The War on Hip Hop

No sooner had talk radio’s Don Imus been fired by CBS for his slur against the Rutgers women’s basketball team than the media’s focus turned to a favorite scapegoat: hip-hop music. And leading the way were not only the usual assortment right-wingers, but a succession of Black establishment figures.

Dave Marsh has been writing about music for four decades. He is the editor of the newsletter Rock & Rap Confidentialand author of numerous books, including The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made and Two Hearts, the definitive biography of Bruce Springsteen.

MAASS: somehow, in the wake of Don Imus’ firing, there’s a backlash against the furthest thing from Imus–rap and hip-hop music. How did they get the blame for Imus?

MARSH: the show has always involved a great deal of race-baiting. But the formula was that Bernard McGuirk told the n—-r jokes, as Imus called them on 60 Minutes, and Imus, with a nod and a wink, pretended to chastise him for it. And Bernard being back the next day and doing the same thing told us rather effectively how sincere the chastisement was.

This time, what happened was Imus crossed the line, and he himself said, “nappy-headed hos.” That tore the cover off the pretense that it wasn’t like this every day, no matter how many presidential candidates and how many respectable people were on that show.

Every day, that show was based in explicit racism–every single day. This is, in fact, certain people’s truth about race. It’s Bernard McGuirk’s truth about race. It’s Don Imus’ truth about race.

So how do you put the lid back on once this truth gets shown? You put the lid back on by getting rid of the guy who took the lid off. And then, you go for a scapegoat–and you say that this is just as bad as that.

And the thing that was sitting there, waiting for it to happen, was hip-hop. Because, first, hip-hoppers speak Black vernacular language–they talk the way people talk in their community. And second, hip-hop is made by people who don’t have the education in what you don’t say. They say it. And because they get a lot of attention when they say “bitch” and “ho,” they say it more.

Now, I don’t think I’ve ever met a hip-hopper who, one, didn’t go to church–maybe Ice T doesn’t–and two, didn’t love their mom. You wouldn’t want to be in the same room with them, and call any woman who had the loosest connection to them a “bitch” or a “whore.” Because doing that, then it’s real. Otherwise, there’s this unreality to it.

So this is yet another way that the people who make hip-hop are vulnerable. Young Black men are six times more likely to go to prison then their percentage in the population, and approximately 600 times more likely to be censored.

And now, you have the transferal of the discussion away from the fact that many of the most powerful people in America had been on that show–up to and including the most powerful, Dick Cheney. In fact, three Republican presidential candidates–John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Rudoph Giuliani–all defended Imus, until it became very apparent that the worm had turned, and that Imus was, on that day, where Alberto Gonzales is today.

Plus, this whole argument gives them cover on another issue. They can act like they’re the ones who are anti-corporate, and that the whole of rap has become this “bitch-ho” music because Jimmy Iovine wanted it that way, and Universal and the other media companies want it.

And here’s where you get someone like that despicable third-tier sportswriter, Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star, making his desperate bid for a general interest column by attacking hip-hoppers, and using this as his vehicle. And in the meantime, also attacking the coach, C. Vivian Stringer–out of the clear blue sky.

MAASS: Is music the cause of the social ills that people are talking about, or is it a reflection?

MARSH: Well, hip-hop began in 1979, so I guess what we’re supposed to assume here is that before 1979, there was no sexism, that Black people didn’t call each other n—-r, that men didn’t abuse women, that big corporations didn’t exploit young Black recording artists on a regular basis, and that everybody on the radio was hunky dory with the Martin Luther King program.

Did hip-hop cause these things? Of course it didn’t. What started them was a number of things that are a lot more complicated than that–capitalism; patriarchy; chattel slavery and plantations in the South before the Civil War, on which slaves were bred as if they were cattle or horses; a hundred years of peonage after the Civil War; the complete lack of an American education system that tells the truth about America, where it came from and what its problems are.

Maybe if you interview Jason Whitlock or Oprah Winfrey or somebody next, they’ll be able to correct you on this, but to my fairly certain knowledge, all of these things existed before the Sugar Hill Gang made “Rappers’ Delight,” and before NWA made “F— Tha Police.” But in the hallucinatory world we live in, who can be sure?

MAASS: One writer made the point that it’s not like Snoop Dogg has a talk show on cable TV.

MARSH: Well, Snoop Dogg is plenty powerful, and I think what he said here needs to be reckoned with–which, basically, was: I say what I say, but I wouldn’t say that.

I think part of what this means–and I want to say this without letting anybody off the hook–is that this was his language, and Imus didn’t understand it and misused it. And that response has to do with the fact there is nothing that Black people have created that white people don’t feel free to expropriate–music being a very, very good example.

Capitalism constantly forces change on people, and at the same time, another aspect of it constantly resists change–because somewhere in the one or two or five or a hundred of those changes is the seeds of its destruction.

If we really had a national dialogue about racism and sexism, capitalism would be over. People wouldn’t put up with it. Because they would understand that when Don Imus disrespects the women on the Rutgers basketball team, he’s a reflecting a disrespect for their mother–hell, he’s reflecting a disrespect for his mother.

