Rap on Trial

Rap provides a connection between countless people regardless of race, age, or gender

Under the leadership of Al Gore, in 1985 the Senate held hearings on the “dangers” of rock music. Musicians were called to testify and politicians preened as they slandered the music created by their constituents. The idea of music as an evil force–a narrative previously the province of the Klan and extremist religious groups–entered the mainstream.

That same year, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) came out of the woodwork. The PMRC was a group of Washington wives who used the influence of their politician husbands to develop some clout of their own. They allied with the PTA to push for warning labels on records, tapes, and CDs. Shortly after the 1985 Senate hearings concluded, the music industry quickly caved in and agreed to put such labels on the music.

The real agenda of the censors was revealed at a secret gathering in the Maryland countryside in 1986.  On its private invitations the event was billed as a “Pig Pickin’ Barbecue,” a benefit for the PMRC. The thoroughly bi-partisan “Benefit Committee” included Marine Corps commandant P.X. Kelly, Marriott vice-president Fred Malek, former Republican Party chairman Dean Burch, Al Gore, future HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, past president of the American Bar Association Robert Wallick, and Merrill Lynch vice-president Bruce Thompson. If its real purpose was simply to raise money, these well-heeled folks could have just sent a check. In reality it was a war council of America’s power elite, brought together to discuss the threat that music posed to their unquestioned control of society. Music had become the conscience of the world. Musicians were using the corporate structure of the music industry to spread their messages.

The attacks on music began on a broad stylistic front but gradually narrowed to a primary focus on rap. The Beastie Boys and LL Cool J were arrested. The major record labels set up in-house lyric censorship committees and rappers who wrote songs criticizing the police weren’t allowed to record or release them. Insurance coverage was canceled for rap tours. Police established local and national monitoring networks, disrupted shows and tours, and threatened to make it impossible for Time Warner, a major distributor of rap music, to do business.

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Lee Ballinger, CounterPunch’s music columnist, is co-editor of Rock and Rap Confidential author of the forthcoming book Love and War: My First Thirty Years of Writing, interviewed Honkala for CounterPunch. RRRC is now available for free by emailing Ballinger at: rockrap@aol.com.

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