Battle for the Soul of Hip-Hop: Is Rap-Increasingly Driven by Sex, Violence and Money-Going Too Far? You'd Be Surprised Who Thinks So. the Hip-Hop Elite Squares off over the Future of Its Music and Videos
Like news quizzes? Here's a stumper. What public figure said this last week to a NEWSWEEK reporter? "In terms of what certain media outlets show you, it's very one-dimensional. It's not just hip-hop music--TV and movies in general are very narrow. Sex, violence, the underbelly, with junkies, prostitutes, alcoholics, gamblers. The new trend today is depravity." If your final answer was Joe Lieberman, Lynne Cheney, Dr. Laura or some first-term congressman in a close race, go sit down. It was Mos Def, 26, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based activist, actor, bookstore owner and gold-album-selling rapper, impeccably cool, a sworn enemy of censorship--and even an admirer of Eminem, the right wing's demon-rapper du jour. When a guy like Mos Def thinks the culture's getting out of hand, you've got to wonder if all this election-year posturing might actually be about something after all.
Last week, in hearings before the Senate Commerce Committee, Hollywood executives went into rope-a-dope defensive mode when castigated about the marketing of violent movies to children. But the entertainment product line--or "art form," as we used to call it--that worries people the most this year is hip-hop music. What was a marginal musical form 20 years ago has come to dominate the pop charts. Eminem's latest, the jaw-droppingly harsh "Marshall Mathers LP," has sold gone septuple-platinum--neck and neck with Britney Spears--while the latest CD by his producer Dr. Dre, godfather of gangsta rap and cofounder of N.W.A, went quintuple-platinum. Six of last week's top 20 albums were rap records. All of them had parental-advisory stickers.
In her testimony at those same Senate hearings, Lynne Cheney, wife of Republican vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney, made Eminem exhibit A. Dr. Dre meanwhile promises his client's next CD will be even harder-core. (In a NEWSWEEK interview last week, we asked Eminem if he was surprised by Cheney's attack, and his publicist cut him off. "Uh-uh. We're supposed to be talking about the music." So apparently even a guy who raps about raping and murdering his mother will toe the line when he has to.) Though a new NEWSWEEK Poll finds that 41 percent of voters nationwide say they listen at least occasionally to rap--and three quarters of voters under 30 do--almost two thirds say it has too much violence. Sixty-three percent of listeners think it has a bad attitude toward women, and substantial majorities believe it's too materialistic and contains too much sex.
Rap has drawn flak for years. After the controversies over N.W.A's "F--k Tha Police" (1988) and Ice-T's "Cop Killer" (1992) came the 1996 murder of Tupac Shakur and the allegedly tit-for-tat assassination of Biggie Smalls--widely and irrationally interpreted as proof positive that violent lyrics cause violent behavior. Hard-core rap music is now driven almost exclusively by sex, violence and materialism. The latest perceived outrages against decency, morality and good taste are the plague of "booty" videos on MTV and BET, the vogue for songs about pimping and the "Bling Bling" mentality. In that 1999 song by B.G. of New Orleans's Cash Money Millionaires clique, the ringing sound of a cash register serves as a metonymy for Trumpian hyperwealth and its conspicuous display. (The Jewelers of America reports a 40 percent-plus increase in the sales of white gold and platinum since the high-rolling Puff Daddy hit the scene. Coincidence?) Twenty years after rap's first top-40 hit, "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang, even people within the hip-hop community itself feel betrayed. A lot of the people who not only love the music but helped create it wonder if this colossus is a Frankenstein's monster--with $50,000 worth of white gold draped over its neck pegs. "Everything people hoped for came true," says Reginald C. Dennis, 34, former editor of the influential hip-hop magazine The Source, "and everyone's miserable about it. It was a hollow dream."
They're sick of the relentless marketing of sex (Juvenile's "Back That Azz Up"), misogynistic violence (Eminem's "Kim," in which he cuts his wife's throat and locks her in the trunk of a car) and lyrics like Mystikal's "Came here with my d--k in my hand/Don't make me leave here with my foot in yo' a--. …