Bleep! Censoring Rock and Rap Music

By Betty Houchin Winfield; Sandra Davidson | Go to book overview
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intelligible to audiences and advertisers. On another level, the widespread circulation of discourses presenting the rap music/violence conflation as a formula for commercial success likely reached beyond the journalistic community to influence the attitudes, expectations and aesthetic choices of the music industry, rap performers and the culture overall.

On yet another level, any effort to understand the demonization of rap music in elite media discourses must take the historical moment into account. Within a context devoid of the Soviet threat, and in which direct invocations of race and class-based difference are to be assiduously avoided, news discourses seeking to comprehend rap music through the language of crime functioned metonymically to position African- American, working class youth as the Other against which the national identity is regulated and reaffirmed. This dimension of the Times' journalistic performance also tells an important story about how the emergence of the rap music/violence conflation helped to mediate longstanding anxieties related to race, class and generational difference.

In other ways too numerous to mention, the mainstream media's demonization of rap music in the period after the 2-Live Crew obscenity case set the stage for the ascendance of the Black urban gangsta as a marketable persona in the period to follow. But the role played by the New York Times in the rise -- and now the demise -- of gangsta rap is probably less important than the manner in which it clears space to think through how the globalization of markets and the need for new enemies in the post-Cold War era became manifest in the practices of elite journalism overall. A central feature of these practices was the shift from information to drama as the prevailing paradigm of mainstream news operations. Indeed not only was the dramatic model crucial to the Times' rap music journalism in the period 1985-1990, but it also helps to explain more recent 1990s scandal-driven cottage industries which have emerged around the O.J. Simpson trial, the death of Princess Diana, and current allegations of sexual misconduct and perjury by President Clinton. In each of these examples traditional boundaries separating information from entertainment, tabloid journalism from its more impartial, objective counterpart, have been erased. But while the New York Times' coverage of rap music dramatically illuminates the way the practice of mainstream journalism has been altered by the demise of Soviet communism, it illuminates just as clearly core features of the process whereby a uniquely American common sense(ibility) has remained intact.

See John Leland, "Rap and Race", Newsweek 69 ( June 29, 1992), 49. The term hip-hop used here refers not only to rap music, but to a larger cultural complex of urban youth culture incorporating language, dance, fashion, visual art, literature, and cinema. Though the centerpiece of this cultural formation has been rap music, the hip-hop formation also incorporates other distinct musical genres such as new jack swing, house music, and dance hall reggae.


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