And they would understand that racism is a vehicle not just to degrade Black people, but to degrade all people, and to turn them into something much more like cattle or horses. I think that’s why they need the scapegoat–that’s why they need to get off the subject.

Their system is in a lot of trouble right now. It’s in economic trouble–the mortgage crisis being the face of that for the moment. It’s in geopolitical trouble–Iraq being the face of that, but also Hugo Chavez being another face, and Fidel, for his refusal to die. I think that these things happening one thing after another is a sign that some of the illusions about the system are unraveling.

And then, you get these guys out there who aren’t very good at defending the system. You wouldn’t pick Jason Whitlock to defend your system if you were really all that in control in the first place. I’m not even sure that you would have Bill Cosby go out and attack working class Black people as criminal and negligent because they named their daughter Shaniqua–a beautiful name, I might add.

But the illusion that the system controls everything that happens, and that it can fix problems fairly rapidly, without inconveniencing anybody here in the core too much, and who cares about the rest of the world–that illusion is coming apart, and I think this is symptomatic of it.

But there remains another problem for all of us who don’t live at the Don Imus-Dick Cheney level, which is how we deal with the fact that we have a sexist and racist culture that we live in. How do we deal with the fact that white supremacy pervades everything that’s happened to anybody, white or Black, every hour of their life? And male supremacy, too.

That’s going to require some thinking, because you aren’t going to get an answer by just saying you can’t do that. Forbidding things doesn’t work, unless along with the forbidding, you get education. And the system can’t afford to educate people, particularly on these kinds of subjects.

MAASS: There’s also a tendency to talk about hip-hop as all one thing, as if there were no differences among these people. Can you talk about the development of hip-hop, and how gangster rap arose within that–and how that got to be a target of the media?

MARSH: They never, ever talk in detail. They never talk about this record, or those two tracks on that record. It’s always all of hip-hop.

When hip-hop develops in the streets of the Bronx in the late 1970s, with Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc and that whole crowd of people, to get electrical power for their turntables and speaker systems, they were plugging into lamp posts.

It was poor people’s music. It was people who didn’t have musical instruments, but still had musical instincts. And they had some kind of record collection, but had other ideas about what you could do with it.

This kind of broke out with “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash, and especially the Run DMC records. So by 1985, everybody in America knew what rap music was–however distorted their image of it might have been. There was an awareness that it threatened the hegemony of rock and roll, a notion that was very real and very accurate–and a growing awareness that this music wasn’t going to stay confined in its popularity to Black kids.

What there was less awareness of, in my opinion, was the fact that there was, within hip-hop, some serious social criticism. It wasn’t on the Run DMC records. It wasn’t on the LL Cool J records. But the Public Enemy records were essentially electronic Malcolm X.

What happens next is that hip-hop gets to LA. It’s always fascinated me why NWA was considered the first truly gangster group. It wasn’t that there weren’t gangsters in Brooklyn, or in the Bronx or Harlem. So why did this expression come from there? Maybe it was that Eazy-E really had been a dealer.

But the way it breaks out isn’t as gangster. The way it breaks out is the song “F— Tha Police.” That touched a nerve.

It’s not an accident that it comes along at the height of the drug war. It’s not an accident that it comes along when the CIA had just finished running its scam to introduce crack into Black neighborhoods, particularly in LA. All of that is the background, just as part of the background of Elvis Presley was Brown v. Board of Education.

But the song also touched a nerve with the FBI and scared the hell out of the police. And it was happening in LA, too, which is a little bit more like the South in its police-community relations than New York is.

So that set the thing off. Those were big records, using language that people never thought you could get away with using, and still sell records. There’s been a crackdown on this for about the last 20 years, and they began to put the warning labels on records.

But all these people knew about NWA was “F— Tha Police.” They didn’t know that song was written by Ice Cube, and that Ice Cube would also come up with “It Was a Good Day,” which is a beautiful vision.

It wasn’t necessary for the people who were leading the charge to know that, because they didn’t want to know about it. They just wanted to lead the charge–because you were in the middle of that huge expansion of the prison system, and this came along at a very convenient time.

The anti-rock crowd was basically a cat’s paw for James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. It pretended to be a parents’ organization, when, in fact, it was an organization entirely composed of politicians’ wives. NWA and the Ghetto Boys gave them a convenient target, and because of the use of the word n—-r, they even had cover on racism.

That’s the history of the thing, and the attack hasn’t let up since, despite the fact that the major labels all have lyric committees now–and because of that, I can’t remember the last time a really gangster record was put out by a major record label.

So I think that’s the history. Really, what I should have given you as an answer is to read Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, by Jeff Chang, because it is, and probably will remain for quite a long time, the definitive history of hip-hop–of the early years in particular. It’s the best music book that I’ve read in more than a decade.

ALAN MAASS is the editor of the Socialist Worker and author of The Case for Socialism. He can be reached at:

Rock and Rap Confidential, one of the few newsletters both editors of CounterPunch read from front to back the moment it arrives, is edited by Lee Ballinger and Dave Marsh and now it’s available to you for FREE simply by sending an email to:


ALAN MAASS is the editor of the Socialist Worker and author of The Case for Socialism. He can be reached at: