From That Gangsta Hobbes
to Radical Liberals
LIONEL K. MCPHERSON
Rappers and rap commentators have claimed there's revolution in the music. They suggest not simply that rap is revolutionary in form—lyrics spoken rather than sung, sound driven by distilled beats rather than melody. No, they also suggest that rap is politically revolutionary. Exhibit A is Public Enemy and much of the hype surrounding this greatest of rap groups.1
Anyone who hasn't heard Nelly or, back in the day, MC Hammer or the Sugar Hill Gang might assume that rap is by nature music of urban anger and protest. It isn't, of course. Still, politically-oriented rap—which speaks to black life under conditions of adversity—has been a defining strain of the music. If you doubt there's room for political themes in this era dominated by pop-rap, listen to Dead Prez or The Coup.2
Ironically, most political rap has not been politically revolutionary. I say this not as a criticism, only as an observation. While political rap does represent a culture of resistance, it's not true that such rap “represents a fundamental challenge to liberal political philosophy.”3 This view gets at least two things wrong:
1 See, for example, Public Enemy, “Revolutionary Generation,” Fear of a Black
planet (Def Jam, 1990). Music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes that PE
“pioneered a variation of hardcore rap that was musically and politically rev-
olutionary.” Biography of Public Enemy, AMG Ailmiisic, http://www.allmu-
sic.com (5th February, 2005).
2 See, for example, Dead Prez, RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta (Columbia,
2004); and The Coup, Steal This Double Album (Foad, 1998).
3 Track 13 in this volume, p. 161.