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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
the cause of the social ills that people are talking about, or
is it a reflection?
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.
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
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 reflecting a disrespect
for their mother - hell, he's reflecting
a disrespect for his mother."
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?
made the point that it's not like Snoop Dogg has a talk show on
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.
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 reflecting a disrespect for their mother - hell,
he's reflecting a disrespect for his mother.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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?
ever talk in detail. They never talk about this record, or those
two tracks on that record. It's always all of hip-hop.
developed 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Alan Maass is the editor of the Socialist
Worker and author of The Case for Socialism. He can be reached
at: [email protected].
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: [email protected].