rights speech at the site of one of the most infamous murders of the civil rights movement. It takes a special kind of intellectual dishonesty to deny what the message was, and Reagan’s presidency lived up to that message as it was a reign of terror for the Black community.

As the story progresses episode-by-episode, Lee notes how hip-hop has both reacted to and begun conversations about our nation’s economic, race, and cultural issues. In fact, when “The Message” launched protest rap, rock had largely abandoned protest music, with a few notable exceptions such as The Clash and Bruce Springsteen. Rap has never lost this political/social commentary aspect, Lee notes.

Lee also does not shy away from the less savory aspects of hip-hop, such as the misogyny in some of the lyrics, and the violence in some of the songs. Lee also points out how the community itself addressed these concerns, including anti-violence rap projects.

The series made me think about my own relationship to the style. My little street in York was in a mixed-race neighborhood that includes a low-income housing project. I witnessed the poverty spotlighted in hip-hop songs in the homes of friends, and occasionally, witnessed the violence, drug abuse, and crime. As a person who appeared white but was the son of a mixed Native-white man, I both avoided racism and saw it affect my father, and my friends. Rap spoke to me. So did country, bluegrass, rock, metal, punk, jazz, soul, and just about any and all genre. I was, and still am, open to all of it.

I always liked hip-hop that was unique and challenging. For example, Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” came out in June 1988, and it immediately knocked my socks off. It sounded like nothing else, and Chuck D’s booming Voice of God was delivering the truths. I also was and am a big Native Tongues guy, the subset of hip-hop groups that included legends such as the jazzy Tribe Called Quest, the hippie hip-hop of De La Soul, the irrepressible Queen Latifah, and the delightfully silly the Pharcyde.

Today, I love artists such as The Roots, Childish Gambino, and Kendrick Lamar. I tend not to enjoy the more commercial stuff, but that tends to me with all genres. I also want rap with something to say, whether it’s witty or deep. As Chuck D once said, hip-hop is Black people’s CNN in that it covers subjects that other media does not, and I appreciate that aspect of it.

While not all of it is my cup of tea, I think hip-hop gets treated unfairly by too many white people because of who is producing and creating it. For example, in the 1990s, all hip-hop got caught up in the attacks on gangsta rap. White critics and politicians painted all hip-hop as violent, which was not only unfair and wrong, but also something you don’t see with rock. When Axl Rose of Guns n’ Roses got busted for inciting a riot, you didn’t see people demanding that Pearl Jam records be removed from the shelves. There really were other genres of the form that didn’t focus on anything violent. Not to mention, some of the “violent” rap was storytelling, with a moral, like Boogie Down Productions and Kris Parker (KRS-One) and their Edutainment hip-hop. This, for example, was frank about what Nancy Reagan and the rest of the War on Drugs was up against – capitalism.

It also seems like for a lot of people, it is not enough to just say “not my personal style,” which would be fine. But I’ve seen white people turn red talking about hip-hop, so it appears that you also must actively hate it and try to exterminate the genre. I will also add, haters, when you say “anyone can rap” and then attempt to prove your point by trying to rap yourself…well…just don’t do that. I am telling you this for your own good, you appear to be having a stroke.

At the same time, hip-hop and rock have followed parallel paths. Both were blamed for violence, both split into sub genres, both melded with other musical forms, and both now have generational fights about whose music was better. I see high school friends and their grown sons and daughters argue about how Run DMC, Fat Boys, and Fab Five Freddy were the Good Old Days and these young punks like Chance the Rapper can’t hold a candle to them. Just like I see high school friends lecture their kids about how there will never be another REM, Pearl Jam, or Rush. Myself, I see good modern music in all genres, and welcome the new stuff.

It is hard to believe that hip-hop is 50 years old. As hard to believe as Snoop Dogg hanging out with Martha Stewart or Ice-T playing one of the most beloved cop roles on television. It has certainly become part of our culture.

The last word goes to, of course, the Grandmaster.